Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December/January 1992/93, Page 64

Special Report

A Minnesota Town's Veterans Honor Crew of USS Liberty

By Gene Kirk and C. Patrick Quinlan

The wind from the north was cold on Oct. 17 and the program long: six speakers, two bugle renditions of taps, and two volleys of rifle fire from the Elk River color guard. But more than 100 Zimmerman, Minnesota veterans, their families, and their friends turned out to honor their dead of four wars, and to recognize both the dead and the survivors of a little-known battle of June 8, 1967: the assault on the USS Liberty.

In Minnesota small-town fashion, after the ceremony participants adjourned to meet with many other townspeople at the American Legion Post, a major Zimmerman civic institution, for a Zimmerman catered meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy.

It was a colorful and moving expression of what U.S. presidential candidates would call traditional values. But this day was unlike virtually any other small town veterans' gathering in the United States.

The Zimmerman Legion Park memorial ceremony marked only the second commemoration in a quarter of a century of the 34 dead and 171 wounded of the USS Liberty, an American naval vessel attacked and almost sunk by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Eleven Liberty survivors, three of them from Minnesota, attended. They included theLiberty's commander, Captain William McGonagle, one of only 204 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients in U.S. history.

Only one other American town has recognized the heroes of June 8, 1967. Grafton, Wisconsin named its library for the Liberty. Mayor Jim Grant of Grafton experienced a firestorm of criticism from Jewish organizations in nearby Milwaukee for that. Hardened by fire, he was in Zimmerman for this second USS Liberty civic memorial.

One of the speakers was former Illinois Congressman Paul Findley, author of the iconoclastic book on the Israel lobby's largely successful challenge to freedom of expression in America,They Dare to Speak Out. It was a chance reading of this book by Zimmerman Legionnaire Stan Wuolle which led to the Legion post's decision to create the Liberty memorial. (Another scheduled speaker, Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party Congressman James Oberstar, did not appear. Whether the cancellation resulted from a scheduling conflict, fear of offending the pro-Israel political action committees that have contributed $9,350 to his campaigns in four elections, or plain fear of controversy was not clear.)

Now the town of Zimmerman was challenging President Lyndon Johnson's incredible cover-up of one of the most controversial episodes in U.S. naval history. Johnson ordered the Liberty crew separated and silenced, on pain of dismissal from the Navy. Captain McGonagle was awarded his Congressional Medal of Honor at an obscure location, while on the same day Johnson honored a Vietnam War hero in the White House.

A Media Blackout

The Twin Cities media had been alerted to the occasion. But the Zimmerman ceremony was not reported on television or in the metropolitan media. The media blackout leads these writers, one a USS Liberty survivor, the other an American Embassy Cairo staff member in 1967 and a native of another Minnesota small town, to wonder whether the Zimmerman story was "good news" and therefore dull.

Or was it that small town and rural traditional values represent only a mythical Lake Wobegon and not the real-life contemporary metropolitan marketplace? Or was it another sordid defeat for freedom of expression of the kind chronicled in 1984 by Congressman Findley, who described U.S. media and academic reluctance to criticize Israel as "the great fear"?

The Legionnaires of Zimmerman are not complaining, however. They are content that they performed a long-overdue service. We, the writers, therefore can only suggest that such gestures of recognition of the sacrifices of the men of the USS Liberty are long overdue throughout the nation they served.

Gene Kirk, a USS Liberty survivor, lives in Albertville, MN. C. Patrick Quinlan, a retired U.S. foreign service officer, lives in Edina, MN.