The truth must be told, however belatedly, if we are to learn the lessons of history and avoid the mistakes of the past. That is the conclusion reached by survivors of the USS Liberty who recently held their first reunion since the Israeli attack on their ship during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The group has formed the USS Liberty Veterans Association to keep the memory of the Liberty alive and to see that the facts of the incident are finally brought to light.
On June 8, 1967, the Liberty, a clearly marked noncombatant US Navy ship on an electronic intelligence mission, was attacked by Israel in international waters off the Egyptian coast. Thirty-four of her 294 crewmen were killed and another 171 were injured in the 75-minute coordinated air and naval attack during which the ship was rocketed, machine-gunned, napalmed, and torpedoed.
Israel quickly apologized, explaining that it was a tragic case of mistaken identity in the heat of war. The US government accepted this explanation - seemingly without ques-tion.
The ship's crew was forbidden to talk with the press until after the Naval Court of Inquiry report was issued and afterward was warned not to discuss the attack - ever, not with the press, their friends, or even their families. The matter was closed and remained that way for the past 15 years.
But, as the Bible admonishes, ''there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed,'' and, as crewmen met for the first time in 15 years, the truth of the day's event emerged.
Israel's claim of mistaken identity was belied by crewmen who had been sunning on deck and had waved to the Israeli pilots reconnoitering the ship periodically for eight hours preceding the attack. Men in the radio room recalled hearing these Israeli pilots identifying the Liberty as an American ship.
The signalman told of hoisting a new American flag in a stiff breeze early in the day and later running up the huge 15-by-18-foot holiday flag to replace the one that had not been shot away in the first aerial strafing run. A letter from a crewman who could not attend described signaling the Israeli torpedo boats that it was a US vessel and receiving a ''we do not understand'' reply from the Israelis. Firemen recounted having their hoses machine-gunned as they tried to put out the raging napalm fires.
Israel's contention, reported in The Christian Science Monitor, that it had learned of its mistake only after picking up survivors in life rafts seemed especially brazen to the men who had watched the torpedo boats systematically shoot up the Liberty's life rafts after the ''prepare to abandon ship'' order had been given. The fact that this claim, which is supported neither by Israel's account at the time nor by its official military reports, portrays Israel in a benevolent light was particularly galling.
To a man, those attending the reunion believe it could not possibly have been a mistake. The keynote speaker, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chief of naval operations and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, agreed.
''I have never accepted the explanation that it was a case of mistaken identity,'' he told the reunion.
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.