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History Channel’s “Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty“ Gives Crew Chance to Tell Their Story
By Delinda C. Hanley
After 34 years, USS Liberty survivors finally were given the opportunity, long denied them by the government they served, to tell their story to their countrymen—at least those with cable TV. Viewers across the nation gathered Aug. 9 to watch The History Channel’s program, “Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty.”
The long-anticipated show, an episode of The History Channel’s popular “History Undercover” series with host Arthur Kent, originally had been scheduled to air Feb. 25. With The History Channel unforthcoming about the reason for the delay, rumors circulated that, having failed to completely block the program, Israel had demanded that additional footage defending its version of the attack be interpolated.
When it finally aired, the well-documented and dramatic program explored Israel’s June 8, 1967 attack, at the height of the Six-Day War, on a lightly armed U.S. ship, killing 34 American sailors and wounding 172 others. Crewmembers Jim Ennes, Jr., John Hrankowski, Rocky Sturman, Joe Meadors, Joe Lentini, and Lloyd Painter took turns telling their story in a precise, matter-of-fact manner, never sensationalizing the harrowing attack. Film clips from the Arab-Israeli war and previous naval maneuvers, mixed with home movies and snapshots taken by Liberty sailors, accompanied their narratives.
Adding to the crewmembers’ eloquent eyewitness accounts was commentary by James Bamford, whose explosive new book, Body of Secrets, revealed Israeli communications recorded during the attack (see Andrew Killgore’s book review, Aug./Sept. Washington Report, p. 103).
On the day of the attack, the Liberty was in international waters, 13 miles off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula, listening in on the developing Arab-Israeli war—which, the show commented, both sides claimed the other started—collecting intelligence. Fearing the slow-moving Liberty might be exposed and vulnerable with only four 50-caliber machine guns to protect it, the Pentagon sent three messages to the ship to withdraw farther off the coast. Twice messages were misdirected to the Philippines. The ship was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In nine hours of close surveillance Israeli pilots had circled the ship 13 times on eight different occasions. They could easily see the American flag and its clear markings. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, who spoke at a July 23 book-signing for Bamford’s Body of Secrets held at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC, was outspoken and skeptical of Israeli claims that pilots thought the ship was an Egyptian vessel. Admiral Moorer described the Liberty as “the ugliest, strangest looking ship in the U.S. Navy. As a communications intelligence ship, it was sprouting every kind of antenna. It looked like a lobster,” he noted. “Israel knew perfectly well that the ship was American.”
Some of the planes circled so close that American sailors sunning themselves on their ship’s deck waved to the Israeli pilots.
Then, at 2 p.m. on June 8, 1967, a clear day, three unmarked Mirage fighters attacked the USS Liberty for five minutes. A National Securty Agency (NSA) surveillance plane overheard the attack. Radio operators in nearby Lebanon also intercepted Israel Defense Force orders to attack the ship, as well as the pilot’s reply that it was an American ship and he could see an American flag. The order was repeated: “Attack the ship.”
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter was shown a transcription of the radio exchange and later told his story to syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Two Israelis actually involved in the attacks also have confirmed that Israel knew it was attacking an American vessel.
A few minutes after the initial assault, three unmarked Super-Mystére jets attacked the Liberty with napalm and dozens of rockets. The engagement lasted 25 minutes—23 minutes longer than a simple case of friendly fire—killing nine men and wounding 172. When the American flag was shot up it was replaced by an extra large flag usually flown during holidays.
The survivors continued to tell their dramatic story of heroic sailors on deck who were chased and mowed down by machine gunfire, rockets and napalm. (Clean-up crews later saw shell casings that read “Fort Dix, New Jersey.”) They described others working frantically below decks to destroy classified materials. Throughout the attacks Liberty communications experts tried to contact the Sixth Fleet by radio or teletype, but the Israeli planes jammed their transmissions and shot up their antennas.
Finally, in the few seconds it took for an Israeli plane to launch a rocket—when it was unable simultaneously to cause radio interference—a distress signal slipped through to the chief of naval operations saying that the Liberty was under attack from unidentified assailants and asking for immediate assistance.
The message was received and acknowledged by the carrier Saratoga, and Captain Joe Tulley dispatched fighter jets to come to the Liberty’s rescue. Israel must have heard these messages and known that it had little time left to complete its mission.
In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson convened a crisis meeting to discuss the attack. With the identity of the attackers still in doubt, according to The History Channel, Johnson and his advisers, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk,decided not to risk a possible Cold War confrontation. McNamara got on the radio and said, “Tell Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately.”
