Born Fighting for the USS Liberty? – Sidney O. Smith III

JamesWebb1 "One day something will happen. You will take a side."  Graham Greene, The Quiet American

The Vietnam War again.  Can we ever get over those times?  But when it comes to Senator James Webb of Virginia, the Vietnam War is the only place to start.  Putting aside beliefs about whether or not the war was justified, absolutely no one on this planet can deny that Senator Webb, like few others, displayed genuine heroism while serving in Vietnam.  As a platoon leader in the United States Marine Corps,  Jim Webb earned so many medals that, taken collectively,  they speak volumes about the two words he later used to sum up his life and title his book,  Born Fighting.  A Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts.  

For those of us in the civilian world, the following words from the citation for his Navy Cross give us a glimpse into his sacrifice on the battlefield.   Just visualize the following in slow motion:

“Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker. By his courage, aggressive leadership, and selfless devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Webb upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.”

And uphold such traditions, he has continued to do. To put in civilian words, when things get tough, Senator Webb will not sell out but will stand tall, even for the little guy.  Simply to illustrate the point: as an attorney after his military service, he represented veterans pro bono.  And nothing he has done to date as a US Senator, at least one so hopes, indicates he is the type who would walk out on you simply because you are not on the A-list with the Georgetown martini circuit or even dare I say, Castlerock Productions.



So, for these reasons alone, Senator Webb is uniquely qualified — perhaps the most qualified person in the United States — to take a stand, one way or the other, on the growing controversy as to whether or not Congress should investigate the attack on the USS Liberty as well as the subsequent cover-up by the US Government.   

For those who do not know about what is commonly referred to today as the USS Liberty incident, here is a very brief introduction.   During the early afternoon on June 8, 1967, which was the fourth day of the Arab-Israeli War,  the Israel Defense Forces attacked the USS Liberty — essentially an unarmed spy ship — while it was steaming at approximately five knots in international waters off the Sinai Coast, roughly 14 miles offshore the Egyptian town of El Arish.   The weather was clear, the seas calm, and the Liberty was flying an American Ensign.  Israeli reconnaissance flights had identified the USS Liberty earlier in the morning.

The attack, which unfolded in three phases, began when sailors on the Liberty realized that someone had jammed their communications equipment.  Then two Mirage jets appeared on the horizon and proceeded to fly in at attack level. They fired, with pinpoint accuracy, machine guns, 30 mm cannon rockets, including armor piercing projectiles, as well as dropping bombs, taking out all communication antennae and radar and killing several of the crew.  Two Mysteres then followed dropping napalm (yes, napalm) on the decks of the Liberty.   More carnage.  More deaths.

The second phase involved a different branch of the military because in addition to the air attack,  three motor torpedo boats appeared on the horizon and, after moving closer, began to rake the sides of the Liberty with machine-gun fire, coming close to exploding the boiler.  The boats then launched several torpedoes and one hit the starboard side, leaving a gaping 40 foot hole and killing 25 of the crew, most of whom were located in a special communications compartment.  Scores more were maimed. 

And then the third phase.  Two Israeli helicopters carrying troops hovered on both sides of the Liberty.  According to subsequent testimony, particularly that of Liberty vet Lloyd Painter (who went on to a 32 year career with the US Secret Service), the Israelis opened fire and machine-gunned a life raft floating listlessly astern the USS Liberty, which by that time was crippled and leaning heavily to one side.

1186749352 The causalities were simply horrendous.  Out of the crew of approximately 300, 34 died and 174 more were wounded.   Liberty vet survivor James Ennes, who suffered severe shrapnel wounds in his right leg, gives graphic details of what it was like to be on the Liberty in his highly recommended book, Assault on the Liberty.   Suffice it to say that the blood that mixed in with the waters of the Mediterranean that tragic day was American blood, meaning the blood of all people.   And as Liberty vet Lloyd Painter later described in a BBC documentary, Dead in the Water, once the Liberty made it back to Valetta, Malta for repairs, rescuers found parts of bodies entangled in the wires and cables as if they were in “a meat locker”.

