Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending a special Liberty on Tap event in Tulsa. Hugh Smith of Oklahoma City invited these two gentleman to speak at several engagements during their short visit. They are two survivors of the attack on the USS Liberty in June of 1967.
I did not have a lot of expectations, other than obviously hearing first hand personal accounts of what must have been a terrifying experience for both of them. I knew little of the history other than what I read in Wikipedia, which offers the ‘official’ story and a small mention of the controversy surrounding it. That was about it. What I heard was not another glorified ‘war story’. It was a disheartening tale of an intentional surprise attack on a non-combative ship by US ‘allies’ and the US government’s collaborative burying of facts and refusal to investigate.
I will share a little bit of what I heard then give you links to explore on your own.
Jack Beattie spoke first. He worked in engineering on the ship and recounts how the USS Liberty would go on four month patrol missions up and down the coast of Africa. On the second patrol mission, in June 1967, they were 13 miles off the coast of Israel. The Six Day War had begun at this time. He recalls how the Israeli jets had flown over several times in the morning and the crew on the ship waved at them. The US flag was flying and snapping in the wind. There was was no cause for concern among the crew.
On June 8th, after general quarters, Jack had a work request for a motor boat engine, a boat that was used for overboard rescue. He was working on the engine with one other man. He noticed the ship lookouts were looking up in the sky through binoculars when the bridge exploded into flames. Right after abandoning the boat they were working on, a rocket destroyed it. What followed was the rest of the horrifying events of that surprise attack. After 40 minutes, there was a lull and the men were instructed to prepare for a torpedo attack. The torpedo killed 25 men. Jack worked his way up to the main deck. Three torpedo boats were circling the ship and machine gun fire was destroying the life boats. The attack commenced for more than two hours. Over 170 men were wounded and 34 men killed.
Jack explains how well marked the ship was, that the flag was up and there was no doubt that the Israelis knew who they were. The flag had been shot down two times, and a new one raised three times. The following morning, two ships arrived and brought them some food and supplies. They got the boilers up and running and moved at a slow pace of four knots toward Malta with a badly damaged ship. They reached Malta four days later. Admiral Kidd boarded the ship and addressed the men. They were instructed “to keep their mouths shut” or they would end up in prison. For fifteen years the men were quiet.
Bryce F. Lockwood, a Marine linguist, spoke next. He was stationed on June 7. His orders, along with the other linguists, was to monitor the Soviets and United Arab Republic transmissions. At 1400 hours, he recalls, the attack began. Large caliber strikes and rockets were fired, picking out all of the transmitting antennas, preventing any possibility of getting out a Mayday. Distress frequencies along with tactical were being jammed.
The attacking aircraft were unmarked. The torpedo boats shot five times, and four of them missed. Bryce’s face was burned from an exploding torpedo. The men were put into the radio room. A Mayday was finally sent off by running cable to a broken whip antenna, the only antenna, that had not been destroyed. The minute the Mayday was acknowledged, the shooting stopped. Life rafts were then thrown over the side by crew members, followed by machine fire from the torpedo boats, which had destroyed all of the the remaining life boats.
After the Mayday had been sent off, rescue planes were launched by the USS Saratoga and the USS America, both aircraft carriers that were in the Mediterranean. The planes were ordered back by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Commanding officer Larry Geis requested the order from a higher authority, which was Lyndon Johnson. Bryce quoted Johnson as saying, “Get those GD aircraft back on deck. I don’t care if the ship sinks and every man drowns. I will not have my allies embarrassed.” Bryce asked, how did Johnson know they were allies since the aircraft were unmarked and the crew of Liberty did not know who attacked them? This is just one question among the many surrounding the events of that day.
In June 2007, members of the Liberty Alliance Group, who are all former ambassadors and retired admirals, filed formal war crimes charges against Israel. The members consisted of: a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Admiral Tom Moorer – Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mark Hill – retired two star admiral and 2nd in command to Admiral Tom Moorer, and Admiral Merlin Staring – Senior Naval Officer for the entire US Navy. It is the obligation under US law for the Secretary of the Army to investigate all charges of war crimes against US citizens or military. The Secretary of the Army never investigated the attack. A year later, Admiral Mark Hill and Admiral Merlin Staring wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Army demanding he look into the charges. He never answered the letter. Most of the men of the group have since passed away. This is the only incident where a US ship was attacked by a foreign power and never formally investigated. The Israelis still maintain it was a mistake.
There are a few speculations as to why Israel attacked the USS Liberty that day, but a case of mistaken identity is not one of them. Both of these men, among other surviving crew, maintain there was absolutely no mistaking that the USS Liberty was an American ship, marked a GTR – a known non-combative ship. An Israeli pilot served five years in prison for refusing to attack the USS Liberty.
I am grateful to these men, and Bryce’s lovely wife, for taking the time to travel to Tulsa and share this personal experience and insight with us. Though they were stoic in their presentation, it was not without some emotional pauses. The frustration and injustice expressed by these men, I believe, was felt by the audience as well.
Here are some links that present the story in more detail and may shed some light on the big question I think we all have…Why?
Assault on the Liberty