They are survivors bonded by pain, linked by chains of reverie and sadness. After 15 years they came together in Washington this weekend to let some anger and tears and laughter out. They came from Orlando and Needham, Mass., and Winter Harbor, Maine. One of them has a plumbing company now. Somebody is the commissioner of the port of Spokane. Somebody else cuts Christmas trees in Vermont. But this past weekend they seemed as one, glazed with memory and regret.
This was the reunion of the men of the USS Liberty, where 34 went down and 171 took fire from a friendly nation.
So the survivors huddled under a leaky canvas awning at Arlington National Cemetery, before a mass grave, while someone blew taps and someone else tolled a hand bell and a Navy chaplain reminded them that greater love than this no man has than to lay down his life for his comrades and his country.
Somewhere below the long sodded-over plot lay a body bag, province of worms. In the bag were limbs and ears and other unidentified remains. The headstone, bearing six names, carried only the rudest information: Jerry Lee Goss, Indiana. Jack L. Raper, Georgia. There is a one-line inscription: "Died in the Eastern Mediterranean, June 8, 1967."
The friendly nation was Israel. For years the government of Israel, with U.S. tacit, if reluctant, concurrence, has officially and reflexively maintained that the ordeal of the USS Liberty was an accident, an "unfortunate error of warfare." Israel claims that the Liberty was mistaken for an Egyptian vessel at the height of the Six Day War. When the mistake was realized, the attack was called off.
"Jerry was in the compartment where the torpedo came," said a small, spare woman Saturday evening, back at her hotel. Her name is Ida Goss and her son is one of the six buried in the mass Arlington grave. Mrs. Goss had come for the weekend from North Vernon, Ind. Her retired husband, Harry, who spent his life on the railroad, and her other son, Joe, the one who didn't go to sea, sat beside her, bulwarking her pain. "My boy was just 26," Mrs. Goss said. Her eyes glistened, but she wasn't about to cry. She has come this far without public tears. "It looks like he died in vain. They keep hurting you in so many ways."
"I never cried about any of it for six months," said a 37-year-old man named Virgil Brownfield. "And then crying was about all I could do." Brownfield runs a mail sorter in a Florida post office now. With a cowboy hat on, he could look like Robert Redford. In 1967 he was a scared 22-year-old captain's yeoman who had hardly ever been outside of Iowa. Brownfield was on the bridge of the Liberty that afternoon when a shell came through an open window and into the back of the head of his best friend, Petty Officer Francis Brown. The best friend was at the wheel of the ship and the bullet tore his brains out. Brownfield, whom they called "Brownie," watched his friend fall at his feet. "I was right next to him. You hear this gunfire and everybody is screaming, 'Get down, get down.' And people don't die like they do on TV, you know. They sort of die . . . like chickens. And everybody is falling--the navigator and the executive officer and the officer of the deck--and you wonder if you should just get it over with, just stand up and let them hit you."
To the men of the Liberty--as well as to the former head of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, who spoke at their reunion banquet Saturday night--the attack was unprovoked and deliberate. Mistaken identity was not possible, they say. (The ship was plainly flying the American flag; her white lettering was 10 feet high and clearly visible in conditions which were unarguably excellent. Those are two reasons; they have about a half dozen more.) Some of them feel the attack was supervised directly from the Israeli Navy War Room by the most senior military officers, including then-minister of defense Moshe Dayan.
Adlai Stevenson III attempted to open an official investigation before he left the Senate in 1980. Sen. Barry Goldwater tried briefly, but found no support. Mostly, the incident has lived in oblivion, but not for the survivors.
Shortly afterward, the government of Israel officially apologized for the attack. It launched inquiries and paid personal damages of $7 million for injury and death and, much later, material damages of $6 million. (The negotiations over money dragged on for more than a decade.) The press covered the story only sporadically. It is documented that the survivors and their families have suffered nervous breakdowns, divorces and cases of alcoholism. Some have had psychiatric treatment. This month a "final report" was submitted to the U.S. Navy from the Israeli Navy. According to Nachman Shai, spokesman for the embassy of Israel, the case is officially concluded.
Though not to the men of the Liberty. They want "justice" done, they want appropriate commemoration of the attack, though they acknowledge they're not sure what that means or how to begin going about it. Coming together in Washington 15 years later to share their pain and bitterness was a start, they say. And maybe getting the inscription on the mass grave in Arlington changed would be another start, they say. They just didn't "die" in the Mediterranean.
Their bitterness is directed almost as much at the U.S. Navy and the American government as at Israel. They feel the U.S. government participated in what amounts to a "cover-up" so as to avoid diplomatic fallout. The Nightmare
June 8, 1967. How many Americans even remember the name of the ship now, let alone what happened? This one wasn't the Pueblo, whose own story was to come just a few months later and rocket through the global village, making Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher the kind of celebrity no one would ever want to be.
This wasn't the Pueblo. This was the USS Liberty, technical research ship, sailing off the Sinai. The Liberty's mission, like the Pueblo's, was spying. The Liberty wasn't a war ship, she was a converted World War II freighter, ungainly but with heart, humming with wires and antennae and millions of dollars of what is called "electromagnetic radiation." What she was doing that day was listening in on the Six Day War. She was in international waters and was all but weaponless.
