The last words Charles Winters spoke to his son nearly 25 years ago — “Keep the faith” — guided the Miami businessman as he sought a rare presidential pardon for his late father’s crime: aiding Israel in 1948 as it fought to survive.
Charles Winters, a Protestant from Boston, was convicted in 1949 for violating the Neutrality Act when he conspired to export aircraft to a foreign country. He was fined US$5,000 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Winters’ son, Jim, found out about his father’s missions and imprisonment only after his death in 1984.
On Tuesday, US President George W. Bush officially forgave Charles Winters, issuing a pardon posthumously to a man considered a hero in Israel.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Jim Winters, 44, a Miami maker of artistic neon signs. “It happened 16 years before I was born. He went to jail and he didn’t want his kids to know. He was old-school and proud.”
Charles Winters was one of 19 people to receive pardons — one other person had his sentence commuted — as Bush left Washington to spend the Christmas holiday at the presidential retreate in Camp David, Maryland. No high-profile lawbreakers were on the list.
In the summer of 1948, Charles Winters, a produce exporter in Miami, worked with others to transfer two converted B-17 “Flying Fortresses” to Israel’s defense forces. He personally flew one of the aircraft from Miami to Czechoslovakia, where that plane and a third B-17 were retrofitted for use as bombers.
“He and other volunteers from around the world defied weapons embargoes to supply the newly established Israel with critical supplies to defend itself against mounting attacks from all sides,” New York representatives Carolyn Maloney, Gary Ackerman, Jose Serrano and Brian Higgins wrote in a Dec. 15 letter urging Bush to pardon Charles Winters.
The three B-17s were the only heavy bombers in the Israeli Air Force, and historians say counterattacks with the bombers helped turn the war against Arab armies in Israel’s favor. In March 1961, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir issued a letter of commendation to Winters to recognize his contributions to the Jewish state’s survival.
Two men charged with Winters, Herman Greenspun and Al Schwimmer, also were convicted of violating the Neutrality Act, but they did not serve time. US president John F. Kennedy pardoned Greenspun in 1961, and president Bill Clinton pardoned Schwimmer in 2000.
After Charles Winters died on Oct. 30, 1984, half his ashes were buried in a Christian cemetery near the Jewish cemetery of the Knights Templar in Jerusalem. The other half were scattered from the top of Mount Tabor in Israel.
Bush has granted 190 pardons and nine commutations during his two terms. That’s fewer than half as many as Clinton or Ronald Reagan issued during their eight years in office.
Well-known names were rare on Bush’s holiday pardon list.
In his most high-profile official act of forgiveness, Bush saved Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, from serving prison time in the case of the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.
Libby was convicted of perjury and obstructing justice. Bush could still grant him a full pardon, although Libby has not applied for one.