On June 27, 1976, four terrorists forced an Air France Airbus to land in Uganda, in the heart of distant Africa. They quickly demanded that Israel release 53 convicted terrorists. The hijackers performed a “selektsia”, freeing the French crew and non-Jewish passengers, while retaining 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages. A 48-hour deadline was set before executions would begin.
Faced with little choice, the Israeli government announced that it would enter into negotiations. This bought the precious time needed to consolidate a seemingly impossible military option. A new ultimatum was issued for 13:00 on Sunday, July 4.
Clearly, the only airplane capable of a rescue operation was the C-130 Hercules. On July 1, the mission’s overall commander, Brig. General Dan Shomron (later to become the IDF Chief-of-Staff), presented his plan to the IDF Commander and Israel’s Defense Minister. The next day they all witnessed a full-scale dress rehearsal. The incredible was deemed possible.
The aircraft took off at 13:20 on July 3 and headed south. Only then was the plan revealed to the Israeli Cabinet, which decided to let the operation continue. The lead Hercules carried the rescue force, led by Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu. It also held two jeeps and the now famous black Mercedes, a perfect copy of dictator Idi Amin’s personal car. Two additional Hercules carried reinforcements and troops assigned to carry out special missions, such as destroying the Migs parked nearby. A fourth Hercules was sent to evacuate the hostages.
The air package also included two Boeing 707’s. One acted as a forward command post. The second, outfitted as an airborne hospital, landed in nearby Nairobi, Kenya. F4 Phantoms escorted the Hercules as far as possible – about one-third the distance.
Skirting thunderstorms over Lake Victoria, the Hercules transports neared the end of the 7-hour, 40-minute flight. A surprise awaited them: the runway lights were on! Despite this, they landed undetected at 23:01 (local time), only one minute past their planned arrival time.
The soldiers freed the hostages in a lightning attack. Tragically, force commander Yoni Netanyahu was killed as he led the hostages towards the safety of the aircraft. The other squads accomplished their missions in virtually the same time as during the “dry-run”. By 23:52 the planes were on their way home. The mission struck a blow at international terrorism. As America celebrated its Bicentennial, the world was reminded that freedom is a value which must be fought for in every generation.