‘What I Saw That Day ‘ by USS LIBERTY Survivor Phil Tourney, Chapters 1-5
The morning of June 8th, I was awake at 3:30 am, because I had watch duty. My job was Sounding and Security, which included making sure all tanks of potable water were good and checking for water-tight integrity of the ship. I would report to the bridge every hour on the hour with the news that all was okay.
Once daybreak arrived, we started receiving visitors in the form of overflights of our ship. I did not see the initial flights, because I was below deck doing my job, but the other guys were telling me about them. The planes were unquestionably Israeli, as the Star of David was easy to see and knowing that our “friends” were checking on us caused the general mood to improve dramatically.
The way the guys described them, these surveillance planes were low and slow. It was not possible for them to mistake the fact we were Americans and therefore the general belief amongst the crew was that Washington and Tel Aviv were working together to make sure we were safe. I did not see all the planes, but the other guys said the over-flights lasted approximately six hours. Around noon, the flights stopped altogether.
I went to lunch around noon. Soon afterwards, a General Quarters drill was announced over the intercom. Captain wanted a chemical drill done, which meant me crawling into what was called an “impregnated” suit. I grabbed my fire-hose and nozzle and made my way to the main deck, pretending to wash down any chemicals on the ship. The heat inside that suit was enough to make me woozy to the point where I thought I would pass out. Somewhere around 1:45 pm, (just a few minutes before I would no doubt have keeled over) the drill was done. I crawled out of the suit and put it away.
Damage Control Central hailed me and informed me that one of the phones in the starboard gun-mount on the forecastle (pronounced “foaxal”) was not working. David Skolak, another engineer like myself, accompanied me to the gun-mount where the broken phone was located. I told him what needed to be done and his response was, “No problem, Tourney. I’ll get her working.” This was about five minutes before 2:00 pm.
We stood there for a few minutes near the gun-mount, shooting the bull. One of the things we both remarked on was that of all the places we would not want to be during an attack, this was it; the gun-tub. We knew that in any attack, the gun-tub (as well as the guy manning it) would get taken out as a first priority. We fought back the shivers associated with this discussion by reminding ourselves and each other that everything was okay. We were Americans and Israel was our ally. Therefore, anyone becoming aggressive with us would immediately be crushed by our good friends, the Israelis; just as your buddy would step in and start throwing punches if you were jumped by two or three guys.
I had to get back to my work station, so I said goodbye to Skolak and the gunner. I made my way down the starboard ladder to the main deck, and then on to my workstation in the ship-fitter’s shop on the starboard side. I opened the hatch to go back inside. As soon as I stepped in and closed the hatch, I heard an order announced over the PA to test the motor whale boat. A mere few moments after the order had been given I heard a huge explosion right next to the hatch I had just closed. The only logical explanation in my mind was that whoever was carrying out the order to test the motor whale boat had done something wrong and the boat had blown up as a consequence. The idea that we were under attack was the farthest thing from my mind…
Chapter 2–Those Arab Bastards…
Not realizing that a rocket had just exploded directly outside the hatch, I grabbed the handle and opened it once more to go out and investigate the trouble. I had just barely put one foot outside, when I felt myself grabbed by the shirt collar and violently jerked back inside. I turned and saw it was First-Class Petty Officer Dale Neese.
“Get back!” he barked, “We’re under attack!”
General Quarters alarm was sounded. I made my way to my duty station, which was one deck above the mess decks. After going down the ladder, I slipped and fell and found myself under the trampling feet of sailors as they made their way to their stations. I rolled over to my right side to get out of their way, got on my feet and joined the stampede to get to my station as well. I got into battle-dress and got my gear ready.
Chief Thompson was the on-scene leader. As soon as I arrived, he said he’d been hit and was leaving to get medical care. Since I was assistant on-scene leader, this meant I was in charge.
“It’s all yours now, Tourney,” Thompson said as he made his way down the passage, and I, not in the least bit thrilled with my new promotion yelled back “Hey, thanks a lot chief.”
I began my duties by making sure all persons in damage control party where accounted for and ready to do business. Several were missing which was not surprising, considering the torrent of explosions I could hear taking place just one deck above me. Suddenly – just like the “thousand points of light” George Bush Sr. described in one of his infamous campaign speeches – holes began appearing everywhere around us from the rocket and cannon fire as they struck the side and deck of the ship, allowing in sunlight where before there was none. I caught a piece of shrapnel four inches long, just above the elbow on my right arm. I pulled it out, threw it on the deck and moved everyone in my department to the main deck.
