By William Triplett.
The VVA Veteran – Arlington National Cemetery is far from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, but on a beautiful Saturday morning last spring one small patch of the nation’s most hallowed burial ground seemed very close to that long-troubled body of water. On a gentle hillside in Section 34 with sunshine pouring through broken clouds, about a hundred people gathered for a ceremony commemorating the 34 crewmen who were killed when Israeli air and naval forces attacked the USS Liberty off the coast of Gaza on June 8, 1967.
Behind a granite headstone that marks a mass grave for those who died in the attack rose a small platform with a dais in the center. Rick Aimetti, a former president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association, told the somber audience: “It doesn’t get any easier after 35 years.” Indeed, no one among the crowd looked particularly pleased to be there. But it was clear that for everybody the occasion was important – not to be missed, in fact. Some came every year.
As at many other military memorial ceremonies, various speakers reminisced – often emotionally – about the dead and the sacrifices they made for their country. But theLiberty ceremony was different. It always has been – and not simply because the annual reading aloud the names of the 34 dead is a ritual that makes the service movingly specific. The story of the Liberty is complicated, evidenced perhaps most graphically by the fact that while the granite headstone is designated as a group memorial, only six names are inscribed on it. It’s doubtful, moreover, that those six men are even buried there.
“Those men aren’t in that hole,” says Joseph Lentini, a Liberty survivor who was wounded in the attack. “What’s in that hole is a body bag that has all the parts they couldn’t identify.”
The mass grave isn’t the kind of mass grave the federal government would like you to think it is. Rather, it’s a perversely appropriate emblem of the decades of pain and humiliation that have been heaped on the Liberty’s dead and living. But the ceremony is a testament to the survivors’ struggle to maintain dignity and honor in the face of gross indignity and dishonor – not to mention unconscionable governmental denial and indifference.
It’s a struggle Vietnam veterans have known all too well. But while Vietnam veterans have won some of their long-overdue recognition, Liberty veterans and the families of her dead don’t yet know what that feels like.
ISRAEL’S SURPRISE ATTACK
The few undisputed facts of Israel’s attack on the Liberty are essentially these. When the Arab-Israeli Six Day War broke out, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson sent the Liberty spy ship into the eastern Mediterranean to determine whether Russians or Egyptians were piloting six Cairo-based Soviet bombers flying missions against Israel. The ship carried sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment; her crew of roughly 300 men consisted of communications specialists from the National Security Agency along with U.S. Navy officers and sailors.
As the Liberty neared Gaza in broad daylight, Israeli reconnaissance aircraft overflew her at least twice. A short while later, unmarked Israeli warplanes streaked in, strafing, bombing, and rocketing the lightly armed ship in international waters. When the aircraft withdrew, Israeli torpedo boats appeared, firing at least one torpedo that struck the Liberty dead center. After the assault finally ended, 34 Americans were dead and 171 were wounded. At least three of the wounded were not expected to live.
Israel claimed – and still does – that the incident was a tragic case of mistaken identity. Israeli Defense Force commanders and pilots said they thought they were attacking an Egyptian freighter. In Washington, the Johnson administration instantly accepted Israel’s claim, and this has been the government’s official position on the matter ever since. The Liberty‘s survivors and their supporters, however, have argued for decades that Israel was fully aware it was attacking an American vessel. They have both hard and circumstantial – though not conclusive – evidence to back their case. The debate over these opposing claims still rages.
What cannot be debated, though, is that almost immediately following the assault the U.S. government acted as if it had something to hide. The Liberty‘s survivors were quickly transferred to disparate and distant assignments and were threatened with jail if they ever discussed the attack with anyone, including family members. They were watched and monitored. Meanwhile, the government and the upper echelons of the Navy portrayed the attack and its aftermath as a non-event.
For example, according to John E. Borne’s 1995 book, The USS Liberty: Dissenting History vs. Official History, the Johnson administration refused to send the standard letter of condolence to the families of the men killed because it typically identified the hostile forces. Not wishing to characterize the Israelis or their actions as hostile (and therefore possibly deliberate), the letter that was sent said that the men who died had “contributed to the cause of peace.”
The government also initially decided not to award the Liberty survivors “hostile fire pay.” At the time, the Pentagon recognized only Vietnam as a hostile-fire zone. To designate the Liberty attack as having occurred in such a zone further risked characterizing Israel as an aggressor. Eventually the Pentagon decided to give the extra pay to the 171 wounded men. However, the rest of the crewmen – who’d fought for their ship and their lives, many of them covered in the blood of their comrades – got nothing.
