On this day in 1976, the world watched as a drama unfolded at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda. Two days before, on 27 June 1976, an Air France airbus took off from Tel Aviv for a regularly scheduled stop in Athens while en route to Paris. Among the passengers boarding the plane in Athens were four people whose plan was not to arrive in Paris and go about their business, but rather to skyjack Flight 139 once the plane was in the air, force the pilot to change the flight destination, and to use the passengers as bargaining chips.
The plane landed in Benghazi, Libya and then went on to Entebbe, Uganda. On today’s date, Flight 139 sat on the tarmac in Entebbe.
Two of the four thugs who hijacked the plane were post-war middle-class Germans, “Hitler’s Children“ — angry young people of university student age lashing out at their parents’ generation. When the ignominious ‘end’ of American participation in the war in Vietnam left these angry ’60s rebels without a reason to kidnap and bomb those whom they blamed for their anger, they claimed solidarity with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Two PFLP members participated in the skyjacking as well.
This skyjacking was the fourth one of 1976, and four more planes would be attacked before the year was out. It was a harrowing time to fly*. On this day, though, the world watched as thugs demanded that governments free specific prisoners in Israel, Kenya, France, Switzerland and West Germany.
In Entebbe, the hijackers released the non-Jewish passengers, but, with the cooperation of the Ugandan military, continued to hold the passengers carrying Israeli passports. Some of the older Israeli passengers were survivors of Nazi concentration camps and were now forced to relive that nightmare, complete with German voices.
After being freed, the non-Israeli passengers were flown to Paris where they were debriefed. An Israeli strike force used this information to create a rescue plan. A long week after the skyjacking, the world found out that Israeli commandos, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister, had stormed the plane and rescued most of the hostages in a shootout with the now-dead thugs. Tragically, Col. Netanyahu and three of the hostages were shot and killed during the rescue.
The last victim of the skyjacking was Mrs. Dora Bloch, a British citizen who lived in Tel Aviv and was traveling to her son’s wedding in New York. While she was a hostage, Mrs. Bloch had been allowed to leave the kidnap scene to go to a hospital. After the Israeli rescue of the hostages, infuriated Ugandan soldiers apparently took revenge on her.
The Entebbe skyjacking was almost immediately memorialized by the movies Raid on Entebbe (movie at the link), Victory at Entebbe, and Operation Thunderbolt. A later production was Six Days in June and the book Israel’s Lightning Strike.
* The skyjacking was personally affecting as it happened while I was waiting, with our young son, to join my husband who was in West Germany with the U.S. Army. Military families are often separated, usually because of the scarcity of housing, when the service member is reassigned. The family waits somewhere — either at the place they’re leaving, or perhaps with family — until living quarters become available or until the service member finds a rental home.
The personal part of this event only comes in because the news increased my nervous anticipation about the journey. Even if you were taking a domestic flight, you never knew if you’d make it to your destination, or wind up in Cuba. Between the time of the Entebbe skyjacking and our flight to West Germany, three more planes were skyjacked, to include a TWA flight leaving from New York, six days before our flight from JFK.
- 25 January 1976: El Al Boeing 707 (missile attack)
- 7 April 1976: Philippine Airlines (PAL),BAC One -Eleven
- 21 May 1976: Philippine Airlines (PAL),BAC One -Eleven
- 23 August 1976: Egypt Air, Boeing 737
- 5 September 1976: KLM flight 366
- 10 September 1976: TWA flight 355
- 6 October 1976: Cubana Airlines flight 45
Although we weren’t hijacked, our journey that September was fraught with tension. TWA’s employees went on strike the night before our scheduled flight and I was on the phone until about one in the morning rescheduling connections. The shuffling of TWA passengers onto other carriers made for crowded and delayed flights and our cat (yes, our cat) and our suitcases missed flight after flight that day, to include the helicopter hop from LaGuardia.
Because of these delays, we missed our flight to Frankfurt and were stranded at JFK. One of the Army liaisons took pity on us and drove us to Ft. Hamilton to stay in the transient facility. He kept our cat overnight. The next morning he drove us back to JFK and we camped out in a hallway, waiting for standby seats to become available.
Eventually, we arrived safely in Frankfurt, just at the moment my husband returned to work after sitting at the airport with no news of us. I had asked someone, anyone, at Pan Am to notify their desk in Frankfurt, but, yeah, that didn’t happen. After driving two hours to Frankfurt, waiting for six hours, and driving two hours back, my husband had to drive to Frankfurt again. Let’s just say he wasn’t in a good mood when we met.
In my defense, calling West Germany from a civilian pay phone in New York and connecting to a military phone number wasn’t an easy task. The phone systems were almost incompatible — you had to use human operators — and pay phones took only coins. People answering military phones aren’t allowed to accept the charges on collect calls. I wasn’t traveling with sacks of quarters, and large amounts of change weren’t easy to come by.
Our family was lucky in that in our 30 years of military travel no flight we were on was skyjacked or blown up. God rest the souls of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and Korean Air Lines flight 007. I’m thankful that my worst adventure involved only my mad dashings that day through Chicago’s O’Hare terminal, and our stranding at JFK.