Survivor of Israeli Attack on USS Liberty: It Could Not Have Been a Mistake (1/2)

To mark the 48th anniversary of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, TRNN speaks to survivor Sgt. Bryce Lockwood and former CIA Analyst Ray McGovern

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

This month marks the 48th anniversary of the Israeli attack on the U.S. spy ship the U.S.S. Liberty. The attack took place during the Arab-Israeli six day war of 1967. The official story of the attack is that it is a case of mistaken identity. What we know is that the ship was attacked by four Israeli fighter bombers, Navy motor torpedo boats, near Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

It’s officially said that the attack was a mistake, that the U.S. ship in question was thought to be an Egyptian ship. But many, including former heads of the CIA and NSA, believe that the Israeli version of the events were not believable.

Surviving witnesses of the attack confirm that this could not have been an error. They say the attack that day in June 1967 the day was clear, and that the American flag was very visible on the ship. But as we know from a report from Pulitzer Prize winner John Crewdson done for the Baltimore Sun and the Chicago Tribune in 2007, there weren’t meant to be any survivors. Crewdson quotes Steve Forslund, who worked as an intelligence analyst for the Air Force. Quote, “The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors.”

Well, today we’ll talk with the last remaining survivor. Sgt. Bryce Lockwood joins us from Stratford, Missouri. He served for 13 years as a Marine. And we’re also going to be talking with Ray McGovern, former analyst for the CIA.

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

SGT. BRYCE LOCKWOOD: Thank you.

RAY MCGOVERN: You’re welcome.

JAY: So Bryce, start–I want to kind of jump to the end and then we’ll work our way chronologically. If this communication that Crewdson quotes, that the mission was actually to sink the boat so that, I would assume so there wouldn’t be any witnesses to the attack, why didn’t they sink it?

LOCKWOOD: Well, I think they ran out of ammunition. I know the aircraft ran out of ammunition, and the motor torpedo boats, there were three of them. The standard formation is a wedge formation. One in the center and two held back a little bit. The forward one fires two torpedoes and swings off, the next one fires two torpedoes and swings off, and the third one likewise. So there should have been six torpedoes fired. There were five that were fired. Only one actually struck the ship. But it struck the ship in a vital area where all of our communications personnel, intelligence personnel were working.

As a matter of fact I have a picture right here. This was taken of me the next morning.

JAY: So still, you would think, would the planes not be able to keep bombing and sink the ship?

LOCKWOOD: They ran out of ammunition. There are only so many rockets and so many 40mm cannon shells that they could fire at us. There were over 820 large-caliber strikes on the ship, including napalm. There were two napalm bombs dropped onto us. Rockets and 40mm cannon fire, which makes a pretty big hole.

The ship, when those rockets struck it, it was literally like a very hot knife through butter. Just melded 3/4 inch steel on the skin of the ship.

JAY: Now, if I understand correctly from what I know of the story, there was some kind of blocking of SOS messages. But finally an SOS message does get through. There’s evidence that one did get through earlier and wasn’t responded to, and we’re going to get to that part of the story. But then an SOS message does go through, and then the Israelis break off their attack. Is that correct?

LOCKWOOD: The Israelis were jamming our distress frequencies. That’s a violation of international law. It’s okay to jam tactical frequencies. Normally where orders are sent back and forth between ships and personnel and aircraft and so forth. That is okay to do that, but not international distress frequencies. That’s a violation of international law. And the Israelis were jamming our distress frequencies. They had shot up all of our transmitting antennas in the first air [raid]. And we had one whip antenna, which was not working. A young sailor by the name of [Terry Halbardier] took a roll of coaxial cable and ran that back to the aft part of the ship to that one whip antenna.

And the radio operators had figured out that when rockets were being fired from the aircraft that they couldn’t jam their distress frequencies because the jamming was also screwing up the flights of the rockets. So there was a brief period of a few seconds’ time when rockets were being fired at us when the jamming was not taking place. And that’s when the distress frequency was sent off.

JAY: Before we go any further, how many people were killed and wounded that day?

