Forty years ago this summer, Sasson “Sassy” Reuven, then 22, was among the first of about 140 Israeli soldiers to leap from taxiing Hercules C130 transport planes to the airport tarmac in Entebbe, Uganda.
Their mission: to free more than 100 mostly Jewish passengers and crew members who had been aboard an Air France flight that had been hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two members of the German Revolutionary CZ Cell.
The rescue — on the day of the U.S. bicentennial — is widely regarded as one of the most daring and successful efforts of its kind in history, a triumph of planning, training, and bravery.
After only a week of planning, Israeli transport planes carried 100 commandos over 2,500 miles to Uganda to carry out the operation, which lasted 90 minutes. Casualties were limited; five commandos were wounded, three hostages died (a fourth had become ill and was taken to a nearby hospital; she was later killed). The heartbreaking loss was the death of the unit commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The operation, code named “Operation Thunderbolt,” came to be known as “Operation Yonatan” in his honor.
Reuven will recount the dramatic details of the raid on Sunday, Aug. 14, at Shalom Torah Academy, Morganville.
The hijacking had taken place on June 27, a time, Reuven told NJJN in a phone interview, when he was serving as a first sergeant in the IDF, stationed on the Golan Heights. He had just four months to go to fulfill his active duty obligation.
“Early in the morning on Friday, July 2, I was notified, along with some of my fellow soldiers, that there would be a special operation. We were transported in a civilian bus to a base near Tel Aviv, where we received a briefing and began training. We still hadn’t been told where we were going or what we would be doing,” he said.
When the maneuvers ended, his small squad of 15 joined several other small groups in the shade of a eucalyptus tree where they were given the details.
“By 4 p.m. we were on planes bound for Sharm el-Sheikh” at the southernmost point of the Sinai Peninsula, then held by Israel. Reuven said there were six aircraft in all, including one with refueling equipment and a couple that went out empty and would be used to carry the hostages home.
“It was a very well-organized mission,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. “We had 212 in all going over, including combat troops, pilots, co-pilots, maintenance crews, doctors, psychologists, and more.”
There were two terminals at the airport, Reuven remembers. “The prisoners were being held at the old terminal. The job of my unit was to attack the new terminal, about a mile away, and secure it so that others could get to the hostages and free them.”
There was not much resistance, he said, as many of the Ugandan police and airport personnel ran away. Still, in addition to Netanyahu being killed, five of the IDF fighters were wounded. “My friend Herco Sorin was supposed to climb to the top of a building and to provide cover for those of us below,” said Reuven. “But he was shot in the spine and remains a quadriplegic to this day.”
Looking back, he said, the legacies of the rescue operation were manifold. They helped set the standard for counter-terrorism operations, marked the beginning of the end for Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and contributed to bringing down the radical Left in Germany.
While in action, Reuven said, he felt neither excitement nor fear. “You have a different state of mind. I had a mission to complete, and I was privileged to be there.”
Although he was not very religious at the time, he said, he has since joined Chabad and now believes “God was right there with us. It was not possible without help from above. As one of the generals stated, ‘God worked overtime that night.’”
Following his release from the IDF in November 1976, Reuven joined a special infantry reserve unit, receiving a bullet wound during his service. While recuperating, he returned to Ben-Gurion University, where he studied civil engineering. That led to acceptance into Brooklyn Polytechnic University (now part of New York University).
“I moved to the United States in 1981,” he said. While at school, he also worked for El Al Israel Airlines, which in 1985 transferred him to Los Angeles, where he headed up security operations. It was also where he met his future wife, who was El Al’s local cargo sales manager.
Today, Reuven owns and operates a construction company, AMD Development, Inc., in Calabasas, Calif., and also travels around the world recounting the story of the Entebbe raid. This year, the 40th anniversary of the event, he has been averaging about two appearances every week.