On 46th Anniversary, Survivors of Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty Demand a Congressional Inquiry
June 9, 2013
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Richard Julian / The MetroWest Daily News
Saturday marked the 46th anniversary of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, a Naval spy ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The attack killed 34 American crew members and wounded 171 others. The attacks escalated despite the ship being unable to return fire in any form, with torpedoes hitting the ship and napalm bombs setting it ablaze. The US accepted an Israeli apology, along with a $6 million payment but survivors of the attack are still pressing Congress for an investigation of Israel's deadly and unprovoked attack on a US Navy ship in international waters.
On 46th Anniversary, Survivors of Israeli Attack on USS Liberty Demand Congressional Inquiry
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(June 7, 2013) -- Saturday marks the 46th anniversary of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, a Naval spy ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The attack killed 34 American crew members and wounded 171 others.
The incident came during the Six-Day War of 1967, during which Israeli occupied large chunks of territory from its Arab neighbors. The attack on the USS Liberty was America's only involvement in the conflict.
The attack began with two Israeli Mirage III fighter jets attacking the ship, claiming they assumed the antenna was a gun, and began attacking the US ship with rockets. The attacks escalated despite the ship being unable to return fire in any form, with torpedoes hitting the ship and napalm bombs setting it ablaze.
The immediate US response was to deploy warplanes against Egypt on the assumption that they might conceivably have been the attackers. Though never confirmed, some reports have persisted that the planes had nuclear weapons on board, though they were thankfully recalled at the last moment when it was revealed that it was an Israeli attack.
Israel claimed that they assumed the USS Liberty was an Egyptian destroyer, despite it flying a US flag and having clearly identified Latin alphabet letters all over it. The US rejected the claim but accepted an Israeli apology, along with a $6 million payment made in 1980 to cover a fraction of the repair costs for almost destroying the ship.
Israel's own investigations into the matter throw their own story into doubt, with a 1982 IDF History Department Report (pdf) noting that the Israeli Navy knew hours before the attack that the ship was from the US Navy, and then goes on to speculate that the ground controllers directing the attack were just never told about this. It then brushed off the whole incident as "an innocent mistake."
There were some limited US military inquiries into the matter but nothing in the way of Congressional investigations, and 46 years later survivors of the attack are still pressing Congress on the incident, saying it's high time they got around to actually probing unprovoked attacks on a US Navy ship in international waters.
The survivors noted the incongruence between the treatment of the USS Liberty attack and the September 11, 2012 Benghazi consulate attack, saying it made no sense that Congress has dedicated months to that attack while refusing even nominal hearings on the USS Liberty, an attack which had many, many more casualties.
USS Liberty Veterans Association
USS Liberty Memorial
Julian: Forty-six Years of Silence
Richard Julian/Guest columnist / The MetroWest Daily News
(June 2, 2013) -- It was a strange winter day, unusually hot and muggy at the beach in Los Angeles. I was early for a lunch meeting with a movie producer at a trendy restaurant on the Redondo Pier, a place where big dreamers go to discuss their big ideas. A smooth-talking producer was hiring me to write on one of the most controversial events in American history, an incident so shameful the US government scarcely acknowledges it.
The producer finally arrived and introduced himself as from South Africa, a man with ties to large international banks. He went on to say, with the hubris of a politician, "Hollywood is broken. The way they finance films is archaic! I have found a new way to make them."
Sounded like the typical Hollywood hustle but I waited to hear more. "Have you ever heard of the USS Liberty?" he quietly asked, staring across the table. We're going to shake up the world with this story."
I wondered if I was ready to shake up the world. This story was too raw, too sensitive, too explosive. I decided I should do a little research first by contacting some of the survivors.
It wasn't long before I was drawn into a world that I never knew existed. I was moved by these men, some of them sobbing over the phone to a total stranger as they shared their experiences. One survivor in particular, seaman Richard "Larry" Weaver seemed to have the most chilling and gut-wrenching experience of all.
An Attack without Warning
Larry was a 21-year-old first bosun's mate, fresh out of boot camp when he set sail aboard a unarmed intelligence ship called the USS Liberty. This was 1967 and tensions were flaring between Russia and the United States over the Vietnam War -- and now the stakes were escalating.
The "Six Day War" was in full swing. Israel had just launched a massive assault on Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
The Liberty, with its sophisticated spy equipment, was floating in the Mediterranean within earshot of the Sinai Peninsula. "So close I could I could hear the bombs exploding," Larry recalls.
On the morning of June 8, the skies were sunny and clear. The ship was in international waters and everyone felt safe. So safe, that crewmen were sun-tanning and playing Frisbee on the deck.