Once on the main deck, we were not prepared for what we were about to see. The first place I went was to the same gun-tub I had visited earlier. I saw nothing but a pile of human remains – blood, hunks of flesh and fragments of bone. One of the men in my department, Rick Aimetti – or as I called him, “my partner in crime” – was with me. We knew there was no life to be saved at the gun-tub, so we moved on. All the while, machine-gun bullets and rocket fire are raining down on us.
Dead and wounded bodies were everywhere on the main deck. In between volleys of machine gun bullets and rockets we darted out from safe cover, grabbed them one at a time, dragged them across the deck and threw them down the hatch. Others down below picked them up and took them someplace where they could be treated. It took us about fifteen minutes to clear the decks of those who were alive and could be saved.
All totaled, there had been about twenty-five guys up there who had been hurt and needed help. I think the worst case I saw was Tom Riley, a Botswan’s Mate. He was on his back, alert, and covered head to toe with grey paint. Considering the number of wounds he had sustained, the paint–as thick as cold molasses–probably saved his life as it was that day as it served as a giant bandage.
Once Aimetti and I assessed that there was no one else alive on the main deck, I was ordered to go to the log room, the location of Damage Control Central. When I got there I saw that John Scott, my superior, was burning documents. This is standard procedure in the US Military, as all documents – no matter how seemingly insignificant they are – must be destroyed in the event of an attack. You do not allow your enemy to get any information on anything, and who else but an enemy would be attacking us? After speaking for a few minutes, he ordered me back on deck to assess the damage and to put out any fires.
On my way back to the deck, I saw the passageways were littered with wounded men. All were bloody and moaning. My shipmates would call out to me and ask me for help. Some of them would ask me, as if I were a doctor, “Hey, man, can you do something about this?”
I got to the bridge and saw that Captain McGonagle was badly wounded in the leg but still in command. Rocket and cannon holes were everywhere. Burning napalm was dripping through the holes and into the bridge compartment. I tried hitting the napalm with the CO2 canisters I had, but the fire was so intense, that the Co2 was basically useless. I requested a fire team with water hoses. In hindsight, I realize this was just a waste of time, since the hoses had been shot up like a snake hit with birdshot from a shotgun.
I threw the two empty CO2 canisters overboard and then told Captain McGonagle I would be back with some better equipment to put out the fires. His response to me was, “Do what you can, sailor.” Despite the fact we were under attack and he was badly wounded, Captain was calm and professional in a surreal way.
Before I left, I looked at my good friend, Francis Brown – a Third-Class Quartermaster, who was steering the ship. We were good friends. We drank beer together, played cards and whatnot. We stood there for a moment, not saying a word but simply locking eyes.
I went to find more CO2 canisters. As soon as I got a hold of one, I flew back up the port ladder to get to the bridge. When I got to the top, I stepped in something wet, causing me to slip and fall on my back violently. The Co2 canister flew out of my hands and came crashing down with a bang that caused everyone, including McGonagle, to look in my direction.
As soon as I got up, I saw what it was that had caused me to slip and fall. My good friend, Francis Brown had caught a machine gun bullet or a piece of shrapnel in the back of the head and his blood was everywhere. His eyes were closed but his face was swelled up like a balloon. It was something that no human being should ever have to see and especially when it is your good friend.
My first thought when seeing this was “Those Arab bastards, they just blew my friend to pieces…”
Chapter 3–Rude Awakening
How could I have thought otherwise? Who else besides the Arabs could have done something like this? The Russians wouldn’t do it – they would have been evaporated and knew it. Israel, our “beloved ally,” wouldn’t do it.
That left only the Arabs, who had just gotten their clocks cleaned by Israel and this meant naturally they would be unhappy with America. In the instant of that one thought, I figured this was their last gasp, their last stroke on the way out. Here we were, a defenseless ship and an easy target. It would be like a turkey-shoot for them, giving them a trophy to hang on the wall and talk about years later in order to lessen the sting of what was such a terrible, humiliating loss.
The other reason leading me to conclude it was the Arabs was that the jets attacking us were not marked. The only other encounter we had had with planes was earlier in the day when we were being surveilled by Israel, and those planes had clearly been marked with the tell-tale Star of David.
Our beautiful ship, LIBERTY, that less than an hour before was a flawless, spectacular, elegant vessel was now a giant block of metal Swiss cheese with body-parts of American servicemen strewn all over the deck. What had been battleship-grey before was now stained blood-red and I had just fallen on my back when I slipped in a puddle of it.