LOCKWOOD: There were 34 killed. Nine were killed topside in the aircraft attacks, and 25 were killed in the research compartment by the torpedo explosion. We had a total complement of 294 personnel altogether. That included three civilian analysts, linguists, from the National Security Agency, us three Marines, and the balance were Naval personnel, both intelligence personnel and those who operated the ship. There were 208 total Purple Hearts awarded out of a crew of 294.

JAY: So just to frame this discussion a little bit, the evidence seems to point to, although the official version concluded otherwise, that the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing. We’re going to get into the detail of this with Bryce and Ray. That the ship was clearly visible, and that 34 people are killed and many more wounded. And yet this goes down in history as an error with which some compensation was paid for the error.

But then let’s deal with sort of the big question, Bryce. Based on you being there that day and what you saw, why do you think this couldn’t have been a mistake?

LOCKWOOD: We were overflown several times during the morning of June the 8th by Israeli aircraft. At least eight times. Eight different occasions that we were overflown. And the reason they were doing that is to make sure that they knew exactly where all of our transmitting antennas were so when they attacked they could knock us out.

Now, the excuses the Israelis give, well, they didn’t see a flag. Excuse me, they shot down two flags, and we ran up three. The third flag that we ran up was our holiday flag. That’s the largest flag you have aboard ship. They claim, well, couldn’t see a flag because of smoke. Well, there wasn’t any smoke until the Israelis dropped napalm on us. They claimed that they thought that we were an Egyptian ship, the El Kassir, which is a World War I horse carrier, had not been to sea for 20 years and was waiting to be cut up for scrap.

Well, there’s some problems with that excuse, also. Number one, U.S. ships are painted gray with white markings. Our hallmark was GTR-5. That’s your ship’s license plate. GTR-5 stands for General Technical Research, the 5th ship of her class, the largest and newest ship of her class. General Technical Research means she’s a non-combatant, and non-combatants are not legitimate military targets. I mentioned U.S. ships are painted gray with white markings. Egyptian ships are painted black with gray markings, and those hallmarks are in Arabic script. Big difference. And nobody from Israel can give me the excuse that they don’t know the difference between English markings and Arabic script. All highway signs in Israel are marked in Arabic.

JAY: Is it possible that, this is in the midst of a war, there’s many–who knows how many pieces of information and data the command has to process at the same time. If you look at Crewdson’s article–I should have said that he wrote that for the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun in 2007. At the very end of the article there’s a timeline, and in that timeline he–I’ll read what he has here. He says:

The Israeli naval commander orders the commander of the torpedo boat division to attack the Liberty. This is 2:20 PM. At almost the same time the naval operations branch orders, do not attack. It’s possible the aircraft not identified correctly. The commander of the torpedo boat division says he never got any order to cease the attack, although the deputy commander says he passed the message to the commander.

I mean, once they really launch the attack and continue the attack–and actually, that’s my question. How long did this attack go on for?

LOCKWOOD: The attack lasted a total of 75 minutes when we were actively being shot at.

JAY: So it’s not possible over the course of that, early, early into that 75 minutes, they know what they’re attacking. And maybe they know what they’re attacking right from the beginning, that if this information that Crewdson gives in the timeline is correct, there’s contradictory orders coming from the Israeli command.

I mean, is it–I guess this is a bit of theorizing, but is it possible this begins as a miscommunication error, and then once they start the attack then they decide to sink the ship because it’s better that there’s no witnesses to it than not.

LOCKWOOD: If you go on YouTube and search The Day Israel Attacked America, there is an hour and a half long film on there, and the actual conversations in Hebrew between ground control and aircraft are on that film. The Day Israel Attacked America. In Hebrew, identifying it as an American ship.

JAY: So there’s no question in your mind, from the very beginning they have to know it’s an American ship, and based on the quote I read from in the introduction–actually, let me read a little more of that quote, because it’s, when you hear the whole quote it’s rather damning.

So this is–.

LOCKWOOD: Let me just interject this, Paul. Had the Israelis been shooting at the El Kassir, which they claim, the torpedoes would have totally missed. Torpedoes have to be set for a certain depth in order to strike their target in a vital place. U.S.S. Liberty was three times the tonnage of El Kassir, and much larger a depth. Had the Israelis been shooting at El Kassir, the torpedoes that they fired would have totally missed because of the difference in draft.