It is what it is.

Although the Liberty incident occurred exactly 42 years ago as of this past June 8th,  no US Congressional investigation has taken place that exclusively focuses on the reason for the attack — the only attack on a US Navy ship in which such an investigation has not occurred.  And for that reason, each year, the members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars pass a resolution at their national convention demanding that Congress investigate the incident.   As Resolution 420 passed during the 2008 convention states in part:

“BE IT RESOLVED, by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, that we call upon Congress to immediately investigate the attack on the USS Liberty that was perpetrated by the armed forces of the State of Israel on June 8, 1967, in order to determine the truth behind the attack.”

As one can imagine, controversy over the Liberty incident has raged for over 40 years and people generally fall into one of two groups —  those who support the VFW resolution and those who want it to just all go away.  And for those of us simply trying to determine if — to use legal language — probable cause exists as to whether or not a Congressional hearing should take place, delving into “open source” research is much like trying to find your way through a dark and winding labyrinth, with everyone tossing ad hominem grenades at each other.  

To put it mildly: the incident is politically and emotionally charged, as the stakes could not be higher.  For if the attack was intentional, it is one of the greatest incidents in American history never told. So bringing the Liberty story to the general public will act much like the explosion of a depth charge, ultimately bringing to the surface the flotsam and jetsam of US-Israeli relations since 1967.   

Increasingly, even for those of us brought up on the works of Leon Uris, evidence is suggesting that such a scene may not be a pretty sight.  And it is best to keep in mind that only after the alleged cover-up, US foreign policy, led in part by Robert McNamara, made a dramatic shift away from the Tripartite Declaration of 1950 that called for no territorial expansion of the Israeli borders (the 1967 borders for those so attuned) and went on to reflect a stance in which the US Government increasingly took part in supplying Israel with American weaponry necessary to guarantee what is now called “the occupation”.  So, when seen in that vein, a historical link does indeed exist between the USS Liberty incident and Operation Cast Lead that began in December of 2008 and resulted in many Palestinians maimed and many Palestinian children dead. 

So the stakes are high indeed and the debate about the reasons for the attack on the Liberty has continued to go back and forth, something akin to trench warfare during World War I.  One side tends to follow the words of Michael Oren who, when it comes to the USS Liberty incident, has argued, “ Case Closed ”, while others essentially echo the words of former Secretary of State Dean Rusk that,  The attack was outrageous”, with no side gaining an advantage throughout the 40 plus years.  

But during all of this time, one thing has remained absolutely certain.  US government elected officials, with a few notable exceptions such as Adlai Stevenson III, have dived under desks whenever someone even broached the topic of the Liberty.  Perhaps the public stance taken by Harvard graduate Adlai Stevenson explains why.  After meeting Jim Ennes in 1980, Senator Stevenson called a news conference in which, to quote from Jim Ennes’ website, Senator Stevenson “announced that he was convinced that the attack was deliberate and that the survivors deserved an investigation.”  He proceeded to lose his re-election bid and, for all intents and purposes, has not been heard since on the national stage.


So with that history lesson in mind, if  you ever want to see a person go into the classic avoidance mode, simply ask a Congressman or Congresswoman if probable cause exists for an investigation into the USS Liberty.   Do it enough times, and you will start saying, “These people are not standing tall but selling out.  Just take a stand, one way or the other.  Good grief.”   And because the continuing code of Congressional silence is so deafening, so to speak, one can reasonably conclude that the surrounding controversy indeed deserves much closer scrutiny.

However, on May 27th of this year, a stunning turn of events took place.   In Visalia, California, US Congressman Devin Nunes — a Republican representing the agriculturally rich San Joaquin valley — stood tall for the Liberty vets (I am tempted to say as a Sequoia Tree, since the Sequoia National Park is located in his district).  While presenting the Silver Star to USS Liberty vet Terry Halbardier, Representative Nunes uttered words that, while not exactly having the effect of an exploding depth charge, certainly sends one hurdling back to the famous words from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.  “Some day something will happen.  You will take a side.”   

