The liberty principle for this Freedom Friday concerns the dramatic exodus of 49,000 Jews from Yemen in May 1949 and the role played by Alaska Airlines. I did not know of this story until this week, and I found it very interesting. I hope my readers also find it interesting.
Yemen became an independent nation following World War I. The Muslim country made life difficult for its Jews by reviving anti-Semitic laws and treating Jews differently that Muslims. Some of the Jews escaped, but the majority remained in Yemen in poor conditions. Their plight, along with that of Jews in all Arab countries, became worse after the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948. In May 1949 the “Imam of Yemen unexpectedly agreed to permit all Jews to leave his country.” The Jews wanted to go to Zion but did not have the means.
The State of Israel was “devastated and virtually bankrupt” after fighting their War of Independence; however, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion “ordered the immediate and rapid `Ingathering of the Exiles.’” Israel did not have the money so Ben-Gurion said to get the money from “the Jews in the Diaspora.”
Meanwhile “Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to the Jews of Yemen; they would have to be transported by air to Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the international Jewish humanitarian aid organization, agreed to fund the Yemenite exodus and organize the airlift, but they needed aircraft.”
That is where Alaska Airlines entered the picture. The airline was founded in 1932 with the purchase of a “used three passenger Stinson and started an air charter business in Alaska. By 1948 the airline was “the world’s largest charter airline.”
“The JDC approached [James Wooten, president of Alaska Airlines] and asked if Alaska Airlines would agree to accept the Yemen airlift.” President Wooten wanted to “take on the mission of mercy” but the Chairman of the Board Ray Marshall was cool on the idea. “Marshall felt the deal was a waste of the Airline’s time and money. It would take at $50,000 to set up the charter, cash that the Airline did not have.” He told Wooten that he would have to find the funds elsewhere. Wooten borrowed the $50,000 and signed the contract; Operation on Wings of Eagles commenced. The rescue mission was “more popularly known by its nickname, Operation Magic Carpet….”
There were several problems to overcome, and some dangers to face. Yemen “would not permit the Jewish refugees to be flown out of their country.” Arrangements were made with Britain to establish a “transit camp” in Aden. “Alaska Airlines set up its base in Asmara, Eritrea, with their ground crew, pilots and aircraft – DC-4s and
C-46s. The arrangement was to fly from their base in Asmara to Aden each morning, pick up their passengers in Aden and refuel. Thence fly up the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba to the airport in Tel Aviv, unload the refugees, fly to the safety of Cyprus for the night and return to their base in Asmara at dawn, before starting all over again. The round trip would take about 20 hours.”
The aircraft were reconfigured in order to carry more passengers and fuel. Fees were paid to various Yemeni tribal chiefs to “permit the Jewish refugees to pass through their territory.” Israeli doctors and social workers were brought in to assist the refugees.
“As news of the evacuation reached the Jews of Yemen, they left their few possessions behind (except their prayer books and Torahs) and like the biblical exodus began to walk out of slavery into freedom. They traveled in family groups, some hundreds of miles, through wind and sandstorm, vulnerable to robbers and a hostile local population, until half-starved and destitute they reached the border with Aden where Israeli aid workers met them and transported them to the transit camp. There they encountered electricity, medicines, running water, toilets and personal hygiene for the first time. During the entire operation, the Jews of Yemen arrived at Camp Geula in a steady stream, newer ones arriving as an earlier group was airlifted out.”
There were many more problems to overcome as well as several instances of danger. More details of this exodus to freedom can be found at this site.
“By the time Operation Magic Carpet ended in September 1950, 28 Alaska Airlines pilots had made some 380 flights and airlifted 48,818 refugees, almost Yemen’s entire Jewish population, to Israel. Miraculously not one death or injury occurred.”