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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 1993, Page 48

Middle East and Middle West

The USS Liberty Makes Waves in Minnesota

By C. Patrick Quinlan

It began with a book donation to a senior citizens' center in a small town, which led to a war veterans' memorial park dedicated to the heroes of the USS Liberty . The story continues with an outreach program to other veterans' organizations, a statewide American Legion draft resolution, and a governor's proclamation of USS Liberty memorial day.

The book was Paul Findley's They Dare to Speak Out, and the town is Zimmerman, Minnesota, population about 1,600. The book donor was anonymous, probably one of many who responded to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, or Council for the National Interest appeals for library donations. The veterans' organization was the Zimmerman American Legion Post, membership now 250.

The Zimmerman nursing home residents aren't able to do a lot of reading, but one of the regular volunteer visitors, Legionaire Stan Wuolle, a retired professional printer, does. He took Paul Findley's book home. After reading in Chapter VI an account of the Israeli government's knowing and deliberate attempt to sink this U.S. Navy vessel, Stan told the story to his American Legion post comrades. He won their agreement to honor the 34 Americans killed on the USS Liberty , as well as the Zimmerman dead of four American wars, with a memorial park.

The Legionaires of Zimmerman made their decision in June of 1992. Less than four months later on Oct. 17, Captain William McGonagie, former skipper of the Liberty and Congressional Medal of Honor holder, 11 other USS Liberty survivors, and author Findley were in Zimmerman for the opening of the memorial park, where the names of the 34 Liberty dead are now engraved in granite.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, a display in honor of the USS Liberty was dedicated in Frankenmuth, Michigan in 1991, and the refurbished Grafton, Wisconsin, public library was renamed to honor the Liberty in 1989. But the park was the first such monument in Minnesota. Nevertheless, the event went unreported in Minnesota except in the nearby Elk River weekly.

However, reportage in the December 1992/January 1993 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs has, according to Legionaire Wuolle, "brought us letters with congratulations and memorial park donations from all over—Fairfax, Virginia to Seattle, Washington, and in between."

Perhaps only Americans who, like the writer, grew up in small towns would understand what followed that October afternoon and evening with Captain McGonagle, the other Libertyveterans, and Paul Findley. Instead of resting on their laurels, Zimmerman Legionaires persuaded Minnesota Gov. Arnie Carlson to declare the annual June 8 anniversary of the attack" USS Liberty Day" in Minnesota.

Nor has the story ended there. Zimmerman Post Commander Wayne Gilbertson and his wife, Therese, past-commanders Dave Austin, Gene Grams and Peggy Moon (yes, a woman commander), and Zimmerman post service officers Stan Wuolle and Reuben Matheson began enlisting other Minnesota veterans' organizations. With a video film on the Liberty story, and testimony from Minnesota Liberty survivors Gene Kirk, who lives in nearby Albertville, and Glen Oliphant from the more distant White Bear Lake, the Legionaires began calling on neighboring Legion posts and other veterans organizations, asking for support for the USS Liberty Association.

"It was hard for them to believe the story we told," Stan Wuolle said. But every one of 20 Legion and two Veterans of Foreign Wars posts visited pledged $100 each to the USS Liberty Association. The campaign continues.

Taking Up the Liberty Cause

A columnist in the local press has taken up the USS Liberty cause. The area library now has a subscription to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and in central Minnesota the Middle East is no longer a faraway, exotic area. The Zimmerman Legion Club, a popular watering hole and community meeting center, displays a large photograph of the USS Liberty limping its way to port after the attack. The photograph is signed by Captain McGonagle, the only Congressional Medal of Honor winner in U.S. history who did not receive his medal in the White House.

The Legionaires' next step was to be a state Legion resolution recognizing the USS Liberty crew. Aware of the political firestorm aroused by national pro-Israel organizations and slanted reporting in the Milwaukee Journal before the dedication of the USS Liberty library in Grafton, Wisconsin, the Zimmerman Legionaires proposed a resolution referring to "an attack by foreign air and naval forces" rather than an "Israeli" attack on the Liberty. The resolution's operative paragraph named the Zimmerman memorial park as "the official" memorial to the USS Liberty .

Unfortunately, the resolution was tabled on a procedural technicality at the 1993 state convention. The Zimmerman Legionaires have been assured of general agreement by the membership on the substance of the resolution, which makes its passage next year seem likely. Neither the wording of the Zimmerman resolution nor the 1993 postponement reflected Israeli lobby activity, or the more usual misplaced American sense of delicacy in references to Israel.

If passed in 1994, the Minnesota Legion resolution-to-come may be the first American veterans' resolution on the USS Liberty since 1967, the year of the attack. That year, the National American Legion passed a resolution calling for an investigation of the Israeli attack, according to James Ennes, who witnessed the attack as USS Liberty officer of the deck, and whose book,Assault on the Liberty, describes it in detail. Ennes subsequently has ascribed the failure to follow through on the 1967 Legion resolution to pressure from pro-Israel organizations in an article published in the May/June 1984 issue of The Link, a bi-monthly newsletter published in New York City.

What next? Zimmerman is not a tourist destination town, but the memorial park is sited on a major highway to Minnesota's fishing and hunting region. Members of the USS Liberty Association may choose Zimmerman for their next annual meeting. (At their 1991 meeting in Washington, DC, they were honored at a White House Rose Garden reception hosted by then-White House chief of staff John Sununu.)

Stan Wuolle and Reuben Matheson, both of whom are multi-issue activists, have been declared Zimmerman senior men-of-the-year. Not surprisingly, more than 40 new members have joined the Zimmerman Legion post, making it the fastest growing post in the state. "Now our younger veterans see the club taking up a real issue," explains Wuolle.

Thinking about America and the Middle East has changed in this part of Minnesota since one man picked up and read a donated book. In the heartland of America, as those of us who live here call it, if not in the lobby land of Congress, the good ship Liberty still makes waves.

C. Patrick Quinlan retired to his native Minnesota after military service in World War II and a 30-year foreign service career that included assignments in Nigeria, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt. He was U. S. chief of mission in Oman from 1972-1974, and U.S. consul general in Salzburg, Austria, from 1974-1978.