Monday, June 18, 2012

Kaddish for America's First Jewish Aviator

Last week, a crowd recited the Kaddish in memory of an unlikely aviation pioneer—a Jewish immigrant from Russia named Arthur L. Welsh. The occasion was the centennial of his tragic death at the College Park Airfield. Among those gathered were great grand-nieces and nephews of the little-known pioneering aviator. On June 11, 1912, Welsh was killed while testing a Wright-designed plane for military use.

The notion of a Jewish immigrant penetrating the Wright brothers’ inner circle seems improbable. Yet Welsh distinguished himself as one of the earliest and most respected pilots in our country. Unlike the Wright brothers, whose ancestors arrived in Massachusetts just 20 years after the Pilgrims, Al Welsh’s story began as one typical of a working class Jewish immigrant.

America’s first Jewish airman was born Laibel Willcher in Russia, where he lived until he came to this country with his parents as a boy. The family settled in Philadelphia. Shortly after Laibel's father died, his mother remarried.

In 1898, the family moved to Washington’s 4 ½ Street, Southwest, neighborhood—home to a small enclave of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century. This was the same neighborhood where another young Jewish immigrant was growing up—Asa Yoelson, a cantor's son who later changed his name to Al Jolson.

Like so many other Jewish families, Laibel and his family lived above the grocery store that his mother ran. His stepfather worked as a cutter in a tailor shop.

When Laibel joined the Navy in 1901, he gave his name as Arthur L. Welsh—perhaps to escape anti-Semitism. After his honorable discharge, Welsh returned to Washington and worked as a bookkeeper. He attended meetings of the Young Zionist Union, where he met his future bride, Anna Harmel. Their 1907 wedding was the first held at the then-Orthodox Adas Israel’s second synagogue at 6th and I Streets.

When the Wright brothers came to Fort Myer in 1908 and 1909, Al Welsh was among the throng who watched in fascination as the famous brothers tested their military flier.

Welsh chased and realized his dream of flying with the Wright brothers. Though he did not have the mechanical knowledge required, he embarked on a letter-writing campaign to gain the attention of the Wrights. After initial rejection, Welsh traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to appeal to the Wrights in person.

His persistence eventually overcame his lack of qualifications. Welsh trained directly under Orville Wright and became a trusted and skilled pilot—a notable achievement given the difficulties of flying a Wright plane. This young Jewish immigrant also gave lessons to the first military pilots, including the famed Henry "Hap" Arnold, later a five-star general and U.S. Army Air Chief of Staff during World War II.

In 1912, the Wrights sent Welsh home to test a new military plane at College Park Airport. He lived with his in-laws in his Southwest neighborhood, commuting on the streetcar from the family home on H Street.

During a test flight on June 11, 1912, Welsh and Lieutenant Leighton Hazlehurst crashed into a field of daisies. Both died instantly.

The funeral service, held at the Harmel family home, was delayed so Orville Wright and his sister Katherine would have time to arrive from Dayton. Orville served as a pallbearer, along with Hap Arnold and several of Welsh’s Jewish friends from the neighborhood. His coffin was draped in a silken tallis. The Yiddish newspaper The Forward reported, “All present were in tears including Mr. Orville Wright and his sister who were doing all they could to console the wife and mother of the deceased.”

Welsh was buried in the Adas Israel Cemetery in Anacostia. Welsh's wife Anna died in 1925 “of a broken heart,” as the family remembered. Their daughter, just two years old at the time of her father’s death, grew up in Southwest and later moved to London.

In the early 1930s, Welsh’s sister, Clara Wiseman, campaigned to gain public recognition for her brother. She urged the military to name an airfield in his honor, as they had done for Welsh’s copilot. But since Welsh had flown as a civilian, no such honor was forthcoming.

Today, perhaps her efforts have been vindicated. Last week the College Park Aviation Museum unveiled a new interpretive sign telling Welsh's story at the edge of the airfield where this young Jewish immigrant turned pioneer pilot lost his life a century ago.

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