A most justified mission

Taking part in a seminal moment in Israeli history, Operation Entebbe veterans Sorin Hershko and Shai Gross reminisce about those fateful days, and their enduring friendship.

Shai Gross, at the age of 6, in Israel with his parents and a relative after the rescue operation. (photo credit: COURTESY SHAI GROSS)
Shai Gross, at the age of 6, in Israel with his parents and a relative after the rescue operation.
(photo credit: COURTESY SHAI GROSS)
This is the story of a unique friendship between two people who, when you know the details, should never really have crossed paths.
But one day, 39 years ago, they did meet in Entebbe, Uganda, in what is known as Operation Entebbe – or, more commonly in Israel, Operation Yonatan. And since then, their paths remain intertwined.
It all began on June 27, 1976, when Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked by two German terrorists and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror movement. On board were 248 passengers, including Shai Gross, aged six at the time, flying with his parents to visit relatives.
Gross, now 44 and a businessman, was the youngest passenger among those rescued in July 1976.
One member of the rescue team of Israeli soldiers at Entebbe was paratrooper Sorin Hershko, who was badly injured by a bullet that lodged in his spine and paralyzed him from the neck down.
Rescuer and rescued, heroic Israeli and little boy, who over the years became soul mates.
Even now, 39 years later, Operation Entebbe remains a pivotal event in the history of the Jewish people – but the story of Sorin and Shai’s connection is extraordinary and moving.
And it seems we weren’t the only ones moved; once the staff at Tel Aviv’s West Side restaurant found out who their guests were, chef Guy Malka took special pains to ply his guests with as close to the royal treatment as anyone could wish for, down to the smallest of details, every so often requesting photos together. Yes, even today, the bravery of Operation Entebbe still echoes in the hearts of the Israeli public.
The goal: To discover the secret behind the special relationship between Shai Gross and Sorin Hershko.
The means: Mountain Peak red wine from the Tura Winery accompanying a gourmet dinner at West Side restaurant, at the Royal Beach Hotel in Tel Aviv.
On the way here, we heard on the radio that security at an airport found weapons of mass destruction stuffed into dolls, on a plane. What do you think of that?
Gross: Within one second, you just sent me back in time. It reminds me that the hijackers who boarded the plane in Greece managed to transfer guns and grenades onto the plane in bottles of champagne, which they sealed with Scotch tape.
Hershko: That makes them sound amateur these days. What kind of idiot tries to get WMDs into dolls and believes he won’t be caught? It doesn’t really take me back to then. But if I hear of a hijacked plane, I’m completely drawn in.
Shai, when did the story begin from your point of view?
We were supposed to be going to visit family in Los Angeles. There was so much excitement, because it was the first time both my parents and I were flying out of Israel. The flight started off normally and to pass the time, my mother played games with me. Some hours later we stopped over in Athens. Once the plane took off again, we continued the games.
Suddenly, there were shouts and terrorists screaming in German; I didn’t understand a thing. My mother told me to put my hands behind my head, and she and my father did the same. Some minutes later all the children were moved to business class, but my mother shoved me down onto the floor, covered me with her skirt and told me to be quiet. I sat like that for two long hours; tears were streaming down my face, but I didn’t make a sound.
A six-year-old in such a terrifying situation: How did you get past the initial shock?
My mother told me that her parents had told her stories of [being children in] the Holocaust, how they didn’t cry, how they crawled through the sewers.
She never understood it, until Entebbe – where she saw me behave in the same way.
Some hours later my mother dragged me up, and I asked, “Ima, tell me honestly. Does it hurt to die?” Throughout the flight there was shouting and a lot of tension. I clung to my parents as best I could until after the long flight and our landing in Entebbe.
Did you even understand what dying was?
I don’t think I understood it exactly, but death certainly seemed imminent right then. Up until that point, [of the people I knew] only my grandmother had passed away, and I’d seen death on TV.
Sorin, where were you when the plane was hijacked?
I was on the Golan with my battalion, doing routine paratrooper activities. It was the last day of my military service; I’d already checked my equipment and weapon in, returned all my gear, and was sleeping over only because the van that was supposed to have brought me home hadn’t arrived – so I was just watching the minutes tick away.
Then the phone rang. It was Nehemia Tamari, the battalion commander [later of OC Central Command; he died in a helicopter accident]. He told me to tell my company commander, Giora Eiland [later an IDF general], to organize 15 soldiers from the unit and that a bus would turn up shortly to bring them to a base in central Israel. I asked Nehemia why we were needed, and he just said, “You’ll get the explanation on the way.” I thought, “This sounds interesting, I’m joining.”
