CEDAR RAPIDS — Ed Flaherty wasn’t aboard the USS Liberty when torpedoes ripped through its metal body on June 8, 1967.
The Iowa City resident wasn’t among the 34 men who died when Israeli forces attacked the Navy technical research ship, nor was he one of the more than 170 injured in the incident.
But Flaherty, the president of Chapter 161 of Veterans for Peace, will be among those who gather today to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the tragedy.
Israeli and U.S. officials have said the attack was accidental, but others argue that it’s been the subject of a 45-year government cover-up.
The USS Liberty was carrying nearly 300 people as it patrolled international waters in the Mediterranean Sea near the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War, which pitted U.S. ally Israel against several neighboring Arab nations.
Israeli planes targeted the slow-moving Liberty shortly after 2 p.m., using weapons including rockets and machine-gun fire. Several boats then launched torpedoes at the ship before pounding it with cannon and machine-gun fire.
The Liberty was eventually able to send a distress call, and the attack ended once the USS Saratoga and the USS America were dispatched to help.
Joe Carpenter, a Waterloo resident and USS Liberty survivor, told the Courier newspaper that the attack was “pretty chaotic, to be sure.” He and a friend had just left an area of the ship that was struck by one torpedo, which ended up being responsible for most of the deaths.
“We could see the war on the coast. We could see the planes,” Carpenter said. “We were cheering the Israelis … and then they came out and shot at us.”
Afterward, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk called the attacks “quite literally incomprehensible.”
The $40 million state-of-the-art ship sustained so much damage that it was later declared unsalvageable and sold for scrap.
Iowa City’s Flaherty was in the Army from 1966 to 1968, and he said he remembers his unit being put on alert during the Six-Day War.
Flaherty and others — including many of the ship’s survivors — say officials haven’t investigated the Liberty case thoroughly enough. He began inquiring about the incident last August and was among a small group to send a letter to U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, asking for a full investigation into the attack.
Loebsack directed the group to information from the National Security Agency that was declassified in 2007.
“I was disheartened by it,” Flaherty said. “Even the records released by the NSA are incomplete and they don’t have the testimony of survivors. It’d be good if, in fact, a modicum of truth were to come out. If a lesson were to be taken from it, it would be the U.S. government should never tell its armed services personnel or the American people a false story.”
So on Friday, Flaherty’s group is holding events in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. At least three survivors from the Liberty will attend, speaking alongside former U.S. Rep. Paul Findley, R-Ill., a critic of the government’s handling of the attack.
Findley, 90, said the planes and boats attacking the Liberty “could not possibly” have been unaware that it was a U.S. vessel. He and others have alleged that Israel meant it to look as though Arab forces had launched the attack; Carpenter told the Courier he thought Egypt was the source at first.
“There’s been a cover-up mandated from the first hour by (then-President Lyndon Johnson), which every succeeding administration has honored,” Findley said. “The attempted sinking of the ship was followed by an enhanced U.S. relationship with Israel.
“Both sides took part in a deceitful commentary about the attack.”
“Some of the guys on the ship got consumed with this,” Carpenter told the Courier about the Liberty controversy. “I didn’t do that.”
Mitchell Bard, who wrote about the ship for the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, said there’s no evidence backing up any claims of a conspiracy.
“Rather than commemorating it as an event every year, I think it simply needs to be part of the tragic history of war and a reminder that accidents like these happen in war,” said Bard, a Washington, D.C.-based author of more than 20 books on U.S. history and Middle East politics. “This was a terrible accident that unfortunately cost a number of lives of American sailors.”
Still, Shams Ghoneim, the coordinator for the Iowa chapter of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said today’s events will “demonstrate there are people in this country who want closure” on the USS Liberty incident.
“I’m going in support of all those poor dead young people,” she said of her reason for attending the observance. “It was an unexplained event that should have been looked into a long time ago.”