Operation Entebbe as told by the commandos: The fight outside
40 years after one the most famous commando operations in history, Sayeret Matkal's soldiers recount the events that culminated in the release of 106 hostages from an airport terminal in Uganda: Under fire from the control tower, destroying the Ugandan fighter jet fleet and the urgency to leave Entebbe. Part 4 of 5.
"Our Hercules was the third plane in the order of landing," remembers Eyal Oren, at the time a second lieutenant and a soldier in the armored vehicle commanded by Alon Shemi. "We were telling macabre jokes revolving around the risk to the second and third planes. Our landing would not be a surprise to the enemy forces on the ground, the runway would not be marked, and if we came under fire, it would end our visit to Uganda before we could even set foot on its soil.
"We were flying low before landing and saw lights coming near and later the lit runway. That was encouraging; it meant we still had the element of surprise and that the first plane must have landed. As the wheels were about to touch down on the ground, a shiver passed through my entire body. We were hoping the plan worked. A moment before the wheels were to touch down, the runway lights were turned off. The next moment, the gooseneck lighting—burning torches put there by the paratroopers (who were on the first plane —ed.) along the runway—replaced the runway lighting, and the plane kept taxiing towards the unloading area. Our force was meant to secure the back end of the terminal, eliminate the Ugandan soldiers posted around it, and thwart any reinforcements that might come from the city of Entebbe.
"The back door of the Hercules opened, and the armored vehicles got off and started driving quickly towards the terminal. It was dark, the sky was clear, stars were shining above us, and the hot air was blowing on our faces. We heard gunfire, which raised many questions that were left unanswered. We then came under fire from the control tower, and returned fire. The service road we were driving on was dark, as was the back part of the terminal. Then, the dark figures of two Ugandan soldiers crossed the road in front of us towards the vegetation on the other side. We opened fire at them and could only hear grunts and shouts that then went silent. Ahead of us were a gas station and a long shack with a row of doors. We shot at all of the openings that looked like living quarters, but no one came out."
Yochi Brener, at the time a major in Mofaz's force, recounts, "We got to a plaza and started shooting in both directions—at the control tower and at the roof of the terminal—so the dozens of Ugandan soldiers there would not be able to get in the way of the force fighting below. I was firing belts of 250 bullets from the MAG (machine gun)—one at the roof and one at the control tower. When the MAG heated up and became white-hot, I gave it a moment to cool and fired from my Kalashnikov. From where we were, we could also see Yoni (Netanyahu), who was wounded, and the doctor who was treating him."
Eyal Yardenai, at the time a staff sergeant serving as a Land Rover driver in Rami Sherman's holding force, tells, "The control tower had a lot of windows and we came under extensive fire from there. I took the RPG launcher from the Land Rover and fired a rocket at the glass windows at the top of the tower. The angle was bad because I was standing right under the tower. The rocket connected and caused a huge explosion. A mushroom cloud of smoke rose over the tower, and from that moment it went silent, and no shots were fired from it. I'd used up all the ammunition I had except for the magazine I left in my vest's back pocket."
"I was supposed to get to the plaza outside the old terminal, check with Yoni if he needed me to join the ground assault, and if not, move east and get settled," recounts MK Omer Bar-Lev, who would go on to become the commander of Sayeret Matkal and at the time led a force on an armored vehicle. "I called Yoni on the comms, and he didn't answer. While we were under fire, Mofaz ordered me to keep moving east towards where I was supposed to thwart any possible reinforcements coming from the nearby military base. I had a big spotlight on my armored vehicle, and I aimed it at where the (Ugandan military) MiG planes were supposed to be. And, indeed, we saw them in two rows: One had five MiG 21s, and the other had three MiG 17s.
"The guys wanted to immediately open fire at them, but I decided to wait until the takeover of the old terminal was complete. We heard non-stop gunfire from the terminal. Every second felt like an hour, and we kept hearing more and more gunfire. After what felt like forever—it was silent. For a moment, we really thought something had gone wrong. And then the hostages started coming out, walking in an orderly fashion towards the Karnaf (the IDF’s nickname for the Hercules plane —ed.) that was nearing the terminal.
"Then I called Mofaz on the comms and asked for permission to open fire at the MiGs, but Mofaz didn't answer. So I tried again—perhaps Yoni would answer—and received no reply. I made a decision, as is customary for any combat soldier who finds himself alone in the field, and ordered one of the guys on the team to get off the armored vehicle and hit the MiGs. He got off, fired, and missed. Then I told Yaakov, who was manning the grenade launcher, to open fire, and he managed to fire one or two grenades before the weapon jammed! And then I, who was manning the MAG on top of the armored vehicle, started shooting at the MiGs. Before long, one of them—which must have been full of fuel—exploded, and an incredibly beautiful burst of fire shot up into the night sky. This set the rest of the planes on fire and burned them down."