When McNamara’s orders were questioned, the president himself got on the radio to recall the planes. The History Channel program implied that Israel was unaware that the White House was calling back the assistance promised and, indeed sent, by the Sixth Fleet. Perhaps the Jewish state could not imagine a scenario whereby a government would abandon its own forces.
At3:15 p.m., three torpedo boats—which finally were marked with the Star of David, identifying the ship’s attacker as Israel—attacked the USS Liberty from the starboard side, launching armor-piercing bullets and even machine-gunning lifeboat rafts dropped into the water in case the crew was forced to abandon ship. That attack lasted 40 minutes.
Even after a torpedo blew a 30- by 40-foot hole in the ship’s communications room, the Liberty stayed afloat. Finally Israeli troop helicopters approached, and Liberty Capt. William McGonagle warned his crew that their ship could soon be boarded.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that armed troops were coming to finish the crewmen off, survivors told The History Channel. The men are convinced that because Israel believed rescuers were on their way, they did not come aboard and kill survivors. Israeli attackers finally left the crippled ship alone.
The action had already moved to Washington, where, as soon as the crippled ship sent a message saying they had been attacked by Israel,Israeli diplomats were busy apologizing for their “tragic mistake.” The Liberty repaired its engines and radio equipment and began to limp to Malta, pausing only to attach a net to close up the torpedo hole and prevent their buddies who were killed in the torpedo attack from washing out to sea.
What hurts survivors even more than the loss of their friends and boat is their own government’s subsequent cover-up of Israel’s attack. John Hrankowski related how, when they arrived in Malta, the crew was divided into small groups and debriefed. Admiral Isaac Kidd told crewmembers not to talk to their shipmates or anyone else about the incident. This is classified stuff, he told the men: “You are never, repeat, never to discuss this with anyone, not even your wives. If you do you will be court-martialed and will end your lives in prison—or worse.”
No one was interested in carrying out an in-depth investigation of anything but the communications problems the ship encountered during the Israeli attack. All evidence on the ship—including 820 rocket and cannon holes—was patched up and painted over, and crewmembers were sent home or reassigned (and split up) as if nothing had occurred. After a long wait, Israel paid $3.5 million in financial compensation to the families of the dead and $3.5 million to the wounded, some of whom refused to accept the money. In 1982—after Sen. Adlai Stevenson (D-IL) threatened to hold an inquiry—Israel suddenly offered $6 million for damage to the ship and “to close the book on the USS Liberty affair.” This effectively blocked Senator Stevenson’s hopes for an investigation, and the attack quickly became an official non-issue. As far as Congress and the White House were concerned, it was over.
But it wasn’t over for the survivors, however. In the years since the attack, many suffered post-traumatic stress, emotional problems, nightmares, alcoholism or divorce. Others tried to escape their pain by burying the memories so deeply they wouldn’t hurt. It wasn’t until Jim Ennes published Assault on the Liberty in 1980 that the crew began to go public with their story to tell their country what had really happened to their shipmates.
Israel, in the meantime, had published four reports that contradicted many of the facts the sailors knew to be true. It claimed to have fired on the Liberty as a result of mistaken identity, saying its pilots believed the ship to be the Egyptian horse-carrier ship al-Qusair, that had been docked in Alexandria for years. Israel also claimed that, once its attackers realized their mistake, they tried to help the crippled ship and its crew. “That’s the purest baloney,” Ennes responded in The History Channel film.
Toward the end of the program—presumably an addition made during the five-month interval between the initial and actual airings—Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev unconvincingly denied a cover-up and claimed that Israel has been most forthcoming. “It was a tragic mistake that happened,” Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Abba Eban agreed, while UCLA Prof. Stephen Spiegel explains that in the fog of war honest mistakes can happen.
On the other hand, Prof. Richard Dekmejjan, said the attack wasn’t a mistake and that he believes the crewmen. He told viewers that trying to minimize or ignore the assault is a disastrous error. Dekmejjan theorized that Israel had decided to capture the Golan Heights despite a U.N. cease-fire and simply didn’t want Americans to learn its plans. Nor did Israeli soldiers want an audience as they massacred Egyptian prisoners of war, who were told to dig their own graves, then shot at el-Arish. Did Israel attempt to destroy the Liberty and its radio transcripts containing evidence of war crimes? Did it hope to sink the Liberty and blame Egypt?
The crew avoids trying to guess the reason Israel attempted to sink their ship, surviving crewmembers Donald Pageler and John Hranskowski told the Washington Report during a recent visit. Said Pageler, “Only Israel knows why they did it and they will never own up to it.”
