Ten years ago, Lt. Col. Joshua Shani peered into the overcast African night from the cockpit of his C130 Hercules and saw, lined up before him, the runway lights of Entebbe International Airport.
"It was quite an easy landing," says Shani, now a full colonel and the air attache' at the Israeli Embassy here. "I didn't use any landing lights; it was a dark landing, which isn't a big deal. We didn't want anyone to see us."
The plane landed unnoticed, and what followed has become legend. Israel, acting boldly and alone on July 3 and 4, 1976, sent an airborne force of special commandos 2,300 miles across often hostile terrain to rescue 105 hostages held by pro-Palestinian terrorists.
The strike was quickly conceived and executed, it was "surgical," and it worked.
Within minutes after the first plane touched down, seven of the terrorists were dead along with 20 to 40 Ugandan troops, and the hostages, who had been hijacked aboard an Air France flight to Paris, were freed. Three hostages died.
"This operation," then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said at the time, "will be the subject of research, of poetry and legend." In Jerusalem yesterday, at a gathering of some of the former hostages and their rescuers, Israeli President Chaim Herzog described the raid as "Israel's shining hour . . . an operation that electrified the world's imagination."
Israel's action was widely applauded, but American presidents who sought to emulate it were less successful and less warmly praised. Jimmy Carter's raid on Iran ended in disaster at Desert One, and Ronald Reagan's bombing of Libya brought no cooperation from the French and criticism from some quarters.
International terrorism, for Americans and others, remains a nearly intractable problem, and there may never be a success to equal Israel's daring achievement a decade ago. Yet since then, whenever civilized people dream of justice and retribution against the monsters inhabiting their nightmares, they dream of Entebbe.
Shani was a 30-year-old squadron commander when he piloted the lead plane into Entebbe. Aboard his plane was Gen. Dan Shomron, the commander of the raid, and Lt. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, head of the assault party that freed the hostages and the only Israeli military fatality.
What follows is Shani's version of events, which differs in some respects from other versions, the instant books and the TV movie. A tall, tanned, athletic man who speaks clear but strongly accented English, he tells the story in his embassy office.
As he talks, he smokes Marlboros from a hard pack.
On desks and tables around the office are scale models of warplanes and helicopters. On the walls are pictures of planes, and one picture of a black Mercedes.
The Mercedes played a crucial role in the raid and was aboard Shani's plane, along with two Land Rovers.
The hostages were being held in an old terminal building at Entebbe, south of the Ugandan capital of Kampala in central Africa. They had been hijacked June 27 aboard an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens. There were 246 passengers plus crew to begin; by July 4, the day of the raid, only 105 hostages remained after most of the non-Jews were released.
The process used to separate Jews from non-Jews was chillingly reminiscent of "selections" in the death camps of Nazi Germany.
The terrorists -- perhaps 10 in all -- stood guard over the hostages inside the building, which was guarded outside by Ugandan troops. Ugandan President Idi Amin was all but openly cooperating with the terrorists, although when he visited the hostages and spoke to them he pretended to be neutral.
Israeli intelligence learned that on these visits, Amin arrived in a black Mercedes flanked by two Land Rovers.
Israel was making diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis. At the same time, preparations were going forward for a possible military rescue operation. The first military plan, Shani says, was to drop paratroopers in Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile, on which Entebbe is located. The idea was for the troopers to row ashore in rubber boats and attack.
A key reason for abandoning the plan was technical. The C130s would need spare fuel for the 15-hour round trip, making it impossible to safely nose up high enough to drop cargo into the lake.
"Also, we didn't like to jump into water," says Shani, "because that place is full of crocodiles, and crocodiles are more frightening to us than terrorists."
Suddenly the time pressure was intense. The terrorists were demanding the release of other terrorists imprisoned by Israel and western European nations, and it appeared they might soon begin killing the hostages at Entebbe.
"We had 24 hours to plan, rehearse and execute" an operation, says Shani. "In 24 hours the only way to do it is very simply. Why jump if you can land on the main runway?"
Somebody got the idea that if they drove up to the terminal in a black Mercedes flanked by Land Rovers, the Ugandan troops outside the terminal would think it was Amin and hold their fire.
"And we needed just a few seconds of hesitation to let our people penetrate the terminal."
The Israeli planners began hunting for a black Mercedes.
"We tried Hertz and Avis. They didn't have one in Tel Aviv."
Finally a car was found at a small Mercedes dealer, but it was white. Israeli troops quickly got a can of black paint and painted it.
"A very lousy job." But, when the moment came, it fooled the Ugandans as planned.
Shani led the flight of four C130s. The last plane was nearly empty so there would be room for the hostages. They left Sharm el Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula at about 4:30 p.m., Israel time, on July 3.
They went down the Red Sea between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, flying low to dodge radar in these countries and aboard Soviet ships.
Shani pauses, thinks. "Let's call it very, very low," he says with a smile. "Just very, very low."
Flying low is tiring and uses a lot of fuel, so when they turned right over Ethiopia they increased altitude. Over Lake Victoria they went through a "huge thunderstorm and that was hell inside."
They maintained radio silence. Israel did not alert other nations. Surprise was everything.
The flight took more than seven hours. Shani landed at 1 a.m., Uganda time, "in a light rain with no moon and no stars." The other planes stayed aloft in a holding pattern while Shani brought the big military transport down in a quiet "combat landing," using 600 feet of runway.
He stopped, and the commandos jumped out to distribute strings of battery-powered auxiliary landing lights along the runway in case Ugandan airport officials switched off the main lights.
"The tower didn't know we landed," says Shani. "The C130 is a quiet plane, and they didn't expect anything."
He taxied to within 1,000 yards of the old terminal building. The Mercedes, carrying nine commandos including Netanyahu, and the Land Rovers rolled out the back ramp and sprinted toward the terminal.
The Ugandans held their fire.
The commandos "approached the terminal and stormed the building and then they shouted inside in Hebrew and English, 'Everyone lie on the floor!' Everyone did so except the terrorists, of course, and in a very short crossfire the terrorists were dead."
The other planes had landed, disgorging troops who secured the area, began administering medical care to the wounded and got the hostages aboard a plane.
The operation took about an hour. Shani says they wanted to refuel at Entebbe but were taking some fire from the Ugandans by that time, so they took off and refueled at Nairobi in nearby Kenya.
Then they flew back home, arriving in Israel about 9:45 in the morning on July 4.
"Oh, the country was like a madhouse at this time," says Shani. "You could see the snowball of joy getting bigger and bigger."
It was the high point of his military career. "Military missions, it's always a destructive job. To do a military operation to save people, that gives you a real good feeling."
So what was the secret of success?
Shani takes a drag on his Marlboro.
Simplicity, he says. And luck. And, "It took a lot of chutzpah. You know the meaning of the Jewish word chutzpah?"