1967 Attack Still Haunts USS Liberty Survivors

Bryce Lockwood was a 27-year-old Marine staff sergeant i i

hide captionBryce Lockwood was a 27-year-old Marine staff sergeant and a Russian linguist on board the USS Liberty, a signal intelligence ship. He says the ship was in the Mediterranean mainly to keep an eye on the Soviets. When the Israeli air and sea attack began, he was sent down to get rid of classified documents, and he says he came within eight feet of a torpedo.

Courtesy Bryce Lockwood
Bryce Lockwood was a 27-year-old Marine staff sergeant

Bryce Lockwood was a 27-year-old Marine staff sergeant and a Russian linguist on board the USS Liberty, a signal intelligence ship. He says the ship was in the Mediterranean mainly to keep an eye on the Soviets. When the Israeli air and sea attack began, he was sent down to get rid of classified documents, and he says he came within eight feet of a torpedo.

Courtesy Bryce Lockwood

It's been 40 years since the Six Day War, a conflict between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. One of the lesser-known incidents of the in 1967 conflict involved an Israeli attack on a U.S. spy ship, killing 34 Americans. Some of the survivors — who are still angry — spoke with Michele Keleman at a reunion this week in Northern Virginia.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

All this week, NPR has been looking back at the 1967 Six-Day War and its lasting impact in the Middle East. Today, we turn to an incident from that war involving the United States. On June 8th 1967, a U.S. spy ship came under Israeli fire - 34 Americans were killed. Israel says it was a tragic mistake and U.S. government investigations have supported that conclusion. But veterans of the USS Liberty are convinced that the attack was deliberate and they want the case reopened.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: At a USS Liberty reunion in a Northern Virginia hotel, emotions still run high.

Staff Sergeant BRYCE LOCKWOOD (Russian Linguist, U.S. Marine; Retired): I'm furring(ph) with hunger. I can't sleep nice.

KELEMEN: Bryce Lockwood was a 27-year-old U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant and a Russian linguist onboard the signal intelligence ship, which he says was in the Mediterranean mainly to keep an eye on the Soviets. When the air and sea attack began, he was sent down to get rid of classified documents. He was right there when the first torpedo struck part of the supporting structure of the ship.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: If it had struck anywhere else - six inches to the left, six inches to the right - it would have ripped the ship to shreds. I had two white circles here where my glasses were and the rest of me was charred - flash burns from the torpedo. I was within eight feet of it.

KELEMEN: Lockwood didn't learn until the next day that the Israelis were responsible. Glenn Oliphant, then a 22-year-old electronic technician from Minnesota, had a better view from his post on the main deck.

Mr. GLENN OLIPHANT (USS Liberty Survivor; Retired, U.S. Marine): You see, it really wasn't until that torpedo boat pulled up alongside the ship, and then I saw the Israeli flag and I was in shock. Everybody thought Israel was our ally, you know, or at least we were friendly with them, and here we were in international waters being attacked by Israel. Nobody could believe it. We were numb.

KELEMEN: Back in Washington, President Lyndon Johnson and his top aides were also angry, according to University of Virginia professor William Quandt, who says he's read the American record as fully as he can.

Professor WILLIAM QUANDT (Politics, University of Virginia): They were angry. They thought why'd they do this? And then, of course, quickly, the Israelis, you know, apologized. They said sorry, a mistake and so forth. And Johnson, it seems, very quickly says, let's just put it behind us. Other people want to investigate. Johnson simply says no.

KELEMEN: Quandt says this remains an unanswered question for him why Johnson responded that way. Still, he believes the attack was the result of an Israeli intelligence failure.

Prof. QUANDT: They didn't go into deep denial. They just said it was war and (unintelligible). You know, some people will accept that because wars are messy. And unfortunately, we know from - you know, every war we've ever been and you end up dropping bombs on your own troops sometimes, and that's terrible. So first, it's not totally implausible it was a mistake. Secondly, Israel is a close friend and it's hard to figure out why they would have done it maliciously.

KELEMEN: Some veterans believed the Israelis wanted to stop the U.S. from snooping around as Israel was preparing to attack Syria. But Quandt says the U.S. government already knew about the Israeli plans and he says other theories about the attack fall apart when looking into the historical record. But for the victims, the record remains incomplete. And Glenn Oliphant believes there was a cover-up from the beginning to keep relations with Israel on track.

Mr. OLIPHANT: And I specifically remember standing at quarters, and Admiral Kidd coming over to us and saying, I don't ever want you guys to talk about this again. That was a terrible tragedy for many of us because when you go through this traumatic stress syndrome, you need to talk about it. You don't need to keep it bottled up in yourself. And that's what happened to the majority of the survivors.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: William Allenbaugh...

KELEMEN: The veterans have not managed to get the Navy Court of Inquiry reopened but they still get together as they did yesterday afternoon at Arlington Cemetery to pay tribute to the 34 men who died on the USS Liberty.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Philip Armstrong Jr.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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