8 December 2014 (Corrections made and additional image content added on 11 July 2016) | Clearwater, Florida. For Sassy Reuven, a former member of the elite Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Paratrooper Brigade (חֲטִיבַת הַצַנְחָנִים), it seems as if the saga he was about to recount happened yesterday. The events of July 1976, now more than thirty-eight years removed, are seared into his memory. However, to Mr. Reuven, they seemed to have happened only yesterday. Likewise, for many lecture attendees, the unfolding of the hostage rescue at Entebbe, Uganda, is unforgettable.
The address, sponsored by the Chabad (חב”ד) of Clearwater and Chabad of Pinellas County, took place before a capacity crowd at the nearby Holiday Inn Express. Among the many present were members and representatives of 20th Century Aviation Magazine, Sar-El (שר-אל), Friends of the IDF, Florida Aviation Historical Society and a member of the Paratroopers Brigade who served after Sassy.
Rabbi Levi & Miriam Hodakov and members of the Chabad of Clearwater graciously greeted each attendee on 17 Kislev 5775 as they entered the room. Soon thereafter Rabbi Shalom Adler, Director of Chabad of Pinellas County, welcomed the guest speaker and the audience with humor and vigor.
Mr. Sassy Reuven began by setting the stage for the hostage rescue. He reminded everyone that at the time America was two hundred years old, and Bicentennial celebrations were occurring in early July.
In Asia, the tiny State of Israel was but twenty-eight years young. Yet, despite the country’s young age the IDF had already become one of the world’s foremost militaries. The unified force was about to be tested yet again. This time it would be in Uganda. Sassy stated that the situation “was all about antisemitism.”
On 27 June 1976 Air France Flight 139, an Airbus A300, departed Tel Aviv, Israel, with more than two hundred passengers and a flight crew of twelve. The first leg of the journey terminated in Athens, Greece. Thirty-eight passengers deplaned and fifty-eight boarded the flight. Among the boarders were four hijackers. Mr. Reuven related that, “The terrorists bribed the security guard to allow them to smuggle aboard weapons.”
Shortly after taking off “the flight was hijacked by two Palestinian and two German terrorists,” stated Sassy Reuven. The radicals then diverted the airliner to Benghazi, Libya, for refueling.
Mr. Reuven expounded upon the incident with these comments: “Unbeknownst to the terrorists, a female passenger by the name Nili Tulipman Bendor was the daughter of an Israeli government official. Had they known, a premium price would have been demanded for her life.”
During the stopover at Benghazi the hijackers released the pregnant, British-born, Israeli who craftily feigned a miscarriage. In actuality, the woman was having her monthly menstrual period. The impromptu ruse fortunately worked. “After being released, she informed the British Secret Service of invaluable information. This data was promptly passed to the Israeli government,” said Mr. Reuven.
On 28 June the Airbus and hostages arrived at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport. Three more terrorists joined the original four hijackers, and Uganda’s President, Idi Amin Dada, and his troops began supporting the illegal action.
Idi Amin visited them daily and basked in the media coverage. Reuven explained that “Amin used to like Israel, and he and his troops had been trained by the IDF.”
Sassy Reuven then related an amusing story about Idi Amin. It seems that the dictator coveted IDF Paratrooper Brigade wings and was determined to obtain a pair, but the IDF informed him that he would have to complete the required training.
After demands, arguments, and negotiations, it was agreed that Amin could have a pair of wings if he completed a course of one week. This was, of course, much shorter than the strenuous and stressful standard curriculum.
The day came when Amin was required to jump from a transport plane. Idi looked down at the ‘little’ cars on the roads far below and froze. “I am not jumping,” he yelled. “Give me my wings!” he demanded. “You must jump,” countered an instructor. After more protestations two instructors combined their strength and leverages, forcing the agitated and scared dictator out into space
Amin was livid upon landing and again screamed for the wings. An instructor took off his and gave them to Amin to end the Ugandan leader’s verbal haranguing.
Mr. Reuven continued. “Sadly,” Sassy said, “Amin turned on Israel after the Jewish state refused to sell him jet fighter-bombers. Israel learned that Amin planned to use the planes against Tanzania. “The Israeli government therefore refused any sale,” explained Sassy.
Mr. Reuven then began a discussion of the situation at Entebbe airport. He described the demands made by the terrorists and the release of non-Jews, as well as the Air France captain’s refusal to leave the Jewish passengers. “Most of the crew also chose to remain,” added Sassy.
The hijackers transferred the passengers to the transit hall of the disused former airport terminal. They demanded the release of Palestinian and Pro-Palestinian radicals, some forty of whom were being interred as prisoners in Israel. They also threatened to kill hostages on 1 July. Sassy Reuven added, “Five governments were pressuring Amin to resolve the impasse peacefully and quickly.”
In the interim the Israel negotiated permission from Kenyan officials for an IDF aircraft to transit Kenyan airspace and refuel at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Brigadier General Shomron was appointed as the operational commander of a rescue force.