After pinning the Silver Star on Terry Halbardier, Representative Nunes stated during an interview by Jessica Peres of the Fresno local ABC affliate, Action 30 News,  “The government has kept this quiet I think for too long and I felt as my constituent he needed to get recognized for the services he made to this country."  In other words, Representative Nunes stood up publicly for the Liberty vets.

Representative Nunes’ words lead one back to Senator Webb, because after hearing those words, one cannot help but ask, “Why hasn’t Senator Webb taken a stand and simply stated publicly whether or not a Congressional hearing should take place?  Why the silence?” No one is more qualified and trusted to answer all the surrounding questions and thus resolve the controversy.   And since Senator Webb is a former Secretary of the Navy, he is bound to have the inside information that truly would settle this matter once and for all.   He knows whether or not the attack was intentional.  How can he not, particularly when seen in the light of the statement made by US Representative Nunes on May 27th?  

Arguably, Senator Webb’s leadership role, in effect, triggers an obligation and duty for him to take a stand.  Because if he states that a Congressional hearing is warranted, then game over, as the Liberty vets have at long last won their claim that they have been ignored, at a terrible human cost, and that an egregious injustice indeed did take place back on June 8, 1967 — one, as noted, with profound national security implications in 2009.  Alternatively, if he states otherwise, while his opinion would not be controlling, people would have to afford his position great weight, based on his qualifications and experience.  And besides, Senator Webb knows what is at stake.  For if he were to take such a stand, saying, essentially, “Case closed” and history subsequently proved him wrong, then he will be remembered as selling out the Liberty vets as well as undermining the administration of justice and even harming national security.  I just don’t see it happening.

Senator Webb’s silence is puzzling for other reasons as well, because even those of us not in the loop can argue that probable cause exists for a Congressional investigation.   The VFW Resolution, mentioned above, provides a good start, as  it calls for the same, and the VFW is hardly an organization known for anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism.  Yet, at least ostensibly, the position of the VFW is at odds with Senator Webb’s continued silence.   When seen in that light, someone is right and someone is wrong.

And then there are several members of the military, particularly the US Navy, who have stood tall.  To borrow from Senator Webb’s campaign slogan, they would fall under the category of “born fighting” for the USS Liberty.   

Among those born fighting for the USS Liberty, no one did so more than Admiral Moorer who, at one time, served as Chief of Naval Operations and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  As one of his last acts of public service before dying, Admiral Moorer headed an independent commission that investigated the attack on the Liberty.  And in October, 2003, the Moorer Commission released its findings and among other things, it recommended a Congressional investigation into the attack, thus supporting the VFW resolution.   And, it should be noted, a year later, Representative John Conyers introduced these exact findings into the  Congressional Record. The findings are worth reading, if for no other reason than those who affixed their “hands and seals” on the document would have made a formidable expert witness list.  Besides Admiral Moorer, you will read the names General Raymond G. Davis, USMC;  Rear Admiral Merlin Staring, former Judge Advocate of the Navy; and James Akins, former United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.  Like the members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, these men hardly can be described as extremists, as their service to our nation was unsurpassed and their reputation and credibility simply unquestioned.

And there are others who were born fighting for the USS Liberty, some still alive and several now deceased.  The list is long but to name just a few.   Admiral Arleigh Burke, who died in 1996, has left us recorded statements that, in essence, support the VFW resolution.  Retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, now the interim dean of the LBJ school of government in Austin, Texas, appears to have sided with those born fighting for the Liberty.   Jim Ennes at his website has left us quotes by several experts and all of these statements demand our careful consideration. 

And just as importantly, in October of 2007 the Chicago Tribune published a breakout article titled, New Revelations in Attack on Spy Ship that offers further facts that support Dean Rusk’s view that “the attack was outrageous”.  The article identified several persons who stated they either heard or read translated transcripts of communications between the attacking Israeli pilots and ground control, and such communications indicate that the attacking pilots clearly knew the identity of the USS Liberty.

