Thomas Boyatt was on his way to Cyprus to resume his post as political officer on August 29, 1969 when his flight, TWA 840, was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). They believed that Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., was aboard the flight. The hijackers, Leila Khaled (seen at right) and Salim Issawi, forced the pilots to land in Damascus, evacuated the Boeing 707, and blew up the nose section of the plane.
Boyatt took charge of negotiations and the personal safety of fellow passengers. Syrian authorities arrested the hijackers and released all but the six Israeli passengers immediately. No one was killed, and all the passengers were ultimately released.
Boyatt was given a Meritorious Honor Award from the U.S. State Department for his actions, especially his role in saving a woman’s life. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1990.
“There are Israeli assassins aboard; we’re going to a friendly country.”
BOYATT: I went home on home leave in 1969… essentially to get divorced from my first wife, and I went a year ahead of when I should have gone in order to make this happen. You know, there was no such thing as a no-fault divorce in those days. Somebody had to be guilty of something, and you had to go back to your original jurisdiction, and it wasn’t easy like it is now.
So I asked Ambassador [David H.] Popper if I could do that, and he said sure. So I went back to Cincinnati, had the divorce. A month and a half later I got on a plane at Dulles Airport, flew to Paris, Paris to Rome, Rome to Athens was the schedule, Athens, Tel Aviv. I was going to get off at Athens and take the local down to Cyprus.
Overnight, fine, got to Paris, got to Rome, got back on the plane and we’re flying between Rome and Athens when I suddenly saw a stewardess — this in a 707 — run from the back of the plane all the way forward, and then come running back, as white as a sheet.
And I thought, “Oh, God, we’ve got a mechanical problem.” And I started looking around, and I looked down and we were over the Corinthian Canal….
We were still at 35,000 feet and I knew something was wrong. About this time a voice came on the loud speaker, and said, in sort of half French, half English: “Attention, attention. This plane has been taken over by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Put your hands on your heads, don’t move, there are Israeli assassins aboard, we’re going to a friendly country.”
So, there we sat with our hands on our heads for an hour and a half. I could see Cyprus off to the left of the plane and we were still quite high, so I knew we were headed to the Middle Eastern mainland.
And as we came in over the mainland, the plane came down and down and down, and by the time it came in over the mainland it looked like it was in a landing pattern of some kind. And just about the time I noticed that we had Star of David fighter planes, one on each wing that I could see.
In fact, we had one in front of us and one behind us but I couldn’t see them, and I thought, “Oh, shit, there is some big league Israeli aboard and the Israelis are going to shoot this thing down rather than let it fall into Arab hands.”
So I had another moment of sheer terror. But nothing happened except that we flew in a circle for a while, and I learned later… that the plane had gone into a landing pattern over Lode Airport in Tel Aviv, and they were hurling insults at the Israelis, bad mouthing the Israelis. And that’s when we got our fighter escort.
But eventually the plane turned north, still over land, so I could see that we were going either to Iraq or Syria, one or the other. It didn’t make much sense to go to Lebanon in those days. Of course, that would have been the best outcome for us, but not likely, I guess, under the circumstances. So we went back up to altitude, and flew north.
“We’re blowing up [this plane] 60 seconds after we get on the ground”
By this time several hours had passed, and we’re all getting damn tired of keeping our hands on our heads, people had to go to the bathroom, and people were praying, and it was a mess. And they kept coming on and saying, “Attention, attention, this is PFLP flight number one, Israeli assassins, we’re going to a friendly country, and we’ll hear your just demands when we get on the ground.”
And the plane started coming down, and we knew we were going to crash land, we didn’t know where, and we were running out of fuel too, having flown for quite a while. The stewardesses came by, and collected everybody’s shoes, their watch, pencils, rings, anything that keeps going at impact, because when you hit, everything that’s not tied down keeps going with the speed that the aircraft had when it impacted.
This is a normal emergency procedure, so they took all this stuff and collected it in big plastic bags, and stuffed it in the johns. And we’re going down, and we’re going down, and the Palestinians come on, and they tell us that, “Attention, attention, you must evacuate this plane within 60 seconds because we’re blowing it up 60 seconds after we get on the ground.”
And, of course, I had another stab of fear because I figured, you know, these crazy Arabs are going to screw it up, and they’re going to blow it up 60 seconds before we get on the ground, rather than after.
Anyway, they kept coming on and saying that, and we’re going down, and everybody takes the crash position with heads and pillows against the seat in front. We (the travelers) put people on all of the emergency exits and the doors so that we could get them open, and get those chutes down as quickly as possible because what we knew was that we had a small amount of time before the plane exploded.
Nobody knew what the amount of time was. So the plane landed in what looks like a desert, at the last minute a stone runway appeared, we rumbled to a halt. Then the operators popped the doors, and the chutes went down.