After Israel agreed to negotiations (and consequently bought precious time), the terrorists extended their deadline to noon on 4 July. They then released another group of non-Israelis. These individuals were flown to Paris shortly thereafter. “The Mossad in Paris found that one passenger possessed a flawless memory and passed detailed information,” stated Sassy.
Mr. Reuven revealed another, less known source of intelligence. It seems that an airplane, piloted by an Israeli pilot, feigned having a malfunctioning undercarriage. The aircraft made three passes over Entebbe. At the conclusion of the third circuit the ‘crippled’ jet’s pilot informed the tower that, despite his best efforts, he was unable to lower the landing gear and was therefore “returning to his home airfield to crash land.” Unknown to those below, aboard the plane was an Israeli photographer who diligently recorded every inch of the airport.
In 1976 Sassy Reuven was a member of the Paratroopers Brigade. Sassy and the men of 890 Battalion were stationed on and guarding the Golan Heights. While half of the paratroopers remained in revetments others undertook training. The rotations were ongoing.
One afternoon Sassy had inadvertently eaten a very spicy pita and became ill. While resting in Bunker 111 the battalion commanding officer’s secretary entered and stirred him. She told him to report for an urgent meeting. Feeling ill, but wishing no one to know, Mr. Reuven made his way to the gathering.
The meeting commenced, and the commander immediately indicated to Sassy that he “need not worry.” Mr. Reuven continued, “I knew I was going. We knew the operation must be related to the hostage situation at Entebbe.” Soon the “commander, Lt. Col. Nechemya Tamary, called out the names of those who were not to be members of the selected team. He said they were to go on leave and to say nothing.” Crushed at the mention of their name, “some cried,” admitted Sassy Reuven. “All desperately wanted to be a part of the rescue effort,” proudly noted the speaker.
Sassy revealed that the chosen soldiers gathered at a designated location and rested beneath Eucalyptus trees. “I referred to the spot as the Eucalyptus Resort,” chuckled Mr. Reuven. He was still sick and dared not tell anyone.
Reuven was offered a fresh uniform but declined. Also, he was urged to take a new PRC-77 Backpack Radio, although, he said, “My old one checked out okay.” The decision would prove to be a mistake.
During the final briefing the mission commander stated: “You men will bring the country’s morale back.” Sassy afterward confided his sickness to a physician friend. “The doctor laughed and gave me a pill. He said to get some rest, drink plenty of water, and to not eat until the symptoms ceased.”
The soldiers were soon taken by civilian coach to an airbase adjacent to Ben Gurion International Airport. There a Lockheed C-130 ‘Karnaf’ (קרנף) or “Rhinoceros” transport awaited them.
Sassy commented, “Why the Israel Air Force chose the nickname ‘rhinoceros’ I do not know. If anyone present sees any resemblance of a C-130 to a rhinoceros I will give them a million dollars!” Audience members shook their heads in amused agreement.
The IAF’s other aerial components were one Boeing 707 ‘Re’em’ (ראם) or “Oryx” designed to relay orders and information to and from Israel and to and from the soldiers and airmen on the ground, and another Oryx which was in effect a flying hospital.
The paratroopers feared being spotted during their boarding of the C-130 by onlookers from Ben Gurion, but luck held. They were not spotted, or if they were, the spotter(s) kept their silence.
Mr. Reuven stated, “Some two hundred and twelve IDF personnel representing all specialties comprised the rescue force.” Sassy was the second to last boarding because he would be second on the ground.
It was cramped inside the loaded Karnaf. Mr. Reuven, still not recovered, could only find the space beneath a Mercedes in which to recline. He did so, but once airborne the plane encountered turbulence and began to buffet. The automobile was jostled and Sassy’s knees were hurt. Sassy was now both ill and in pain.
Prior to landing the paratroopers put on white hats so they could readily be identified in the darkness.
After a flight of 7 hours, during which the C-130s were forced to fly 30 meters (about 100 feet) off the ground to avoid radar detection, the aircraft in which Mr. Reuven was transported landed at Entebbe.
As expected Sassy Reuven was the second IDF soldier on the ground, having jumped onto the tarmac from a side door as the Karnaf slowly taxied to its designated position. “Upon exiting the radio failed to transmit, and the commander’s shouts initially went unanswered,” reported Sassy. He switched headsets and finally made contact and informed his commander that the battalion was safely deployed and moving toward their objective — the new terminal building.
“The distance was about five hundred yards,” noted Mr. Reuven. “We covered it in only a few seconds. I don’t ever remember running so fast,” confessed Sassy.
At the same time tome Yonatan ‘Yoni’ Netanyahu and his men were approaching the Old Terminal, where the hostages were imprisoned, in a Mercedes. They soon encountered two Ugandan guards.
Against the advice of the officer who had trained the Ugandan army, Yoni followed the original training scenario and made the decision to shoot them with their silencer-equipped sidearms. Contrary to Yoni’s critics, Mr. Reuven supports the order. “It was the right decision at the time,” he stated.
