In early March of this year, Gideon Lichtman died at 94 in Miami, Fla. In profile, his life followed a familiar, even predictable, course: a Jew from Newark, N.J., who migrated south to make a life in Miami before settling in his later years among the palm trees of Pembroke Pines in southern Broward County. For much of his life, though, Lichtman had lived as ‘Mr. Rimon,’ an alias he took to conceal his role as a fighter pilot in Israel’s War of Independence and his notoriety as the first of the war to shoot down an enemy plane in air-to-air combat.
In his later years, Lichtman spoke about his outrage at hearing the story of British forces turning around the SS Exodus, a ship carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine, and sending its passengers back to the slaughterhouse Europe. That was enough for the World War II veteran, who’d grown up in a Zionist home. “I was involved because I wanted to do what I could for the Jews. I didn’t do it for the glory,” he told the Miami Herald.
He arrived in Israel as one of several thousand “Machalniks,” volunteers from around the world who came to fight in its War of Independence. He found an ill-equipped and outmanned Israeli Air Force flying dilapidated Czech Messerschmitts against the more advanced British Spitfires piloted by the enemy. Compounding the plane’s poor quality, Lichtman only had 35 minutes of training on the Messerschmitt. That was the level of equipment and experience he took into a dogfight with Egyptian piloted Spitfires, recounted many years later to the Herald:
“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 …
“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 … I follow him down, shooting after him. Then I check my fuel gauge, and it’s on empty.”
This, apparently, was how Lichtman talked naturally: in terms of wild-ass dogfights and in the hard-bitten, exultant language of a man who found personal adventure through a cause in which he truly believed.
His exploits in the war, hidden for much of his life, have been chronicled several times in recent years, including a 2015 documentary A Wing and a Prayer about veteran aviators from the Second World War brought their combat experience to help form Israel’s fledgling air force during its War of Independence. Lichtman also features prominently in the book released last year by the military author Robert Gandt, Angels in the Sky: How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel.
When he landed in Miami after the war he took the name Rimon on the advice of his friend, Israel’s seventh president, Ezer Weizman. According to Lichtman’s son Bruce, Weizman told him that “Israel had intercepted Arab intelligence that they were intent on targeting foreign pilots who served in Israel.”
The name Rimon was a nod to the word’s Latin root. “It’s a pomegranate but also a grenade,” Bruce Lichtman told the Herald, “and the reason Ezer Weizman picked that pseudonym for my dad is that he had an explosive temper.” It was the name he used for 30 years as a teacher in South Miami high schools.
Though a friend to presidents, Lichtman “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,” his daughter told the Herald.