It doesn’t seem that long ago, but on July 4, 1976, the United States was set to celebrate its Bi-Centennial. Massive celebrations were set to take place across the USA but then a small Special Operations unit from a smaller Middle Eastern nation stole the spotlight with a daring raid that was stunningly executed.
Israeli commandos from the Sayeret Matkal known to the soldiers in it as only “The Unit”, stormed the Ugandan airport at Entebbe under the command of LTC Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu. There they freed about 100 Jewish hostages and 12 people from the flight crew from a combined force of terrorists and Ugandan troops.
The raid was a brilliantly executed Special Operation. Only one Israeli soldier, Netanyahu was killed along with three hostages. Another Israeli paratrooper was paralyzed by a gunshot wound to his neck and another hostage, Dora Bloch, who was taken to a hospital was murdered by Amin’s soldiers after the raid.
Airplane Hijack Begins Siege: On Sunday, June 27, Air France’s Flight 139 left from Ben Gurion Airport, made a stopover in Athens, and then took off towards its final destination in Paris, with 248 passengers on board. At around 12:35 pm, four terrorists—two German and two Palestinian—hijacked the plane.
The hijackers landed briefly in Libya where they took on more terrorists before flying down to Entebbe, Uganda which was run at the time by the dictator Idi Amin. The hostages were led into the terminal building where they were guarded by terrorists and Ugandan soldiers. There the Jews and Israelis were separated from the other passengers.
On the 29th, the terrorist decided to release all the non-Jewish and Israeli hostages. But the Air France crew refused to leave their Jewish and Israeli passengers. This set-in-motion the operation that would be known as Operation Thunderbolt. This was a critical time because once the hostages were released, they were flown to Paris, and an Israeli officer interviewed a few of them. The hostages described where the Israeli hostages were located, how many terrorists there were, the floor plan of the building, and other important details.
A Mossad agent flew a light aircraft over Entebbe and pretended to have engine trouble. He took photographs of the area and reported that only dozens, not hundreds of Ugandan soldiers were guarding the building. That fact was corroborated by released hostages in Paris. That convinced the Israeli government that the mission had at least a modest chance of success.
The Israeli plan was to land 4 C-130 Hercules aircraft with 33 members of Sayeret Matkal on the tarmac of the Entebbe airport. There they would have a limo disguised as Idi Amin’s with soldiers dressed as Ugandan soldiers along with jeeps filled with commandos. Once they got close enough they would storm the terminal, kill the terrorists guarding the hostages with just six members of the unit. The rest would eliminate any remaining terrorists and soldiers.
Netanyahu had to meet with and convince the Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres that the mission was doable. His confidence was unwavering and he assured Peres the casualties among the hostages would be small.
The unit would then gather the soldiers and hostages and board the Hercules and fly back to Israel.
The Operation begins: The four C-130s took off from Israel and had to fly low under the radar to avoid detection. There were no seats and the commandos had to sit on the vehicles. The lurching of the planes in the heat made almost every commando sick.
They flew across Egypt, the Sudan, South Sudan and into Ugandan airspace. The first C-130 was to touchdown on the airfield while the others were to circle over Lake Victoria. Once the first aircraft landed the vehicles with Netanyahu leading from the first one disguised as Amin’s limo, would race to the terminal.
Seven minutes later the next two Hercules were to touch down with Armored cars to eliminate any Ugandan resistance. As the vehicles carrying the commandos were racing to the terminal, they passed a guard post with barbed wire. The guard snapped to attention and raised his weapon in a salute. The ruse of Amin’s car was working.
Netanyahu leaned out the window with a silenced .22 and tried to shoot the guard but missed with the vehicle racing so fast. But a soldier in the Land Rover behind the limo blasted the soldier with a burst of automatic weapons fire.
The Mercedes limo stopped 40 meters short of the terminal building and with the crowded confines, it was slow work, getting out. Netanyahu yelled to his troops, “Come on, charge! Come on, charge!”
