Turbulence Ahead: In Remembrance of Michel Bacos, the Hero of Entebbe

By Machla Abramovitz

 

Family reunion after the liberation of hostages (Source: Moshe Milner/Wiki)

 

On March 26, Captain Michel Bacos passed away in his home town of Nice, France at the age of 94. Bacos was the heroic Air France pilot whose plane was hijacked to Entebbe, Uganda, and who refused to abandon his Jewish passengers. “Michel bravely refused to surrender to antisemitism and barbarism and brought honor to France,” Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said on announcing his death.

 In 2014, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Bacos for Mishpacha Magazine on the 38th anniversary of the Entebbe hijacking. Unable to obtain his contact information online, I tracked him down the old fashioned way: I called directory assistance in Nice, hoping that the Michel Bacos the operator noted was the one I was seeking. Indeed, it was. Despite being unprepared for my call, Captain Bacos was extraordinarily gracious and generous with his time. He was thrilled to answer my questions. “Is my story still of interest,” he modestly asked in French. I assured him it was. Below is an expanded version of my article that appeared in Mishpacha on July 2, 2014, which I wrote as a first-person narrative to convey the immediacy and terror of his experiences, the memories of which were still very ripe. 

 

Turbulence Ahead

 

On June 27, 1976, during a routine flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, Palestinian and German terrorists stormed the cockpit of an Air France Airbus A300 and commandeered the plane to Entebbe, Uganda. At the time of the hijacking, which occurred just after a short stopover in Athens, there were 246 passengers and 12 crew members on board. Eight days later, on July 4, Israel launched Operation Thunderbolt, the famed, swashbuckling mission that resulted in the rescue of over 100 hostages, the majority of whom were Jewish. It’s been 38 years since the hijacking, but Air France pilot Captain Michel Bacos, 90, still remembers that horrendous week as if it were yesterday.

Speaking from his home in Nice, France, Bacos comes across as charming and friendly, with a wry sense of humor. A hero in his own right, he was awarded France’s highest decoration, the National Order of the Legion of Honor, for refusing to abandon his post and standing by his plane and its passengers. A bomber pilot during World War II, he saw action over the skies of North Africa, fighting for France’s Forces Françaises Libres.

At the time of the hijacking, Captain Bacos had clocked 32 years of flight time. Married, with three sons and many grandchildren, he has the greatest admiration for one particular Israeli commando, Sorin Herschu, who was paralyzed from the neck down after being struck by a Ugandan bullet during the operation. They keep in touch. He and his family visited Herschu often over the years, and occasionally receive an email: unable to use his fingers, Herschu manipulates the keyboard through a small stick that he places in his mouth.

Since Entebbe, and especially after retiring in 1984, Bacos became a sought-after speaker and addressed many forums. In 1977, at the request of Air France, he recounted his experiences in front of an assembly of aviation specialists interested in revamping aviation laws dealing with security issues. The Israel government and many Jewish organizations have recognized Bacos for his bravery. Is there any event from that fateful week that especially stands out in his mind? “When the shooting began, I remember thinking, ‘Tzahal is here to rescue us. Who else but the Israelis could it be?”

 

The Hijacking

 

We were seven minutes out of Athens and had just turned off the seatbelt sign when I heard a loud commotion coming from behind the cockpit.

“A fire,” I asked my flight engineer Jacques Lemoine, “Check it out.”

He barely opened the door when a man brandishing a gun and a grenade charged in.

Quickly, the tall, dark-haired, mustached man pushed Lemoine back inside while wielding his weapons at my copilot Daniel Lom and me. Instinctively, our hands shot up into the air, as if we were under arrest.

“No! Please, please,” we instantaneously cried out.

“You,” yelled the man later identified as Wilfried Böse, pointing at Lom, “Get out now. I don’t want to look at you. We don’t need you.”

He then turned to Lemoine and ordered him to sit beside me at the controls. Böse grabbed hold of the microphone. “Don’t touch anything on the controls without asking me,” he commanded in heavily accented English, then instructed me to make a 180-degree turn due south, to Benghazi, Libya.

