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John M. Hrankowski (1946-2011): A USS Liberty Hero Dies Without Seeing Justice
By Delinda C. Hanley
John Hrankowski was a survivor of Israel's June 8, 1967 assault on the USS Liberty, hours before Israel's invasion of the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War. Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked the U.S. intelligence ship with gunfire, napalm and torpedos in international waters for more than two hours. During the assault, Israel destroyed the ship's antennas and jammed its radios. Finally the crew managed to send a distress call to the USS America, which sent two fighter aircrafts to save the ship. But Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson recalled the planes, giving Israel time to fire torpedos. When the Liberty failed to sink, the Israeli government concocted a bizarre tale of mistaken identity to cover its crime. By the time two U.S. destroyers reached the Liberty—16 hours after the attack—34 officers and civilians of the 294-man crew were killed, and 174 injured—many, like John Hrankowski, seriously.
Hrankowski, then 20, who worked as a technician in the ship's engine room, received the Purple Heart—and a lifetime of serious medical problems. The USS Liberty was the most decorated ship since WWII, and perhaps the most decorated for a single attack in the history of the U.S. Navy.
It is also entirely possible that Liberty survivors broke another record—dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the nearly 44 years since the attack. Because the few who survived without physical wounds had to gather up their buddies' body parts, no one left that ship unscathed. When the Liberty limped into port, the crew was threatened with courts-martial if they discussed the incident, even with their wives and parents. As everyone now knows, it is essential that victims of trauma talk about their experience.
Even harder to bear than the physical and mental anguish these Americans have endured, however, has been their government's betrayal and silence for more than four decades. President Johnson hid the facts to avoid harming ties with Israel. Every subsequent administration has followed suit, resisting the calls by USS Liberty survivors for an independent investigation and the release of classified information which would set the historical record straight. "It is the only such event in U.S. Naval history the cause of which has never been formally investigated either by Congress or by the Navy itself," Richard Curtiss, executive editor of the Washington Report, and this author's father, frequently points out.
In the years since the attack, many survivors suffered emotional problems, nightmares, alcoholism or divorce. Others tried to escape their pain by burying the memories so deeply they wouldn't hurt. It was not until Jim Ennes, a survivor, published Assault on the Liberty (available from the AET Book Club) in 1980 that the crew began to go public with their story to tell their country what had really happened to their shipmates.
With the encouragement of his wife, Mary Ann, John Hrankowski, who retired from the Monroe County Sheriff Office, Courts Division in 1989, dedicated much of his personal time to telling Americans about the Liberty and the U.S. cover-up that continues to this day. He was one of the most active and committed members of the Liberty Veteran's Association.
Last year Hrankowski worked with the Rochester, New York Veterans of Foreign Wars to create a handsome USS Liberty Memorial at Lake Ontario Beach Park, a few miles from his home. On June 12, 2010, Hrankowski participated in the unveiling of the memorial, and said the event was one of the best days of his life. Many of the crew members and their families who were attending an annual reunion on Long Island came to the Rochester event. His shipmates, friends and even his doctors came to pay tribute at the memorial—but also to honor Hrankowski for his continuous efforts to educate the country on the fate of the USS Liberty.
Keynote speaker Capt. Steven Momano, USN-Ret., said, "For the ship's survivors, today is a day to remember, to mourn, and to reflect on their lost shipmates who remain to them eternally youthful and vigilant. This has not always been easy for them or for us, because there are no tombstones in the sea, no markers or places for us to pay our respects or grieve for our lost friends and loved ones. As the saying goes, we can only visit them in our hearts and in our dreams. That is why this memorial is so important. If, in some small way, we can keep alive the memory of the men who perished on June 8, 1967, we will have kept faith with them and their loved ones, whose rallying cry, 'Remember the Liberty,' remains as strong as ever."
Michael Skowronski, commander of VFW Post 16 in Rochester, which created the memorial, put it eloquently when he said of Hrankowski and the Liberty crew: "The sacrifices they made and the deeds they performed are written in history and shall remain alive in our memories for generations to come. We sincerely express our pride and gratitude for tasks they fulfilled."