Did you guess it had to do with the hijacked plane?
Yes. But the wildest idea I could come up with was that there’d be some kind of reprisal on our part in Lebanon.
[I had already returned my gear,] so I went to the dorms and took gear that belonged to another soldier, who wasn’t there at the time.
This past week, a memorial event was held in the Druse village of Daliat al-Carmel for Druse soldiers who fell in Israel’s wars. A guy about my age came up to me and asked if I remembered him; I said I didn’t. He responded, “Nineteen seventy-six, you took my gun. Because of you, I had to go through a military court!” But 40 years later, we can laugh about it.
When did you learn you’d be participating in Operation Entebbe?
Only when we arrived at Syrkin [military base in central Israel] and saw the buzz – the whole top military brass, the prime minister, the defense minister, all of them; soldiers from many different units. [The Lockheed C-130] Hercules was moving back and forth on the tarmac. It was all huge.
There was 48 hours to prepare for the mission, and I didn’t sleep the entire time. We ran through our moves repeatedly: “On the plane, off the plane. On the plane, off the plane.” They kept changing the plans.
How would you describe those 48 hours?
I remember two main feelings. The first was the complete, crazy rush of adrenalin flowing constantly through my blood. We were raring to go – all of us, soldiers, commanders, everyone out there in the field. Fever pitch.
The second was a huge fear that at the last second, the government would decide not to green-light the mission. There was this sense that the top brass, generals and many commanders, were still hesitant. But we, the regular soldiers, were certain we could handle it and succeed. That’s what the conversations among us were about.
It’s possible to understand such hesitation.
There’s always discussion about what justifies a military operation; but in this case, there was nothing more justified. Civilians, children, the elderly – all hijacked to a distant land, and no one knowing what’s happening to them. We had an opportunity to mount a rescue mission. What could be more logical? Over those two days of preparation, I imagined how the hostages were being guarded with guns and constantly being threatened with death.
On the way over to Entebbe, what went through your minds?
Hershko: Although we boarded the plane, we knew there was still no OK for the operation. There was a good chance we’d be returned. We very strongly felt that.
Gross: There was a two-and-a-half-hour period in the air during which it was still possible to turn the planes around.
Hershko: About an hour into the flight, permission finally came through in the form of “May you be successful.” In that instant, we all looked for a way to sleep; remember, this was after two days of zero sleep. We slept wherever we could. In the Mercedes. Under the Mercedes. Above it. I found a spot under it.
Did you have any sense of being on the way to conduct a historic mission?
Hershko: Yes. It was clear that if we received the go-ahead and reached Entebbe, we were all partners in something very big, something that would be remembered for many years to come. Two years earlier, the [hijacking of the Belgian airliner Sabena’s Flight 571 from Vienna to Tel Aviv] had occurred, echoing throughout the world. We realized that this mission would be taking place 4,000 km. from Israel, and that its echo would be huge, since it was a far more complex operation.
Gross: Just think about that: 4,000 km. from home, four huge planes flying at low altitude over enemy countries. It would have been enough for one of those countries to discover them, and it would all have been over, failed. Plans accounted for some 30 to 40 dead.
Hershko: The amazing thing was that the top brass had thought of every scenario possible. For example, the second plane. Before the landing, the Ugandans – who’d already figured something was going on – turned the tarmac lights off. But our soldiers had prepared for this in advance, and marked the tarmac with torches brought from Israel! Some really smart people had done the planning.
Shai, you were just six years old. How clear are your memories?
They’re very strong. I remember everything, the hijacking, being in Entebbe, and the rescue.
Can you describe one really strong memory of Entebbe?
I remember the German terrorist who commanded the hijacking. They let us, the little kids, four or five other children a little older than me, play outside. We played football together, and I guess I made some noise. Suddenly, the German terrorist slapped me. He was totally crazed; I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. The slap was so hard that I fell backwards. A really vile man; afterwards, we learned he had a Nazi background. That memory has stayed with me.
Sorin, can you describe those first moments at Entebbe?
As landing approached, we stood ready at the doors. On landing, the doors were thrown open. I stood close to the doors, and could see that outside, the new terminal was opposite us and fully lit up. There was complete silence: 11 p.m., a pastoral quiet.
The plane continued moving down the tarmac and stopped in a dark corner, where we disembarked into a light tropical rain. Peaceful, like paradise. In that instant, I thought, “We’ll succeed. Everything will be OK.”
