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As survivors recall the attack on the Liberty

(Page 2 of 2)

''I have never accepted the explanation that it was a case of mistaken identity,'' he told the reunion.

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But the crew's frustration was directed far more toward their own government than toward Israel. They remembered the military help promised that did not materialize. They remembered the incredible communications snafus that kept the Liberty in dangerous waters long after it should have been moved. They remembered having evidence suppressed or ignored in the official account and a Naval Court of Inquiry report whose conclusions were not supported by its evidence. They remembered the valiant captain who was given the congressional medal of honor not at the White House by the president as is customary, but at the Washington Navy Yard by the secretary of the navy - with virtually no publicity.

One of the Liberty's senior officers, who was recuperating in the Washington area at the time, received only two hours' notice of the ceremony.

''The way they did things I'm surprised they didn't just hand it to him under the 14th Street Bridge,'' observed Admiral Moorer wryly.

In deciding to form an organization and work toward government acknowledgement of the truth, there was no desire for revenge or retribution against the state of Israel. Rather, survivors want to make sure that their fallen shipmates receive proper recognition, and they want the American people to know the facts. They see larger lessons that have yet to be learned.

By maintaining what amounts to a 15-year cover-up of the incident, the US government has further lessened its credibility. Friend and foe alike receive the message that the US will be guided more by political expediency than by the facts. Engrossed in the Vietnam war and unwilling to confront a close ally whose cause had considerable domestic political support, the Johnson administration took the easy way out and then actively engaged in covering up the facts. This situation has yet to be addressed.

Because the details were suppressed, little was done to correct the various military breakdowns. Such failures become infinitely more dangerous in a nuclear age. Many, including its captain, feel that the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo, a similar electronic intelligence ship, which occurred only six months after the Liberty incident never would have happened had the Liberty's experience been more widely known, if only among the military. Only after the Pueblo were such ships taken out of service, although the Soviet Union continues to use them extensively.

The Liberty's experience shows how quickly and easily the US can be drawn into a conflict and how, in international affairs, some governments place their own national desires and interests before all else.

These lessons are particularly important in light of the current volatile situation in the Middle East.

The men of the USS Liberty want the public to know that it's never too late to learn the truth, and that only by knowing the truth of the past can present decisions be made to safeguard the future.