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Originally published June 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 9, 2009 at 11:05 AM

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Deadly attack on USS Liberty gets new attention

Israel has always maintained that the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was an accident — a tragic case of Israeli forces mistaking a U.S. spy ship for an Egyptian ship less than half the size. Others — including a local veteran aboard the ship — have maintained that the attack could not have been a mistake.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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 that unexpectedly turned its weaponry on America 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 the 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 always maintained that the attack in international waters was an accident — a tragic case of Israeli forces mistaking a U.S. spy ship for an Egyptian ship less than half the size. The Israeli government issued an apology, paid $6.7 million to the survivors and the families of the dead, and sought to put the matter to rest.

Others — including Ennes — have maintained that the attack on a clear, sunny day off Egypt's coast could not have been a mistake, in part because the ship was marked as an American vessel by identifying hull numbers and the U.S. flag that 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'.

Scott's book is a densely documented, suspenseful narrative that uses declassified U.S. and Israeli documents to give fresh insights into the attack and the aftermath. U.S. government officials — and a Navy Court of Inquiry — publicly accepted Israel's account of mistaken identity.

But key government leaders privately rejected that explanation. Even President Lyndon Johnson believed it was a deliberate attack, according to Scott.

Citing declassified cables, Scott details how the Israeli ambassador to the United States, in the days after the attack, pressed his own government to put those responsible on trial for negligence.

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But no one in Israel was prosecuted for the attack, even though Israel's inquiry showed that a positive identification of the ship was made hours before the attack. This information, allegedly because of a miscommunication, was not relayed to the Israeli fighter jets and torpedo boat, according to declassified documents from an Israeli inquiry obtained by Scott.

USS Liberty sent to eavesdrop

The attack on the Liberty came as the United States was mired in Vietnam, a war that was producing hundreds of casualties each week, and as Israel engaged in a brief but intense war with Egypt and Arab allies.

The USS Liberty had initially been sent to eavesdrop on Egypt with the aid of sophisticated electronics. But the Pentagon had second thoughts about the wartime assignment and decided to move the vessel at least 100 miles off shore. That order, however, was delayed in reaching the ship, so the Liberty sailed within 15 miles of Egypt.

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 to during the air and sea bombardment. Men were dismembered by cannon ball and the torpedo blast and were seared by napalm. For 17 hours the mess hall became a hospital for the wounded.

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."

In the decades that followed, the USS Liberty became a lightening rod for controversy.

Some seized upon the attack to try to incite hatred for Israel.

The Anti-Defamation League launched a vigorous defense. A League Web site states that allegations of a deliberate attack have "become a propaganda tool to undermine the legitimacy of Israel."

Ennes became a League target, since the final chapter of his book theorized that Israel launched the attack to quash the USS Liberty's ability to pick up intelligence on the war.

"I spoke at the University of Minnesota a few years ago, and they had pickets on the street carrying signs that said 'anti-Semite speaks here,' " Ennes said.

But Ennes also had powerful defenders, including a retired Navy admiral who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1970 to 1974. "In my opinion, the United States government and the Israeli government must share responsibility for this cover-up," Adm. Thomas Moorer wrote in a forward that was published in later editions of Ennes' book.

Research continues on attack

Ennes, now 76, has dedicated much of his life to researching the attack. He began writing his book while recovering from his wounds in a Virginia hospital. He still maintains two Web sites devoted to the USS Liberty, and is planning to update his book with new information.

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, a judge in Pierce County who was a 21-year-old ensign aboard the USS Liberty. "Even when I did talk about it, some people didn't even believe me."

O'Malley had been the officer on deck when the planes hit, and used a shirt to staunch the bleeding from wounds in a fellow officer, and aided the injured in the mess hall.

"He somehow managed to muster the guts to take control of the situation," said survivor Steven LaTorre. "I was just in awe."

After returning to civilian life, O'Malley went to Gonzaga University Law School and practiced law. He never attended the annual June 8 reunions of Liberty survivors, and the anniversary date typically passed without special note. He is now a district-court judge in Tacoma and enjoys skiing and sailing.

Then along came Scott, who interviewed O'Malley for his book. That stirred up emotions and memories, and after a subsequent interview with The Seattle Times, O'Malley went to his attic to retrieve a box of photos. They depict the cannon holes that blasted through the ship's metal plating, the giant hole left by the torpedo and other damage.

"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," O'Malley said. "We need the truth. Until governments tell the truth, how do you get trust?"

One modest step in that direction was achieved last month.

After nearly 42 years, a Silver Star was awarded to an electronics technician, Terry Halbardier, who braved machine-gun and cannon fire to repair a damaged antenna that restored the ship's communications. His medal citation — unlike dozens awarded in years past — named Israel as the nation that launched the attack.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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