That the crew fought bravely from beginning to end was obvious enough that President Johnson gave the Liberty crew a Presidential Unit Citation. However, the citation was not presented to the crew – who knew nothing about it – until many years later. Worse, like the sanitized condolence letter, the citation acknowledged only that the ship had been attacked by “foreign aircraft and motor torpedo boats” – as if the attackers’ identity were unknown.
When the group headstone was first installed in Arlington Cemetery, its inscription declared that the men had “died in the eastern Mediterranean.” As Borne points out, survivors said that “anyone seeing the stone would think that the men had died in a Middle Eastern whorehouse or were run over by a taxi in Constantinople.”
At the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, there is a wall engraved with the names of Naval officers killed in combat. Two officers were killed on the Liberty. The Navy did not put their names on the wall.
Perhaps the ultimate insult occurred when the government awarded the nation’s highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor, to Capt. William McGonagle, theLiberty‘s skipper, for repeatedly braving lethal fire to protect his men and his ship. Normally the President presents this medal to the recipient in a ceremony held at the White House. But Johnson handed down the task to his Secretary of the Navy, and the ceremony took place at the Washington Navy Yard with little media attention.
Many motives have been offered as to why the Johnson administration acted as if it wanted to bury the Liberty affair. Most have to do with not wanting to embarrass and possibly alienate its only Middle Eastern ally. Similarly, many theories have gained prominence about why Israel would deliberately attack an ally’s spy ship – the fear, for instance, that the United States might learn of Israel’s then-developing plans to seize Arab territory, plans the United States might have objected to.
Whatever the truth or intent on either side, the result was unequivocally clear as far as it concerned the Liberty survivors: For all practical purposes, their government was denying what had happened to them.
As is the case in any sort of trauma, says Herman Barretto, a Post-traumatic Stress Disorder counselor at the Fresno Vet Center, if people even act as if they don’t believe something happened, “it re-victimizes the victim. The first step in safeguarding against the onset of PTSD is to affirm the intensity of the moment.” This validates the experience for the victim. Also, Barretto says it’s important for multiple victims of the same trauma to come together as much as possible to talk about it. “Social support and talking are necessary to healing. All the factors that would’ve helped [Liberty survivors] to safeguard against PTSD were not there.”
While the specifics differ in each case, the lingering ordeals of the Liberty survivors and the families of the men killed have been more or less the same.
SLAUGHTER AND DESTRUCTION
Though completely out of action, the Liberty did not sink. Because of its design and purpose, the ship’s midsection was the one place it could be hit by a torpedo and probably not go down. Ernie Gallo, a communications technician, says that the comm center, below deck and in the middle of the ship, had its own heavy vault doors for extra security. After the torpedo hit, the doors were sealed off, keeping the ship afloat.
Under escort – and trailed by a Russian destroyer hoping to find anything interesting that might float out through the blast hole in the Liberty‘s hull – the ship limped to Malta. The crew, minus the dead and wounded, who had been evacuated, thought they could now get off. “But they ordered us to go back into the ship where the torpedo hit, and they wanted us to clean out all the classified material,” Gallo says. Several men had been in the comm center when the torpedo hit, furiously signaling for help. Most were killed, and, as Gallo notes, “Their body parts happened to still be inside.”
“They had to go down in there and bag up those pieces,” says Lentini, who lost almost a full inch from one of his legs to a rocket and was evacuated with the other wounded. “No damn wonder those guys have been messed up.”
The Navy launched an internal inquiry even before the Liberty reached Malta. Whether the point of the inquiry was to uncover or cover up what happened is open to question. “The Navy investigators were interested in how we fought for the ship, how Navy training had paid off in the saving of lives and the ship,” Lentini says. “They didn’t want to know about the Israelis. Anytime somebody talked about napalm being dropped or being chased down by the aircraft or the life rafts being shot up, they were squelched.” Israel denies its forces tried to kill men in the water or sink the life rafts, which are war crimes, according to international law.
Lentini is the only surviving crewman who was inside the comm center when it exploded. “I’m the only living person who saw those guys in there and what they were doing prior to the torpedo hit,” he says. “The fact is, they were doing their job. They were trying to get communications and in a damn orderly way, given what was going on. Nobody from the Navy has ever asked me about that. To this day.”
Larry Weaver, a 21-year-old bosun’s mate on the Liberty, was one of the three wounded not expected to live. “I had been hit by rocket and cannon fire and it blew about two-and-a-half feet of my colon out,” he says. “I had 101 shrapnel wounds. My right leg was useless – I could look down through it and see out the other side, and look down further and see my kneecap. My skin was on fire and I had to put it out with my own blood. I was too scared to pass out because I thought I might never wake up. It took a long time for us to be evacuated” – not until the day after the attack – “and I couldn’t understand why. We just sat there, and there’s a lot of guys who died because of that.”