I got back on my feet and with little or no effect, spent the last of the Co2 I had on the burning napalm. My job was done on the bridge. There was nothing more I could do.
Before leaving, I gave the bridge one final look.
Hopelessness overcame me like a flood of nausea. As I went back down the ladder, I again noticed my shipmates lying on the deck in the passageway. They were bleeding, with broken legs, broken arms, broken heads and jagged bones sticking out all over the place. I wondered how long it would be before I either joined them or — worse — joined those who had already gone on to meet their maker.
I made my way back to Damage Control Central where my boss, Ensign Scott was still burning documents. I told him I was heading back on to the battlefield to see what I could do in keeping the ship afloat and helping the wounded. He merely continued with the business of burning documents as if I were a ghost.
Having seen the destructive power we were up against first- hand and knowing we had nothing to throw back at it, my instinct was to go and help the wounded. I went to sick bay first — a logical expectation, except when you consider that it was adequate for only a handful of men. When I arrived I saw that Richard Kiepfer (the ship’s only doctor) was not there, learning that the more seriously wounded had been moved to the mess decks, since they could hold large numbers of men there. Knowing Doc would be where I needed to be, I left sick bay and headed for the mess decks.
Mess hall was the meeting place for good times. We ate there, had coffee, played cards, watched movies, told jokes and whatnot. Just like back home, where the dining room was the place where the family gathered together every evening to celebrate the fact they had all made it through one more day alive together, we on the LIBERTY would gather in the mess hall. Getting together in the mess hall at the end of the work day was our way of celebrating the fact we were one day closer to getting home.
Now however, the mess hall was anything but a friendly meeting place. Rather, it has been transformed into a cacophony of wailing and desperation. It was – to put it bluntly – a slaughterhouse, and we, the men of the USS LIBERTY, were the beef. Above deck, it had been the sound of roaring jets, rockets exploding and machine-gun bullets whizzing by.
Below deck, the sounds were just as horrible, meaning the noises of men in indescribable agony. Again, because I was one of the few men still on his feet, the wounded would stop me by the way and ask me to help them. As much as it was against everything in my being, I had to put them out of mind for a while, because right then my job was to move the wounded out of the passageways and into the mess hall.
Rick Aimetti and I went up top to check and see if there were any on deck still alive and with half a chance of being saved. All of them – I can’t give an exact number, but I can guess at least half a dozen – were dead, so we left them there.
At last, the jets realized they would not succeed in sinking us. They called off their attack and left. Before we could breathe a sigh of relief however, the voice of Captain McGonagle came over the intercom, ordering the ship’s crew to prepare for torpedo hit, starboard side.
I looked out to see the torpedo boats coming at us at a high rate of speed. Unlike the jets, the torpedo boats were proudly flying their flag with its tell-tale Star of David. When I saw the flag and the high rate of speed at which they were coming at us, I breathed a sigh of relief. Foolishly, I assumed that our beloved ally had scared off the jets and were coming to our rescue.
The delusion lasted for only a minute until I saw the splash of several torpedoes being dropped in the water as they headed towards us. Unable to find a big enough vein during the first time with the air assault, the vampire now moved to a different part of our neck, searching out the jugular.
Putting the two pieces of information together – the fact we were being attacked and murdered by our “ally” is difficult to describe. Betrayal is always a heartbreaking event and especially when it’s coming from someone really close to you.
I could make no sense of it. Why would a friend do this to us? We had all been pulling for Israel all along. We wanted them to win, and their payback for our loyalty to them was to try to murder us – all of us. There was no warning – nothing to indicate that such a thing was coming our way. It was much like Judas, who betrayed his friend with a kiss.
I can’t speak for the rest of the crew, because I can’t read their minds, but for me, the knowledge that this had been done by a friend filled me with seething rage. I was determined to do whatever was necessary and at whatever cost to save the ship in whatever way I could. For whatever reason, knowing we had been betrayed by a friend made me stronger.
As angry as I was at that time however, it would be nothing compared to the anger I would experience later when I learned the terrible truth that we were betrayed not only by Israel, but also by others even closer to home.
The torpedoes had all been launched almost simultaneously. No doubt, our would-be assassins assumed the damage we had sustained by their air attack had wounded us to the point that we were merely a sitting duck. What they did not count on was the skill of our captain as he out-smarted the killers and out-maneuvered their torpedoes.
Four passed us by, leaving one.
In our heads, the countdown began as that fifth torpedo approached. I was on the starboard side, which was only one deck above the waterline. As we had been trained to do, we hunkered down in “torpedo attack mode”. This meant bending your knees and elbows, putting your hands against the bulk head and relaxing your neck. This last action is nearly impossible knowing that death is approaching.
