SEATTLE – Draped above a bookcase in his home northeast of Seattle, Jim Ennes displays a bullet-riddled American flag.
On June 8, 1967 – 42 years ago Monday – the flag flew over his Navy spy ship, USS Liberty, as it came under assault from an unlikely antagonist – the state of Israel – at the height of the Six-Day War against Egypt.
In a one-sided battle that lasted for more than an hour, Israeli fighter planes unleashed cannon shots, rockets and napalm. Then, an Israeli torpedo boat scored a direct hit that tore a 39-foot-wide hole in the hull. By the time fighting was over, the Israeli military had killed 34 U.S. crew members and wounded more than 170.
Ennes has come to anticipate these anniversaries with a mix of weariness and frustration about the questions that still hang over the event. Israel has maintained that the attack in international waters was an accident – a tragic case of Israeli forces mistaking a U.S. ship for an Egyptian ship. The Israeli government issued an apology, paid $6.7 million to survivors and the families of the dead, and sought to put the matter to rest.
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Others, including Ennes, have maintained that the attack could not have been a mistake, in part because the ship was marked as an American vessel by hull numbers and a U.S. flag flew from a mast. “There’s no way they couldn’t have seen that flag,” Ennes said. “When it got shot full of holes, we put up a new one.”
The scope of the controversy is reflected in more than a half-dozen books and TV documentaries. They include a 1979 book, “Assault on the Liberty,” by Ennes that he secretly researched while still in the Navy and was forbidden by commanders to speak publicly about the attack. “I wrote that book, literally, with tears running down my face,” he said.
Last week, on the eve of the anniversary, came a new offering: “The Attack on the Liberty” by South Carolina investigative reporter James Scott, whose father, John Scott, was also a survivor of the attack and a friend of Ennes’.
For the men onboard, there was a special horror as they came under fire. They had few weapons to defend themselves and no safe places to retreat. Men were dismembered in the bombardment and seared by napalm.
Yet once they were rescued, survivors quickly began to feel like an embarrassment as the Johnson administration worked to shore up relations with Israel.
“We went through this near-death experience …” Ennes said. “And then the next thing you know, you are told not to talk about it without permission, or you go to jail.”
Other survivors, once out of the Navy, sought to move on.
“I didn’t want to make this the defining moment in my life,” said Pat O’Malley. “Even when I did talk about it, some people didn’t even believe me.”
O’Malley, a district court judge in Tacoma, was a 21-year-old ensign aboard the USS Liberty.
“If you listen to all the explanations of what happened, any rational person is going to say that can’t be – there is something missing here,” he said. “We need the truth. Until governments tell the truth, how do you get trust?”