Larry was one of the first sailors hit. He was a lookout on the bow, going through his normal routine of checking instrumentation, when two unmarked Mirage fighter-jets came out of a blinding sun and attacked with lightning speed. They strafed the boat with armor-piercing bullets as Larry scrambled for cover. The jets crisscrossed and came back. This time Larry was unable to escape. A rocket blew a hole in his stomach and nearly tore him in half.
Severely wounded and fighting to stay conscious, Larry crawled into a storage closet and watched in horror as his shipmates were obliterated with napalm, rockets and eventually a torpedo. The carnage so bad, there was a thick stream of blood flowing over the side of the ship.
"I saw a lot of guys die," he says, "and I could never understand why."
The assault lasted for nearly an hour. When it was over, 34 American sailors were dead and 171 injured, out of 294 on board.
Larry was one of the most seriously hurt. Doctors counted 120 deep shrapnel wounds, he says. He was missing half his colon and his right leg was torn to shreds. No one expected him to live, but somehow he survived.
Sometimes he wishes he hadn't.
An Admiral's Threat
Larry Weaver woke up a few days later in intensive care, after his fifth major surgery to repair his colon. The ferociousness of the battle still a blur to him, he was shocked to find out that it wasn't Egypt or Russia that had attacked the Liberty. It was America's ally, Israel.
"This really blew my mind" he says, "I couldn't believe that it was true."
A few hours later his mind was blown again, when he was visited by Adm. Isaac Kidd. Larry thought it strange that a three-star admiral would take the time to talk to him.
The admiral shut the door behind him, Larry recalls, and began to take the brass stars off his sleeves. "All right now Larry", he said, smiling, "I'm no longer an admiral. I want you to tell me everything you saw."
"So I told the admiral everything I saw," Larry says.
Larry remembers watching as the admiral calmly snapped his stars back on. "All right, now I'm an admiral again." Then he became fierce and angry. "If you ever tell anyone what you saw -- family, friends or anybody -you'll be court-martialed, thrown in jail or even worse."
"That was probably the roughest day of my life." Larry recalls. "I was barely 20 years old and just went through the traumatic experience of almost dying and here I was being threatened by my own country."
No one really knows the true reason Israel attacked the ship. Israel's explanation was that it was simply a case of mistaken identity. They didn't see a US flag flying and mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian vessel that had fired on them the previous day.
Larry says Old Glory was definitely flying that day and he should know: "I was laying right under it when the rocket hit me and catapulted me five feet in the air."
Some of the survivors I spoke to say the flag issue is just a smoke-screen for a more sinister reason. They say there's good reason to believe that their own government set them up as a pretext for entering the war. They insist the unmarked planes prove that there was some form of collusion between Israel and the US to make it look like the attack was from an enemy, such as Egypt or the Soviet Union.
But is it possible? Would President Lyndon Johnson be ruthless enough to sacrifice the lives of 294 American sailors for a chance to enter a conflict with perhaps a bigger picture in mind? Control of the Middle East oil fields, perhaps, and a chance to break the Soviets' grip on its Arab allies?
Facts and Theories
Over the years, countless theories have been spun about what may or may not have occurred that day. Books and Internet articles suggest clandestine operations and backroom deals. Truth, speculation and outright fiction combine in murky, confusing accounts.
But the Israelis' story and official US reports collide with a few facts that defy easy explanation. Among these are the communications showing that two rescue attempts to save the Liberty were called back by the White House. The accounts were corroborated by J.Q. "Tony" Hart, who at the time was a chief petty officer in Morocco assigned to handle communications between Washington and the Sixth Fleet.
In the first conversation, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was informed by the commander of the Sixth Fleet, Rear Adm. Lawrence Geis, that four F4 Phantom jets had been dispatched from the USS Saratoga in response to a distress call from the USS Liberty, then "under attack by unknown forces."
McNamara told Geis in no uncertain terms, "I want those Phantoms returned immediately!"
Ninety minutes later another attempt was made. Adm. Geis sent jets from the Saratoga and another carrier in the region, the USS American. He received another call from McNamara with the same instructions. This time an irate Geis told McNamara he will not return the jets until he hears from the commander-in-chief himself.
McNamara put Johnson on the phone. "Mr. President," Geis explained, "they're killing Americans." Johnson's response was, "I don't care how many Americans are being killed. I will not embarrass one of our allies."
President Johnson went on national television the next day and delivered the news to the American people. Solemn and contrite, he said that 10 sailors were lost in a six-minute accidental attack -- when in reality it was 34 sailors lost in a 40-minute attack.
