Yoni’s Last Days – The Raid at Entebbe - Page 3
(Excerpted from the “Afterword” of The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu by Ma'ariv Publication)
As the plane landed on the tarmac, the Ugandans in the main control tower probably did not understand what was going on. Some paratroop soldiers jumped off while the plane was taxiing, placing lighted markers on the runway, so that the other three planes would be able to land in case the runway lights were switched off by the men in the control tower. The Hercules transport came to a halt at the designated point.
The vehicles got out quickly. Yoni turned around to verify that the two jeeps were behind him and told Amitsur to head along the diagonal runway. After a mile or so, the three vehicles turned left onto the approach runway. This runway led directly to the old terminal building, where the hostages were being held. However, they now saw two Ugandan guards – at exactly the spot that had been envisaged during the rehearsal in Israel. One of the guards shouted at them to stop. “When I saw those two guards waiting for us, like the guards that Yoni had placed in the rehearsal, I knew that this operation would succeed,” says Bukhris, the youngest soldier on the force.
“We were sitting in the jeep,” recalls Amir. “We saw it as if in a movie. The Mercedes was advancing, and at a certain point we were approaching the terminal….We saw a Ugandan soldier to the right and another one to the left. The runway lights were on either side…and we were driving in the middle. This was aboug 200 meters from the building…The guard on the left disappeared from view. Suddenly the one from the right came toward us. He approached the Mercedes and made a threatening movement with his weapon…He cocked his rifle…It was obvious to me that the guard had to be taken out.”
“The guard shouted something,” related Rani, one of the officers who sat in the first jeep. “He then moved into a shooting position, raised the rifle to his shouder. I was sure he was about to fire – no ‘ifs’ about it.”
“If the guard had fired first, the whole operation might have sunk,” explains Amitsur, one of the Unit’s officers and the man who was driving the Mercedes. “Yoni told me: ‘Slow down a little, we’ll approach them.’ He told me to slow down so that we wouldn’t frighten them, as if we’re about to identify ourselves…Yoni was quite calm.”
Yoni and Giora, another officer of the Unit who sat behind him, had their silenced pistols ready in hand. When the Ugandan soldier who was aiming his rifle at them was only several yards away, they both fired. The Ugandan recoiled and wobbled. He was probably hit but was not totally incapacitated. It was then that loud shots were heard. It is impossible to say what the origin of these shots was. Some claim it came from one of the two Ugandan guards. Some men in the Mercedes say that it came from the jeeps, while one or two men in the jeeps thought it came from the Mercedes. In any case, once the loud shots were heard, the men in the Land Rovers fired freely on the two Ugandan guards (the one on the left had reappeared), knocking them out. “One does not leave behind an armed soldier…who would use his weapon once he realized what you were going to do,” explains Yiftach, the deputy commander of the Unit.
“We could not have approached the terminal building silently any closer than we did,” sums up Amir. “We started shooting heavy fire, and had we not done that, I’m sure they would have fired on us.”
“Yoni told me now to speed up,” recalls Amitsur. “We went at full speed…for about 200 meters or so….He instructed me to stop in front of the control tower…It was a spot that was relatively sheltered and that is why he chose it. He then gave an order to get out of the car and start running, and they all started running toward the terminal.”
The jeeps were right on the heels of the Mercedes. They too had stopped and the men got out quickly, the first ones running on the heels of those who had gotten out of the Mercedes.
“When I got out of the jeep, I saw Yonout of the corner of my eye going a bit sideways, slightly at an angle…so that he could be in a position of control… We ran to the near corner of the terminal building,” related Rani.
“I saw the lead man running and shooting, I don’t know at what, and then he pulled to the left, to the buiding, and stopped,” recalls Amos. “Yoni was then a little bit behind him. The men didn’t understand what was going on, why the lead man had stopped. Most of the men congregated and stopped behind him. So Yoni shouted to run forward…All of us understood that it was a matter of seconds before the terrorists came to their senses.”
“Yoni stood apart from us…and kept shouting: ‘Forward! Come on!’ calling the lead man by his name,” recalls Alex.
The pause in the assault could have had disastrous consequences had it continued longer than it did. Every second’s delay increased the chances that the terrorists would begin to kill the hostages. When Yoni saw that the lead man did not respond to his commands, he lurched ahead, thereby signaling the men to follow him.
“Yoni shouted to run forward,” explains Amos, “and I remember him running forward himself…He passed [the lead man who had stopped]…The one who was first out of the corner of the buiding was Yoni…He then ran a bit to the right, to let the men [who were meant to go inside the building] pass him…Right afterward Amnon and Amir passed Yoni… The pause in the assault had lasted a few seconds.”
Amir by then had come from behind, after having gotten out of the jeep relatively late. He kept on running forward, passing Yoni and thus becoming the first in line of the assault force. The men were running now exposed in front of the mostly glass wall of the terminal building, with the terrorists positioned inside behind that wall.
“At some point [as we were running in front of the entrances],” continued Amos, “I think I caught up with Yoni, so that Yoni was just to my right…At this stage, while I was running to the entrance, I saw Yoni fall. This was while Amir was at his entrance, about to burst in. I think that this was the point in time when Yoni was hit…At that stage there was already shooting, some shots were fired into the building [through the glass wall], and we had just fired on a Ugandan soldier outside it.”
“I looked to my left,” says Shlomo, “because I wanted to see where I was supposed to go in. At that stage I saw Yoni, and I think that that’s when he got hit, because I saw him make half a turn, with his face contorted…sinking down a little bit, with his knees bent.”
