By Joe Tash
Selwyn Lurie never flew again after spending four years as a combat fighter pilot in North Africa and Burma during World War II.
“I had enough,” said Lurie, a Carmel Valley resident, of his time in the cockpit of Hurricane and P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes.
During his stint as a pilot in the South African Air Force, he crashed five times, all caused by weather or mechanical malfunctions. The last crash was the worst — he hit the ground at 170 mph without wheels or flaps, injuring his neck in the process.
Lurie’s crashes occurred in friendly territory — “Thank God, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
These days, Lurie, who turned 90 on Aug. 7, works a computer keyboard instead of the controls of an airplane, as he writes a memoir about his life. So far, he’s completed about 150 pages. (While Lurie hasn’t piloted an airplane since WWII, he and his family marked his 90th birthday with a different sort of aviation experience — a hot air balloon ride.)
Lurie and his wife, Barbara, who have been married for 57 years, have three children and eight grandchildren, all of whom live in Carmel Valley and Del Mar. Lurie said he decided to write the book at the request of his grandchildren. He said he never knew his own grandparents, who died in the Holocaust.
Lurie holds vivid memories of his wartime experience and keeps mementos, such as photos and models of the airplanes he flew, in his home office. He’s also kept his uniform, festooned with medals, and the aviator’s helmet he wore, complete with goggles and oxygen mask.
His job as a combat pilot was mostly going in low to the ground, strafing military targets, or escorting bombers. He flew against the Germans in North Africa, and against the Japanese in Burma.
One memento of his military service is a silk handkerchief imprinted with a map of Burma. Lurie said pilots carried such maps, sewn into the collars of their shirts, in case they had to bail out of their planes. A magnetized pin was also inserted into their collars, he said, which would point north when floated in water. Buttons on the pilots’ underwear were also magnetized and could serve as compasses in an emergency.
Lurie and his wife met 65 years ago, when he started an accounting firm in his native city of Durban, South Africa, and she came to work for him as his secretary.
Later, the couple, who are Jewish, lived in Israel, South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where their three children were born. A fourth child, a son, was born in Israel and died at the age of 3.
When asked what has allowed the couple to maintain such a long and happy marriage, Barbara said, “Just keep smiling and always be considerate to each other, just enjoy life in general.”
After the war, Lurie embarked on a business career. After selling his accounting practice in Durban, he and his wife moved to Israel, where he helped plan the city of Ashkelon. In what is now Harare, Zimbabwe, he was CEO of steel and pharmaceutical companies, and later became CEO of a textile manufacturing conglomerate in South Africa, with 35,000 employees.
In South Africa, he negotiated labor agreements with trade unions that for the first time based pay on skill and not racial grounds, as had previously been the case, he said. He also served as a justice of the peace in South Africa.
Later, the couple moved back to Israel, and in 2001, they resettled in San Diego County to be close to their children.
Lurie said he signed up for the Air Force because he heard in South Africa about how Hitler was persecuting Jews in Europe. He credited his wife, Barbara, with helping him adjust back to civilian life after the war, even persuading him to stop smoking.
“She really got me back to normal living, one might say,” he said.