Instantly, the control panel lit up: Athens noted the sudden change in direction. Without my mic, I couldn’t respond to their repeated requests for clarification. Within moments, the Athens operator understood that something was dreadfully wrong. Israel, Italy, and France were immediately alerted that terrorists had hijacked Air France Flight 139.

Throughout the flight, Böse held a gun to the back of my head, occasionally poking me with it. We didn’t speak, except for instructions he sometimes gave me. Meanwhile, back in the cabin, the other German, a woman named Brigitte Kuhlmann, and two Arab terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] were pistol-whipping and terrorizing the passengers.

“This flight is under our command,” they declared.

Böse and Kuhlmann were founders of the German leftist Revolutionary Cells terrorist group, considered one of the most dangerous around by the West German interior ministry. But, at that moment, neither my flight engineer nor I had any idea who they were or what they wanted. We were isolated from our passengers and feared terribly for their welfare.

About two and a half grueling hours later, we arrived at the Benina International Airport in Benghazi, Libya, with only 20 minutes of fuel left in the tank. The plane was expected: The control tower operator welcomed us in President Gaddafi’s name. The heat was oppressive. One of our passengers, Patricia Martel, feigned a miscarriage. She was released and flown to Paris. She later identified the terrorists from among intelligence photos.

As we waited in the stifling heat, more terrorists boarded the plane. It took about two hours to refuel the aircraft. I insisted Lemoine oversee the process. The Airbus was new, and the Libyans did not know how to handle the refueling properly. Still, we didn’t leave till 10 p.m., hours later.

“Where are we headed,” I asked my captor.

“None of your business,” he replied.

I was instructed to fly at an altitude of 29,000 feet due south. We flew over Egypt. I gave the German our positions, which he immediately conveyed to Cairo. It was clear that our plane was being followed from point to point.

By then, it was the middle of the night, and outside it was coal black. Over the desert, there was no radar control to direct the plane: Only about 20 minutes before arriving was I told that Entebbe was to be our final destination.

But how to land? Our landing lights were off. I was mostly flying blind. Too terrified and exhausted to land the plane properly, I insisted my copilot take over controls. Daniel Lom was brought back into the cockpit, where he took control of the aircraft. Böse then contacted East African Airways, who gave us precise directions on where and how to land. Thank God for that: The Entebbe airway controller spoke a mixture of Swahili and English, and I didn’t understand a word he said.

Thankfully, the airport’s lights were on. I saw other planes landing in the near distance. At 3 a.m., we were finally permitted to land, but with strict instructions to remain on board. Except for Böse who quickly left, none of us moved. Outside, terrorists and Ugandan soldiers stood on guard brandishing guns.

As morning broke, dozens of additional troops gathered on the tarmac — our welcoming committee. They gave us breakfast; by midday, we were herded off the plane, with Ugandan guns pointed at us. There were two terminals — an old one and a new one. The soldiers shepherded us into the old terminal, which was located 100 meters from the plane and used as a warehouse. The station was filthy and dilapidated; the facilities inadequate for 258 people. Mattresses were strewn on the floor, still in their plastic wrappers — gifts from the Canadian Red Cross. We slept two to a mattress: The bedbugs were ferocious. They dug into our skin. There were bathrooms with showers in the back. The toilets kept clogging and backing up, and there were few towels. Many of us shared the same one. Despite our exhaustion and the filth surrounding us, we did our best to accommodate each other.

When Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, resplendent in his army fatigues, paid us his first visit later that day, many Israelis applauded, thinking he had come to our rescue. Idi Amin had been on good terms with Israel in the past. They were disillusioned soon enough. After bidding us “Shalom” and telling us he was our friend, he blamed Israel for our troubles and threatened to have us killed if our governments did not comply with the hijackers’ demands: The release of 53 Arab and German terrorists, 40 of whom were held by Israel, and the rest by West Germany, Kenya, France, and Switzerland. If these prisoners weren’t released by 2:00 pm Israel time on Thursday, we were told, they would begin executing the Jewish passengers.