Hrankowski was 64 when he died on March 22, 2011 from a heart attack at home, after a tough winter battling increasingly poor health. I called him the day before he died, and he said he was getting out again, seeing friends and family and going to his favorite diner, a place my parents and I enjoyed when we visited him and Mary Ann in Rochester several years ago. Everywhere he took us, people waved when they saw John, who was immediately recognizable thanks to his USS Liberty hat, jacket, T-shirt or license plate. Hrankowski said he was anxious to see the new film, "Justice for the Liberty," due out later this summer.
Then he was gone.
The Washington Report asked Hrankowski's friends to share their memories of this gentle hero, known to many of them as "Ski," who was always eager to place the spotlight on his shipmates instead of himself.
"John remained a lifelong giant in his absolute devotion to the glorious traditions of the U.S. Navy and his endeavors to enlighten all Americans on the unsung heroism of his shipmates," former Congressman Paul Findley wrote. "He was one of the great people of my acquaintance."
Don and Eva Pageler said they were thankful that the new Liberty memorial was completed before Hrankowski's death. "Now I have a place to go," Hrankowski told his friend. John was "a shining example of courage" and a man Pageler said he could trust.
Robert A. Casale, a crewman on the Liberty from 1964 to 1966, before the attack, said he "remembered dearly" some of the men who lost their lives that day. Casale recalled that he first met John at the first USS Liberty reunion in 1981, and said they became "loyal friends" over the years. "He was one person you could never forget in a million years...He was a hero. That is something he never talked much about because I could tell he was uncomfortable....John was eager to give credit to others whom he envisioned as the real heroes.
"Whenever I was depressed, a simple call to John made me laugh and brightened my day," Casale concluded. [Watch Casale's PowerPoint presentation of the Rochester memorial event by visiting http://db.tt/A1VzpFf].
Wrote Phillip Tourney: "Ski did his duty during the attack and served this country honorably, a fine tribute in itself considering we all should have been killed that day....We talked about how God had blessed us—we were not killed in action (KIA) and it was our duty to let the world know what happened June 8, 1967. But Ski did much more than most, and it cost him his health."
Hrankowski was instrumental in helping the village of Grafton, Wisconsin weather a storm of protests from Jewish organizations when it sought to honor the crew with a town library named USS Liberty Memorial Library (see June 1990 Washington Report, p. 36). "We were so proud to build the library here in Grafton and have John be such an important part of the effort," Jim and Carol Grant wrote. "He was the beacon that the crew followed while trying to pull out the truth about the Liberty attack."
Ron Kukal, who worked to recover and identify bodies aboard his ship, also recalled the "Library Wars" in Grafton during the late 1980s, and John's sadness that protesters at the ground-breaking ceremony called Liberty survivors, state dignitaries and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA), who were there to honor the fallen crewmen, anti-Semitic. "If I could speak to John today, I would say, 'John you broke ground again—you were one of the first to leave us. There are people out there waiting for us to die, and the Liberty story to die with us. That is not going to happen...The truth will finally win out," Kukal said.
"I interviewed John for our BBC film "Dead in the Water" and spent a very happy day with him at his home," Peter Hounam wrote from Scotland. "His passion and anger for what happened to the USS Liberty came over vividly."
"John was the greatest," his shipmate David Lewis wrote from Lemington, Vermont, and he'll "remain an inspiration for those of us who remain to keep up the fight until justice prevails."
"We've lost one of the good ones. John was probably one of the nicest, down-to-earth guys I've ever met. Through all of the difficulties he endured for several decades, he always kept a smile for his friends and a sense of humor. He will be sorely missed," Michael Washington of Penfield, New York wrote.
"We've lost a great friend and shipmate. No one worked harder than Ski to tell our story even while his health failed," shipmate Jim Ennes said.
"Anchors Away, My Friend...May you rest in peace. I know you're making the angels around you smile because you had a way of doing that every time you met someone new," Tom Richardson, Jr. wrote from Rochester, New York.
Bruno Barsoum, the jeweler who designed the USS Liberty ring and gives them without charge to families of men who died in the attack, wrote: "Rest in Peace. Justice for Liberty."
John Hrankowski is survived by Mary Ann Natalie Hrankowski, the wife he cherished and who listened, laughed and helped him love his all-too-short life; his son, David P. Hrankowski; sister Mary Ann; brother Robert; nieces and nephews; and his faithful pup, "Baci."
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.