Sunday, July 4, 1976 was a day of celebration throughout the United States. I was eight years old. I remember the bicentennial coins that were issued and collecting the new quarters and even the new silver dollars that were released. Flags were flying everywhere. I remember a special flag with 13 stars in the blue field and the white number '76 that were being flown for this particular occasion. Patriotic hymns were sung that morning in church services across the nation and that night brilliant firework displays lit up the sky. This was in celebration of the bicentennial of our Declaration of Independence. It was a celebration of freedom for a nation. The celebration was tremendous.
What the majority of Americans did not know, was about another celebration taking place that very same day, several thousand miles across the Atlantic and Mediterranean; across the world from the United States. It was a celebration taking place on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion International Airport. This celebration was also a celebration by an entire nation about freedom. But this celebration was specifically about the freedom of 102 people- mostly Israelis and the crew of a French airliner- who had been hijacked a week before.
On June 27, 1976, Air France 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens, Greece, was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
After leaving Tel Aviv, the plane headed to Athens Greece, for a scheduled stop. The aircraft, an Airbus A-300, boarded an additional 58 passengers, including the hijackers. All told, 246 passengers and 12 crew where onboard the aircraft. Shortly after leaving Athens the aircraft was hijacked and diverted to Benghazi, Libya where it sat on the ground and took on fuel. After refueling and sitting on the ground for seven hours, the hijackers ordered the aircraft to fly to Entebbe, Uganda.
After arriving, the hijackers were greeted by "president for life", Field Marshall Idi Amin, dictator of Uganda. The Israeli and Jewish passengers were separated from the non-Israeli and non-Jewish passengers (there were some ultra-orthodox Jews who were flying under non-Israeli passports or not Israeli citizens; and there were some Jews, a member of the Israeli military for example who was flying under his British passport as he held dual citizenship, who were not separated out due to having non-Israeli passports). Some of the passengers bore tattoos from the Nazi death camps. Several would say the "separation process" was as they remembered it from the concentration camps.
By July 1, all the passengers, except those that had been separated out as Jewish or Israeli, where released by the terrorists including the 12 members of the French flightcrew. However, in an act that can only be described as selfless heroism, Air France Captain Michel Bacos and his crew said they would not leave until every single one of their passengers were released. They chose to remain behind.
Idi Amin, the "president for life" of Uganda, visited the hostages several times during their stay at the airport. Although his military did not "actively" participate in the hijacking, they certainly provided assistance to the terrorists who did. Uganda provided the terrorists with a safe haven at the Entebbe airport.
From shortly after the hijacking became known, the government of Israel, as well as other parties attempted to negotiate with the terrorists. Some of this was to buy time, although there were doubts that any rescue could be undertaken by the Israelis because of the vast distance between Uganda and the nation of Israel. Partly because of this distance, and partly due to the "support" of Idi Amin, the terrorists felt safe.
However, in the late night hours of July 3 and early morning hours of July 4, 1976 the Israeli Defense Forces pulled off the most audacious, brilliant, and amazing rescue operation ever attempted in modern military history. That operation was Operation Thunderbolt (also referred to as Operation Entebbe and Operation Yonatan)
Just over 100 Israeli soldiers and airmen in four Israeli C-130s and two 707s flew, mostly under radar coverage at low altitude, from Israel, south and over Lake Victoria to the airport at Entebbe, Uganda. The 29 man "Assault Unit" led by Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan (Yonatan) Netanyahu hit the terminal where the hostages were held.
All of the terrorist were killed. Three hostages were killed in the crossfire during the gunfight between the Israelis and the terrorists.
As the rescued hostages were being led to an awaiting C-130, a Ugandan soldier opened fire from the airport control tower, wounding five Israeli soldiers and killing the only Israeli soldier to die in the operation, Lt Col Netanyahu. Jonathan ("Yonni") had been born in New York. At the time of the operation his father was a professor at Cornell University. He was survived by two brothers, Iddo and Benjamin- the current Prime Minister of Israel.
There were other casualties as a result of this operation. Dora Bloch, a 75-year-old grandmother, who held both Israeli and British citizenship had been taken to the hospital days before the raid after choking on a chicken bone. She was recovering in the hospital at the time of the raid, and had been visited in the hospital before the raid by the British Consul. Sometime after July 4, officers of the Ugandan military went into her hospital room, dragged her from her bed and executed her. Her remains were discovered in 1979, after Idi Amin had been deposed. Her body was returned to Israel for burial.
Kenyan Minister of Agriculture Bruce MacKenzie also became a fatality of this operation. Because of the great distance between Israel and Uganda, part of the success of the operation lay in finding a place in Africa where the aircraft could refuel for their return flight home. Minister MacKenzie persuaded the Kenyan president to allow the Israeli Air Force access to the Nairobi airport. He was also instrumental in granting the Mossad access to the airport in Nairobi for intelligence gathering prior to the operation. Because of this Idi Amin ordered Ugandan agents to assassinate McKenzie. He was killed by a bomb on May 24, 1978. Director of the Mossad, Meir Amit, had a forest planted in Israel in MacKenzie's name to honor what he had done to help assure the success of the operation.
Coming four years after the disaster in Munich, this operation showed how a small, intensely well trained, special forces group could deal with a near "impossible" hostage situation. The operation was so successful that several countries, including the United States, very quickly developed special operations teams based on this model, that was demonstrated so well in Entebbe.
Today, July 4, 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Entebbe, Uganda, in what must be a "bitter-sweet mission" for him personally. On the one-hand he is there to commemorate the victory of the IDF and the rescue of people who were kidnapped and threatened with death solely for their religious beliefs and nationality- for being Jews. On the other hand, he is there to mark the place and moment his brother died to save others.
This raid, which occurred 40 years ago today, has often been called the "Miracle at Entebbe." The use of the word "Miracle" usually denotes involvement of God's hand in the outcome.
In this case, I believe, "Miracle" is right.