It’s times like these that are the ultimate realization of our purpose. Just then, it all seemed so perfectly natural. That was our function. Soldiers who aren’t sent on missions like these can get so frustrated.
How did things progress from there?
Once off the plane we ran to the new terminal. We went on foot, and Yoni [Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the only IDF casualty of the operation and older brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]’s group advanced to the old terminal with the Mercedes and two other vehicles.
We went inside. It was so quiet; there were very few people. We checked all the lounges and came across a few workers. Our instructions were clear: If we entered a civilian area and didn’t encounter Ugandan soldiers or commanders, we were forbidden to hurt anyone. We threatened them with our weapons so that they’d lie down, and gathered them all in one lounge to make sure they wouldn’t wander about the airport – but of course we didn’t harm anyone.
Shai, what was your first feeling on seeing Israeli soldiers?
Hysteria. It was Saturday night; I remember sitting in the terminal, sleeping, and suddenly there was shooting, explosions! My parents snatched me and ran to the terminal’s office. They knew the ultimatum [time frame] had ended and were sure this was the end. They hid me under mattresses and lay on top, so that if anything happened, the last to get shot would be me.
I remember having no air to breathe and then, at some point, a minute later, my father opened the door, peered out, and suddenly one of our boys directed his gun with its blue light at my father’s forehead. My father was shouting in Hebrew, “Israel, Israel!” That saved him at the last second from being killed.
Then the soldier told him to go outside. My father and the soldier carried me in their arms, covered in a blanket so I wouldn’t see the blood and the mess there – but unfortunately I did see it.
I was so scared that I bit my father’s hand hard enough to make him bleed.
While he was carrying me, I saw corpses on the ground. Those images are engraved in my memory, and have never left.
We started running to the commander, who took me onto the first plane flying back to Israel. In Nairobi, they wanted to transfer me to a jumbo jet that would return faster, but I wouldn’t agree to be transferred; I didn’t want to leave the plane. A covered stretcher was alongside me, and later I learned that it had held Yoni Netanyahu.
The feeling in the plane was amazing, full of soldiers. One came over, and gave me a huge smile and a toffee. Our soldiers… flying with sweets in their pockets to help calm the kids! Another one gave me his earphones to block the tremendous racket that a Hercules produces. I have them to this day.
Sorin, what’s your strongest memory from Operation Entebbe?
Getting wounded. About 10 minutes after landing, shooting from their area stopped completely. Everything went quiet, and we brought all the passengers together in the new terminal, downstairs in one large lounge. I went outside because I was asked to go up on the terminal’s roof.
Matan Vilna’i [today, a major-general in reserves] was there in the corner and showed me where to climb up on external stairs. I got to the second floor, which was much darker, and a Ugandan policeman or guard must have been hiding there. He heard the shots cease, and decided to come out and check what was happening. He heard me moving up the stairs and ambushed me. I didn’t see him, but I did see two flashes of his gun. One missed, the other hit me.
I clearly remember the two flashes, just like in the movies. Two sparks of light and then I fell face forward, and blood was flowing all around me. First I tried to get up but couldn’t, so I tried calling for help, and couldn’t do that either. At that second, I realized I was “out of commission.”
Did you lose consciousness?
No. The whole way back to Israel I didn’t lose consciousness either. When the spine’s hit, there’s no feeling and no pain. So I didn’t feel pain, but I couldn’t understand why I was unable to move.
The battalion doctor was at my side instantly and together with four other soldiers I was given first aid and evacuated into the plane. Being the only casualty, the doctor could stay with me the whole time. He talked to me the whole way back; he understood the importance of keeping me conscious. I couldn’t speak but he did, and I blinked. One blink for yes, two for no.
Were you aware of your surroundings?
Yes. At some point the doctor saw I could understand him, and began updating me. “The last plane with the abductees is taking off, they’re on their way home,” “The mission was a success” and so on. Later, he told me that Yoni had been killed.
Did you know Yoni personally?
Sure. Before being appointed commander of the elite forces, he had been an armored forces battalion commander; we were on a lot of joint activities. His soldiers truly admired him. When he joined the elite forces, his reputation was already huge, and a great future was predicted for him in the IDF.
Sorin, how do you move forward after such a severe injury?
I was considered very seriously wounded. It took about three weeks just to stabilize my condition, then I started the rehabilitation process. During that period the knowledge sank in that sensation was not returning, and that I’d remain completely paralyzed. Very quickly I realized that this was my status, and I just needed to cope with it. I knew that if I allowed myself to become depressed or go through a crisis, it wouldn’t help in any way.