However, we knew nothing of this. The terrorists didn’t talk to us. What we did know was that they were preparing for something dreadful. Kuhlmann, who hated Jews, began separating them from the other passengers. Some have since argued that only Israelis were isolated. That’s not what I saw. A Jewish American – Cohen – was included in the group, as were other Jews of various nationalities. They placed them in an adjacent room. They told us they had to do that because the main hall couldn’t accommodate everyone, but as a World War II veteran, I well understood what separating Jews meant.

On Wednesday, they freed 47 hostages. Many were French citizens, including Arabs who boarded in Athens. The crew and I had the option to leave with them. That’s when I took a principled stand. I told my crew that it is our moral and professional duty to remain with the passengers until the end, no matter what happens. During World War II, no crew member was permitted to leave their passengers alone, whatever their nationality. I was staying, I told them, but whether they did or didn’t was up to them, although I made it very clear what I expected of them.

Everyone, without exception, stayed. Thank God for that. The passengers were terrified. We were all terrified. None of us knew what to expect. However, it was our job to comfort them, which wasn’t easy to do. It was excruciatingly hot, and we were listless. We had no energy to do anything. Despite that, parents kept the children from running outside. The situation was life and death. Over 100 Ugandan soldiers surrounded the terminal. If anyone stepped out, even for a second, they would be shot. I don’t know how those parents managed. There was no place for the children to play. There was no music, no radio, absolutely nothing. All we did was talk to one another.

“Israel won’t abandon us; they’ll come to our rescue,” the Israelis assured us. Did I believe that? Perhaps on some subconscious level, I, too, waited for the Israelis to arrive. Maybe that’s why when the shooting started early Sunday morning; I was only half surprised. However, during those long, lingering, tension-filled days and nights, all we could do was hope that discussions between the PFLP representatives and the various governments were fruitful.

By Thursday morning, they released 101 non-Jewish prisoners, which was a huge tactical error on the terrorists’ part. These hostages later described the terrorist positions to the Israeli rescue mission in minute detail. The remaining 98 Jewish hostages then joined us in the main hall. Throughout, we remained ignorant about how the negotiations were going. We didn’t know that Israel had fallaciously agreed to the hijackers’ demands and that Idi Amin, impatient to attend the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Mauritius, convinced the PFLP representatives to extend the deadline for executing the Jews by 72 hours.

We also didn’t know that the Israelis were carefully interrogating the released hostages, and obtained from them a precise lay of the land. They learned that ten terrorists guarded us with machine guns and explosives who worked in shifts, two resting in the adjacent VIP lounge at any one time, and that at midnight we were commanded to lie on our mattresses; that by 1:00 am, we were usually asleep. This was crucial information, as it meant that after 1:00 am, only the terrorists were standing. As well, we were unaware that the Israelis had blueprints of the old terminal; Israeli architects and construction workers had designed and built it years before.

Operation Thunderbolt, as it was called, was one of the most daring rescue missions ever carried out. The plan called for Israeli Lockheed C-130 Hercules air transports to land undetected in Entebbe under cover of night, and for commandos to get from the airport to the terminal building unchallenged. At midnight Uganda time on July 4, the first Hercules landed, flown by Lt. Col. Joshua Shani and loaded with 72 tons of hardware. Lieutenant Colonel Yoni Netanyahu, the second-in-command, was on board.

Within moments, paratroopers from the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s elite counterterrorism unit, jumped out to install landing beacons in case the terminal lights were turned off and made for the old terminal – their mission was to eliminate the soldiers on guard outside. Meanwhile, a black Mercedes limousine drove out, carrying a cardboard license plate and little Ugandan flags flapping in the wind. Two Land Rovers followed the Mercedes, the whole procession simulating a presidential escort. Riding in the Mercedes was Deputy Commander Moshe “Muki” Betser with an additional eight commandos. It was their job to rescue the hostages.