JAY: But does that explain why so many did miss?

LOCKWOOD: Quite frankly I think the Israeli navy was not nearly as competent as the Israeli air force was. In my opinion, one of those six torpedoes never got to lead the torpedo tubes because of Israeli navy incompetence.

JAY: Let me read this quote from Steve Forslund. So once again, Steve Forslund is an intelligence–oh, I’m sorry. Jesus. Steve Forslund is an intelligence analyst for the [544th] Air Reconnaissance Technical Wing, then the highest level strategic planning office in the Air Force. And I’m quoting Crewdson’s piece. Quote from Forslund: The ground control station, meaning the Israeli ground control station, stated that the target was an American, and for the aircraft to confirm it, Forslund recalled. The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American by the American flag. Quote, the ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target, and ensure they left no survivors. Forslund said he clearly recalled, quote, the obvious frustration of the controller over the inability of the pilots to sink the target quickly and completely. He kept insisting the mission had to sink the target, and was frustrated with the pilot’s responses that it didn’t sink. Nor, Forslund said, was he the only member of his unit to have read the transcripts. Everybody saw these. Forslund now retired, after 26 years in the military.

So if this is correct, the mission is to sink the boat. What did you witness there? Just take us through the events as you saw them.

LOCKWOOD: I was actually below decks when the attack took place. We had had a drill GQ at noon, local time. And had secured from that drill GQ about 13:00 hours, at 1:00. I went to small stores aboard the ship. When I was ordered to her I didn’t have very many uniforms with me, and I needed some more clothing, pieces of clothing. So I went to small stores and purchased some articles of underclothing and t-shirts. And I was at my bunk stamping my name on those t-shirts for, to make sure they got separated out correctly in the laundry, when the first shell struck the ship.

I had never been under combat conditions before, but I knew immediately that we were under attack, just from the sound of the shell striking the ship. So I immediately dropped what I was doing and went to my GQ station, which was in the research spaces in the bowels of the ship, below the waterline. I remember a chief, Melvin Smith, stating well, I guess we’d better start emergency destruction.

That’s one of the things that intelligence personnel just do not want to hear. There was so much work that went into processing the intelligence which we had. Manuals for decoding materials and language materials, reels and reels and reels of magnetic tape, combat conversations that we had recorded, we didn’t want to hear that.

But we got out our ditching bags and filled them. I was sitting at a plotting table in the processing and reporting area, when the division officer, Lt. [Mauri Bennet] stuck his head in the door and he said, Sgt. Lockwood, would you come here a moment, please?

I stepped out into the passageway which ran down the center of the ship, and Mr. Bennet, Lt. Bennet, and Lt. Cdr. Dave Armstrong began a conversation with me about these ditching bags. They needed to be put up topside and pitched over the side. The whole idea was to get them in the water where no other country could retrieve the intelligence information that we had. Well, there’s a bunch of shooting going on topside and that’s a Marine’s job. So apparently I was called to get a working party together to get rid of those ditching bags.

JAY: Let me ask you one question, who did you think was attacking you at that time?

LOCKWOOD: The assumption was that they were Arabs, United Arab Republic, or Egyptians. We had no idea that it was the Israelis. Just about the time that conversation about the ditching bags ensued, there was a blinding flash. A torpedo had struck. I didn’t realize that it was a torpedo at the time. But I was knocked to the deck. The first thought that crossed my mind was life was over with. I thought, well, Lord, I guess this is it. I guess I’m coming home. At least Lois and the kids are taken care of. Lois is my wife.

I felt something cold, and I kind of stupidly looked down and water was coming in around my feet, and it felt cold. And I thought, oh my God, we’re in trouble. And I struggled to my feet and I heard a sailor behind me moaning. And the water is starting to come up pretty quickly. I turned around and tried to pull the sailor loose. He had been pinned under a steel bulkhead, a temporary bulkhead, which separated the spaces so the people that didn’t belong in there couldn’t get in there. When that torpedo struck, the explosion of it just blew that bulkhead out like a gigantic mushroom.

