Today is the 50th anniversary of the unprovoked attack of the USS Liberty by the State of Israel, which killed 34 American sailors and Marines and wounded 174. To this day, the State of Israel has never been held accountable for this despicable and dastardly attack against the people of the United States. In fact, the U.S. government and news media have covered up this horrific attack for all of these decades. On this, the 50th anniversary of Israel’s attack against the USS Liberty, I am doing something I have never done in over 15 years of writing this column: I am using my column to print a recorded interview--my interview with a USS Liberty survivor. His name is Ron Kukal.
Ron was born in 1939. He grew up in Rushville, Nebraska, and now lives in Sheridan, Wyoming. He joined the Navy at the age of 20. He served 8 years in the Navy and had served 7 years when he was assigned to the Liberty. He was a first class petty officer and a communications supervisor on board the Liberty. Here is my interview with Ron Kukal (edited for space):
CB: So Ron, why was the USS Liberty where it was in the Mediterranean Sea on June 8, 1967? Why was it there?
RK: We were first assigned to sail up and down the coast of Africa. We all know that the USS Liberty is a spy ship. That’s no secret anymore. We were gathering the intelligence that we were supposed to gather. And in the middle of our tour over there, we got a call (I think in the middle of the night) that we were needed to go to the Med. And none of us really knew what it was all about. Although I think the Six-Day War had already been in progress about three days, if I remember correctly. And so we knew we were going there; we just didn’t know why.
CB: Obviously, your ship was not designed for combat.
RK: Absolutely not.
CB: And you were not there for the purpose of any aggressive action.
RK: Absolutely not.
CB: So the ship was pretty much by itself? You didn’t have protective ships around you or anything like that?
RK: The only thing we were told [is] that if something would happen to us, the 6th Fleet was only about a half an hour away by jet plane. I believe our captain did request some protection, but it was refused. And they just said, “You keep yourself in international waters, and don’t worry about it. Fly the American flag, and don’t worry about it.” And that’s kinda what we were left with.
CB: And that’s what the captain did? You were in international waters, and your ship was clearly identified as a United States vessel flying the U.S. flag very clearly, right?
RK: Yes. All morning long we had reconnaissance planes, which were Israeli, flying around us. The flag was definitely up there, and we were well marked: large lettering on the bow and “USS Liberty” on the fantail. Very very clearly marked.
CB: And, of course, Israel is supposedly a U.S. ally, so I assume that the captain and the officers on the ship did not perceive a threat from the State of Israel before the attack.
RK: At breakfast that morning, some of the guys who were working for me had come to me; they were all excited because of the reconnaissance planes that we were experiencing topside. And I told them, “There’s really nothing to worry about. If they are Israeli, we’re flying the flag, and they’re friendly. So don’t let it bother you. Let’s just go to work, and don’t let it occupy your mind.” And that’s the way almost everybody--I think everybody--felt about the whole thing.
CB: So at what time of day was it when the attack actually began?
RK: The exact time was 14:01. 2:01 in the afternoon.
CB: Ok. And how long had you been in those waters where you were? How long had the ship been there?
RK: Oh let’s see. That’s really a good question. I think we’d been there a couple or three days anyway. I’m pretty sure that we got there about the third day of the Six-Day War. And I think we were there a day or two before the attack began.
CB: How far out was the ship?
RK: We were out 12 miles--a little over 12 miles.
CB: Ok. Thank you. Where were you on the ship when the attack began?
RK: I was two decks down below the main deck. About right at the water line is about where I was at, in my own compartment and in my own spaces.
CB: Did anybody on the ship have any reason to believe or suspect that they were going to be or might be attacked?
RK: No. We did have a General Quarters drill that day, which, as you know, gets everyone prepared for attacks which we might experience. We had just finished that General Quarters drill. We were just getting back to our own work spaces when the attack occurred. Pretty good time to attack somebody, I guess you might say. They are just all settled down after having a drill like that. So it was a good time, whoever ordered it. A great time. Everybody was pretty relaxed. There were guys on the top deck that were off duty sunbathing. And one of them, I think, was the executive officer, Philip Armstrong. And no, you wouldn’t say that anybody was expecting anything.
