This week, a new radio broadcast and podcast from Los Angeles’ KPFK will examine one of the U.S. Navy’s darkest days since the end of World War II – the 1967 attack by Israeli forces on the intelligence-gathering ship USS Liberty that killed 34 sailors and wounded 171.
Cary Harrison, host of the Rethinking Heroes: Life After Duty series, will take on the controversy surrounding the attack and its aftermath, interviewing survivor and Navy veteran Phil Tourney.
Tourney, three-time president of the U.S.S. Liberty Veterans Association, charges that the attack was deliberate, the result of an organized, covert effort by the United States and Israel to ensure Israel’s victory in seizing land, including the Golan Heights in Syria.
“The word I use is ‘massacre,’” Tourney said in an interview with MVJ. “They shot us, they shot our life rafts out of the water. The plan absolutely was to kill us all. But we stayed afloat.”
Israel contends that the attack was a “tragic accident,” an explanation accepted by the U.S. Navy and federal government following several investigations.
But Tourney – and many others – contend that the operation, which involved reconnaissance scouts and communications disruptions and planned attacks by aircraft and torpedo boats, was hatched at the highest levels of the U.S. and Israeli governments, and that the coverup continues to this day.
On June 8, 1967, the technical research ship Liberty was operating in international waters off Gaza, Egypt, when it was attacked by Israeli Defense Forces – first with napalm and rockets, then by Israeli torpedo boats. The ship was able to radio the U.S.S. Saratoga, which dispatched 16 aircraft, including 12 fighter jets, but the aircraft were recalled personally, by several accounts, by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for reasons that remain unclear.
Under fire in a burning ship, the crew struggled to defend their ship, taking a direct torpedo hit and dodging four others, staying afloat as the sailors aboard watched their attackers destroy their lifeboats. The attack lasted for two hours. Liberty limped into Malta six days later, largely as a result of the efforts of Tourney and the other damage controlmen.
Israeli historian Michael Oren has written extensively about the incident and its aftermath, including the allegations of conspiracy, intention and coverup. Shortly after numerous documents were declassified in the 1990s, he wrote that it is “possible to determine whether any of these hypotheses had a basis in fact,” he wrote in an essay, The USS Liberty: Case Closed.”
Five decades have passed since the attack and the issue remains a painful chapter in U.S.-Israeli relations. For the 100 or so sailors still alive from that day, the case will never be closed until all related documents are declassified, and Congress conducts a thorough investigation, Tourney says.
“The USS Liberty veterans are proud of Americans that served our country honorably. And all we want to do is tell the truth, not be labeled, but have the government do their job and tell the truth,” Tourney said.
Based on the success of providing military veteran broadcasters to deliver a top-of-the-show “news flash” dedicated to military and veteran concerns, KPFK and the Rethinking Heroes series has paired with Military Veterans in Journalism to provide externship opportunities for its members. Beginning early March, Rethinking Heroes will showcase MVJ journalists in that time slot to lead off the show. The series is funded by Let’s Rethink This, a group dedicated to finding innovative solutions to prevent veteran suicide and forgive their VA-related unpayable medical debt.