Operations officer tells the Entebbe story to hostages’ family

September 7, 2017 by Tony Kan
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Israeli Major Rami Sherman (Retired) who was operations officer for the special forces unit that audaciously and successfully freed 102 hostages from Entebbe International Airport in 1976 has spoken to a full house at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch. 

Rami Sherman and Tony Kan

The story of this amazing mission has now become the stuff of legend in the history of Israel.

A combination of Palestinian terrorists and German anarchists hijacked an Air France flight that was originally scheduled to travel from Athens to Paris.  They forced the plane to travel to Libya instead, where they refuelled.

They then made their way to Entebbe International airport in Uganda.  There, they were joined by additional terrorists, implying collusion with the Ugandan regime.

According to Sherman, the Israeli government initially felt that the French government was responsible for negotiating with the terrorists because the aircraft is legally considered French sovereign territory.

This changed, once the terrorists made their demands clear.  They required the release of 53  Palestinian and pro-Palestinian militants.  40 of them were prisoners within Israel.

At first, the Israeli military commanders were set against any kind of military action because there was a lack of concrete intelligence and the great distances involved created many logistical challenges.

Shimon Peres, the Minister of Defence insisted that Israel had a moral obligation to attempt a rescue, no matter what the risk.

The Prime Minister of Israel at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, said that if the military commanders were to put together a plan, he promised to seriously consider it.

The final green light for the operation was not given until the Hercules aircraft were well on their way to Uganda.

The aviation aspects were particularly challenging.  They had to organize somewhere nearby to refuel as they couldn’t travel from Israel and Uganda return on one tank.  They couldn’t guarantee the runway would be lit, so they would have to land in darkness.  MI6 convinced the Kenyans to open Nairobi airport for them.

Peres drafted his resignation, in case the mission was a failure.

After the mission was over, Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, arranged for the MI6 operative to be assassinated in retribution for the humiliation he felt.

Because of the crisis, they had to carry out the mission without regard to weather conditions.  Idi Amin was well known for being vindictive and wouldn’t hesitate to use deadly force to retaliate, so they had to set demolition charges on all the MIG fighters at the airport, so they couldn’t be used to give chase and shoot down the four C-130s they used.

They flew 30 feet above the ground most of the way to avoid radar, as many of the nearby countries were hostile to Israel and they did not want to risk the chance that the terrorists might receive advance warning of their arrival.  It was an eight-hour flight so it certainly tested the stamina of the pilots.   Amazingly the runway lights were on when they arrived; the weather opened up near Uganda and the skies were clear.

When the terrorists decided to release the non-Jewish hostages, they separated the non-Jewish hostages from the Jewish hostages.  For the Jewish hostages, this evoked traumatic memories of the “selection” process adopted by the Germans during the Holocaust as they chose who would live and who would die.  The loud wailing from among some of the Jews distressed all the other hostages.  One of the hostages lost her mind.

A New Zealander and his wife, Colin and Nola Hardie were amongst the hostages.  Colin was the General Manager of the Christchurch Star.  He wrote down detailed descriptions of the terrorists, drew a layout of the terminal building, noted their routine for rotating the guards, as well as describing the experiences of the hostages on his shirtsleeves and arms.

He had to conceal what he was doing as there would be a very real risk that he would be shot if discovered.

When he was debriefed at Orly Airport, the officials said his information was like gold and would save many lives.

Rami often wondered how the intelligence he was given about what was going on inside the terminal building was so detailed.  Now he knew.

When Rami heard of this, he requested that we contact the family so that he could meet them.  Surprisingly, we tracked his family down and they were able to join us at the airport Museum and gave their story too.

During the crisis, the Hardie family were glued to the radio, as this was their only source of timely information.  At one stage, one of the bulletins said that the terrorists had changed their minds and were now going to execute the hostages.

One of their daughters was heavily pregnant at the time, and the intense anxiety caused her to go into premature labour.  Fortunately, they were able to arrest the labour at the hospital and the pregnancy went full term, with no harm to the baby.

Following their return, Colin gave many public talks about his experience.  Eventually he stopped giving them because he found reliving the experience over and over again too difficult.  He passed away at the age of 90 in 2012.

Nola came back a changed woman.  One of her daughters said that she became much more understanding and patient of others facing difficulty.

It was tremendously heartwarming to see Rami hug the family, as he showed his appreciation for the courage and bravery of Colin and Nola.  Who knows how many more would have died but for the intelligence that Colin was able to gather.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tony Kan is the President of NZ Friends of Israel and a Business Consultant based in Christchurch.

 

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