Someone had shouted that Yoni was hit, but the men of the force continued in their tasks, following Yoni’s orders not to take care of the wounded until the hostages were freed. Each of them realized that time was of the essence, as it would have taken only seconds for the terrorists, once they fully realized what was going on, to have sprayed automatic fire on the huddled hostages.
“When I was about ten yards from the door I saw the glass break and understood that someone was shooting at me,” says Amir. “Without thinking twice I shot him through the glass and saw that he was hit.”
After shooting at the terrorist in the buiding who had fired more than half a magazine at the force, Amir entered the main hall, where the hostages were being held. He discovered that he was the first soldier inside. Immediately upon his footsteps came his commander, Amnon, who, once he entered the room, saw two terrorists crouching, a man and a woman, aiming their Kalashnikovs at Amir. He quickly fired at them and killed them. Next Muki and Amos entered, apparently together. Amos was scanning the room, looking for more terrorists. “First thing I saw Amnon,” says Amos. “Then I looked to my left and saw the two terrorists who were shot. I also saw the fully lit room with all the hostages lying on the floor. And after a short time, from the left, a terrorist suddenly leaped up, holding a weapon. I shot him. The first bullet hit his Kalashnikov, went through his weapon, and entered his chest. I shot three bullets that hit him and finished him off.”
With that, the four terrorists who were inside the main hall and posed the most immediate threat to the hostages were killed. The hostages were still in a daze, flattened out on the floor. Almost all of them were unhurt; three of them, however, were hit by the gunfire and would later die of their wounds. Another hostage, Dora Bloch, was in a Ugandan hospital during the raid, and would be executed the following day by Idi Amin’s men.
Simultaneously, other teams from the Unit entered the rest of the building, killing three more terrorists and encountering several dozen Ugandan soldiers, most of whom were killed in the ensuing gunfire. Some of the Ugandan soldiers who were stationed on the upper floor had quickily scuttled from the building and fled.
Yoni was lying on the tarmac. He was still alive but rapidly losing blood. He had been hit by a burst from Kalashnikov in his arm and, more seriously, in his chest. The bullet had entered the front of the chest and exited from the back. “At the end of the fighting,” says the Unit’s doctor, “somebody came to help me place him on a stretcher. It was then that some consciousness returned to him…He was perhaps roused by a soldierly instinct. There was a lot of shooting toward the control tower, which made a lot of noise, and he tried to get up.”
Yoni was transferred by jeep to the evacuation plane,which was positioned close to the old terminal. There a team of doctors tried to resuscitate him, but their lengthy attempts were of no avail. Yoni was pronounced dead.
The Landing At Kenia And Return Home
Shortly thereafter, the evacuation plane, loaded with the hostages and Yoni’s body, took off from Entebbe. Half an hour later it landed at Nairobi, Kenia, Uganda’s neighbor. Kenia had earlier agreed to let the Israeli planes refuel on their way back.
The other three planes carrying the soldiers landed one by one. The Unit’s soldiers, who knew that Yoni was hurt, did not yet know of his death. They were instructed to remain inside their plane while it was refueling.
“On our plane there had been endless chatter,” recalls Shlomo, “everyone telling what happened to him. It seemed that everything was going great, that we’d succeeded. And then someone had turned off the entire plane. Everybody was silent…We were hit hard, and each of us withdrew into himself.”
Matan vilnai, the head of the paratrooper contingent in the raid, went over to the hostages’ plane. “I saw Yoni’s body lying in the lane, wrapped in one of those awful aluminum blankets the doctors use,” says Matan. “I saw the hostages completely stunned, shadows of men. They were very depressed. And what hit me then was a kind of feeling that was, for an army man like myself, totally illogical: that if Yoni was dead, then the whole thing wasn’t worth it.”
When the planes left Kenia a short time later, no report had yet arrived in Israel of any dead among the force. “When the last plane took off from Nairobi,” says Rachel, Gur’s secretary, “there was a wave of rejoicing [at the Kirya headquarters]. The chief of staff’s driver brought in a few bottles of champagne, and everyone celebrated. In the end, they left. It got quiet, and Motta was left alone in the room with his aide Hagai Regev. I went to the kitchen to make some coffee. Suddenly the other secretaries came over, grabbed me, and said: ‘Yoni was killed.’ I dropped everything and went to the chief of staff’s office. I opened the door of the room I’d left two minutes before, when it had been full of happiness over the success…and I saw the chief of staff sitting, face fallen, terribly sad. Not to mention Hagai, who was just crushed. In one minute, all the joy had been erased…It was as though nothing else mattered. Everything took on a different meaning.”
Gur went over to Peres’s office, where the defense minister had laid down to rest, to inform him of Yoni’s death. “He got up to open the door,” says Gur. “When he heard of Yoni’s death, was clearly shocked. I could see he was taking it personally. He said, ‘My God,’ or something like that. He took it very hard – not like a defense minister hearing about an officer who had been hit.”
Peres wrote in his diary the following lines: “At four in the morning, Motta Gur came into my office, and I could tell he was very upset. ‘Shimon, Yoni’s gone. A bullet hit him in the heart…’ This is the first time this whole crazy week, that I cannot hold back the tears.”
The planes carrying the soldiers landed in Israel in the morning, at the military base at Tel Nof. Rabin and Peres were there to greet them. When Muki came out of the plane, Peres turned to him and asked: “How was Yoni killed?”
“He went first, he fell first,” Muki answered.
Two days later Yoni was brought to burial at Mount Herzl, at Jerusalem’s military cemetery. Thousands attended his funeral. Peres delivered the eulogy. Yoni, who was unknow to the public because of the secret nature of his work, overnight became known throughout Israel. His loss was widely felt as a bitter blow to the nation, injecting a lasting note of tragedy into the great achievement at Entebbe.