Mickey LeMay of Rotonda, Fla. is a survivor of the 1967 attack on the USS Liberty, an American spy ship caught up in the Arab-Israeli “Six Day War.” When the strafing, bombing and torpedoing of the converted freighter by Israeli fighter-bombers and gun boats stopped, 34 American servicemen were dead and 171 wounded.
Israel said it was a case of mistaken identity. The country claimed it thought the Liberty was an Egyptian supply ship even thought the freighter was flying a large American flag and had U.S. military markings.
The entire crew of the communication intercept vessel maintains the Israeli government knew about the Liberty prior to the attack. At 8 a.m. the morning of the incident, an Israeli surveillance flight flew over the ship. Six hours later the Liberty was attacked by Israeli Mystere and Mirage fighter-bombers with napalm, cannon fire and rockets. Three Israeli torpedo boats struck the Liberty 30 minutes later with a torpedo. They also fired on the crew at close range with 20 mm and 40 mm cannons.
More American Naval personnel were lost in the attack on the Liberty than in any other U.S. Naval action since World War II.
“I was walking up to the top observation deck when an unmarked jet flew by our ship,” LeMay recalled more than 40 years after the incident. “There was a lieutenant on the deck and I pointed out the jet to him.
“At that point the first plane strafed us. I remember looking down and saw blood all over me. I had 52 pieces of shrapnel in me,” the 64-year-old former ship electrician said. “I slid down the ladder and when I hit bottom, my body realized my knee had been shattered and I couldn’t stand up.”
The lieutenant to whom LeMay had been talking moments before apparently was killed in the initial attack because he didn’t follow him down, and LeMay never saw him again.
“I crawled on my stomach until I was assisted by another sailor who put a tourniquet on my damaged leg. He went for help and I was eventually taken by stretcher to the mess (hall) that had been converted to the sickbay.”
At this point, LeMay explained only seven sailors had been killed in the initial attack. However, the unmarked Israeli bombers would make a second attack and damage the ship even more.
“The biggest number of deaths aboard the Liberty came when the Israeli gun boats hit the bow of the Liberty with a torpedo. They killed 24 more men with that torpedo,” he said.
“I remember hearing, ‘Prepare to abandon ship!’ I told the guy lying next to me in sickbay, ‘Just leave me here because too much blood is coming out of me and I’ll only attract sharks,'” LeMay said. “Then they canceled the abandon ship order because they were able to contain the water.”
Although the Liberty never lost power, it was not able to get a mayday signal to the fleet until two hours after the initial attack because all of its sophisticated communication systems were down.
Planes from the carriers USS Saratoga and the USS American, only 12 minutes away from flying over the badly battered spy ship were dispatched, but they never arrived.
Years later, LeMay found out — when Capt. Joseph M. Tulley, the retired skipper of the Saratoga, was the main speaker at a biannual USS Liberty reunion.
“I walked up to the captain and said, ‘I have to know, did those planes you ordered to protect us get called back?’
“He told me, ‘The first time I sent planes to your aid I called Washington and told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara the planes were in the air. He ordered me to get my planes back on deck immediately. I did as ordered. Then I looked up the regulations and learned he didn’t have the authority to give such an order.
“‘I then ordered the planes on the USS American to provide the Liberty with air cover and again I called McNamara and told him. This time, I added that he didn’t have the authority to order that the planes return to the deck immediately. At that point, Lyndon Johnson got on the phone and said, “This is your Commander-in-Chief. Return the planes to the carrier,”‘ the captain told LeMay . ‘I followed the President’s command.'”
“It makes me think they didn’t want us to live — but I have no idea why,” LeMay said.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, June 18, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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