In June 1967, in international waters, an American ship, the USS Liberty, came under attack by airplanes and torpedo boats from the state of Israel.
In an attack lasting more than two hours, the intelligence gathering ship was bombed, rocketed, strafed, napalmed and torpedoed. As valiant crewmen fought the flames and rushing sea water, their life rafts and lifeboats were deliberately destroyed by Israeli gunfire. On that day, 34 Americans were killed, and 171 were wounded.
But that's only the opening page of a mystery that reads like a Tom Clancy novel when you follow the events.
As the men pleaded for help, American planes were launched from a carrier--and then recalled on direct order from then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson. The men were left to die and the ship to sink for all McNamara and Johnson knew at the time. Why did they do that?
Orders to move away from the coast about 100 miles were mistakenly sent to the Philippines and never reached the Liberty. Yet orders to abort the rescue reached the carrier instantly.
A Navy court of inquiry was a whitewash--so bad, in fact, that a Navy legal officer in Washington refused to endorse it. Members of the crew were ordered to remain silent and were threatened with court-martial if they talked. They were broken up and sent to scattered assignments. So were the pilots involved in the aborted rescue mission. Why?
For the first time in American history, an attack on an American ship resulting in casualties was never investigated by Congress. A unit citation, issued in 1967, was never given to the crew until years later, and then in an unpublicized ceremony. The commanding officer was also belatedly given the Congressional Medal of Honor--quietly.
When the survivors of the Liberty finished their service in the Navy and were thus free to talk, they became targets of a campaign of vilification and have been called drunks, anti-Semites, and incompetents.
When a small town in Wisconsin decided to name its library in honor of the USS Liberty crewmen, a campaign claiming it was anti-Semitic was launched. And when the town went ahead, the U.S. government ordered no Navy personnel to attend, and sent no messages. This little library was the first, and at the time the only, memorial to the men who died on the Liberty.
There are a number of outrages that remain to be resolved. Why did the U.S. government publicly accept the Israeli claim that the attack was a mistake even though evidence now exists that it knew then the attack was not a mistake? It's easy to understand why the Israeli government lied about the attack, but why did the U.S. government lie about it? Why does it coninue to lie about it?
Why does the U.S. government continue to classify much of the record? Why does McNamara now profess to remember nothing of his role in the affair? Why, if the attack really was a mistake, do Israel and its supporters oppose so strenuously a congressional inquiry? Why is Congress afraid to conduct the inquiry? Why have veterans been so viciously attacked by their fellow Americans?
A new book, "The USS Liberty: Dissenting History vs. Official History," fairly examines the coverup. John Borne, who has taught American history, did the study for his doctoral dissertation at New York University. You can order it directly from him by writing John Borne, 41 Eastern Pkwy., Brooklyn, NY 11238. I talked to Borne, and he will send you the book postage paid for $20. You can get more information on the Internet at http://www.halcyon.com/jim/ussliberty/.
These survivors deserve the support of the American people. Will you stand by them?
Charley Reese is a syndicated columnist