The Unites States Navy most decorated ship (in a single action)
Part 1: The attack on the USS Liberty, forty-eight years later
I asked my daughter Tali if she would like to spend Memorial Day this year doing something significant. She is thirteen and even though there are two more weeks of school, Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer. So the weekend is always spent doing fun things, being outdoors with friends, and rarely if ever doing anything that signifies what Memorial Day is about.
“What kind of thing? Are you giving a lecture somewhere?”
“Yes and no,” I replied, “come read this.”
I let her read a message I received from Ronald Kukal, who was the first class petty officer on the USS Liberty, a US navy ship that was attacked and destroyed by the Israeli military on June 8, 1967. Ron is one of the Liberty survivors.
Tali read the message carefully, then looked at me and said:
“Dad, we have to go to this!”
“This” was a Memorial Day in event Maricopa, Arizona in the heart of the Arizona desert, commemorating the USS Liberty.
The USS Liberty is the most decorated ship in the US Navy for a single action, though it was not engaged in battle, in fact being an intelligence gathering ship, it had no battle capabilities and was only armed with 4 fifty caliber machine guns to ward off unwanted boarders. The crew were awarded, collectively, one Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, eleven Silver Stars, twenty Bronze Stars (with “V” on it for valor), nine Navy Commendation Medals, and two hundred and four Purple Hearts. The ship was also awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. But all the survivors were ordered never to speak of what they had experienced. It took many years and a great deal of suffering before the survivors reached the point where they felt they could no longer keep in inside and had to speak up.
On the morning of June 8, 1967, in the midst of a war that Israel had initiated just a few days earlier – and was clearly winning – against Egypt, Syria and Jordan – the USS Liberty was about 17 miles off the Gaza coast, in international waters. For several hours throughout that day Israeli air force reconnaissance planes had been flying over the Liberty, in what seemed like attempts to identify it. The crew felt no threat – quite the opposite, Israel was a US ally. During one recorded debriefing a naval observer from the reconnaissance flight arrived at Israeli air force HQ and sat down with the air-naval liaison officer there. The two officers consulted Janes’ Fighting Ships and learned that the ship they saw earlier in the day was the USS Liberty, a United States Navy technical research ship. 
Then, at 1400 hours, (2:00 PM local time) without any warning, Israeli fighter jets launched an attack on USS Liberty. The aircraft made repeated firing passes, attacking with rockets and internal cannons. After the first group of fighter jets had exhausted their ammunition, subsequent flights of Israeli fighter jets continued to attack with rockets, cannon fire, and even napalm. The use of napalm is significant because it is made of a toxic, flammable combination of gel and petroleum that sticks to the skin and causes severe burns. Eight men died as a result of the air attack and the shrapnel and shock of exploding rockets had wounded 75 men.
After the Israeli jets completed their attacks, Israeli torpedo boats began firing torpedoes, killing 26 more men. Survivors reported that the Israeli torpedo boat crews swept the decks of USS Liberty with continuous machine gun fire, targeting communications equipment and any crewmembers that ventured above decks. Survivor Glen Oliphant said, “I personally recall very clearly from my position outside the wardroom — that the torpedo boats then circled the ship for a long time firing at close range at anything that moved. Men trying to aid their wounded shipmates on deck were fired upon. Men fighting fires were fired upon and I recall seeing their fire hoses punctured by machinegun fire. This went on for several minutes. At one point the boatmen concentrated their fire near the waterline amidships, presumably hoping to blow up the boilers to hasten our demise.”
Although communication systems were severely damaged the crew somehow managed to get a distress signal to the Sixth Fleet command which then sent out aircraft to defend the Liberty. Shortly after the Sixth Fleet command transmitted an authorization for the rescue aircraft to destroy the attackers, the Israeli torpedo boats halted their attack. At the same time, the Israeli military notified the US Naval Attaché in Tel Aviv that Israeli forces had mistakenly attacked a United States Navy ship, and apologized. The commander of the Sixth Fleet received an order from Washington, DC to turn the rescue planes around. According to several sources the commander questioned the order which was then reiterated to him by President Johnson himself.
Israeli sources claim that Israeli helicopters flew over the Liberty after the attack and offered assistance but their offer was turned down. Several of the survivors mentioned that at one point after the attack an Israeli combat helicopter flew over with civilians which included the US Naval Attaché. A bag with a message for the captain was dropped from the hovering helicopter, which read: “Do you have any casualties?” At this point the ship was barely afloat, bullet ridden, with gaping holes as a result of the torpedo attacks and the blood and body parts of the dead and the wounded were everywhere. Two thirds of the crew had become casualties. According to the survivors, the Captain looked up at the chopper and gave them the finger. The ship and survivors were left to float in the Mediterranean, miraculously not capsizing, for 17 long hours before help arrived to rescue the survivors and take care of the wounded.
Ronald Kukal was first class Petty Officer on the Liberty, this is how he described to me the very moments after the torpedo attack, “I could hear shrapnel flying over my head, and little did I know that shrapnel was killing almost all my men down there.” Ron was also put in charge of body recovery and identification. This took place several days after the attack, which meant that the bodies, many of them in pieces, had been in the water for days. His very words to me were, “I went about the dismal job of picking up the pieces of a very complicated jigsaw puzzle. Can’t put it any other way. Most of my shipmates couldn’t stand the smell. I smelled nothing.” For many years the survivors were forced to remain silent and the US government and the press said little about the attack.
In his message to me, a message that convinced my daughter to join me on this long road trip from San Diego to Maricopa, rather than stay in town and spend the weekend with friends, he writes:
“The men who survived the Liberty are slowly making their way out of this world, so to speak. This meeting in Maricopa is sort of a last effort on our part to keep the memory of the ship alive […] what our government is hoping for and always has, is the death of all of us, and then the matter will be over […] I don’t know how we have held together but we have. There is no hatred in this group, and really there never has been, we have only wanted justice. I doubt if we will get it.”
Read part II here: “The day Israel attacked America”