Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1989, Page 17

Special Report

The USS Liberty Heroes Honored

By Paul Findley

Thirty surviving crewmen of the USS Liberty, a US Navy reconnaissance ship nearly destroyed by Israeli forces 22 years ago, gathered in Milwaukee the weekend of June 9-11 for a reunion to recall that dreadful day and pay tribute to the 34 sailors killed in the assault.

They have a lot to remember: The Liberty, and intelligence-gathering ship, had only a pair of 50-caliber machine guns for defense. But on the bright, clear afternoon of June 8, 1967, with its American flag fluttering in a strong breeze, the ship came under a thundering, pitless 75-minute assault by air and sea forces.

Israel, already victorious over Egypt and Jordan in the first three days of the Six-Day War of June 1967, was planning a surprise ground offensive the next day against Syria (which for its part was calling a cease-fire). The best explanation for what followed is that the Israelis feared the Liberty might intercept messages revealing Israeli intentions, pass reports to Washington, and frustrate Israel's plans to scale and hold Syria's Golan Heights.

Whatever the motivation, the Liberty endured an assault so fierce and sustained that crew members were convinced that Israel wanted the ship and its entire crew destroyed.

Who but the survivors can relive those awful moments, the cries of the wounded as lethal bursts of cannon fire swept the ship; the stench of burning flesh as napalm created instant infernos on the deck; the earsplitting thunder as a torpedo tore an immense hole in the ship's sides; decks made slippery with blood; the feeling of outrage as circling torpedo boats deliberately shot to pieces rubber life rafts launched in case the ship had to be abandoned.

Israel claimed the attack was a case of mistaken identity, apologized, and eventually paid reparations. President Lyndon Johnson, facing a crisis in Vietnam, accepted the apology warmly and did his best to keep from public knowledge the overwhelming conviction of crew members and their commanders, both in the Navy and the National Security Agency, that the attack was deliberate.

Why the cover-up? For one thing, President Johnson feared publicity about the Liberty might alienate Jewish citizens he wanted to support the Vietnam war.

Whatever the motivations, his coverup succeeded. Few Americans, even to this day, are aware of this tragedy, one of the worst in the Navy's peacetime history. As a consequence, the bravery of the Liberty crewmen has been little noted, and no Congressional investigation into the attack has occurred.

The embarrassment friends of Israel feel about the Liberty assault is understandable, but the best atonement for a grave injustice is honest acknowledgement, not suppression.

This year's weekend commemoration in Milwaukee was especially gratifying to surviving crewmen, because the neighboring town of Grafton is completing a new structure named the USS Liberty Memorial Public Library. The names of the 34 crewmen killed in action appear on a stone near the entrance.

But the pressures for cover-up, begun by President Johnson 22 years ago, still reverberate. For more than a year, supporters of Israel in Milwaukee and Sheboygan have tried to force Grafton officials to change the library's name. In dreadfully misguided zeal, critics of the library's name picketed the groundbreaking ceremony last summer, denounced the name in a stream of letters to newspapers, persuaded several groups to withdraw financial pledges, attacked the reputations of the principal donors who had suggested the name, and pressured the Grafton school board into forbidding the school band or other school units from participating in the commemoration.

They turned up enough political heat in Washington to cause even the military services to boycott the ceremony. Imagine! No Navy Honor Guard, no Navy band, no military display of the American flag to salute 34 sailors killed in action. No congressman attended or even sent a message.

And, in the worst misdeed of all, the critics have sought to smear the simple remembrance of the USS Liberty tragedy as a manifestation of anti-Semitism

The anti-Semitism smear has special irony, because just a few short years before Israeli forces attacked the Liberty, other brave American sailors had died by the thousands in World War II, helping to defeat the military might of the Axis powers-principally the Nazi evil which was then systematically destroying Europe's Jews. Had it not been for the supreme sacrifice of sailors like these and their comrades in the vast military services of the United States, Adolf Hitler might have succeeded in exterminating the entire Jewish population in Europe.

The embarrassment friends of Israel feel about the Liberty assault is understandable, but the best atonement for an injustice is honest acknowledgement, not suppression.

The town leadership of Grafton, however, has stood firm. Led by Mayor James Grant and a group of determined residents, the community has persevered in its decision to honor the sailors who were killed. True friends of Israel should rejoice. If the opponents of the library's name had succeeded, this would have added still another cover-up to the bulging file which, when it is finally revealed, will prove to be a dreadul embarrassment both to Israel and it heedless American apologists. 

Paul Findley (R-IL) served in Congress from 1961 to 1982. His book, They Dare to Speak Out,gives details of the assualt on the Liberty.

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