Every schoolboy knows what's meant by "Remember the Maine." But how many of us of any age remember more than dimly the fate of the U.S.S. Liberty, which was strafed, bombed, napalmed, torpedoed and reduced to a hulk by Israeli jets and torpedo boats 15 years ago?
A few more, perhaps, this week than last. Over the weekend some 60 survivors of the Liberty finally got together here with their families and friends for their first reunion, and managed to generate a brief burst of publicity. But not nearly enough Americans "Remember the Liberty," for no other reason than that the truth about what happened 13 miles off the Egyptian coast at the height of the Six Day War was one of the war's most shameful casualties.
That, as much as the camaraderie of shipmates who shared a bloody battle, brought the survivors of the Liberty to town. They came not in search of truth, for they alone know it. They came in the hope that at long last they might find some way to spread it around. If that has the sound of a needless rehashing of old history, it strikes me as just the opposite: as a welcome invitation to reexamine a case of governmental duplicity and dissembling.
The attack on the Liberty killed 34 men and wounded 171 out of a total ship's complement of 294; you could call it a small engagement in the context of the then-raging Vietnam war. But it made its own contribution to the collapse of the U.S. government's credibility. How? Because the administration of President Lyndon Johnson reflexively and unquestioningly accepted Israel's apologies for an "innocent error" and muzzled by direct order any testimony to the contrary before a naval court of inquiry by eyewitnesses.
The Liberty was a converted freighter, operating as a high-technology "ferret," conducting electronic surveillance. Relatively unarmed, it was steaming an easy five knots (top speed was 18 knots) in international waters. Israeli postmortems had it at a speed of 30 knots. In the heat of battle, it was "mistaken" for an "Egyptian" warship it in no way resembled.
There could be good reasons why a beleaguered Israel, on a hair-trigger by habit, might wish to conceal even from its most faithful supporter evidence of its war plans that might have been collected by an American spy ship. What the men of the Liberty find hardest to deal with is not their case against Israel, but the case against their own government. The men on the blood-soaked bridge know of repeated overflights, hours before the attack, by Israeli jets, of repeated close-up inspections by lumbering "flying boxcars" with Israeli markings. They know the Liberty bore clear, U.S. Navy identification.
And they know that their government knows-- even though much of the record has either been destroyed or locked up. A brilliant, unofficial history has been written in a book, "Assault on the Liberty," by a ship's officer, James M. Ennes Jr. But its publication three years ago drew heavy fire from Israel's supporters in this country, and sales were sluggish. From Israel the Liberty's survivors, the next-of-kin and the U.S. government belatedly received reparations. Now the survivors are fighting for reparations of a different kind: recognition by their own government of the true nature of their ship's sacrifice.