Raymond "Ray" Kurtz was born in 1919 in Brooklyn, where he grew up. He was among the first draftees to serve in World War II.
Behind the controls of an airplane, wisecracking Ray became a cool, highly respected pilot. He brought the crew of his B-17 Flying Fortress, the “Flatbush Floogie,” safely home in England from 31 harrowing bombing missions over Nazi territory. After the war Ray, came home to Ocean Parkway. After a short stint as a cab driver, Ray served as a policeman at Brooklyn’s 74th precinct; later, as a city fireman, he was attached to Engine Company 250 on Foster Avenue.
Although, before the war, he had always planned to become a firefighter, once he learned to fly, he longed for a career as a pilot. In 1947, Ray sought to defy the British blockade by flying refugees to Palestine, but found no organization that was doing this. When he learned at last that Service Airways in Manhattan was looking for pilots to help the Jewish cause, he immediately signed up. He was sent to Panama as an employee of Lineas Aereas de Panama, which was really a front for a secret airlift ferrying planes and arms to Palestine.
Serving double duty as co-pilot and navigator, Ray flew across the Atlantic in a C-46 transport in May 1948, arriving in the new State of Israel two days after its establishment. His aircraft unloaded its cargo at Ekron, south of Tel Aviv, but since there was no way to shield planes from an anticipated enemy attack in the morning, the C-46 and its crew had to leave quickly.
Ray’s plane was immediately dispatched to Zatec, a Czech air force base on the site of a former German Luftwaffe installation. There, Messerschmitt fighter planes originally built for Nazi pilots were being dismantled and placed inside larger planes, half a fighter to each transport.
They would be re-assembled after Ray and his fellow volunteers had delivered them safely to Israel.
Three war surplus B-17 bombers with rudimentary navigational equipment and lacking bombsights, bomb racks and other military essentials, were smuggled out of the United States and flown to Zatec. Under Ray’s supervision as operations officer, the planes were overhauled and prepared for combat. On the morning of July 15h, 1948 – fueled and loaded with bombs salvaged from a Czech arms dump – they headed toward Cairo. Ray, commanding the mission, flew in the number one bomber. He reported several serious mechanical problems but chose not to abort the flight. His plane encountered bad weather over the Alps and had to dodge light flak over Albania, but continued on course, eventually separating as planned from its companions, which had different targets to hit.
When Ray’s plane reached 25,000 feet, several crew members began passing in and out of consciousness due to a poor oxygen supply. Nevertheless, with the aid of an airport beacon and a navigational radio signal, the B-17 zeroed in on Cairo.
“We staggered over the target at 9:40 p.m. local Cairo time, ” Ray reported. “The city was well lit up, and they were totally unprepared for the raid. As a matter of fact, they must have expected someone to come in and land, because the runway lights were on at the time the bombing took place.” The bombs slated for King Farouk’s Abelin Palace actually landed in its yard or were scattered nearby; one hit a movie theater and created some damage and great confusion. It was a true victory for Israel, for this was the first time that one of its aircraft had struck a blow at Egypt’s heart.
The three hard-hitting B-17s, dubbed the “Hammer Squadron” by Ray, continued to take part in bombing missions while operating out of a former British base at Ramat David in the north of Israel. During a UN-ordered truce, the aircraft also helped supply the Negev with troops and equipment by air. When fighting resumed, the road to the Negev was opened. Soon, Beersheba was taken over by Israeli forces. During that period, Ray served as operations officer at Ekron and, his record states, “also dropped a few bombs, made a few shuttle runs with cargo and flew a civilian trip with El Al.”
When hostilities ended, Ray returned to the US to start a new freight airline with other volunteers who had also served in Israel. In May 1951 he was reported missing while ferrying a plane to Israel with navigator Seymour Lerner, a Queens Village resident he had known from the Zatec-Ekron run. Some wreckage eventually washed up on the Greenland shore, but no trace was ever found of the bodies of the missing men and they were presumed dead after a long search.
Ray Kurtz had survived two bloody wars only to go down during a peacetime flight. He was only 32 years old when he was lost.