I was near the left rear door. And the chute went down, so everybody started piling out, and I was near the end of the people that came out that way, and as I got to the bottom of the slide, I waited for everyone else to get off, and then I sort of tried to herd them across this field. You know how it is when you’re an FSO overseas, you take care of American citizens, it’s one of the basic things that you do.
“I’m an American diplomatic officer, and this is an American flag carrier.”
So, I’m kind of urging this group of people across the field — we’re in bare feet now, right? And the minute we got off the runway we ran into a field of prickle briars. You know those things with long spines, and, of course, people were unavoidably stepping on the damn things, and falling down, and getting back up, and keeping going.
And we finally got away from the plane, and at this point I turned around and I could see this young guy shooting at the back of the plane with a pistol, and I figured he was trying to blow it up or do something bad — set it on fire, I didn’t know.
And about that time we looked at the plane, and under the wing — there were these two bodies folded up, and one woman standing over a man, and another woman on the ground. The 707 has two doors on either side over the wing, so you come out onto the wing and in order to get on the ground you’ve got to get off the wing, and some people were sort of sliding down it like it was a children’s slide, and going in feet first.
What you’re supposed to do is go down on your belly and grab the trailing edge. Of course, nobody told anybody that. Anyway, two people had hurt themselves. It turned out one lady had broken her leg, and a guy had broken his ankle.
So, everyone looked at everyone else, whose going to solve this problem? And there was this soldier standing there, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, somehow he knew I was an officer, he said, “Shit, Sir.”
And I said, “Come on trooper.” So the two of us ran back across the field of prickle briars, in our bare feet, and we got under the wing and we made a fireman’s seat for the one lady, a heavy lady, on the ground who had broken her leg which looked just like an L, it was a mess, and she’s thrashing around, screaming, she’s in shock, kind of fighting us, like a drowning person.
We had a hell of a time with her [but] we finally got her into the seat. And the guy who had broken his ankle was conscious and rational, and he sort of put his hand on somebody’s shoulder, and his wife supported him on the other side, and the five of us came out and back across that field for the third time.
As we got across the field there was a slit, a shallow trench with some sandbags, and we all got behind that, and just about the time we got behind that, bam!, the front third of the airplane went up in a puff of smoke, followed by a very loud bang.
And about this time some soldiers came racing across the field — we didn’t know who the hell they were — with great big heavy machine guns, some kind of an assault, but a big heavy assault rifle, I guess. Of course, that was the next of several moments of danger.
That was a moment of danger because we were afraid they were going to start blazing away at us, but they didn’t. They rounded us up and put us in buses, and took us back to the airport.
Where were we? We find out that we were in Syria, in Damascus. It’s 1969. It’s two years after the Six-Day War, we have no diplomatic relations, we have a plane full of Jews, it’s on its way to Tel Aviv, it’s got American Jews, Canadian Jews, and Spanish Jews, you name it, we have it.
So I pulled out my black passport, and I said, “I’m an American diplomatic officer, and this is an American flag carrier. We’re here not of our own volition, and these people are under my protection.”
And the officer at the airport said, “Well, everyone has to be interrogated.” And you know, I had visions, bad visions, so I said, “I have to be present during the interrogations.”
So all that night into the next morning, I was present while they interrogated people, asking them who they were, what their religion was, and what their nationality was, what they had seen, what had happened. And each one told his or her story from a particular point of view.
“We took the position that all passengers go or no passengers go”
I was with one group of passengers, there was another group of passengers at a different spot, and the crew was yet in a third location. So finally they got tired of me, and tossed me in jail, and then later the next day the Italians, who represented us there, came around and got us all out. Then the question was, is everybody out?
We took the position that all passengers go, or no passengers go. And in the end what they did was, they kept all of the Israelis. So they made a cut by nationality, not by religion, or some other criterion. It was a nationality determination.
You know, it was one of those tough decisions. Do you stay, or do you go? I decided we better get the hell out of there with what we could, and so did others, and we all piled onto a bus, went back out to the airport, and were flown out by the Italians.
It was two days later. A day later they released the Israeli women and children, and kept two Israeli males. And then they subsequently traded for a Syrian fighter pilot. So in the end nobody died….
I got an award for saving that lady’s life, and for negotiating. Well, they flew us back to Athens, and I went into the embassy and said, “You know that plane that was hijacked? I was on it.”
Yes, I did get my shoes back. The people who had stuff in the front end of the plane didn’t get anything back…I got my shoes back, and my briefcase. I think I lost a camera, or maybe it was a watch. I lost something that had some value.
And they said, “The political counselor wants to see you.”
So I went to see Arch Blood who was the political counselor, and he said, “Before you do another thing, sit down and write this up, and send it back to the Department.”
So I said, “Yes, sir,” and I did.
In the meantime, of course, NEA [Near East Asia Bureau] had become seized with this. Joe Sisco, the Assistant Secretary, had been orchestrating negotiations with the Italians, and they wanted a first-hand report as soon as they could get it….
I reported it, and Sisco put me up for the award.