CB: And the drill you described would have been a routine matter, I would assume.
RK: This was probably a little bit more than routine. We did them routinely, but the captain--his words to us on the intercom, I think, were: “We are in a war zone, and we will do these General Quarters drills as much as possible.”
CB: But that would have been precautionary, right? He didn’t have any indication or reason to believe that an attack was imminent.
RK: No. None whatsoever. Yes, precautionary is a good way to put it. It’s just part of shipboard routine.
CB: So how many officers and crew were on board the USS Liberty when it was attacked?
RK: Well, the total was 294.
CB: How many were killed and wounded?
RK: Well, 34 were killed: 25 down below where I was at and 9 topside. The wounded was, I’d have to guess at that. I think it was 174. The ship itself--we have spoken about this as the most decorated crew for a single action in the United States Navy. And we said that to officials in the Navy, and nobody has argued with it. It’s not an official thing, but we said it, and we’re going to keep on saying it because it’s the truth.
CB: So the men had finished a precautionary drill and had just settled in. They were relaxing. Some of the men were sunbathing on deck. Everybody was pretty much calm and going about their normal routine. You were two decks down. Now, the attack occurred. So start there, and just tell me how you and the other crew--when you first realized that you were under attack, did you realize that it was from the State of Israel? Did you realize it was Israel that was attacking you when the attacks began?
RK: Oh no. No, we didn’t know that. The planes that attacked us were unmarked.
CB: So they were unmarked. And what kind of aircraft were attacking you?
RK: They were a French Mirage jet. They were the main ones that did the attacking as far as the strafing of the deck, killing 9 men topside.
CB: So when the attack occurred, it was machine gun fire. Were there bombs dropped?
RK: Well, when the planes attacked, it was limited to machine gun fire, cannon fire, rocket fire, and they tossed some napalm at us too.
CB: And then were the aircraft reinforced with watercraft in the attack?
RK: Yeah, and I can’t tell you how far into the attack; I can only make it a guess. But I think it would be a half an hour to forty-five minutes into the attack [that] the torpedo boats showed up. They fired five torpedoes at us and hit us with one.
CB: At what point did you realize that you were being attacked by the State of Israel?
RK: Shortly after the attack, the Israeli Ambassador, or maybe it was the Prime Minister at the time, called on the hotline and told them [Washington] they had made a mistake and attacked the ship. So, it was shortly after the attack that everybody really knew about it, because they took responsibility and said that it was an accident.
CB: But the attack continued after they acknowledged that it was a mistake, I assume. If they went on the air that quickly, and the attack lasted like an hour and a half . . .
RK: I think during that time--somehow a phone call on the hotline--I think it was the very first phone call ever made on the hotline if I remember correctly--it called and the President got word that it was the Israelis that had done it. And the USS America was going to send help for us, and they [the U.S. government] turned those pilots around. I believe LBJ did that personally. I guess once he found out who was doing the attacking [Israel], he turned our help around.
CB: Do you believe that the Israelis fully intended to sink the ship? Do you believe that that was their goal?
RK: I certainly do! Yes. As a matter of fact, one of the Israeli pilots actually radioed back to--I don’t know if it was Ashdod or Tel Aviv or where it was--but said that he would not participate in this attack because it was an American ship. And those transcriptions and that voice has been on TV a couple of times where he literally said that he wouldn’t attack, and he turned back. They told him to turn around [to pursue the attack], but he flew back to their headquarters. He was jailed for several years, and when he got out of jail he came over to this country. And he actually went straight to former Congressman Pete McCloskey, and told him his story: that he would not attack an American ship.
CB: And what did the congressman do with that story?