And what happened for a nightmare of 75 minutes is this: Israeli military forces rocketed, strafed, torpedoed and set the American ship aflame with huge silvery canisters of napalm. Frantic calls for help were sent. No help came. (The foul-ups in communication could almost rival Pearl Harbor's.) No American F-4s came, just more Israeli Mirage jets bringing death and destruction on a ship flying the colors of Israel's staunchest ally. Men hunched in the belly of their fear and cried out for their mothers. Some said Hail Marys as the jellied slop of napalm burst into flame, surged through rocket holes.
Mess hall tables became hospital beds. Lieut. Cmdr. Phil Armstrong, executive officer, was on one of them. He had been hit in too many places to count. He began to cough, then vomit blood. "No, no, no," Armstrong cautioned. "I'm okay. A little blood. No big deal. Now, look," he said, removing his wristwatch, "look, I want you to have this. No. Please. Keep it. And this," he said, removing his wedding band. "See that Weetie gets this."
That scene, and others like it, are recounted in a moving book called "Assault on the Liberty," by James Ennes. Ennes is a Liberty survivor, and even now, after 100,000 words, after a decade's writing, he cannot forget.
By the end of June 8, 1967, the USS Liberty was listing grotesquely to the starboard, most of her equipment destroyed, two thirds of her crew wounded, with more than two dozen dead and others dying, a quarter of the ship flooded, the rest of her blackened with smoke, oil, and blood. Old Glory, though, was still aflap.
To read about the incident now, to try to reach back into time with some attempt at historical objectivity, to wander on a weekend among survivors, among parents, among brothers and sisters, all of whose loss still seems so near the surface, is to suffer one's own crazy quilt of feeling, one's own rollercoaster of emotion. How could it happen, one asks in vain.
What comes are not answers, but anger, grief.
Imagine the following. It is an eyewitness account of a torpedo hit.
A man is standing in an open doorway in the third deck spaces below the waterline. This is the nerve center of the "spook" compartments, the highly secret Co-ord and Crypto areas. First there is a muffled roar, like rolling thunder. Suddenly the man's gaze is transfixed by an unbelievable scene: a pure steel bulkhead beginning to bulge toward him, as if somehow made of rubber. The steel turns to bright red and then to white. The paint on the walls of the compartment and the ink on dozens of Playboy pinups blister and explode into a rainbow of flame. In an instant the flame is black ash. The paint from the walls and the ink from the pinups come ripping off their surfaces to fly across the room directly into a man's face, striking him blind. At the same instant his eardrums explode. His ears burst the way an overripe balloon will respond to the prick of a hypodermic needle. The man is now blind and deaf, his eyeballs glued with a lava-like molten ash. His face, Ennes will write later, looked like a blotch of fresh asphalt paving. Because he is blind the man never sees the compartment around him dissolve into fragments and open sea as a 1,000-pound monster torpedo comes crunching through.
Petty Officer Ronnie Campbell dies at his typewriter.
Lieut. Jim Pierce dies trying to burn code lists.
The teletype operator dies at his machine.
In an instant a torpedo has killed 25 men.
But the man whose face looked turned to stone, like a Medusa myth, will miraculously survive. Floating neck deep in water, unable to see or hear, someone pushes him toward a ladder. Eventually he is evacuated. His eyes are methodically soaked; he gains his vision back. Sometime later a vein from his leg is transplanted into his ear canals and he regains his hearing.
And, 15 years later, Dave Lewis, survivor, is walking around a Washington hotel lobby, shaking hands, showing pictures, pushing up his thick glasses. With a New Englander's accent, he says this:
"I now suffer total amnesia about it. I remember nothing from the point when the skipper yelled that there were two fast-moving blips on the radar screen and that we should stand by for a torpedo attack."
Lewis pauses. "I was hoping this reunion would bring it back."
Lewis is retired now. This spring he pruned 1,000 Christmas trees on his Vermont farm, hopes to harvest as many as 3,000 in a couple of years. On Saturday he had on a droopy rain coat and talked of his farm as if there is a whole other life to live.
But the reunion wasn't all arm-band mourning. There was much catching up and drinking of each other's scotch and sitting on each other's beds half the night while wives and children went to sleep. Old sailors went out in gangs to Washington restaurants--and coughed at the prices. (Eight of them stumbled into Jean-Pierre; the bill was $389 and change.) Grown men collected one another's autographs like kids leaving high school. Much talk of more reunions and individual get-togethers was heard. Winnebagos and the recession and the price of dental work all got discussed.
But the dominant emotion was sadness, undercut with anger. "We've been forgotten by our military, we've been forgotten by our government . . . We were saved by the grace of God. We must never forget what happened," said Don Blalock, one of the organizers of the event. Blalock installs ice rinks now. His wife, Cecilia, says what happened on the Liberty changed his life.
And someone else, leading a prayer, said: "We do not fully understand what brings us together this weekend. Help us to know the purpose for our lives." The Official Word
Conclusion of the new "final report" submitted to the U.S. Navy from the Israel Navy:
"An examination of the facts in the Liberty incident in their proper context prove beyond any doubt that the attack on the American intelligence ship came about as a result of innocent error by the forces which operated on the spot and the headquarters which supervised them. Though the attack on the armed forces of a friendly nation is a most regrettable and painful occurrence, incidents of this kind do occur in wartime."