Weaver and the rest of the wounded eventually were airlifted to the USS America, where he immediately underwent the first of 26 major surgeries. He was subsequently flown to American hospitals in Crete, Italy, and Germany, and then sent to Philadelphia Naval Hospital for recovery.
“I was four days in intensive care in a wheelchair in Philadelphia, and I was told an admiral wanted to talk to me,” Weaver recalls. “I went to meet him in a room and he closed the door and deadbolted it, which kind of scared me. He then took his stars off, saying, I’m not an admiral now. Tell me what you know.’ ” Weaver told him, emphasizing, among other points, that throughout most of the attack, because of his position on the ship, he had had a clear view of the Stars and Stripes flying off the ship’s bow, clearly identifying the Liberty as American. The Israelis claim the spy ship was flying no flag.
“The admiral then said, ‘ Okay,’ and he put his stars back on and he pointed at me. And he said, Larry, if you repeat this or talk to anyone about this you’ll be put into prison and we’ll throw away the key.’ ”
The Rear Admiral similarly visited and threatened almost all of the other Libertysurvivors. “In Malta we got orders every day not to talk to nobody, no interviews, nothing,” says former crewman John Hrankowski. “As soon as we got back to the States, they started taking us selectively, one by one by one, and shipping us out all over. I went to an oiler, was there alone. We were spread out all over.”
Isolated from each other, threatened with prison should they ever speak about the attack – in short, treated as if they had done something wrong – the men of theLiberty obeyed their orders, which effectively forced them to pretend that the most traumatic event in their lives had never occurred.
SILENCE AND RAGE
The government’s fast and efficient silencing of the Liberty incident was no easier for the widows and families of the dead to bear. In 1967, Pat Blue Roushakes, then 22, had barely been married two years to Allen Blue, a National Security Agency linguist who was specially assigned to the Liberty for this particular cruise. June 8 was a work day, and while at lunch Roushakes overheard a radio report about an American ship having been attacked in the Mediterranean. “My heart just sank,” she said. “I can’t tell you how, but I just knew.”
When she got back to her office in downtown Washington, D.C., she called the NSA, which is based in nearby Maryland. “They said, ‘ Yes, we’ve been looking for you. We’ll be there in 45 minutes to pick you up.’ They didn’t tell me any more than that, but I didn’t need to hear any more.”
NSA personnel essentially moved into her house with her for the next six weeks. The press started calling Roushakes the first night, however, and “the NSA took over as far as the telephone was concerned. And no one was allowed to answer the front door. They were there to lend assistance – and they did; they were wonderful – but it was also clear they were there to intercept calls and people at the door.” This was standard procedure, given the highly classified nature of the NSA.
As a government agency, the NSA had no choice – publicly, at least – but to accept the Johnson administration’s proclamation that the attack had been a case of mistaken identity. “Privately, though, the NSA people were furious,” says Roushakes. “They weren’t buying the official story at all.”
Neither was Roushakes, but having been devastated at such a young age by the loss of her husband, she couldn’t do much about it. She took some time off from work, traveled, thought she felt better, and returned to her job. Some years later she remarried and had two children. For the most part during this period she says she felt all right – except for sudden eruptions of deep, overwhelming anger. “It was the worst emotion I’d ever had to deal with,” she says. “Sometimes absolute rage. I had no experience with it, and I’d act it out in inappropriate ways.”
She says she couldn’t believe the claim of mistaken identity when it was known that Israeli reconnaissance aircraft had repeatedly overflown the Liberty prior to the attack. The very idea that her own government would accept this claim made her furious. The NSA had made it clear to her that she was never to discuss the subject. “I always had this feeling that I would somehow dishonor Allen’s memory if I talked about what had happened,” she says. “People at NSA take their oath of secrecy seriously, and spouses are supposed to, too. So I didn’t talk, but at tremendous personal cost.”
In 1979, James M. Ennes Jr., a former Liberty officer who’d survived the attack,published Assault on the Liberty: The True Story of the Israeli Attack on an American Intelligence Ship. In it he presented evidence that Israeli forces were fully aware of the Liberty‘s identity before the attack. He also documented the great doubts that U.S. government officials privately had about Israel’s claim of mistaken identity from the very beginning, despite their public acceptance of the claim.