The first thing I requested was to learn about similar cases, and I was introduced to a guy like me who was a lawyer, another who was an accountant and yet another who ran a business. It was huge encouragement, it gave me strength.
Very quickly it became obvious there’d be difficulties, and it wasn’t a fun place to be in. There were moments of frustration, but on the other hand my family was always supportive and I was blessed with a great bunch of close friends, mainly from the army. To this day they’re all with me, accompanying me, admiring. We go out on trips, to movies, shows and restaurants, enjoy good wine. I studied software programming and am self-employed.
Shai, what happened to you after Entebbe?
My life wasn’t easy. A lot of therapy, difficulties, fears, a long period when I couldn’t sleep alone. Anyone undergoing a captive experience knows that something of it stays with you all your life. It surfaces in many situations, but I try to hold on to the good in life.
If there was one thing you could change from that period, what would you choose?
Hershko: It’s easy to be smart in retrospect; I can’t examine the past relative to who I am today. I think about who I was then: A young guy, given a chance to join a military mission with another 100 soldiers, the IDF’s crème de la crème. The best we have. Do you know of any soldier who’d say “no thanks” to such a proposal?
Would you go back to Entebbe on a kind of “roots trip”?
Hershko: I did, in 1994. It was a very powerful experience, especially since I went up to the spot where I was shot. The place is exactly how it was, with bullet holes and explosion damage.
I went through a very emotional moment when I went to see the old terminal, particularly the area between the old and new terminals, where the Americans set up a base from which they were flying supplies to Rwanda [during the 1994 genocide there]. Suddenly I saw an entire unit of American soldiers marching towards us, left, right, all their flags raised in pride and glory. They saluted us and their commander said, while saluting, “Sir, it’s a great honor for us,” “Sir, you are part of our history.” Someone told them I was involved in Operation Entebbe, and for them it still had great significance. I was very, very moved by their gesture.
You two are very good friends. When did the relationship begin?
Hershko: When I was wounded, I spent a year at Sheba Medical Center’s rehabilitation center in Tel Hashomer. About 80 or 90 percent of the abductees came to visit me. But the Gross family, and another two families, connected more closely. A chemistry developed between us that went far beyond the Entebbe story.
Gross: It’s such a natural connection. Sorin came to Entebbe to secure my life, and that of my family and all the rest of us who were hijacked. Because of his personal sacrifice, because of Yoni Netanyahu and the bravery of so many soldiers, we’re alive today.
These are special people, who won’t leave their brothers behind in times of trouble.
So with that in mind, the link between us is as natural as any can be. Sorin is a wonderful person and a good friend. For me, he’s like family.
Sorin, as chair of the Lotem organization, can you describe your activities?
Some years ago, a young guide from the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel approached me. Some students were set to go on a hike, and one of them had some impairment of the legs which prevented him from walking. The whole class went on the hike and he stayed on the bus with the driver until they all returned at the end of the day. It frustrated the guide so much that he decided to try and find a solution.
He approached me with the idea of developing a framework that would specialize in constructing paths and guiding suited to kids with disabilities; he set the organization up and named it Lotem. It’s active in Yokne’am and Jerusalem, and guides over 6,000 young people annually, all of whom have a physical disability that would otherwise prevent them from joining nature hikes. They enjoy nature classes, private lessons, guided hikes. A huge staff of soldiers have received training in nature and special education. There are paths and tracks suited to every problem, disability or impairment.
It’s so important to a kid with a physical disability; they spend their entire lives within the four walls of one building or another. There’s nothing more crucial than getting them out into nature, to be in green surroundings. Usually there’s no other organization able to do this for them, and Lotem exposes them to nature’s beauty.
We teach them about trees, flowers, the world of nature up close. It’s a dramatically powerful force that promotes all other areas in their lives.
No doubt, a unique kind of humor must have developed.
Hershko: Here’s a joke that’s relevant to current times: A group of terrorists takes control of a passenger plane and is about to blow it apart. A second beforehand, they ask the panicked passengers if any have last requests, and an Israeli raises his hand and asks to be kicked in the butt.
He’s gladly given his wish, and an instant later he spins around, drops one terrorist after another, takes control of the cockpit, and lands the plane perfectly.
Later, one of the passengers, tears flowing, thanks him and asks: “But why did you ask to have your butt kicked?” “So no one can say I started it!” ■
To support Lotem’s work: office@lotem.net