As I crouched there, waiting for the explosion, I remembered the Victory at Sea movies I watched as a kid. I was sure we would blow up and sink to the bottom like a rock. My talk with God was short but sweet – “Lord, if this is the way it’s gotta be, then it’s gotta be. I’m sorry if I ever disappointed you…”
The seconds peeled away like minutes, as I waited for the blast.
When the explosion came, it was literally deafening. Being directly above it by a mere eight feet, my eardrums were blown out, something I live with to this day as a reminder of what happened. Although my feet remained on the floor at the same time I was airborne. We all were, because the ship was picked completely up out of the water by the explosion. When it came back down it bounced like a ball that had been tossed onto the pavement.
Now, with what I had left of my hearing, I could hear new sounds. There was moaning and groaning and wailing; not of wounded men but rather of a wounded ship as metal gave way to the rush of sea water within the compartment directly below. That the ship had not blown up meant the torpedo had not hit the engine room. If it had and all that cold sea water had hit the boiler running at full bore, we would have gone up like a stick of dynamite.
The ship settled and then started to list. It seemed impossible that she would not go down, but miraculously, and I do mean miraculously, she steadied herself.
I was a twenty-year-old kid in charge of Damage Control Forward, on a ship that had just suffered (at least) 75% casualties. I had no communications, so my only way of getting my orders was to speak personally with my superior, Ensign Scott in Damage Control Central. After locating him and asking what I was to do he instructed me to go find out where the torpedo had hit. So I, along with Rick Aimetti, went down into the bowels of the ship to the Communications Spaces, where the spooks worked.
When we arrived, I banged on the steel door with my fire ax. The lock on the door was electronic and required a code to open it which I obviously did not have. On the other side of the door, a voice told me I was not authorized to enter the spaces. Rick Aimetti and I told whoever it was to go to hell, saying that being in damage control meant that in an emergency we were authorized to go anywhere we needed to on the ship. When this didn’t succeed in persuading whoever was on the other side, I threatened that if they did not open up I would beat the door off its hinges with my ax.
The door opened.
Since I had been down in the spaces before doing grunt work for the spooks, I knew the lay of the land. The main hatch was sealed, along with the scuttle hatch. I turned the scuttle hatch counterclockwise, very slowly, since the compartment had just had a hole blown in the side of it and might already be filled with water. As I slowly turned, I heard air escaping in our direction, meaning the compartment was not filled already, but was filling.
I continued opening the hatch slowly, when to my surprise, I heard frantic banging on the other side. Knowing there was life on the other side, I turned the wheel as fast as I could, and threw the hatch open. As soon as it was opened, Sgt. Bryce Lockwood, USMC, came scrambling out while pulling another sailor to safety. Aimetti and I grabbed the two and yanked them out of the hole. At this point, Lockwood, (thinking we had locked him in there and left him to die) turned on both us with understandable fury, calling us a couple of dirty, no-good SOBs.
Just then, Ensign Scott entered, carrying a battle lantern and ordered me to give him my belt. I did as ordered, at which point he tied my belt around the handle and lowered the lantern into the water to check for any signs of life. After a few silent moments, we looked at each other.
“What do you think, Tourney?” he asked.
My response was as short as my prayer had been earlier when I thought I was a dead man for sure.
“Sir,” I said, “I think we’d better seal her up.”
And we did.
Aimetti and I left the area. Little did we know that a new phase of the war against our lives had just begun. We climbed back up to the main deck, just to make sure there were no more survivors waiting to be rescued. To our shock, it turned out there were men alive on deck. As before, we grabbed them and threw them into any hatch, corner, or anything that appeared to offer some type of protection for them as they fought to stay alive.
Now, instead of the jets firing at us with machine-guns, it was the gunners onboard the torpedo boats. They shot at anything that moved; firefighters or stretcher bearers. It seemed to last forever. One of the guys I was pulling to safety got hit right above the knee with a .50 caliber, resulting in an explosion of blood and bone. I took off my shirt and tied the sleeves around the top of his leg as tight as I could get it to stop the bleeding. We got him down to the mess decks and untied the tourniquet for just a few seconds so that they wouldn’t be forced to amputate his leg later. Then we retied it and left the area.
Aimetti and I went back up on the main deck, still under fire from the gunners on the torpedo boats. Now, not only were they shooting at the firefighters and stretcher bearers, but at the waterline as well, right in the direction of the boilers and from no further than thirty-five yards away. It was obvious to me what they were trying to do.