Roushakes bought the book. “I’d read a little, but then I’d get so angry again, I had to put it down,” she says. “I just wanted to scream. I could never read all of the book.”
She started waking up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, heart racing and in a dreadful panic. “I was absolutely terrified,” she says. “Something was terribly wrong, and I didn’t know what it was. At first it was just now and then that this would happen, then it was every night.” Doctors didn’t know what was wrong. Eventually she saw a psychiatrist, who told her she was suffering classic symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
THE DAMAGE DONE
John Hrankowski’s troubles started when he left the Navy not long after the attack. Painfully self-conscious of the scars he bore from shrapnel hits and fuel oil burns, he feared intimacy, burying himself in excessive work, holding down several jobs at a time. “I was never home and mainly a loner,” he says, “and this went on for years, burning myself out. I never understood what was happening to me because nobody talked about it back then.”
Hrankowski sought help from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, only to be turned away, he says. “They didn’t want anything to do with us because [the attack on the Liberty] was not a war to them. They said we hadn’t done anything fantastic or special.”
It wasn’t until Ennes’s book was published that Hrankowski felt any release from the pressure building inside him. “It was the first time somebody spoke publicly about it, and it was a real cathartic thing. Because we’d been told we can’t talk about it, no way. I was able to start talking about things.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to talk about it enough until 1995, when he finally started PTSD counseling. But by then the damage had been done. Overwork and stress had weakened his arteries, and he underwent bypass and bowel surgery in 1997. It saved his life, but he is 100 percent disabled as a result.
Carved up by 26 surgeries – which still left some 60 pieces of shrapnel inside him – Larry Weaver felt physically repulsive. His marriage fell apart. In 1971, he left the Navy to join the Naval Reserve. When he reported for duty, his commander took one look at him and told him there was no way, in his condition, that he could fulfill his responsibilities. He didn’t serve a single day.
“I was told by several authorities that because of the wounds I sustained in combat, I should’ve received disability retirement from the beginning,” Weaver says. “But they didn’t give it to me. I was very naive and they played on that. I got a regular separation as if my time had just expired on my enlistment.”
All of Weaver’s documentation from the Navy reads as if nothing unusual had happened to him during his service. His discharge papers fail to mention his time on the Liberty. Nor do they mention the Purple Heart he received for his combat wounds. “All they have on them is my service medal and my duty stations and my time on one ship, an oiler, and then they say I’m a patient on the USS America.
Weaver has had nightmares ever since the attack. “The dreams vary,” he says. “Most of them are a feeling of being trapped. I’m caught physically somewhere, having to fight a battle but having nothing to fight with. And feeling I’m completely alone, fighting and yet my country isn’t coming to help me.”
Lentini says he has had periodic problems with concentration since the attack, less so now than before, but his anger at the way the government treated the attack and the crew has never subsided. “I would’ve stayed in the Navy after the attack,” he says, “but I got out because I was absolutely fed up with what was going on.” Gallo quit, too – when he learned that Capt. McGonagle’s Medal of Honor would not be awarded by the President at the White House.
“I did not go to the ceremony because of that,” Gallo says. “I’ve regretted it ever since, but I was so upset at the time and said, ‘ No, I’m not being a part of this crap. I’m getting out of the Navy as fast as I can.’ I was a reservist and had to do two years. I got out and went to the CIA and had a 30-year career with them.”
Others were not so lucky. “There was a skinny kid named O’Connor, who had to be in a wheelchair after the attack,” says Lentini. “He gained tremendous weight and ultimately died. He didn’t die from his wounds, but as a result of them. Another guy had shrapnel in his brain and it migrated and he dropped dead. So a lot more than 34 died that day. They just died later.”
With the publication of Ennes’s book and later the formation of the USS LibertyVeterans Association, survivors began to meet and talk to each other again after years of separation and silence. They also have been speaking about their experiences. This, along with the PTSD counseling that some have received, has helped survivors enormously. But none of it has come from the government.
Though the names of the Liberty‘s officers who were killed have finally been etched on the wall at the Naval Academy, and the headstone in Arlington Cemetery now reads that the dead were “killed on the Liberty,” the survivors have had to find whatever solace they’ve managed to find on their own.
Full recognition of the struggles and sacrifices made by the men who served – 34 of them for the last time – on the Liberty won’t come, survivors and their supporters say, until there is a congressional investigation of the attack and its aftermath. They maintain that this is the only such incident in American history that never received a congressional investigation.
Only with the facts finally and completely on public record, they say, will no one be able to deny or ignore what happened to them. Perhaps then, their healing can begin.
The survivors created a Web site, http://www.ussliberty.org, to tell their story.