Columbus resident Bob Scarborough vividly remembers June 8, 1967 — the day Israel attacked the U.S.S. Liberty.
Scarborough was aboard the American spy ship, which was monitoring the Six-Day War between Israel and three of its neighbors. His recollections of that deadly day on the Mediterranean Sea are as clear as the afternoon on which the assault occurred.
After completing his watch duties the previous night, Scarborough, then a 21-year-old communications technician, joined other crew in the ship’s sleeping quarters.
It was about 2 p.m., and the men were discussing the war raging around them. Then all hell broke loose, he recalled.
“I heard what sounded like someone threw a handful of ball bearings on a plate glass and instead of breaking it, they stuck.”
Israeli fighter jets were hammering the Liberty with cannons, rockets, bombs and napalm. Then torpedo boats opened fire, ripping a hole in its starboard side 29 feet tall and 39 feet wide. As a non-combatant ship, the Liberty had weak firepower — just four .50 caliber machine guns to prevent boarders.
The bombardment of the Liberty lasted about an hour, but Scarborough said it felt like eternity. When it was over, 34 crewmen were dead and 172 wounded.
“It was certainly one of the most costly (attacks) on an American ship,” said James Scott, the son of another Liberty survivor and the author of a new book about the incident titled, “The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship.”
Scott’s father, John Scott, was an officer and damage control engineer who was awarded the Silver Star for helping to save the ship from sinking. James Scott is a former reporter with the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier.
Lives lost on Liberty
After the initial strafing, general quarters was sounded, calling all hands to their battle stations. For Scarborough, that meant hustling to the research spaces a couple of decks below the main deck.
“I had gone down to turn on the radios to see what I could find out,” Scarborough, now in his 60s, said.
The research spaces were the hardest hit on the ship. Of the five Israeli torpedoes launched, one scored a direct hit, striking the ship’s starboard side and killing 25 men.
“We were told to standby for a torpedo attack starboard side,” Scarborough recalled. “I was lying on the floor with a hard hat on. The torpedo hit, and the lights went out. ... It peeled the bulkhead right over my head and instantly killed 25 guys.”
Using overhead pipes to guide them, Scarborough and the other survivors pulled themselves from the mangled and flooding compartment, which then was sealed to prevent the ship from taking on more water.
“It’s a miracle the ship didn’t sink,” Scott said.
Recovering the dead
Despite the extensive damage the Liberty sustained, it left the area on its own.
The 25 bodies that had been sealed in the flooded belly of the ship that afternoon weren’t recovered until days later, when the Liberty finally reached port. Because only crew with top-secret clearance were allowed in the damaged area, men such as Scarborough had to remove the dead themselves.
“We had to go down there. ... Everything that was where the torpedo hit, everything that was on the starboard side, was stacked up on the port side. There were a couple of bulkheads between us, and it was covered with oil and soaked in salt, and I really …” Scarborough’s voice trailed off.
American officials were outraged by the attack, but little was done to hold Israel accountable, Scott said. The country claimed it simply misidentified the Liberty.
“It’s hard to believe it was a friendly-fire incident,” Scott said.
Israel did provide reparations to the families of those killed and injured, but a Congressional investigation never was conducted, Scott said. Scarborough said he and the other survivors want to know why.
“The excuse that they did not recognize our ship is just totally and completely unacceptable,” Scarborough said. “So, I want to find out how they (Israel) managed to get this done and not get any interference from the U.S. government and why we were left out there to die?”
Drawing on interviews and recently declassified documents in the United States and Israel, Scott strives to answer those and other questions and shed light on an incident that remains bitterly disputed more than 40 years later.
“The Attack on the Liberty” is published by Simon & Schuster Inc.