This column is about events so counterintuitive that Hollywood would reject the plot as being too unbelievable. Fifty years ago on June 8th, another nation intentionally attacked a U.S. Navy ship in international waters, and the U.S. didn’t respond.
The lightly-armed intelligence-gathering U.S. ship was under close observation for at least six hours before an air attack began around 2 pm. The ship was flying a five-by-eight-foot American flag for most of that time. The flag continued to be flown until being shot down and then replaced with an even larger flag.
The attacking jets used cannons, rockets and napalm against this basically defenseless ship. The attack, consisting of about thirty air sorties over a twenty-five minute period, killed and wounded a number of the crew, caused raging fires, and knocked out the defensive gun mounts and most of the ship’s communication equipment. The attackers also jammed the ship’s radios on both the U.S. Navy’s tactical and the international maritime distress frequencies. However, due to the actions of a brave radio operator, the ship was able to send a distress call to the U.S. Sixth Fleet over 400 miles away.
After the air attack ended, three torpedo boats appeared and came in for the kill. They opened fire with 20 and 40-mm guns and torpedoes. One torpedo hit just below the waterline and opened up a 39-foot-wide hole in the U.S. Navy ship, now basically dead in the water. The torpedo boats continued to fire armor-piercing projectiles into the ship for forty minutes.
Three lifeboats that were still usable were secured and dropped over the ship’s side. The attackers shot up two of the lifeboats and carried the third lifeboat away. Shortly afterward, more jet fighters and two assault helicopters carrying armed troops appeared. However, before the final assault, these aircraft suddenly departed.
The attackers killed thirty-four Americans and wounded over 170 out of 294 crewmembers.
The appalling betrayal and cover up
Before the torpedo boats attacked, four U.S. jets were launched to help the U.S. ship. However, they were soon recalled on order of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. The reason given for the recall was that these planes were carrying nuclear weapons. About 95 minutes later, another wave of U.S. planes was launched, but it was subsequently recalled on order of the U.S. president. The U.S. ship did not receive any aid from the Navy until around dawn the next day when two U.S. destroyers finally arrived.
The Navy ordered the sailors not to discuss the attack with anyone, and split up and reassigned the crew. While the ship was limping to a dry dock in Malta, the Navy convened a formal Court of Inquiry. Strangely, the Court’s mission was not to investigate the attack, but to determine whether any shortcomings of the crew had contributed to the injuries and deaths that resulted from the attack. What!? The Court had one week to report which led to what Rear Admiral Merlin Sterling, the Navy’s former judge advocate general, later described as a “hasty, superficial, incomplete and totally inadequate inquiry.”
Defying the cover up
In June 1982, the ship’s crewmembers reunited for the first time and formed an association with, among others, the goal of obtaining a Congressional investigation of the attack and of bringing the true story to the American people.
As a result of efforts of an association member and of a local activist, Boulder Mayor Linda Jourgensen declared June 8, 1987 to be a day to memorialize the ship and the 34 crew members who were killed in the attack. In 1988, Colorado Governor Roy Romer issued a similar proclamation for June 8, 1988. A few other cities and states have also recognized the ship and her crew. However Congress has yet to thoroughly investigate the attack.
The ship was the USS Liberty, Israel was the attacker, Lyndon Johnson was the President and the Defense Secretary was Robert McNamara. This murderous Israeli attack and reprehensible cover up demonstrated to Israel that it could literally get away with murder, a terrible situation for the Middle East and U.S. policy independence.
Israeli apologists claim that this was a case of mistaken identity, but that claim is debunked in, for example, http://www.chicagotribune.com/chi-liberty_tuesoct02-story.html and https://consortiumnews.com/2015/07/04/still-waiting-for-uss-libertys-truth/.
Remember the USS Liberty! Spread the word about this heroic crew, the despicable attack and the shameful cover up.
Ron Forthofer, Ph.D. is a retired Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston, Texas; former Green Party candidate for Congress and for Governor of Colorado