They were trying to blow up the ship by hitting the boilers.
Throughout the entire time that they were firing at anything that moved, they circled the ship like vultures. There was no way, from such a close distance (less than 100 feet) that they could have missed the lettering, USS LIBERTY GTR-5 , as big as 10 feet in height. They were English words written in the Latin Alphabet. Not Arabic – as they would later claim making up the excuse that they had thought we were a rickety Egyptian horse freighter, the El Quesir. This very same Egyptian freighter had been tied up in port during the time of the attack, and Israel had most certainly known this already.
The sound of machine-guns and all the rest of the hell taking place at that moment was interrupted by a new order from the Captain,
“All crew prepare to abandon ship.”
Obviously he thought we were going under, as the ship was still listing badly to the starboard side where the torpedo had hit.
When we started our voyage from Norfolk we had enough life rafts for 294 crewmembers. Now however, most of the life rafts had been destroyed by rockets, gunfire or napalm. Now there were only three left and large enough to hold as many as a dozen men each. I personally jettisoned one of them into the water and watched as all of them inflated. Just a few minutes later, though, I saw them being machine- gunned by the Israeli gunners. In something that causes my blood to boil to this very day, I watched in horror as one of the destroyed rafts was taken aboard a torpedo boat as a trophy, while the other two were sunk. These life rafts were put over the side to evacuate our most seriously wounded, and the gunning of these life rafts was a war crime. When I saw them being shot to pieces, I knew there was no hope for the crew of the USS LIBERTY. Israel clearly understood the meaning of the phrase “dead men don’t tell tales” and were not about to allow even one of us to live and tell our story.
The gunfire from the torpedo boats stopped, and the only explanation I can offer for this is that the rotten bastards ran out of ammo.
The nightmare of the torpedo boats left, only to be replaced by another one.
Chapter 4–Staring Into The Eyes Of The Devil
Dad was a Baptist and Mom was Catholic. In the end, Mom’s way of thinking won out, and I was baptized a Catholic at the church dedicated to St. Francis De Salles, from whom I got my middle name. I remember Mom taking me to Mass, and although I did not understand any of the strange language being used, I knew it was a house of God and a place of holiness.
I remember the stained-glass windows with their depictions of various things. One picture that always stuck in my mind was one of Michael the Archangel; standing triumphant over the devil and about to thrust a spear into him.
The image of the devil was one that always stuck with me, with his horns, tail, smiling eyes and pitchfork. I thought – and always hoped – that I would never see him face to face. I certainly never thought he would appear in any other form than how I had seen him in that stained glass window as a child. But on June 8,1967, I came face-to-face with him, as well as his fellow fallen angels who tried to kill me that day.
First it was the jet aircraft and then the torpedo boats. Now came a new vessel carrying his henchmen. I heard it at first from far away, despite the fact that my eardrums had been blown out by the blast of the torpedo.
Far off in the distance came the unmistakable “whomp, whomp, whomp” sound of a troop-carrying helicopter. It was approaching the ship from the starboard side, the same side where the torpedo had hit. Soon, I saw what I had heard, as the helicopter appeared just above the horizon and approached us like a bird of prey.
As the helicopter approached, a call came over the intercom:
“ALL SHIP’S PERSONNEL PREPARE TO REPEL BOARDERS.”
This meant there was going to be a firefight.
Although it was not part of my duty to hand out the few small arms we had on the ship, I made my way to the gun locker as fast as I could, along with Aimetti. Both of us, having seen our friend Francis Brown with his head blown open were filled with such a rage that we could envision nothing better than delivering a little payback to those who had killed him.
I could do nothing to stop the jets, with their rockets, napalm and .50 caliber machine-guns. I could do nothing in fighting back against the torpedo boats. But by God, if it was going to be a man-to-man fight with whoever was onboard that helicopter, then I was going to try and make up for lost time. I ran down to the gun locker with Aimetti only to find it locked up tighter than Fort Knox. The master at arms, the only one with a key to the locker was no where to be found. Considering the high numbers of dead and wounded, we figured he had to be among them.
The locker was not that big – only about four feet wide, four feet deep and six feet high. Nor were our war machines that impressive – some old WWII-era M1 Garands, some .45 pistols and a few 12 gauge shotguns. Nevertheless, we were desperate for something to fight back with, even if it were only a BB gun. Someone (I can’t remember who – it may even have been me) grabbed an ax and started beating the lock on the locker. It yielded nothing. The lock was beaten to death but it would not give.