RK: Pete McCloskey was one of the very few congressmen or senators that showed up for the dedication of the USS Liberty Memorial [Public] Library in Grafton, Wisconsin. Pete flew all the way from California and stood by us. Heck of a man.
CB: Wow. Okay. So take us through (as much as you can) the sequence of the attack, so that we can have a feel for all they did during this hour and a half. This was 90 minutes of intense, aggressive action by sea and air, with the purpose of sinking an American ship. So kinda take us through the attack process and the different ways in which they attacked the ship.
RK: Well, as I said, being two decks down, it’s kinda hard for me to say how many planes there were. I think there were 3 or 4 that circled around and strafed us several times. What happened to me is, at my desk I was just getting ready to sit down, and the first strafing run went by. And, actually, I didn’t know what it was. I had no clue what that was that was hitting the deck above me. What I didn’t know was that it was killing these guys just above my head about 20 foot, I guess. The strafing was pretty constant. There would be strafing, then there would be a lull for a while, and then the planes would circle around and strafe again and again. I’m guessing it was 30 to 45 minutes of constant strafing. And they did also fire napalm at us, because I am very close friends with one of the guys that was trying to put all of those fires out. So we ended up actually with the machine gun and cannon fire, rocket fire, and napalm until the torpedo boats got there.
CB: Okay. So the torpedo boats showed up; then they launched torpedoes. One of them hit the Liberty, and what else took place? I remember reading somewhere about some of the fellows on the Liberty trying to escape--trying to get a lifeboat or something. Walk me through that. Was there actually fire on the men who were trying to get off the ship? Am I remembering that correctly?
RK: You are. It would be Lieutenant Lloyd Peters that could tell that story about as well as anyone. Because he literally was going to testify at the court of inquiry that they fired on our lifeboats, and they literally did not want any lifeboats out there for anybody. They wanted us all dead. And so they had to get rid of those [lifeboats].
The torpedo hit I’m guessing about 30 feet from me, maybe 40. And then you do know the story. As soon as I got done with my prayers, the audible voice came to me (maybe it wasn’t audible--maybe just to me). “Get down, and get down now!” is all I remember of it. And then from that point to the point of me being either pushed--or somehow I ended up on the steel deck with my nose right on the steel--and the torpedo exploded, and the shrapnel was flying through the air. It took a while for the water to get in there. Not very long, but you could hear the shrapnel flying through the air. Killed all the men around me. There was only myself and two or three other guys that escaped from down in that area.
CB: You said 25 men died down in that area?
RK: 25 in that area. That would have been the second deck down, the third deck, and the fourth deck down. That torpedo took--I think the height of that hole was something like 30-some foot. And so it encompassed a lot of decks. And it took all of the security group personnel; that was most of the men that died down there. Well, that was all of the security people--naval security people--that I served with died in that area. The other guys topside were ship’s company, I guess you’d call them.
CB: So, after the torpedo hit and you were still alive (you and a couple of others), then what happened?
RK: Well, like I said, I heard the shrapnel flying through the air, and then the whole compartment became an instant swimming pool. I got up off the deck, and I think the water was probably to my shoulders (somewhere through that area) and still rising. And a battle lantern (which all ships have on them that automatically come on when you lose power) was shining over the hatchway to the ladder that led to the deck above. I knew I had to get through that hatch and get to the ladder and get to the deck above to keep from drowning. And there were a lot of guys trying to get up the same ladder, of course. But several of us got up through there, and the only way we got through the hatchway was--they have what they call a scuttle hole in there. It’s just big enough for a man to slip through; a small hole in the middle of the hatch. And most of the guys who were up on the top deck (on the main deck) came down to help out. And they were helping pull us through that hole.
I immediately headed towards the main deck. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible just like everybody else. [I was] slipping and sliding in the passageways. What I was slipping and sliding in was mainly water and blood. And when I got topside, Lieutenant George Golden gave me an order to turn around and go back down below and make sure everybody got out. And so I went back down below and hollered down in that dark hole--you could hear the water sloshing around and stuff like that--trying to get some answers from somebody, and nobody answered.