And the man, I didn’t find out till oh, 25 years later who it was. His name was Joe [Lentini]. He had been struck by a piece of shrapnel from the aircraft rockets in his left thigh. And he was sitting on the deck leaning up against the ladderway that went to the next level above, and trying to put a tourniquet on his wound when the torpedo struck. His left leg was propped up, and when that bulkhead struck his leg it just made toothpicks of his leg and pinned him into that wreckage. I tried to get my hands–.

JAY: When did you realize the attack was Israeli?

LOCKWOOD: Not until the next day. I tried to get my hands under his armpits and pull him loose, but he was wedged in there really tightly. And I tried to holler at him. I said, come on, you got to help me, I can’t do it by myself. And I’m tugging and pulling on it, and the water was up to his chin by then. I said come on, get your legs under you and push, I can’t do it by myself. Come on, push, push.

And he got his right leg under him, I didn’t know his left leg was smashed. He got his right leg under him and pushed just hard enough to where I could free him, but his leg was still tangled up in that wreckage. And by that time, the water was in, oh, a foot and a half of the overhead. There were some pipes up there. And I saw another unconscious sailor starting to float out the torpedo hole. I reached out and got an arm around him and held us in above water. And I said to Joe Lentini, said here, get ahold of these pipes up here, and hold yourself up.

A lot of the sailors were all crowding around the ladderway to the next level above, and there was a lot of shouting and confusion going on. And as loudly as I could, I hollered, knock it off. If y’all don’t settle down none of us will get out of here alive. And I heard that Mr. Bennet was at the top of the ladderway to the next ladder above. I heard him say, this is Mr. Bennet. Open this hatch.

And apparently I fell into unconsciousness about that time, because the next thing that I remember I was down there alone with an unconscious sailor, and life wasn’t very pretty. The hatch was sealed shut. I tried to pull this unconscious sailor, didn’t even know who it was, didn’t find out who that was until some 30 years later. Tried to get him up the ladderway. Dropped him. The ship was rolling, and water was gushing in and out of the torpedo hole. Went back and got him, tried to get him up the ladderway, slipped and dropped him again. The railing to the ladderway had been bent by a piece of shrapnel from the torpedo, so it was a very narrow opening. I got him above that, the hatch was closed.

I started pounding on the hatch, and the captain had sent one of the damage control people, his name was Phil [Turney], sent him down there to take a look and see how badly the ship was damaged, whether or not we were going to sink right away. And Phil heard me pounding on the hatch and opened the hatch, and let me out along with this unconscious sailor.

JAY: And during all this time the attack is continuing.

LOCKWOOD: Yes. The aircraft were still fighting us, the torpedo boats were circling us and riddling us with heavy machine gun fire. The Israelis were using a 30mm shell, which is considerably larger than our 50mm shell that is our standard machine gun for torpedo boats. It’s about two and a half times the size.

JAY: Am I understanding there, there’s, a raft leaves. An escape raft. And they start to strafe this raft. Is that correct?

LOCKWOOD: Yeah. All of our liferafts, we had two rafts with inflatable liferafts on them. Those were napalmed. There was nothing left of those but a few rags from the [inaud.] Those were totally unusable. The captain’s launch and the Liberty launch were the two boats that we had that were used for getting personnel back and forth between the shore and the ship, were just riddled with heavy caliber fire. They were totally useless.

JAY: So in your mind, there’s–is there any doubt that the mission was no survivors?

LOCKWOOD: No survivors. Absolutely, no survivors.

JAY: Okay, Ray, there’s some evidence now. We know that there was actually an earlier SOS that did make it through even though there was jamming. And there were some planes scrambled, and then what happens. So what do we know about that part of the story?

MCGOVERN: Well, you know that Terry Halbardier succeeded in joining that cable and getting the SOS out, which in turn was intercepted by the Israelis, who broke off the attack. Now, meanwhile, the commander of the 6th task force there in the Mediterranean had sent fighter bombers from the U.S.S. Saratoga and the U.S.S. America to do battle with whoever it was that was attacking this Naval ship, the U.S.S. Liberty.