The following day, June 10, a Navy Court of Inquiry was hastily assembled to conduct an investigation into the disaster. The investigation was directed by Adm. John McCain, who at the time was commander-in- chief of naval forces in Europe. Adm. McCain (father of Sen. John McCain), with Adm. Kidd presiding and Capt. Ward Boston, a senior chief counsel to the Navy, were instructed to conclude their findings in one week, an unusually brief timeframe.
It wasn't long before Capt. Boston found out why. In an affidavit written decades after the attack, Boston wrote that Adm. Kidd had been summoned to the White House and ordered by Johnson to "put a lid on it." Boston said Kidd also told him that both the president and McNamara ordered him to conclude that the attack was a case of "mistaken identity."
Boston kept his silence for 36 years, but came forward in 2003, releasing his sworn affidavit at a Capital Hill news conference. When pressed by reporters on why he stayed silent for so long, he simply replied, "I'm a military man, and when orders come, I follow them."
Capt. Boston passed away a few years later, but many tough questions still remain. Why did Johnson refuse to send air cover for the Liberty? This was the first time in US history that a military commander refused aid to an American ship under siege, which could be considered an act of treason and an impeachable offense. It's hard to imagine that our president would allow an American warship to be deliberately attacked and American lives to be lost.
Another lingering question: How did the White House know it was their own "ally" attacking the ship? There was only one distress signal that came from the Liberty (before its antennas were destroyed) to the Sixth Fleet. The call gave absolutely no indication of who was attacking, only that it was from "an unknown force."
In 2004, a more thorough inquiry on the Liberty was conducted by Adm. Thomas Moorer, the navy's highest ranking officer and a former chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. Moorer cleared Johnson of any "premeditation," but concluded through his own eight-month independent investigation that Johnson and his administration were guilty of one of the worst cover-ups in American history. The Israeli attack was deliberate, he said, perhaps intended to draw the US into the Six Day War.
A Hero's Pain
Forty-six years and 32 surgeries later, the last one just six months ago to replace a shoulder, Larry Weaver is left still wondering. The emotional scars tear deeper than the physical. "The dreams and the nightmares, they never stop," he says.
Doctors tell Larry he has one of the worst cases of PTSD they have ever come across. I remind him of another famous veteran who blazed a trail before him. Audie Murphy became the poster child for PTSD -- back during World War II when they simply called it "battle fatigue."
He was also probably one of our greatest war heroes, having won more medals for combat bravery than any American soldier in history. He wrote a best selling novel "To Hell and Back" and starred in a movie about his experiences. But it all came crashing down when the nightmares got the better of him.
" I'm no hero like Audie Murphy," Larry says, "I never shot at anyone and I've never killed anyone."
"No," I tell him, " but you sure as hell suffered like one."
In fact, the pain became so unbearable that Larry twice tried take his life, once with pills and the other with a gun. "I was seconds away from pulling the trigger," he says, "but a call from an old friend at the last moment saved me from doing it."
There are days when Larry feels like giving up again. He realizes his time may be short. His body, welded together with steel rods and mesh, is falling apart. He just wants one last chance before he dies to tell the world what really happened.
I encourage him not to give up hope. "The money is coming to do your story. This big producer says he's in Europe right now raising millions of dollars. It's just a matter of time."
There's dead silence on the other end of the phone as if he's heard that empty promise before. In fact, he has -- all the long hours he stood in line at the VA office to speak to someone about his disability payments that never came. This went on for years until he finally had enough and hired his own private detective to find out why.
It didn't take long for the investigator to discover the reason, Larry says. There was simply no record of a seaman named Richard "Larry" Weaver ever being on the USS Liberty. The investigator told Larry that someone high up in government who had access to confidential records was able to get his name scrubbed clean from the ship's manifest.
It took Larry years to get his name and records restored so that he could collect his disability benefits. But why were they expunged in the first place? Larry believes it's because the US government is afraid of what he knows. "I've been under surveillance for 46 years," he says. "I have information that could blow the lid off this thing."
"So why now?" I ask. "Why come forward after all these years?"
"It's time for the American people to know the truth!"
More than a Movie
That truth won't be told in a Hollywood movie, at least not the one I was working on.
The story of the USS Liberty has been hijacked over the decades by conspiracy theorists, extremists and anti-Israel, anti-Semitic hate groups. It's gotten too hot to handle, which may be why the producer bailed out on the project.
Now the South African producer has become an entrepreneur and a real estate developer. His plan is to build a state-of-the-art movie studio on the site of a now-closed state hospital in Westborough.
He's moved on, but Larry Weaver can't. Larry, like others in the dwindling band of USS Liberty survivors, still wakes in the middle of the night hearing the screams of his dying comrades. He still waits for someone to tell his story.
Richard Julian is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He's currently working on a book about Larry Weaver's harrowing experience.
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