We left the area, unarmed and just as defenseless as we had been earlier when the jets and torpedo boats attacked.
As the helicopter hovered over us at about fifty feet above the deck, I could see that my worst suspicions had been proven correct. This was not a rescue helicopter. Instead, like a hornet-swollen hive, there were commandos on board, special forces, armed with sub-machineguns used for close-quarter combat.
I knew immediately they were not here to give us help. They were here to finish what their fellow assassins had been unable to accomplish. They were going to murder the entire crew of the USS LIBERTY. Then, once we were all dead and they were free to move about as they pleased, they would place explosives in strategic areas of the ship, detonate them and sink us all. The perfect crime, leaving no witnesses.
As the helicopter hovered for a moment, I saw that the troops inside were preparing to board the ship. From no more than 75 feet away, I stood like a dumb-ass in an open doorway where they had a clear shot at me. I locked eyes with one of my would-be assassins who was sitting on the floor of the helicopter. His legs were hanging out, and he had one foot on the skid below as he waited for the order to repel down to the ship’s deck and finish us all off.
I stepped out of the hatch and stood on the deck of my battered and bloody ship. I thought about everything that had happened over the course of the last hour or so. My good friend, Francis Brown, his brains splattered all over the bridge…David Skolak, who was left in chunks of flesh, bone and internal organs…all the other men, whom I had never gotten to meet or know, and who were now gone forever.
And so, the only thing I could do in that moment in letting my killers know what I thought about what they had done to my ship, to my friends and to my country, was to give them the finger. The one Israeli with whom I had locked eyes, merely chuckled at the sight of something as impotent and harmless as my middle finger and in the midst of all his machine gun-toting buddies, he simply smiled and gave me the finger back.
Suddenly, without any apparent reason or warning, the helicopter hauled ass out of there like a vampire being exposed to sunlight. The sight of them scurrying off sent a wave of euphoria through the crew.
I continued my search for the living. I made my way towards the botswanmates’ sleeping quarters at the front of the ship. As I entered the quarters, it was pitch black. The only light I had was a battle lantern. I moved the light from corner to corner when all of the sudden, I saw someone lying under a rack. My first thought was that he was dead, but to my great relief and surprise he wasn’t. I asked him if he was okay. He said he was. I told him to get his ass up and out of here because we needed every able-bodied man to help with the wounded. He lay there as if I had said nothing. I repeated my order for him to get his ass up and help us, this time using a few choice words that would have gotten my mouth washed out by my mom had I said them as a boy. I moved towards him, intent upon grabbing him by the collar and hauling him out of the quarters, when suddenly he pulled out a pistol, pointed it directly at me and announced his version of things – “I ain’t goin’ nowhere with you.”
When I saw the pistol and heard what he said, I knew he was not kidding. I thought to myself, “I survived rockets, machine guns, napalm and five torpedoes and now I am going to get killed by this cowardly son of a bitch who just so happens to be one of my own shipmates.” I backed away a few steps and said, “okay.” Slowly, I made my way out of the compartment, keeping the light on his eyes. When I got past the hatch, I closed it, making a special mental note that I would deal with him later when he did not have me at such a disadvantage.
I learned later that a mere few weeks earlier, this same guy had pulled a gun on someone else, but for reasons I do not know.
I left the area just as frightened as I had been when the ship was under attack. He could have shot me dead and no one would ever have been the wiser. There were guys all over the ship with bullet holes in them, and one more wasn’t going to result in any kind of autopsy or ballistics study concluding I was killed by “friendly” fire. More than a week later when we were in Malta doing repairs on the ship, I sat down to write this guy up, for the simple reason that he was dangerous. Over the course of an hour, I categorized everything that took place – disobeying a direct order from a superior, dereliction of duty and threatening to do me bodily harm with a firearm. I was meticulous in my account, even using a dictionary to make sure all the words were spelled correctly. The space on the chit was too small to cover everything, so I finished the report on the back of the paper. I turned it into one of my immediate superiors whose name I will not disclose because of the enormous respect I have for him. He read it over thoroughly and we discussed the matter for about a half an hour. At the end of our discussion, my superior – being much wiser to the ways of the world than I was – took my report and tore it into two pieces, then into four, then eight, and on and on until the only thing remaining was confetti.
“I believe every word you said, Tourney,” he told me, “but the fact is, we can’t do this, because if we do, it’s going erupt into an issue that none of us needs to deal with right now.”