At the terminal building, a German terrorist came outside and the leader of the commandos charged with clearing the terminal emptied his magazine at him but missed. He stopped to change his magazine but didn’t announce it as was the unit SOP. The rescue team stalled waiting for their leader.
Tamir Pardo, the future director of the Mossad, was Netanyahu’s radio operator during the mission. “As we were running, I stayed close to Yoni. We came under fire from the tower, and if memory serves me right a Ugandan soldier who was by the terminal also opened fire (at us). Yoni was hit… he was so close I could reach out and touch him. His body did half a turn and then he fell… I remember myself saying on the comms ‘Yoni was hit.’ David (Hassin) the doctor came up to him and I joined Zussman’s team,” Pardo told the Ynetnews.
Israeli commando Afir Ofer was the first commando inside the terminal. A terrorist on the floor fired nearly an entire magazine at Ofer but missed. Ofer but a four-round burst with two tracers impacting the terrorist, killing him instantly.
In an interview done by my friend Lela Gilbert with Iddo Netanyahu, Yoni’s brother, he described what his brother told the commandos about things going wrong. Iddo was also a member of “the Unit” as was younger brother Benjamin.
“At that point, they remembered what Yoni had told them before they left for Entebbe. ‘Things will go wrong,’ he said. ‘Thing will not go exactly according to plan. All you have to remember this: you have to reach the hostages as quickly as possible and kill the terrorists. Just do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.’
“And that’s what they did, even as Yoni was hit by gunfire in those very seconds, while they moved forward.
“They entered the hall and succeeded in killing the terrorists before the terrorists could kill the hostages. Only three hostages died in the process. The Entebbe raid was a success.”
As Ofer moved inside the building two German terrorists, a man and a woman aimed their AK-47s at him intending to shoot him. But a captain, right behind Ofer, put two rounds in each and kicked their weapons away.
Ofer began to yell into a megaphone in Hebrew and English, “Everyone on the ground; we’re here to take you home.” Another German terrorist, hiding among the hostages leaped to his feet and was also aiming at Ofer, when another commando fired two rounds at him before he could pull the trigger. The first hit his Kalashnikov, knocking from his hands, the second hit the terrorist in his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground. He was the last terrorist in the terminal with the hostages. The room was clear.
The Ugandans on the second floor and the customs building attempted to flee. About 60 ran and escaped. Eleven more tried to race down the stairs to escape and were cut down.
Another group of commandos took down the smaller hall in the terminal. Two terrorists, one with a grenade tried to rush past but one of the men fired a burst that killed both and the grenade exploded beneath the two bodies. One commando got a tiny sliver of shrapnel in his jaw from the explosion.
The entire operation in the terminal was over in a minute and the hostages were freed and moving to the aircraft.
Follow-on C-130s Arrive: Right on time, exactly seven minutes after the initial C-130 touched down, the next three landed. Two with armored vehicles. They were receiving fire from the control tower. One MAG-58 gunner unleashed two belts of ammo at the tower while another fired an RPG from point-blank range silencing the fire.
Years later when flying thru Africa, our plane landed at Entebbe. The old terminal and control tower were still pocked-marked by hundreds of bullet holes.
Another armored vehicle raced to where the Ugandan Air Force had its MiGs parked. In one row was five MiG-21s and the other had three MiG-17s. He cut loose with his MAG-58. One was loaded with fuel and exploded. Soon the conflagration ignited the others in a huge fireball.
With the threat neutralized, it was time to leave. The commandos and the hostages boarded the C-130s for the flight to Kenya to refuel and then to Israel. But the elation of freeing the hostages was crushed by the news that their commander Netanyahu was killed.
There were few tense moments when flying over the Red Sea but Israeli Phantom jets appeared to escort the C-130s home. The country of Israel was in a state of jubilation over the rescue.
And in the US, amid all the Bi-Centennial celebration, then US President Gerald Ford released a statement on the raid. “Our own Bicentennial Independence Day was enhanced by an event at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. That action of liberation freed our own hearts to a fuller understanding of the universal meaning of independence – and the courageous action sometimes required to preserve it.”
Happy Independence Day.
Photos Courtesy IDF