Tactical Weapons

When ‘Dirty Harry’ rescued real-life hostages

dirty harry
Warner Bros. Pictures

In a hundred years of film anti-heroes, San Francisco police detective Harry Callahan perhaps stands alone as a character clothed in coolness and moxie. 

So enamored are fans of the character that we sometimes hope he is real. Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of the rough-around-the-edges cop struck a chord with audiences wanting traditional law-and-order. Dirty Harry stood up for common sense and sometimes brutal responses to killers and rapists.

In some way, the lanky, sardonic detective (who went through partners like changing clothes) bleeds-through into real life. Witness a cool moment from an epic hostage rescue in the 1970s.

As various terrorists and revolutionaries found their footing in that era, airline hijackings were an attractive option. Taking innocent men, women, and children captive made for drama that garnered a ton of publicity. It also served as psychological warfare as governments grappled with how to respond: negotiate, or refuse and watch people die?

The 1972 Munich Olympics were a horror show as 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by the Palestine Liberation Organization. In retribution, Prime Minister Golda Meir gave the greenlight to “Operation Spring of Youth” the following year. She sent the country’s elite counter-terrorism unit, Sayeret Matkal, to Beirut to bring the Munich killers to justice. They did one night, in a hail of gunfire.

Four years later, the same unit was called upon one more time. In fact, the circumstances were more dramatic, if that’s possible. PLO and German terrorists hijacked a French airliner in Athens and ordered the crew to fly to the middle of Africa, 3,000 miles away. That would ensure that no rescue attempt could be launched.

But that’s exactly what the Israelis did. 

Entebbe Airport, 1976; Israel Government Press Office

As the government pretended to negotiate (for the first time!) with the terrorists, Israel’s military planners came up with an all-time audacious plan: land commandos on the shores of Lake Victoria at Entebbe, Uganda, and storm the airport’s terminal, where 105 hostages were being held.

The short version is, the “raid on Entebbe” was a stunning success. The Israelis felt they might take 20 percent casualties—40 troops. In fact, one soldier was killed and one was wounded.

In the end, “The Unit” did its work. Bursting in the front door and gaining the key element of surprise, Israel’s commandos seemed like phantoms emerging from the dark. And it’s here that Dirty Harry enters the picture.

As the leader of the Sayeret Matkal, Lt. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu worked every detail of the operational plan for two days. The older brother of Israel’s future prime minister, “Yoni” tasked each member of the 30-man strike force with a particular job. A 21-year-old sergeant, Avi*, was to enter the building first. 

A slight, average-build guy, Avi’s role is still largely unknown, except to friends and family. In fact, the Unit has always functioned as both family and friend for its members.

In any case, Avi didn’t break stride as he stormed through the door, firing his weapon while also shouting at the hostages to stay down. Another commando came in right behind. “We fired 60 rounds in that room in 15 seconds,” Avi remembers. All the terrorists were eliminated in two minutes. The troops then began loading hostages on planes for the shocking flight home.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his father, Benzion, and brother Iddo at Israel’s Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery, Jerusalem; Israel Government Press Office

Avi remembers a funny memory years later. Israel TV did a retrospective for the 25th anniversary of the Entebbe raid. “One of the hostages was asked what the first commando in the door was like,” Avi recalls. “’Oh, he was tall, he looked like Clint Eastwood!”
The image is funny. Avi wouldn’t get so much as a glance on the street. But he was Dirty Harry barreling through that door, firing and shouting. That’s the way it’s remembered.

Maybe we need our heroes to be that way. In real life, though, they are the young kid on a submarine in the North Atlantic. They are a college professor leading his men against Johnny Reb at Gettysburg. 

Or a slight, otherwise quiet and unassuming soldier volunteering for history’s most famous hostage rescue.

Lying on that cold floor at midnight, with cold killers watching over you, one has to wonder what the hostages thought. They certainly weren’t expecting anyone to rescue them. As the bullets started to fly that night, the parents instinctively threw themselves and their coats over their children. 

One can also imagine a fictional moment in this true drama: as Avi stared-down the first terrorist he killed, did he say, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

*not his real name