As a child, his life was saved by a Dutch family who hid him from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Today, he is an Israel Air Force hero responsible for having saved the lives of thousands of people worldwide. Read the remarkable story of Lt. Col. (res.) Arieh Oz, the founder of the IAF’s International Squadron.
Arieh Oz was born Harry Klausner in 1936 Nazi Germany. As a young boy, he spent the years between 1942 and 1945 in a Dutch family’s confined attic space in the Netherlands with his 12-year-old sister. “Our father fled to Palestine, and our mother was in hiding somewhere else in the Netherlands,” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz said. “We had no idea that the other was alive until after the war when the four of us were miraculously able to find each other. Once we all reconnected, we made aliyah to Israel in 1946.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Arieh Oz
His first few years of freedom were more difficult than expected. Oz struggled to acclimate to a normal childhood life, a life that required constant interactions with civilization. “When I came to Israel, I was already almost 11 years old. School was difficult since I had never been to school, and I had to learn the Hebrew language from scratch,” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz said.
Upon completing high school, Oz was accepted into the highly-selective Israel Air Force Flight School, finishing in the 19th class and earning his pilot’s wings on Jan. 5th, 1956. As a young soldier in the IDF (Zahal), Oz served a significant part of his service as a Flight Instructor with the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force, being sent to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for four months to instruct Ethiopian pilots. Shortly after, he returned to Israel as a young captain with a glowing letter of recommendation from the commander of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force.
At the time, the IDF (Zahal) was looking to invest in new, larger planes that could fly long distances for both strategic military purposes (bringing in weapons from France and other European countries, for example) and for providing aid to Africa. The IAF found five retired Pan American planes, purchased them, and restored them for military use.
“Now,” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz said, “they were looking for a commander for these planes.”
Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizman, then commander of the Israel Air Force and later the seventh President of Israel, chose the young Capt. Oz for the job. “Everyone around him told him he could not promote a young, inexperienced captain to the position of lieutenant colonel, which was the minimum rank for an IAF commander, and he responded: ‘I can do anything I want,’” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz recalled, chuckling.
Arieh Oz (center), then Lt. Col., in a meeting with members of the IAF
One Friday morning, Oz received word that Maj. Gen. Weizman wanted to see him. “I go to meet with him, and he asks me plain and simple if I would like to command my own squadron,” Lt. Col. (res.) said. “I looked at him and said: ‘If you can make a soldier with the rank of captain a commander of a squadron, then yes.’ Weizman responded: ‘Congratulations, you’re now a commander of your own squadron.’” Two days later, Capt. Oz became Lt. Col. Oz, founder of what would become the Air Force’s International Squadron.
“From here on out,” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz said, “it’s a big success story.”
Arieh Oz (center), then Lt. Col., with the founding members of the IAF’s International Squadron
During his four years as the International Squadron’s first commander, Lt. Col. Oz recruited pilots of the highest standard, selected by their flying and command experience, and he and his troops quickly learned to fly the Pan American planes. “We completed many intricate, complex and difficult missions,” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz explained. In contrast to its role today – which is predominantly to provide international aid – the International Squadron’s main goal at the time was to import ammunition and weaponry from France and neighboring countries. “We had three planes operating every week,” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz said, “two of which flew to France to bring weapons and one of which flew to countries in Africa for aid and assistance.”
Upon his release from the IDF (Zahal) following the 1967 Six Day War, Lt. Col. (res.) Oz became a pilot with El Al, Israel’s principal airline, quickly rising through the ranks to become El Al’s Director of Flight Operations. While he was no longer actively a part of the IAF, Lt. Col. Oz was recalled on numerous occasions for duty to perform highly specialized and secretive IAF missions.
Lt. Col. (res.) Arieh Oz
Today, the International Squadron flies missions overseas to provide global humanitarian aid to countries requiring medical assistance, having traveled everywhere from Japan and Haiti to Ghana and Mexico. “Although the purpose of humanitarian aid as part of the International Squadron came following my departure from the IAF, I was personally involved in two deeply humanitarian and meaningful missions in my life: Operations Entebbe and Solomon,” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz said.
In 1976, terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 139 and diverted the 248-passenger plane to Entebbe, Uganda, where they kept the passengers as hostages. Lt. Col. (res.) Oz was an expert in African missions from his time with the Ethiopian Air Force, and thus was chosen as one of four pilots called up for the dangerous mission.
July 4th, 1976: Air France passengers after they were released following Operation Entebbe
In a plane loaded with equipment that surpassed the legal flying weight and without proper navigation, Lt. Col. (res.) Oz flew under radar and in tight formation for over seven hours. He was the third of the four IAF planes headed to Entebbe and by the time he approached the landing strip, the terrorists were aware of the operation and darkened the runway, forcing Lt. Col. (res.) Oz to land his aircraft with nothing but the visual guidance of his co-pilot. His calmness, fearlessness and expertise contributed to the rescue of over 100 hostages.
Lt. Col. (res.) Oz’s second mission with the IAF was the 1991 military operation to take Ethiopian Jews to Israel, known as Operation Solomon. “I flew a Jumbo 747 aircraft – the first 747 ever to land in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,” Lt. Col. (res.) Oz said. “You won’t believe it but I brought, on one plane, 1,087 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. At the time, it was a world record for the most passengers ever on a single aircraft.”
May 24th, 1991: Ethiopian Jews disembarking from a plane at an IAF base in Israel following Operation Solomon
When asked about the International Squadron today and its greater focus on humanitarian aid, Lt. Col. (res) Oz said: “It’s extremely important for us to be present whenever and wherever there is a problem around the world. Although the amount of help we provide may at times be limited or modest, our flag will be present everywhere, and our military will be known worldwide as both professional and quick in its ability to arrive at any disaster area in the world.”