Gideon Lichtman spent more than 30 years teaching under an assumed name after Israel’s president warned he could well be a target for assassination.
Lichtman, who died Wednesday at 94, was the first fighter pilot in the young Israeli air force to shoot down an enemy fighter in aerial combat.
The afternoon of June 8, 1948, was hot, hazy and windy. Egyptian Spitfires were shooting up Tel Aviv. Lichtman, in a comparatively rickety Messerschmitt with no radio or oxygen, took out the enemy aircraft. His action, along with his fellow men, helped secure Israel’s victory in its war for independence.
But there was a price to pay for Lichtman, who was born Oct. 6, 1923, in Newark, New Jersey. After his military experience, he earned his bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Miami in 1950.
His son Bruce tells the story about his father’s need for a professional assumed identity.
For more than 30 years, Lichtman, the son of educators, taught history, business and work experience classes at Southwest Miami Senior High. But his students would have known him as Mr. Rimon.
“He was told by Ezer Weizman, [the seventh] president of Israel and former minister of defense, that Israel had intercepted Arab intelligence that they were intent on targeting foreign pilots who served in Israel,” his son said.
Weizman, Lichtman’s roommate in 1948, told his pal, “Your life is in danger.” The Israeli leader’s suggested pseudonym: Rimon. The etymological link is based on the Latin-based words for the pomegranate fruit and the grenade. In Jewish tradition, the rimon, depicted atop the Torah, represents abundance and the divine commandments.
“So it’s a pomegranate but also a grenade and the reason Ezer Weizman picked that pseudonym for my dad is that he had an explosive temper,” Bruce Lichtman said, with a chuckle.
“He was a genuine guy who loved people for who they were, not for their résumé,” his son said.
Lichtman was comfortable making friends with the wait staff at one of his old favorite restaurants, Chuck Wagon, when he lived in the South Miami area in his teaching years, before moving to Pembroke Pines. He was equally at ease with presidents and his students or giving speeches around the nation about his war-time heroics.
“His way of judging people was on their soul and their inside. And when it came to flying and aviation — ‘Are you a good pilot or are you not a good pilot?’ If you were not a good pilot, he didn’t mind telling you,” his son said.
To his students, most of whom were not on the Ivy League college track, he was the beloved Mr. Rimon.
“It warms my heart that for a while he was teaching work experience. These kids were not academically gifted. But my dad was so wonderful with the work experience kids because he made them feel like they were heroes rather than second best because they weren’t getting A’s in calculus and not going to M.I.T.,” his son said.
Daughter Robin Dainty also remembers a man of “compassion” who instilled in his four children the value of treating people with respect and of education and creativity.
“He didn’t care if you were a garbage man or the president of the United States. ‘Everybody s---s in the same place.’ That was a direct quote from him he drove into us as kids,” she said.
“Also, he could draw anything, usually in cartoon form. So with his kids he would throw paper in front of us and with a pen or crayon he would say ‘Draw a dog or a bird.’ He was trying to inspire us to be creative,” Dainty said.
His daughter Debbie Lichtman also admired her father’s candor.
“He was a refreshing man because he spoke his mind. He was talented and very funny.”
Loyal to his friends, too. The late Benny Peled, commander of the Israeli Air Force during the Yom Kippur War and Operation Entebbe, whose actions were depicted in the 1977 NBC TV film, “Raid on Entebbe,” was Lichtman’s mechanic when he flew his mission in 1948. He was also a lifelong friend. So was Weizman.
“What makes us feel good is not just that these people became famous but that they became lifelong friends and it wasn’t just a passing thing. Dad was the kind of guy who would have given his shirt off of his back to people,” Debbie Lichtman said.
Lichtman, who is prominently featured in author Robert Gandt’s recent “Angels in the Sky: How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel” (W.W. Norton & Co.) said: “I was involved because I wanted to do what I could for the Jews. I didn’t do it for the glory.” Lichtman spoke to the Miami Herald in 2015 about Miami’s role in Israel’s war for independence.
“A Wing and a Prayer,” Boaz Dvir’s documentary on Jewish freedom fighters, including Lichtman, aired on PBS that year.
In 1948, as the documentary reveals, the Israeli Air Force’s fighter pilots didn’t enjoy today’s reputation as among the most skilled in the world. They simply didn’t have the equipment or proficiency Lichtman displayed.
Back then, the Israeli air force was described as a motley collection of aging trainers and a handful of Czech Messerschmitts with inadequate engines who were pitted against well-trained pilots who were flying near-state-of-the-art British Spitfires.
This was the scenario Lichtman found himself in when he tumbled into his Messerschmitt. Moddy Alon, the squadron's commanding officer, was in another.
“Alon said, ‘If you see me circle my finger and point, you’ll know I see enemy aircraft,’” Lichtman recalled in a 1998 Herald story. Alon flew directly toward the sun, making it difficult for Lichtman to follow him.
“I’m trying to keep up with him, flying in close formation. I don’t know the country. We have, at most, 40 minutes of fuel. And instead of circling away from the sun, he’s circling into the sun. I’m at full throttle and I can’t keep up with him. I’m at about 12,000 feet and he’s way ahead of me and way above me.”
The cockpit temperature in Lichtman's plane hit a stifling 120 degrees. He thought he saw Alon signal that he had spotted a Spitfire. Alon went into a steep dive. Lichtman, who only had 35 minutes of training on the Messerschmitt, realized with a sickening feeling that he didn’t know which switches to use to arm his weapons.
“I go into a dive and I’m flipping switches and the flaps are going down and all kinds of things are happening,” he said 50 years later. Four Spitfires popped into his field of vision in battle formation. Alon fired, but missed.
“Through the dust and the haze, I see a shadow, and it’s an Egyptian Spit. He sees me. By this time, we’re heading south over the Mediterranean. We got into a wild-ass dogfight. Meanwhile, my red light goes on that my fuel is low. . . . I see pieces falling off him. I follow him down, shooting after him. Then I check my fuel gauge, and it’s on empty,” Lichtman recounted.
But he hit his mark. The Spitfire crashed into the sea. Lichtman would end up flying up to 90 missions, crashing at least once, before becoming known as the popular educator — Mr. Rimon.
“Every guy we flew with in Israel has the same feeling I have, that this was the highlight of their lives,” Lichtman told the Herald in 1998. “I’m a Jew and I love that country. There was a real need to establish a state in Israel, because Jews were being persecuted around the world and needed a place to live.”
Lichtman’s survivors include his children Debbie and Bruce Lichtman, Robin Dainty and Beth Barnet, and grandchildren Samuel, Benjamin and Sarah Lichtman, Fred Barnet IV and Daniel Barnet.
A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Sunday, March 11, at Levitt Weinstein’s Beth David Memorial Gardens, 3201 NW 72nd Ave., Hollywood.