One such person is retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, who is a Green Beret and who also spent eight years as chief of Middle East intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency.  According to the Tribune article, Col. Lang, who, it should be pointed out, now lives in Senator Webb’s home state of Virginia and started the widely read website Sic Semper Tyrannis, stated, "The flight leader spoke to his base to report that he had the ship in view, that it was the same ship that he had been briefed on and that it was clearly marked with the U.S. flag."

Compelling evidence indicates that the NSA recorded such communications on a tape numbered A1104/A-01, and it remains classified or has been destroyed.   Regardless of what has happened to the alleged missing tape, several others corroborate Col. Lang’s statement, including US Air Force Captain Richard Block, Steve Forslund, James Gotcher,  Dwight Porter, and Oliver Kirby, among others.  And their statements, taken collectively, lead back to the same questions.   Where is Senator Webb on all of this?  Does he disagree or agree with the statement by his fellow Virginian — retired Green Beret Col. Lang? And again, why, after all these years, hasn’t Senator Webb taken a public stand that supports the claim of the Liberty vets or, alternatively, a stance that says the case is closed?

Senator Webb’s position or lack thereof, at least to date, simply fails to make sense because Senator Webb, as much as anyone, appears to understand the suffering of the families who have lost loved ones while serving their country as well as the welfare of surviving vets.  And he has done much to help them.  But something is amiss, particularly when one takes the time to reads Ennes’ work and hears the testimony by such people as Patricia Blue-Rousakis (the widow of Allen Blue, a NSA civilian who was killed when the torpedo struck the Liberty) on the  BBC documentary, Dead in the Water.  As Liberty survivor Ron Kukal has described,  if any senator really understood what has happened to all these Americans since June 8, 1967, then certainly he or she would have been drawn into the incident and its aftermath.  In other words, if you took time to listen, then you would take sides, simply to help give the vets and their families a verdict as to the truthfulness of their claims.  Back in 1980, US Senator Adlai Stevenson III did just that and, after listening to Jim Ennes, he promptly and publicly argued for a Congressional investigation.

So, for that reason alone, this controversy will not go away.  And on June 2nd of this year, one of the most reputable and powerful publishing houses in the world, Simon and Shuster, released  Attack on the Liberty, written by James Scott.  The book sides with those who were born fighting for the Liberty and thus supports the VFW resolution and increases the volume of those who, like Dean Rusk, argue the attack was an outrage. According to early reviews, this book all but proves that the Israelis knew the identity of the ship and the attack was intentional, validating the statements of Col. Lang and so many others. 

At this point, perhaps it should be noted that author James Scott, like former Senator Adlai Stevenson III, has an affiliation with Harvard University, as James Scott is a Neiman fellow and Stevenson graduated from the college in 1952.   Senator Webb, as an Annapolis graduate, has a healthy disdain for Harvard, perhaps some of it justified.  Yet, when it comes to moral courage, one cannot deny the stance of Adlai Stevenson, who, as indicated, lost a re-election bid for the US Senate by standing tall for the Liberty vets almost 30 years ago.  And now Neiman fellow James Scott  has joined in, putting his career on the line on behalf of the Liberty vets. If history proves these two correct on the USS Liberty, then Harvard wins and Webb loses at least in this one instance, but, as duly noted, this is one instance in which the stakes could not be higher. 

To harken back to Graham Greene’s words, at some point something will happen and Senator Webb will take a side.  Sooner or later, Senator Webb of Virginia will announce publicly whether or not he, like all those who have stood tall over the past 42 years, has at long last joined the tradition of those born fighting for the USS Liberty.


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One Response to Born Fighting for the USS Liberty? – Sidney O. Smith III

  1. Patrick Lang says:

    There will be no further comments on this thread. The level of discord threatens the future of the SST community and undeserved pain is being inflicted on our fellow citizens who condemn the attack as much as anyone can. pl

Comments are closed.