Yesterday marked 40 years since the daring Israeli raid on Entebbe, Uganda, in which over 100 hostages were rescued. Today, Yediot Achronot's Ronen Bergman and Lior Ben-Ami bring their series on the raid to a close as the commandos recall the stressful flight home, and a welcome that mixed joy and sorrow:
"Suddenly, the entire operation seemed different," recounts Alon Shemi, a young captain who headed an armored vehicle. "A deep sadness came over me; the euphoria and the great burst of jubilation from our success dimmed. I had a complicated relationship with Yoni, but while planning the operation, we were working very closely, and perhaps because of that, the blow of his death struck me so hard, and from that moment on, it put everything in a different light."
Coleman remembers, "It was a very strange situation: We were very happy, very proud, and the mood on the plane was of excitement and laughter, and all of a sudden Yoni was dead. And surprisingly, the news of his death didn't really put an end to the excitement. Our adrenaline was high, and it took us a while to calm down. It was only much later that we really internalized that Yoni had died. And then we took off from Kenya back to Israel. (Everyone aboard) the plane started dozing off; the adrenaline was dying down, and sadness took hold."
Eyal Yardenai, a staff sergeant in Rami Sherman's holding force, recounts, "At the time, I hadn't known the Ugandan Air Force was destroyed by our forces, and from the stories about Idi Amin (the Ugandan despot —ed.), I thought the shame of it wouldn't let him rest and he would surely send planes to shoot us down. That thought, and the fear the plane could be blown up at any given moment, stayed with me throughout the flight back..."
"When we got back to Israel, we circled over Lod (where the Israel Air Force base is located, adjacent to Ben-Gurion International Airport —RB)," Rami Sherman remembers. "I was glued to the window, watching the exciting sight of masses of people surrounding the plane that was carrying the hostages, which had already landed. We kept flying to Tel Nof base, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres, and IDF chief Mordechai ‘Motta’ Gur were waiting for us. After a short conversation with them, we went back to the unit’s base."
Shemi recounts, "And then we landed in Tel Nof, after already hearing the news about the waves of jubilation spreading across the country. We took a bus to the unit’s base, passed by Ben Gurion Airport, and saw the celebration around the plane that carried the hostages from afar. In every junction or town, we saw signs of truly ecstatic joy... I was sitting there, seeing these displays, feeling proud but also angry, really angry, at this hysteria... both because we were coming back with our dead commander, and because I knew that these bipolar people would have reacted the exact opposite way if, heaven forbid, we had failed, or partially failed. After all, it was just the day before that there were still protests outside the Prime Minister's Office of relatives of the hostages who were demanding a hostage exchange deal. My reaction was so strong that it clouded everything else."
Amir Ofer, the first commando to storm the passengers' hall, remembers, "I was completely exhausted. The last two nights without sleep, the vomiting, the pills I took on the way over, the stress before the operation, and above all the series of hair-raising experiences I had at the terminal itself—coming one after the other—and the fact I survived them by the skin of my teeth—had drained me of what energy I had left.
"When the back ramp opened, I saw the dozens of photographers standing there and decided to leave through a side door. That is why I don't have any photos from the operation. I came out of the darkness inside the plane to the scorching and blinding sun of July 4 and felt dizzy—I almost blacked out. I had to sit down on the runway and calm down. I was sitting like that for a few seconds, alone, with my eyes closed, slowly taking in the incredible experience I had just had..."