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42 years ago this week, a US spy ship in the Mediterranean came under attack, just off the coast of Egypt. When the air strikes and torpedoes came to a halt, 34 crewmembers were dead and 171 were left wounded. The controversy which followed included the realization that the attack had actually come from one of America’s allies: Israel. One Ozarks man survived the attack and gave his first-hand account to KSMU’s Jennifer Moore.
The only Marine to survive the attack on the USS Liberty was Strafford resident Bryce Lockwood. He was a Russian linguist aboard the spy ship.
He remembers it well: he had just bought some t-shirts, and was at his locker stamping his name on them when he first heard the attack.
"I'd never been under attack before, but I knew immediately that something desperately was wrong," Lockwood recalls.
The attack occurred in the middle of the 1967 “Six-Day War,” between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. But since the United States was not involved in the war, Lockwood says the crewmembers had no idea who was attacking them.
"We thought it was the Arabs or the Russians attacking us. The Israelis were using unmarked aircraft, which is a violation of International Law," Lockwood said.
While the attack was still going on, Lockwood knew his job as a spy was to destroy classified evidence the ship had gathered—hundreds of old reel-to-reel tapes of conversations which the ship had intercepted, and which were awaiting translation.
Lockwood: We had large, canvas bags that hadbrass ferules and lead weight in the bottom. And the idea was to fill those "ditching bags" and take them topside and pitch them over the side.
Moore: Into the ocean.
Then, a torpedo exploded a few feet from him and his crewmembers.
"All I remember was a blinding flash of flame and a terrible explosion. The first thought that went through my mind was, 'Well, Lord, I guess this is it. I guess I'm coming home.' And I thought of my wife and children...I thought to myself, 'At least Lois and the kids are taken care of,'" he says.
He was injured to the point that his own daughter wouldn’t even recognize him when she saw him next.
It was only later that the crewmembers found out that they had been attacked by Israeli forces. Israel immediately told the US it had attacked the USS Liberty in error, and in the fog of war, it said it had mistaken the US ship for an Egyptian ship, Al-Quseir. Lockwood, however, doesn’t believe that explanation.
"It was impossible for the ship not to have been identified as American. We had two flags that were shot down, either by the aircraft or the torpedo boats, and three flags were run up. The Israelis claimed that they thought it was an Egyptian ship, the Al-Quseir, which had not left port for 20 years. It was a World War I horse carrier. Its only armament was a four-pound, muzzle-loading cannon. If they had been firing at the Al-Quseir, the depth they set the torpedos at would have missed her," Lockwood says.
In addition, he said the letters and numbers on the USS Liberty identified it as a non-combatant ship. Lockwood and several other survivors believed Israel deliberately and knowingly attacked the US spy ship.
But the other side of the controversy has its supporters, too.
"I think in any case like this, you’re gonna get those who think it was deliberate and those who think it was an accident," said Jim Robbins, an adjunct professor of national security at Missouri State’s Department of Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C.
"I think the dispositive thing, as far as I'm concerned, is there was really no reason for Isreal to threaten the relationship with the United States by attacking one of its vessels, whereas Israel would have a lot to lose by doing that," Robbins said.
But Lockwood says he believes Israel did have a motive: to prevent the US spy ship from gathering evidence on what Israeli forces were up to in the nearby Sinai Peninsula.
"They had captured an entire Egyptian brigade and were holding them prisoner at Al-Arish. The USS Liberty was 13.5 miles at sea off Al-Arish. Israel forced those troops somewhere in excess of 850 men to dig their own graves, and then massacred them all," Lockwood said.
Meanwhile, professor Robbins says he’s heard this theory, and he’s familiar with the Egyptian POWs being killed in the Sinai. But for him, it’s still missing an important link.
"To prove a theory like that, you would really need some kind of evidence that showed specifically-- you know, some document, some testimony from someone--that these two things were linked. It's known that those POWs and some other people were killed. And it's known that the Liberty was attacked. But to somehow speculate that it was a diversion from something that no one had noticed anyway...I mean, that's really streching to me," said Robbins.
Back in Strafford, Bryce Lockwood keeps in touch with fellow survivors of the USS Liberty. It’s been 42 years, but he says he’s still angry and he feels that a grave injustice has been done to him and his crewmembers who died.
For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.
Music: Marines Hymn