Israel remembers a hero who fought for statehood

February 11, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The cable from Israel reached Ilene Ellis at her home in Owings Mills and consisted entirely of three sentences to sum up her husband's life and the overlooked pieces of the history of a nation constantly on the edge of some cliff.

``Greatly saddened by the news of Al's death. He was a great patriot and the best of friends. He will be sorely missed.''

It was signed: Moshe Arens, Israeli minister of defense.

In another time, Arens had been Al Ellis' commanding officer. He knew about Ellis' efforts smuggling guns into Israel in the war for independence half a century ago, his service in the Israeli military, his development of a remote pilotless aircraft that helped overcome Soviet MiGs in 1982, and he knew why Ellis had been awarded the Israeli Defense Prize.

``He was a remarkable man,'' Ilene Ellis was saying this week, mourning her husband's death Jan. 17, at age 72. ``A gregarious, outgoing man, but a stickler for detail and getting the job done, and an amazing ability to look at any situation and find what's wrong.

``And then, like that, he died of an apparent heart attack in his sleep. What we call a kiss from God.''

Thus ended the life of a remarkable man who had grown up in a Jewish orphanage near Los Angeles - his mother died during childbirth when Ellis was 4, and his father succumbed to the after-effects of a mustard gas attack in World War I - and went on to win a Bronze Star fighting for the Army in the Pacific in World War II.

He was wounded there, and listed as killed in action. Word was sent to relatives, and to the orphanage where he had grown up. But it was another soldier who had died - a badly wounded man whom Ellis had carried from the front lines to a field hospital.

After the war, he helped smuggle guns and refugees into Israel in the midst of its war for statehood.

``Two years ago,'' Ilene Ellis remembered, ``we went to a 50th reunion in Haifa, where they told all the stories. How Al and two other men commandeered a yacht and then loaded it with guns and ammunition they'd gotten from a Navy depot in Hawaii. The yacht was so loaded down, they were scared to death it'd sink.

``They got to Acapulco and loaded the stuff onto a boxcar on the back of a train and rode with Mexican soldiers on the top of the car all the way to the east coast of Mexico, and from there sailed to Israel, where the guns were used in the Sinai.''

Ellis remained in Israel for several years and was married for a while to an Israeli woman. He served in the Israeli navy, then returned to California, earned an electrical engineering degree from UCLA, and worked in the aerospace industry.

In 1967, he returned to Israel. Holding dual citizenship, he helped Israel Aircraft Industries develop a jet fighter, the Kfir. For seven years, he lived in Tel Aviv, where he and friends began a model airplane business, and Ellis designed and built a miniplane capable of holding a TV camera and beaming enemy positions.

Once, he explained, ``In the Yom Kippur War, I saw [Israeli] soldiers getting their heads blown off. All they needed to know was where the enemy was.''

That was his plane's mission: Find the enemy's position, and send it back. The plane flew 26 missions in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, beaming back pictures to Israeli command posts and enabling its air force to locate and destroy 85 Soviet MiGs and wipe out 29 surface-to-air missile sites, with more than 350 rockets, in a matter of hours.

In some circles, Ellis' work was credited with winning that war. When he moved to Baltimore County 14 years ago, to work for AAI Corp. in Cockeysville, he sloughed off such a suggestion.

But it's a fact, he was given the Israeli Defense Prize, the most prestigious honor that nation bestows on a civilian.

``That was the highlight of my whole life,'' Ellis told The Sun afterward. ``They brought me to Jerusalem. The president was there, the defense minister was there, the commander in chief of the armed forces. ... The Defense Prize goes to the person who did more for the defense of the country than anyone else.''

Later, there was also a letter from Defense Minister Moshe Arens, declaring, ``I am glad you are receiving some of the recognition you so richly deserve. The contribution of your Remote Pilotless Vehicle to Israel's military operation ... cannot be overestimated.''

And then, last week, came the cable from Arens to Ellis' widow. In Baltimore, in his retirement, Al Ellis was no household name. But, in Israel, they remembered that he helped keep that nation alive.

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