We know furthermore that they were called back on the direct instruction of Secretary of Defense McNamara, and the President of the United States Lyndon Johnson. We know that from several sources. One of them is from Admiral Geis, who was in receipt of these orders, and very reluctantly ordered his fighter bombers back. He told one of the Liberty crew who managed to make it to the U.S.S. America that he was ordered not to pursue this, to turn them back because President Johnson did not want to embarrass an ally, Israel.

So that’s one of the indications here. The others are either in communications intelligence–you know, the big thing here, Paul, for an intelligence officer is that there are certain species of intelligence after which analysts or journalists actually lust, okay. Those are hard evidence like intercepted communications. And when we have the Israeli pilots, as we do, saying that’s an American ship, and we have ground control saying follow your orders, strike it, well, what further need have we for proof?

So number one, what we know is that it was a deliberate attack, that it was meant to sink everything with no survivors. And number two, we know that it was covered up because everything done in the aftermath of that attack was done to cover it up, to include Naval officers, Naval lawyers, who were persuaded to keep their mouths shut under orders because we did not want to embarrass an ally.

JAY: Now, when Johnson–if this report is correct and Johnson calls back the planes, it must be clear that the mission at that time is to sink the boat. If you’re calling back the planes you’re allowing the attack to continue. The attack to continue is–leads to no survivors.

LOCKWOOD: Joe Tully was Skipper of the U.S.S. Saratoga. He came to our 25th reunion in Rapid City, SD. And Captain Tully told me personally that there had–the aircraft which he had initially launched had some nuclear weapons aboard them. He had assumed that the reason that they were recalled was because of those nuclear weapons. So he ordered all the nuclear weapons retrieved and re-armed with conventional warfare and re-launched. Admiral Geis notified Washington. And Robert McNamara came back on the line ordering them returned.

Admiral Geis said he wanted to hear that from higher authority. Lyndon Johnson himself came on and said, get those aircraft back. I will not have my allies embarrassed. Now, excuse me. The Israelis were using unmarked aircraft. We did not know who was attacking us. Excuse me, unmarked aircraft is a violation of international law.

So since the Israelis were using unmarked aircraft, and we did not know who was attacking us, how did Lyndon Johnson know that his allies were attacking us?

JAY: How did you know they’re unmarked? You could see yourself these–there’s no markings on these planes?

LOCKWOOD: I could not see them myself, but the other crewmembers did.

JAY: If you try to analyze the Israeli position, whether it starts in error or not, and from what you’re saying it seems not very plausible that it’s in error, then the plan from the very beginning has to be to sink the ship, no survivors, otherwise the evidence–there’s too many people to say what happened. Then what you’re suggesting is at the very least, at some–fairly early on into this attack, President Johnson decides not to prevent it, not to stop it. We have one quote about not embarrassing, we don’t know any more of the conversation.

Ray and I talked about this interview prior to this. And we said, we’re going to be very careful about trying to say what do we have evidence, and what does one speculate or theorize about. So we’re going to stop this in part one. We’re going to do a part two. But Ray, sum up, just to end this, sum up what we know what’s evidence. In part two we’ll talk a little bit more about why we think this might have happened, and go a little further into it all. But just sum up, from your point of view as someone who analyzed data for a long time, what’s the evidence here, quickly?

MCGOVERN: Well it’s very bizarre, Paul, because it [admits that] no other interpretation than a deliberate Israeli attack on a U.S. Naval ship with the intent of sinking the ship and killing all the crew. That’s really hard to believe. But the evidence is unassailable. We know that. That’s fact. That’s not opinion. We also know from confessions by Navy lawyers and by all manner of other circumstances, that this thing was covered up and still is covered up by the official version. So that we know. Coverup and attack, deliberate attack.

But we don’t know, and it boggles the mind, why did the Israelis do it? And I don’t know of any diplomat or U.S. official that has taken the trouble to ask them.

PAUL: All right. In part two we’re going to continue this conversation. Again, we’re going to try to be careful about where there’s evidence and where there’s, I guess, speculation. But please join us for the continuation of this conversation about the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty on The Real News Network.

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