Pee-Wee Herman's Dad Was a World War II Vet and Founding Pilot of the Israeli Air Force

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, Paul Reubens, in character as Pee-wee Herman
In this Oct. 29, 2010 file photo, Paul Reubens, in character as Pee-wee Herman, poses on stage after a performance of "The Pee-wee Herman Show" on Broadway in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

Paul Reubens, more popularly known to the world as Pee-wee Herman, died on July 30, 2023, after a long battle with cancer. The 70-year-old comedian had hidden his cancer diagnosis from audiences for the past six years, his family finally revealed to the world in a post via Instagram.

The star of "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was a living embodiment of Founding Father John Adams' famous quote, "I have to study politics and war so that my sons can study mathematics, commerce and agriculture, so their sons can study poetry, painting and music."

Reubens' father, Milton Rubenfeld, was the owner of a lamp store in Sarasota, Florida, when baby Paul was born in 1952. Before World War II, Rubenfeld taught aerial acrobatics to would-be pilots. When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, he went overseas and joined the Royal Air Force, as the U.S. had not yet entered the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rubenfeld joined the U.S. Army Air Forces.

While in an American uniform, Rubenfeld wasn't flying aerial combat missions, as he'd done during the Battle of Britain. He instead flew with the USAAF Air Transport Command, ferrying planes and transporting people and materiel to and from the United States.

Milton Rubenfeld. (American Veterans of Israel)

When the war ended, Rubenfeld might have gone home to his native New York. Instead, he was approached in February 1948 by representatives of Haganah, a paramilitary group fighting for a Jewish state in Palestine. The British Mandate of Palestine was coming to an end, and neither the Arab nor Jewish populations of the country were happy with the way the British were leaving the partition of Palestine. Knowing an armed conflict was on the horizon, Haganah wanted to create an air force for its forces. It was looking for Jewish WWII pilots with combat experience, and Rubenfeld fit the bill.

Rubenfeld began ferrying planes to Israel in 1948. That same year, he started training in Czechoslovakia on the Avia S-199, a fighter designed from the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Only five of the eight volunteer aviators recruited by the Haganah would be able to fly Israel's four Avias in combat, and together, they would be the entirety of Israel's first Air Force.

While the volunteers were still in training, Egyptian bombers hit Tel Aviv's central bus terminal, prompting the pilots to forgo the rest of their instruction, which included air-to-ground combat. Instead, they decided "they'd practice gunnery on real targets."

Rubenfeld was forced to sit out their first mission on May 29, 1948, as Israel simply didn't have another plane for him to fly. His wingmen flew a strafing mission against an Egyptian force headed for Tel Aviv. Since the Arabs had no idea the Haganah had an Air Force, they were completely surprised by the appearance of four enemy aircraft. The surprise stopped what might have been a decisive blow against the Jewish forces, but the Israelis lost two aircraft in the fighting.

Rubenfeld took off on his first mission from Israel's Ekron Air Base on May 30, bombing and strafing an Iraqi armored column, with he and Ezer Weizman flying the only two functioning aircraft left. He was hit by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and was forced to bail out over the Mediterranean Sea. His chute didn't open before he hit the water, so he sustained painful injuries as a result. He finally came home to the U.S. a short while later.

Milton Rubenfeld died in Sarasota, Florida, in 2004 at age 84. Like his son, he also died of cancer.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, or on LinkedIn.

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