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Saturday, December 20, 2014

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Remembering fallen Machalniks

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Willy Fisher

Airman Willy Fisher gave his life to the cause of Israel.

Sadly, according to his surviving nephew, most Canadian Jews never heard of the man or his colleagues in the Machal, the group of overseas volunteers who came to fight for the nascent state.

A flight navigator, Fisher, a Winnipegger, perished in the evening of Oct. 24, 1948, while flying for Israel in a Dakota aircraft, along with fellow Canadian Machalnik pilot Wilf Canter and co-pilot Fred Stevenson and English radio operator Leon Lightman, when the plane’s right engine exploded shortly after takeoff.

Michael Wimers, an Israeli army liaison, was also killed in the crash.

The flight crew was scheduled to fly from Tel Aviv to Sdom on a re-supply mission.

According to eyewitness reports, the aircraft had just taken off from Tel Aviv airfield when the right engine caught fire. Canter, a Torontonian, attempted to fly to a nearby air base, but the plane spiralled out of control and crashed into the ground near Kibbutz Kfar Yesodot.

Wilf Mandel, 65, Fisher’s nephew, told The CJN it was his mission to keep his uncle’s memory – and the memory of the Machal, a Hebrew acronym meaning “volunteer from abroad” – alive and relevant to today’s Jewish and Israeli communities. Mandel was just two years old when his uncle died.

On Yom Hazikaron, he said, the community honours the memory of “too many members of Tzahal [the Israel Defence Forces] who at too early an age, gave their lives in defence of the State [of Israel]. We also honour the memories of the victims of terror. We should also remember the 11 Canadian Machal volunteers who gave their lives in the 1948 War of Independence.”

Fisher, who was only 25 when he died, grew up fatherless in Winnipeg – his father had died before Fisher was born. After graduating from high school, he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force and became a navigator with a Lancaster bomber crew flying missions over Germany in World War II.

“I don’t know how many missions he flew, but I learned later that bomber command was the most dangerous [assignment] in all the armed services during World War II. The losses were more than 60 per cent,” Mandel said.

According to Mandel’s research, in July 1948, his uncle embarked on a journey to Israel under an assumed name, because there was a concern shared by many Machalniks that they could end up in trouble with Canadian authorities and lose their citizenship.

Fisher eventually reached the Holy Land at the end of August 1948 and began flying missions for the fledgling state almost immediately.

Mandel said he cobbled together most of the information about his uncle from another Machalnik, Montreal pilot and navigator Yedidia (Eddy) Kaplansky.

“The Israelis had almost no air force training. Nearly 70 per cent of the Israeli air force was Machal,” he said.

Kaplansky served with Fisher in Israel and even relied on him as a navigator during September 1948’s Operation Taskit. The operation involved Kaplansky’s plane dropping pyrotechnics over a number of specifically targeted areas for five consecutive nights while the Israeli Signal Corps operators on the ground monitored various frequencies for enemy signal activity. All of this helped Israeli military personnel accurately gauge the positioning of the enemy.

“I knew nothing about Machal, had never heard about it growing up. Two hundred and fifty Machal from Canada went [to serve] over there, 11 of them died,” Mandel said. “It seemed strange to me that not more people know about this. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

The sacrifices and service of the Canadian Machal to the Jewish state is Canada’s “bond to Israel,” Mandel said.

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