Adam Coleman, a staff sergeant in Giora Zussman's team that stormed the terminal's small hall, remembers, "We were standing there, at the edge of the building, and a view of the entire airport appeared before us. We could see the new terminal from afar: structures, hangers, sheds. And we saw the MiGs burning. It was spectacular, like a scene from a war movie, with the MiG's tail sticking out from between the flames. But it wasn't a movie. This was the reality we created, one that would turn into an unforgettable memory."
From captivity to freedom
At the same time, the troops inside the terminal began evacuating the hostages. Amos Goren, a staff sergeant in the team that stormed the passengers' hall where the hostages were kept recounts, "We told the hostages to get ready to leave and to not take anything with them. They were still in shock and looked confused. The gunfire outside continued on and off, but finally, the order to evacuate came. Several people started crawling towards the door—they were afraid to get up. We helped them to their feet and accompanied them to the exit, where the Land Rovers and a Peugeot truck with Golani troops were waiting."
Yardenai recalls, "When I got to the Land Rover, it was already packed with hostages who were sitting on top of each other and covering the entire vehicle from hood to bumper. I couldn't get to the driver's seat. I climbed in over the hood, stepping on some of the hostages in the process. I started the car but couldn't turn the steering wheel as one of the hostages was holding onto it with both hands while hanging onto the side of the Land Rover. I unclasped one of his hands by force, but he kept holding on with the other hand. While I was fighting him, without even seeing his face, I found myself thinking what must be going through his head. That he must have been thinking that the IDF came to rescue him, and now some cruel and inconsiderate soldier was forcefully pushing him off the Land Rover. To this day, I'm surprised that in the midst of battle, I found time to think about that.
"The pilot got the plane 500 meters from the terminal, and that's where I headed with the pile of hostages covering the Land Rover. When we got to the plane, the hostages got off. Then an injured man was brought in on a gurney (Surin Hershko, who was suffered a spinal injury from a bullet —ed.), which was laid down on the hood of the Land Rover before it was transferred onto the plane."
Rami Sherman, the operations intelligence commanding the holding force, recounts, "There were 20 people or more on each of the two jeeps. We had to ask some to get off and wait for us to come back. It was impossibly difficult. They refused to get off. Despite our promises, they didn't believe we'd come back. On the short drive to the plane, we exchanged a few words. 'How are you doing? How do you feel?’ ‘I’m okay.' It was a meaningless exchange, but it was in Hebrew, and the fact we were talking in Hebrew might have helped calm them down a little. After the first group on the jeeps, we led the rest of the hostages to the plane on foot."
"The sight of the column of hostages, walking together in the dark from the old terminal to the Hercules planes, has been etched into my memory," says Yossi Shek, a staff sergeant in Bar-Lev's armored vehicle force. "It was an image of survivors walking in a long line. I saw them pretty up close, and in that moment, I couldn't help but think about the Holocaust and the horrors of the death marches.
“Maybe it had to do with the fact I'm second generation to the Holocaust. My father was a forced laborer in the camps in Germany, and my mother posed as a Christian woman and lived on a farm in a village in the middle of nowhere until she ran away and hid in the woods. To me, saving the hostages and setting them free is the very core of Operation Entebbe; the most significant and humane thing—taking people from a situation of anxiety and distress, dependence and captivity, back to freedom."
Amir Ofer, a staff sergeant in Amnon Peled's team and the first commando to storm into the passengers' hall, recounts, "Most of the hostages had already headed out to the planes, and only the injured and dead remained in the room. I had the honor of carrying a lightly injured French flight attendant on my shoulders, dressed in only her undergarments, a few hundred meters to the evacuation vehicle. She was very lightly hurt from a ricochet and could walk. I told her to get up and walk, but she almost fainted from hysteria, and Amnon told me to carry her.
"While I was carrying her, several bullets from the nearby tower whizzed dangerously close to me. For the second time that night, I heard that ghastly 'whoosh' that anybody who has heard never forgets. I was thinking that this has been happening too often in the last 20 minutes. I cursed the flight attendant in my heart and thought 'I've used up my luck to the last inch. After the terrorist who shot a burst of gunfire at me from ten meters and missed, and two others almost shot at me from two meters behind me, I'm not going to get killed because of this spoilt Frenchwoman who is too lazy to walk because of a few scratches.'
"Later, from her bed at Tel Hashomer Medical Center, she said (in a TV interview) in French something along the lines of 'Everyone had already left, and I was afraid I'd be forgotten behind; only one soldier remembered and came for me.'"
Searching for ‘keepsakes’
Before leaving Entebbe, several of the Sayeret soldiers decided to take some "keepsakes" from Uganda. "We were searching the hall to make sure everyone had been evacuated," Amos Goren recounts. "I took the Kalashnikov of the terrorist I shot and the handgun of the German terrorist."
