Al Jazeera investigates the shocking truth behind a deadly Israeli attack on a US naval vessel.
Richard Brooks still remembers when the alert came.
With klaxons sounding and people yelling, the tannoy system warned everyone “Standby to receive torpedo hit”.
“I thought I’ll never get out of this mess alive. Weird things were running through your minds, because I’d chalked myself off.”
He felt the torpedoes hit and the ship pitch to one side but realised he was still alive.
And then the priority became survival. As chief engineer, he could tell the engines were still working. “My machinery was still intact and I was still making headway. I yelled through the voice tube ‘Give me all the steam pressure you’ve got, let’s get the hell out of this area’”.
Eventually his ship, The USS Liberty made its way to safer waters and managed to take stock of the sustained attack. Thirty-four were lying dead, more than 171 were injured.
The Liberty had been sitting in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula. A spy ship, it had been gathering information as the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War raged on land.
During the course of the day, the ship had been buzzed by Israeli aircraft. But flying the American flag, there was no cause for panic, no need for alarm.
“People were sunbathing, enjoying the June sunshine,” said Brooks, who was more concerned with keeping the engines running. The demands of the job perhaps saved his life.
Israel insisted it was a case of mistaken identity. It alleged that pilots were exhausted having fought so hard over the previous days. The US naval vessel was thought to be an Egyptian warship.
And that’s why it was attacked with rockets and cannons and missiles and torpedoes.
But Brooks doesn’t buy the Israeli apology. Standing next to the graves of his shipmates in Arlington National Cemetery he tells me “It wasn’t a tragic accident, It was a deliberate attack. They knew who we were. They tried to sink us. They wanted us out to either bring the Americans into the war by blaming the Arabs or we picked up some information about their war plans”.
Websites set up to discuss the Liberty back Brooks’ suggestion. Some claim the Israeli planes which attacked were unmarked, hoping they’d be mistaken for Arab fighter jets. Others speculate that it was known the radio signals from the Liberty could be hacked by the Russians. And worried the US had picked up sensitive information about plans for the Golan Heights, which the Russians would pass to their allies, the Egyptians, the Israelis tried to sink the spy ship.
Every year on June 8, the survivors gather to mark the attack – to read the names of the dead and to share stories and memories.
The numbers are less every year. This year there were just seven survivors in attendance. But the passion to find out exactly what happened remains undiminished. As they stand between the white grave stones, a light summer breeze taking the edge off the afternoon heat, the memorial service also includes a call for justice and for truth.
‘We had a ship to sail’
Ernie Gallo is the president of the USS Liberty Survivors Group.
When you apologise, you apologise with the truth. Not with a lie. So it’s not an apology.
He remembers the attack and how everything seemed surprisingly calm. “We had to do what we could for our dead and wounded. We had a ship to sail. We had to get to safety”
He’s read the reports, the official inquiries and read the books about the incident. He’s even written his own.
I ask if he accepts the Israeli apology, and the explanation it was all a mistake created in the fog of war: “When you apologise, you apologise with the truth. Not with a lie. So it’s not an apology. Not as far as I’m concerned and our government is just as bad off for going along with it,” he answered.
To get a job on the Liberty, sailors were to have an outstanding service record and were chosen for their honesty and moral character. “Someone is lying here,” says Gallo, “and it isn’t us”.
Even now he hopes there will be a full official inquiry into the events of June 8, 1967.
Robert Brooks and Ernie Gallo know it’s unlikely, but they still hope it might happen. They both say the families of the dead and the survivors deserve the truth, before they mark another anniversary.