The questions Liberty survivors want answered are directed at their own government. When did the U.S. first learn of the attack? Why did Johnson and McNamara abandon American sailors? Why did they abort the rescue mission that would have prevented the torpedo-boat attack that alone claimed 25 lives?
At his recent book-signing, Bamford asked the audience why Israeli interests were placed before American lives. The Liberty cover-up, he warned, demonstrated to Israel that, if Washington was willing to ignore an attack on an American ship, the U.S. would wink at almost any Israeli action in the future. The Body of Secrets author also told a chilling anecdote about the early days of U.S. peacekeeping forces in the Sinai. The American deputy chief of mission in Tel Aviv got an urgent call from a furious then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, complaining that an American U-2 had drifted three kilometers into Israeli territory. “If one of them drifts over again,” Dayan yelled at his American “ally,” “we’ll shoot it down.”
Why was Liberty Captain McGonagle’s Medal of Honor, earned for remaining on deck and commanding his men despite serious wounds, presented in a quiet ceremony in a back room of Washington Navy Yard instead of by the president at the White House, as has been the case with every other Medal of Honor recipient? Why has no president ever met with any Liberty survivors?
Why did an Arlington cemetery headstone marking the grave of six missing Liberty comrades for years read “Killed in the Mediterranean,” without even mentioning the name of the ship or the Israeli attack?
According to survivors Pageler and Hrankowski, the Liberty is one of the most decorated ships in American naval history, with its crewmembers having received 830 awards. Does the Navy typically award this many medals to victims of “friendly fire”? Why did Liberty survivors’ DD2-14 discharge documents read RVN (Republic of Viet Nam) as the area where the men served?
When Israel jammed the Liberty distress calls, how did they know what frequencies the ship used? Why did the U.S. government allow Israel to lie about the attack? Why won’t the NSA release transcripts of their recordings of the Israeli attacks? Why has Congress, which has investigated every other incident of this kind, never conducted an investigation into the attack on the USS Liberty? Is it waiting until there are no eyewitnesses left alive to tell their story?
The more Americans learn about the Liberty and add their voices to those of the survivors (see petition box), the more likely it is that Congress will act on requests for a comprehensive investigation into the cover-up.
The History Channel—and producers Tom Seligson, Andrew Rothstein and David Siegel, along with narrator Arthur Kent—is to be praised for producing (and finally airing) a thorough and thought-provoking show in which survivors of Israel’s attack on the Liberty finally were given the opportunity to speak for their dead and wounded comrades. The patriotism and quiet dignity with which these men shared their story is a testimony to their honor and courage, and also, unfortunately, to their own government’s disgraceful treatment of servicemen who laid their lives on the line for America. USS Liberty survivor Dr. Richard Kiepfer recently declared, “Never before in the history of the United States Navy has a Navy Board of Inquiry ignored the testimony of American military eyewitnesses and taken on faith the word of their attackers.” It’s time for Washington to tell the truth.
Delinda C. Hanley is the news editor of the Washington Report
Ordering the “Cover Up” Video
Jim Ennes, Liberty survivor and author of Attack on the Liberty, reported that within four hours of the program’s airing, the History Channel sold out of the video “Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty.” This makes the video the network’s fourth best-selling tape, with the other contenders all being historical Christian shows. High video sales, along with letters to the History Channel, will help encourage repeat broadcasts of the groundbreaking show in the fall and winter, when viewers are more likely to watch TV than during the summer holiday months, when the show originally aired.
Those wishing to order a copy of “Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty”—for their own viewing, or to present to their congressional representatives—may order the video by calling 1 (800) 708-1776. The cost is $20, plus $5 shipping and handling. The History Channel, as of Aug. 27, no longer offers the Liberty video for sale online at their Web site.
To sign the following petition visit: <www.petitiononline.com/liberty/petition.html>
To: US Citizens:
Whereas, on June 8, 1967, the USS Liberty—while operating in international waters in the Eastern Mediterranean—was the target of an attack by Israel’s war planes and torpedo boats; and
Whereas, this attack killed 34 members of the Liberty’s crew and wounded 172 others, in addition to causing extensive damage to the ship; and
Whereas, the Congress of the United States has investigated every other incident of this kind; and
Whereas, the Congress of the United States has never conducted an investigation into the attack on the USS Liberty; now therefore be it
Resolved, That the Congress of the United States should immediately undertake and conduct a complete and comprehensive public Congressional investigation of the June 8, 1967 attack on the USS Liberty.