“One Ugandan guard was killed,” stated Mr. Reuven, “but the other, as it turned out, was only wounded.” Sassy emphasized that it was a failure that was nearly deadly. “The wounded soldier began firing,” explained Sassy.
“As a result a firefight erupted and encompassed twenty minutes,” he said. As fate would have it, Mr. Reuven recollected, “Yoni Netanyahu was mortally wounded within the first two to three minutes.”
“Our forces at the Old Terminal were receiving heavy and accurate fire from the Old Control Tower,” continued Sassy. In fact, the pilot of the number one C-130 said tons of ammunition was exchanged. Sassy quickly added, “Miraculously not a single bullet hit the waiting Karnaf!”
“While the foregoing transpired paratroopers from Karnaf number two were tasked with destroying the eleven Ugandan MiG-17 jet fighters parked by the runway,” explained Sassy Reuven. They accomplished the tasking with grenades and small arms fire.
Ninety minutes later Sassy was the next to last paratrooper to enplane before departure for the flight to Nairobi, Kenya. Due to French media releasing news of the raid, the defenseless IDF aircraft were forced to fly low to avoid detection and interception by unfriendly, vengeful fighter pilots.
Sassy’s Karnaf landed safely at Tel Nof at 0900 hours the next morning. “The effort was a complete success. It was the bravest rescue in history. The entire operation consumed no more than sixty to ninety minutes,” stated Sassy.
Two weeks later Michel Bacos, the Air France pilot, requested a flight to Israel just to make sure he was not afraid. “In Israel we have several libraries and parks named after him in recognition for his courage, ” noted Sassy.
Mr. Reuven revealed that before the rescue the Israeli government estimated “casualties would be fifteen killed and fifty wounded. However, only a few died. The terrorists would almost certainly have killed all the Jews and French nationals had we not acted.”
Reuven attributes the fortuitous outcome to Divine protection. “God was there for us, as He is today,” stated Sassy.
In the immediate aftermath IDF senior leadership demanded to know the following: “Why did the mission commander abandoned expensive refueling equipment but brought a relatively inexpensive jeep back to Israel?” The commander replied, “ The IDF has lots of refueling equipment, but we [our unit] have only one jeep.”
One of the casualties, Hershko Sorin, was a fellow paratrooper. Sassy Reuven’s colleague was shot through the spinal column and paralyzed. Sassy and others found him on the second floor of the building in the midst of a pool of his own blood. Rushed to a waiting Karnaf, which had seating for the hostages in the front and a ‘hospital’ and medical team in the rear, the valiant paratrooper lived to became an information technology specialist.
Mr. Reuven provided an interesting tidbit: “Undeterred by disability, to aid him the enterprising veteran, in the days of floppy disks, trained a monkey to insert and remove floppies from personal computer drives.” Today, revealed Sassy, “the man is very successful and routinely operates computers. He presses keyboard keys with a pencil held between his teeth.”
Mr. Reuven provided many more details during the presentation.
Sassy Reuven credits Chabad for providing spiritual guidance and support. He revealed that a number of years ago, when he inquired of a Chabad rabbi regarding what he should do during a difficult time in his life, Sassy was wisely told by the sage to, “Leave it to God.” Circumstances did reverse, and Sassy Reuven has since repeatedly relied upon the learned one’s prudent advice. In fact, Mr. Reuven recommended the rabbi’s admonition to the audience.
Referencing Chabad and the Paratrooper Brigade, Sassy closed by stating the following: “I have found that Chabad represents the leadership and is the ‘red beret’ [referring to the Paratroopers Brigade’s’ distinctive head-wear] of the Jewish people.”
Mr. Reuven recommends the following Website to interested readers: http://www.facebook.com/raidonentebbe.com
Chabad of Clearwater serves the Jewish residents and tourists in Clearwater, Clearwater Beach, Bellair, Largo and the Beach Communities. Chabad of Pinellas County services those throughout Pinellas County, including the municipalities of Clearwater, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs.
The author (John Stemple) thanks Mr. Sassy Reuven for relating his experiences and rabbis Adler and Hodakov and their congregants.
Sources, Suggested Readings & Viewings
1976 Operation Entebbe
36 Years Later, Entebbe Pilot Reveals Plane Barely Took Off
Boeing-707 (Hebrew nickname: ‘Re’em’ Oryx)
Chabad of Clearwater
Chabad of Pinellas County
Florida Aviation Historical Society
Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces
Israel Remembers Entebbe, Netanyahu, Peres In Gaza Shadow
Israeli PM Netanyahu remembers historic Entebbe raid 40 years later
Jews in Aviation
Lockheed C-130 Hercules (Hebrew nickname: ‘Karnaf’)
Operation Thunderbolt (DVD)
Paratroopers Brigade — IDF
The Entebbe Rescue Operation