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US: The USS Liberty episode

Ed Jajko gives us more details about the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty: "Technically, 172 men were wounded. Liberty crew member Rick Aimetti received his belated Purple Heart about a year and a half ago, raising the number. When I was Middle East curator at the Hoover Institution, one of the projects I took on was the documentation of the attack on the USS Liberty and subsequent events. I attended two reunions of the crew, the first in Washington, D.C., some years ago, and the most recent in May, 2002, in Pensacola Beach. At both reunions, I spoke to the assembled crew members, their families, and others, urging them to place their Liberty-related personal collections in the Hoover Archives or, at the very least, in some responsible archives. Over the years I acquired the personal collections of crew members James Ennes, the author of Assault on the Liberty, Ronald Kukal, Donald Pageler, and,.after his death, Captain William McGonagle. I got commitments from other crew members that they would place their materials in the Hoover Archives. Just before leaving the Hoover, I acquired the collection of Judge A. Jay Cristol, which will be sent to the Hoover in instalments. Cristol's dissertation and book, The Liberty Incident, attempts to prove that the attack was a tragic mistake. The collections include papers, letters, and photos, and the crew members' amateur original films of the Liberty. These collections are open, with some parts closed, and have been used by various scholars.

There have been numerous publications on the attack on the Liberty. An article published in an Israeli journal in 2000, exonerating Israel, bore the subtitle, "Case Closed." The case has not been closed. New evidence continues to come to light, bit by bit. The crucial evidence is probably still held in classified collections by the US and Israel. See James Bamford's book, Body of Secrets, for an interesting chapter on surveillance of the Liberty by US aircraft and submarine and possible witnessing of the attack.

Captain McGonagle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during and after the attack. The Medal of Honor, this country's highest military decoration, is ordinarily presented by the president in a White House ceremony. Because the "Liberty incident" has always been a political problem in this country, McGonagle's medal was presented by, if I recall correctly, the secretary of the navy in an unpublicized ceremony in the Washington Navy Yard. If one looks in the on-line databases on holders of the Medal of Honor, one finds the curious fact that, according to the US government, Captain McGonagle is the only member of the US military who won his medal for actions in the Vietnam war -- although somehow in the eastern Mediterranean. See, by way of example, The captain's specific citation is at Note that the aggressor is not identified. This highlights another and tragic aspect of this incident, which is the shameful treatment of the crew members who were killed and of the surviving crew members and their families. Those who were killed and then buried in military ceremonies have only "Eastern Mediterranean" on their tombstones; I recall one crew member remarking that it's as if the crew member had a heart attack and died while on vacation, rather than being shot up by aerial cannon fire while serving the US. As for those who lived, they were ordered by the US Navy not to talk about the attack. On return to port, those crew members who were still able to function were split up and reassigned around the fleet. The order not to talk and the threats of dire consequences came from levels high enough that most of the crew were silenced for years. It was only in the mid-80s that survivors formed the USS Liberty Veterans' Association and have called for congressional investigation of the attack. They now maintain web pages and stay in contact by e-mail.

In the literature, one can find Lyndon Johnson quoted as saying, when pressed about taking Israel to task for the attack, that he would not do so because he did not want to embarrass an ally. Politicians in this country were quick to exonerate the aggressor, clearly from crass political motives. There has never been a congressional investigation into the incident. The US Navy held a court of inquiry, headed by Admiral Isaac Kidd. That court, however, was charged with looking into the conduct of the ship and its crew, not the identity of the attacker. The Hoover Institution Archives holds a copy of the report of the court of inquiry that I obtained for a Hoover scholar through a FOIA request. The report was unfortunately censored by the navy.

As for the ship, the intelligence-gathering AGTR5 Liberty, a sister-ship of the USS Pueblo, once it was returned to home port at Newport News, it was sold for scrap, a good way of disposing of the evidence. Photographs and films of the ship show the horror of the attack: the superstructure riddled by machine gun and cannon fire and darkened by napalm burn, and the hull breached by a 40-foot wide hole made by the entry and explosion of a torpedo from a motor torpedo boat, precisely in the area where the NSA and navy communications staff did their work. Twenty-six men were killed by that torpedo. One crew member told me, last May, that had the torpedo struck a bit to the left it would have destroyed structural members of the ship, which would then have sunk. A crew member told me of the clean-up of the torpedoed space that he and his shipmates had to do, a day or two after the attack, removing pieces of their comrades, seeing a body drift out to sea.

I have come to know quite a few Liberty survivors and feel myself honored by their friendship. They were ordinary US sailors and NSA personnel on an old, slow ship that cruised international waters, listening to intelligence traffic. They were ordered to an area that was on the brink of war -- I have a feel for what the build-up to the war was; I was a student in Cairo at the time -- and ordered to cruise in international waters and listen to Arabic and Hebrew traffic. They were overflown by clearly marked Israeli jets. The crew claim they were able to see the pilots and wave to them. A number of the crew were relaxing on the deck, absorbing the hot sun of the Mediterranean. Then jet aircraft returned, their markings covered, and started strafing and bombing. Crew members who tried to return fire from the ship's meager defenses of four .50 calibre machine guns were killed. Those who tried to replace them were also killed or wounded. The US flag, flying in the breeze, was shot down, so the crew put up the "holiday colors," an even larger flag with gold fringe. That was also shot down. Significantly, the communications mast was shot down also. Before it was shot down, Captain McGonagle radioed a distress signal, saying the ship was under attack by unidentified aircraft. In the central Mediterranean, the captain of the USS America launched aircraft to defend the Liberty. He informed the Pentagon, and was ordered to recall the aircraft. He asked for confirmation of the order, and confirmation was allegedly issued by Secretary Macnamara. The captain allegedly disputed the order, and further confirmation is supposed to have come directly from President Johnson. The airplanes were recalled. I have this story from crewmembers and from investigative reporters who have done a film on the Liberty; another is publishing a book.

No longer bound by the rules that required me to maintain the neutrality of a librarian or archivist, I can state my belief that the attack was deliberate and that there has been a shameful cover-up not only by the State of Israel but, even worse, by the US government at the very highest levels. The ship had to have been identified in the overflights. The American flag was flying and the ship was marked by 10-foot high letters and numbers. It is time for the crew of the Liberty to have justice".

RH: I thank Ed for this important statement. Judge A.J. Cristol is just an apologist for Israel. As for Ed's last sentence, I am afraid there is little hope, given the political structure of the US.

Ronald Hilton - 4/27/03