Driving at a steady 40 miles an hour, the Mercedes and Land Rovers drove past the Ugandan guards, unchallenged. It was when another guard suspected a problem and raised his gun to stop the escort, 70 meters short of the terminal building, that shooting erupted. There was then a mad dash over the remaining stretch, with gunfire resounding from all directions. Meanwhile, two other C-130s packed with 27 additional commandos and paratroopers descended onto the tarmac, guided by the beacons. Their task was to deal with the Ugandan soldiers, the Ugandan Air Force MiG-17s and MiG-21s, and to seize the new terminal and control tower. A fourth transport arrived shortly afterward.

Of course, we knew none of that. Hunkering down for the night, we sensed a tension in the air. The terrorists were agitated. Shooting soon shattered the stillness of the night.

“Stay down,” a German standing beside Lemoine’s mattress yelled.

Another threatened to kill us all should anyone come to our rescue. It was light inside, but outside it was pitch black. The German ran out and started shooting, but couldn’t see what he was shooting at. Everything was confused.

Within seconds, the Israelis burst into the room, killing the terrorists who stood out like ducks in a shooting gallery. One group closed the back doors to keep the Ugandan soldiers out, while the second group helped the prisoners. “Stay down. Stay down,” they rapidly commanded in Hebrew. Tragically, two prisoners stood up and were immediately gunned down. The Israelis assured us that it would all be over within half an hour. We heard gunfire outside; Ugandan soldiers were returning fire. Despite that, and right on schedule, the Israelis secured the two terminal buildings and control tower. Idi Amin and his senior officers, thinking that this was a coup, took shelter.

“Leave your belongings behind,” the Israelis commanded. Then they quickly rushed us onto a waiting Hercules that had taxied up to the old terminal. The entire operation, from start to finish, took 53 minutes, according to Israeli Chief of Staff General Mordechai Gur, two minutes under its rehearsal time. In all, seven terrorists died, as did 20 Ugandan soldiers, and tragically, three hostages, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Netanyahu, shot outside the terminal. Dora Bloch, an elderly lady, hospitalized in Kampala, was later killed by Amin’s thugs in retaliation for the raid; shortly afterward, four Ugandan flight attendants were executed for failing to see the approaching C-130s.

On board the plane, emotions ran high. There are no words to express our gratitude and relief. We couldn’t believe it was over. We stopped in Nairobi, Kenya for refueling, where the wounded were hospitalized. My future friend Sorin Herschu, one of the most courageous men I know, was among them.

Our flight back was uneventful. To keep off the Egyptian, Sudanese, and Saudi Arabian radar, the Hercules flew at less than 100 feet above the surface of the Gulf of Suez. Israeli fighter planes met us en route and escorted us to Tel Nof Air Base near Rehovot. We rested there and were given clothes and shoes, some of us having arrived in slippers. Our reception was magnanimous. Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres were on hand. They thanked us warmly for our courage and dedication throughout. We were debriefed and then flown to Tel Aviv, where we were ecstatically greeted by thousands of Israelis. The excitement of that spontaneous reception and the sense of comradery we all felt remains with me to this day.

After a quick meal in a hotel with the French ambassador to Israel, the crew and I flew back home, where our reception there was not as warm or as animated as in Israel. The minister of transport was too busy playing bridge to show up, and another minister sent his assistant in his stead. Air France, though, came through beautifully. Throughout that terrible week, officials continually kept in touch with my wife, keeping her updated on whatever information they had.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t traumatized by what happened. After 15 days of recuperation leave, I asked that my first flight back at work be to Tel Aviv. I needed to know how I would react to being there, and I felt fine. Those horrifying seven days are still with me. It’s not something one ever forgets. However, I rarely think about them now. The experience made me a lot more philosophical about life. I don’t take problems to heart as much as before. I try to remain happy and composed, reminding myself that it could always be worse. It’s an attitude that continues to serve me well.

 

Originally published in Mishpacha, July 2, 2014, p. 52-58, edited and expanded version