Shlomi Reisman, a staff sergeant in the Amnon Team, also took a memento. "There was a body of a Ugandan soldier near the boxes (in the cargo area). It was the Ugandan who caught me by surprise during the raid. I couldn't help it—I bent down and took his brand new spear—which was attached to his webbing (load-bearing straps)—and put it in the bed of the truck. I didn't have time to deal with it at that moment. I thought, when we got back home, I'll get it out of the truck. That was a strategic mistake made by a rookie paratrooper, to leave equipment in a Golani vehicle (Golani and the Paratroopers have been waging a long war over prestige and accomplishments —RB). To whoever found it, I say: Forty years have passed, but it's never too late to return it..."
Coleman adds, "It's the basic nature of a hunter: claiming a skull, a scalp, or a weapon. I went back to the fighting area to take the weapon of the soldier I killed. I wanted to take the weapon off the first Ugandan soldier I killed with a burst of gunfire half a meter from his face. But the weapon was clasped tightly in his hands, and I couldn't pull it free. I ran to the second soldier, who was lying between the boxes sprayed with bullets, and it was easy to take his weapon, as it was at his side. I checked the weapon, and it turned out the safety was still on. Poor soldier. I took the weapon and ran back without fear and with the confidence of the victorious. The sight of the black Ugandan soldiers that I shot and killed in close range stayed with me for many years."
Later, when they were on the plane, Coleman showed off his keepsakes to his friends. "A German Heckler & Koch G3 rifle from the Ugandan I killed" and "a magazine of a minigun Tokarev pistol—a Russian weapon that was very state-of-the-art at the time. It was a full curved magazine that was next to the Ugandan in a black suit who was lying at the entrance to the VIP lounge. I was looking for the Tokarev but I couldn't find it. I thought the Ugandan must be lying on top of it, but I couldn't turn him over, so I took the magazine."
While some of the soldiers were looking for keepsakes, the forces were preparing to leave Uganda. Muki Betzer, Sayeret Matkal's deputy commander who would go on to become the first commander of the elite Air Force commando unit Shaldag, recalls, "Before leaving, I conducted a final search of the terminal to make sure no one had been left behind. The final image of the terminal that I remember is the sight of the two killed German terrorists: The man had an expression of surprise, and the woman's pursed lips indicated anger and frustration.
"Getting the hostages on the plane through the back door was slow-going, with the sound of the deafening engines and propellers in the background. We needed to count the hostages once again. The count didn't always amount to the same number, but eventually we found all 106, including the wounded."
Dr. Arieh Shalev, who would later go on to become the head of psychiatry at the Hadassah Medical Center and at the time was a combat doctor in Bar-Lev's force, says, "As the last ones to take off, we threw small explosives with suspended detonators and smoke grenades onto the main runway to prevent a tactical offensive by the enemy.
“As we were finishing up covering the runway with explosives, the commanders radioed in that there were people missing. They didn’t think hostages were missing, but said perhaps we were missing Air France crew members. They asked us to go look at the (the hijacked Air France) plane, and I remember our vehicle driving towards the plane's cockpit, which seemed very high up. We were driving into the smoke (from the smoke grenades —ed.), and I was calculating how long we had until the explosives started going off. This was a familiar medical question: 'How long do I have left to live, Doctor?'"
Bar-Lev remembers, "We got to the plane. Mofaz put a spotlight on it and me, and my force went to search it. The plane was completely dark, without any discernible movement. And we were debating whether to climb aboard and search it from the inside. That wasn't a pleasant thought. Some of the forces had already taken off to return home; the rest were about a kilometer or more away from us, waiting next to the last Hercules plane with its engines roaring, ready for takeoff.
“While I was debating with myself, we received a warning on the comms that the plane may be booby-trapped and that we must not climb aboard it—just search around it. At this point, one of the explosives blew up not far from us. It was supposed to delay the Ugandan reinforcements and only managed to delay us.
"And then, as expected, a reinforcement of moving vehicles came from the administrative entrance to the airport with their lights glaring. We opened fire at them, and their lights went off. They stopped and were maybe even hit. Several minutes later, we received the last order: Get to the Hercules, which was waiting on the beginning of the runway. The rest of the forces, including Mofaz's armored vehicle, were already on board. We got off our armored vehicle, and Yoav Wachsman, the driver, got it onto the plane. The soldiers boarded, and then I followed. I was the last Israeli soldier on Ugandan soil that night."
Part 5, the final chapter of this incredible tale, recounts the tense flight back to Israel and the bittersweet return home.
Dr. Ronen Bergman is Yedioth Ahronoth's chief military and intelligence correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @ronenbergman
Lior Ben-Ami is the head of Yedioth Ahronoth's investigative team. Contact him at email@example.com