Years later, I ran into this guy at a reunion of USS LIBERTY vets. I confronted him with his crime, asking him if he remembered pulling the gun on me. He obviously did remember, as he was hemming and hawing and squirming uncomfortably in front of me and a few of the other guys. Despite the fact he denied everything, he packed up and headed out just a few minutes later. I have not seen or heard from him since then.
Being in charge of damage control, I was free to go anywhere I wanted on the ship. For whatever reason, I wanted to check on Capt. McGonagle and see if they had taken care of my friend Francis Brown properly. When I got there, Francis was gone and McGonagle was standing upright with a tourniquet on his leg. No sooner had I gotten there when I hear someone shout, “Helicopter approaching from starboard side sir!”
Sure enough, here comes another damned helicopter with Israeli markings, and in my mind, loaded again with SOB’s wanting us all dead. It arrived and like the one before, hovered above us. From above, I could see Aimetti on the main deck below. A sack was dropped from the helicopter that landed on the main deck next to him. He picked it up and brought it to the bridge. Inside the bag was an orange along with a card from Commander Cassel, the American attaché for the US Ambassador to Israel. Handwritten on the back of his card was a single line: “Have you casualties?”
Upon reading the card, McGonagle became furious. He limped out of the enclosed part of the bridge to the wing and yelled, “Get out of here! We don’t want any help from you!” I understand why Captain was so furious. Here was this helicopter hovering above our once pristine, beautiful ship, now riddled with holes. There’s blood all over the place, the deck is covered with body parts as far as the eye could see, and this idiot asks something as inane as, “Have you casualties?” The helicopter left, marking the end of Israel’s military assault on our ship. We had defeated the beast without firing a single shot, merely by staying alive and remaining afloat.
Chapter 5–Broken Men, Broken Hearts
Once the helicopter left, Captain gave orders to head out to deeper waters. Praying that we would no longer be dealing with any further attempts on our lives, we got busy trying to save those who had been wounded.
The task at hand now was to find a place to put all the wounded. They were packed as tight as sardines in a tin can, leaving little room for us to even walk around. It was a sea of casualties – bleeding head wounds…bones protruding from arms and legs.
One guy I’ll never forget was a fellow named Quintero. As he lay on one of the dining tables, I stopped by to check on him. To my horror, I saw that he had a taken a .50 caliber machine-gun bullet that had run along the top of his head from the front to the back, digging a trench into the top of his skull. He was alert, and we talked a few minutes. I asked him if there was anything I could get for him – some water or anything to make him more comfortable. He lifted up his hand to reveal he was missing his thumb, as if to say, “If you happen to see this thing lying around, pick it up for me.”
Since we were headed out to deeper waters, I left the mess decks to check out other areas of the ship that needed repair. I went to the weight-lifting room, directly above the CT spaces where the torpedo had hit. I entered the room and saw that what had been a perfectly level, steel deck floor before had now been turned into something resembling some weird modern art. There was a giant hole in the middle with writhing tentacles of steel protruding upwards. I stepped up to the edge of the hole and looked down. I saw only ocean below me and no ship at all. In order to prevent others from unknowingly walking into the room and falling into the hole, we filled it with mattresses. We went to work in plugging holes to keep the sea out. The plugs were made of wood, sometimes as wide as 15 inches in diameter and tapered like a sharpened pencil. We wrapped cloth around the points and then pounded the dowels into the holes in the ship. There were close to a thousand holes in our ship, so we were busy well into the night.
I went back to the CT spaces where the torpedo had hit and found that the scuttle hatch had been opened. The water line was a mere 18 inches below the hatch. My only conclusion was that some good Samaritan had come along wanting to see if there were any souls left to be saved in what was now a giant, watery grave.
I left the area and headed towards shaft alley which housed the mechanism for turning the ship’s propeller. Part of my regular duties on Sound and Security was to check the packing around the shaft that kept the ocean out. It was fine; one of the few things on the ship not damaged in Israel’s attack, and so I left the area. I headed back to the mess decks, the place where we all used to meet during happier times to eat, drink coffee, play cards and in general, form friendships with our fellow American servicemen. As I re-entered the mess deck, the sun had already set. The sheer mass of human suffering moved me to such emotion that my knees got weak.
Upon seeing the agony before me, my impulse was to break down in tears, but I dared not. There were men in front me, broken men, and I was not about to show disrespect for their suffering by crying like a baby when I was on both feet and with no mortal wounds on my body.
