Robert Maguire, courtesy of the Alaska Jewish Museum
Robert Maguire, courtesy of the Alaska Jewish Museum


Robert F. Maguire Jr. (1911–2005)

(12 of 70) JNS is proud to partner with the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., to celebrate 70 of the greatest American contributors to the U.S.-Israel relationship in the 70 days leading up to the State of Israel’s 70th anniversary.

There aren’t a lot of good reasons to risk your life day after day. But Robert F. Maguire Jr., the man who led Operation Magic Carpet, was inspired by one: the songs he heard sung by Yemeni Jews fleeing for their lives.

Referred to as the “Irish Moses” by former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Maguire was the chief pilot and the organizer of the principal air transport company that brought 40,000 to 50,000 endangered Yemeni Jews to safety in Israel.

Maguire was affected by their voices and the sight of their faces when they landed. As he put it, “it was so touching you almost don’t want to remember … [when] you’ve been privileged to see something that people don’t see very often. … I was lucky, I was blessed that God had given me the opportunity.”

The Episcopalian son of a judge who served in the Nuremberg trials, Maguire was a World War II combat pilot in the Pacific. In 1947, he was flying for Alaska Airlines. Under its direction, he brought Jews to Palestine from Shanghai.

Then pogroms against the Yemenite Jews started, and by December 1948, the airline was under contract to ferry them to Israel. The operation was secret, and the planes had to fly low to avoid Arab guns.

The missions began in Eritrea. Then they went to Aden, where they picked up huddled masses of Jews carrying Torah scrolls and their few belongings. From there they ran to Tel Aviv, then to Cyprus, and finally back to Eritrea. The round-trip flights ran for as much as 20 hours.

When Alaska Airlines was compelled to exit, Maguire put together his own firm, Near East Transport, with 28 pilots, to continue the flights. In more than 380 separate journeys, not one Jew or pilot was killed.

Later, Maguire led Operation Ali Baba, which rescued still more Jews from Iraq and Iran.

One of Maguire’s most dangerous missions required him to land a plane short on fuel in Egypt. He had been warned that if the passengers’ Jewish identity were to be revealed, all on board might be killed. Thinking quickly, he told the Egyptians that he needed fuel for a plane full of small-pox victims. The plane was refueled and not searched, and he landed it safely in Israel.

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