As part of my basic training, I had learned basic first-aid. Now however, looking at everything that lay before me, it was obvious that this training would do me (as well as the men lying before me) no good. I went from broken man to broken man, asking what I could do to make him feel more comfortable. As I was doing this, all at once I heard a voice off to the right call me–
I turned to discover that the source of this was Commander Armstrong, the ship’s Executive Officer (XO). He was lying on a dining table and by all appearances must have sustained only superficial wounds, because there was very little blood. In addition, he was alert, active, and did not seem to be in any pain.
He asked me for a cigarette, since he knew I smoked at that time. I lit one and put it in his mouth for him. We sat and shot the bull for a few minutes. He asked me questions – “How many wounded?” “How many dead?” “What time is it?” “How’s Captain doing?”
I answered his questions as best as I could. He asked for another cigarette. I lit one for him, as well as one for myself. We sat and smoked together, continuing our conversation. He never moaned or groaned or complained about anything; not his wounds, physical pain or anything else. His entire demeanor was one of concern for the crew and the ship, making our little sojourn with each other a pleasant break for me. For those brief few minutes during the conversation between us, things were semi-normal. He was an officer and I was his subordinate. He had the bearing and confidence necessary if an officer is to lead his men and this made me feel good.
While this conversation was taking place, in perfect stereo I could hear the sounds of agony all around me as men lay waiting, either for the comfort of morphine or the comfort of death. Thinking that Commander Armstrong was okay, I told him I had to get moving.
I headed for the First-Class Mess, to see if there were blankets or anything else I could find to make the suffering of my wounded shipmates more sufferable. There was nothing to be found. I went back to Commander Armstrong to check in on him and see how he was getting along. To my great shock and sadness, he was dead.
He was a graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He served his country honorably in life and with dignity in death. Like any good American soldier, Armstrong died in his uniform, unlike many of our politicians, whose only uniforms are the lies, false promises, and platitudes they give when trying to get elected to an office that they do not deserve to hold.
I was summoned to the Ward Room, the officers’ mess hall. As I entered, the first thing I saw was Doctor Richard Kiepfer. He was the only MD on a ship carrying close to 300 men.
Like any college grad, Doc was an officer, holding the rank of Lieutenant. He was in his khaki uniform that US Naval officers wear, but curiously, he also had a life jacket around him. I thought at the time that this was because he was afraid the ship would sink from the torpedo hole. I found out later this was not the reason.
I assumed that the blood I saw on his pant legs was from those whose wounds he had been treating. Like my previous assumption concerning the life jacket, I found out later this also was not the case.
When I had finished my quick study of Doc Kiepfer, I turned to see one of my fellow enlisted men, Gary Blanchard, lying on a table right next to me. Although his front showed no signs of any wounds, he was lying in a puddle of his own blood that seemed to get bigger second by second. His first words to me were to ask that I remove his socks, saying his feet were on fire. I did as he asked. His next words were to ask if he was going to make it. I could do no more than shake my head “no”.
Years later, I always hated myself for that. Why didn’t I lie to him, or at least, try to change the subject? They say honesty is a virtue, but if I had to do it over again I would probably not be as “virtuous” as I was that day. My only hope is that the shaking of my head put him in the frame of mind he needed to be in to make peace with his maker before the final curtain.
Doc Kiepfer came over and unbuttoned Blanchard’s shirt. I figured Doc was going to examine his wounds, although I could see there weren’t any – at least in the front. A second later, when I saw that scalpel in Doc’s hands, I knew what was coming. Doc started at his chest bone and cut him open all the way to his balls. As fast as he opened him, Blanchard was on his way to a better place.
I had been holding a battle lantern for Doc so he could see what the hell he was doing. I continued holding the light. Doc, seeing that Blanchard was gone, put two or three stitches in him to hold his guts together and then moved on, because there was more work for him to do.
I remained in the Ward room until I was no longer needed. At that point, one of my superiors, (I think it was Ensign Scott) told me I could go back to my “regular” duties. If anyone aboard that ship deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor, it was Doc.
I learned later why Doc was wearing the lifevest. It wasn’t because he was afraid we would sink. Rather, it was because he had taken a razor-sharp piece of shrapnel across his midsection and was using the vest to hold his insides in. He stood there, literally with his guts wanting to spill out all over the floor in the same way that someone would vomit all over the place and rather than take care of his own needs he took care of the more seriously wounded. Doc is one of those guys who – if this had been another time and another battle – would have had books and movies made about him. Every school kid in America would know about him the same way they know about George Washington.
However, because it was Israel responsible for all this carnage, only a handful of people know about Doc. I am sure that Israel and her supporters curse fate that Doc did not die during the attack, for if he had, their haul at the end of the day – meaning the number of Americans killed – would have been much higher…