CB: So I would assume by what you said that many of the men and the captain thought the ship was going to sink. Was that a concern of the captain and the crew?
RK: Yes. And that whole night we were in danger of sinking. The following morning when the sun just came over the horizon, the destroyer USS Davis came over the horizon and came up alongside of us and brought some men over. Those men went down below where the torpedo had hit and shored up those bulkheads to keep us from going to the bottom. According to the officers and the commanders, the captain, everybody else, it was never a question of were we going to sink; the question was “when?” So yes, had the USS Davis not come alongside and sent their men over to help us, we probably wouldn’t be here today.
CB: And that was at dawn the following morning?
RK: Yeah. The sun was coming over the horizon. I suppose it was 6:30 or 7:00.
CB: But you said that during the attack that U.S. aircraft were launched to come to your assistance from a U.S. aircraft carrier?
RK: USS America, yeah. That’s the aircraft carrier. I believe also the USS Saratoga launched some, and they were turned around.
CB: So those planes never arrived at your location to help you. Somebody ordered those planes to go back to the ship and to not come to your assistance?
RK: That’s correct. It was either McNamara or Johnson; I’m not sure which one it was.
CB: So either President Lyndon Johnson or Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara?
RK: That’s right.
CB: Do you believe that it was an act of God that the ship stayed afloat?
RK: There’s no question in my mind. If you take into consideration the firepower that they had compared to what we had. I don’t think that we ever fired a shot that I can remember.
CB: So after everything happened and it was after the fact, what happened from the U.S. government? Do you believe there was a concerted effort by the White House and members of Congress to cover up that attack?
RK: Yes. Matter of fact, if you were to talk with this fellow Phil Turney, he will tell you that he and several other of the Liberty crewmen were called into a room and told that if they ever talked about this, they would be imprisoned and fined a huge amount of money.
CB: They were told that by a Navy officer?
RK: Yes. An admiral.
CB: An admiral. So when you say that there was a cover-up, that must have involved a lot of different people. So you are talking about a chain of command starting from the White House and going all the way down the command structure of the Navy? How far would this go? How far would this cover-up go?
RK: I guess if I could make it short and concise, I could tell you that Captain Ward Boston (who conducted the Board of Inquiry) before he died left his testimony that he was told to make the outcome of that Board that the attack was an accident. He said he had no choice. That’s written down in black and white. He was forced.
CB: So the official story from Washington--they finally did acknowledge that it was Israel that launched this attack, but then they claimed it was an accident. Was that the official story?
RK: That was the official story. Captain Boston told me, and he wrote some handwritten letters to me about this stuff. And he literally said that he was forced to make the outcome what the administration wanted--I guess what LBJ wanted.
CB: So the survivors of the Liberty, how have they been treated by the Department of the Navy and the US government since this took place? Has there ever been any due recognition for the men of the Liberty? The men that died and that survived? You mentioned decorations.
RK: Decorations and medals were given to us, such as the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart, and even the Congressional Medal of Honor--those that had earned them. The cover-up was still well in place. The problem is that, as I understand it, medals like what we have earned are only earned if you are attacked by an enemy state. You don’t get them for friendly fire. They come from being attacked by an enemy. That’s never ever been straightened out. I’ve asked about it a lot of times.
CB: That’s a very good point.
And given the nature of the cover-up, the media was also obviously complicit in the cover-up. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of the American people do not even really know what happened to the USS Liberty, that the vast majority of people have never studied it in school, and that they haven’t heard it from the press. So it seems that the cover-up has been far more extensive than we might would like to think. Because unless you know somebody or you happen to hear about it from somebody like yourself in some small ceremony or something of that nature, one wouldn’t even know about it. It just seems to me to have been a cover-up that extended all the way from the highest levels of government to the media and so forth. Would you agree with that?
RK: I certainly would.
CB: What is your feeling about the State of Israel now? Do you consider the State of Israel an ally of the United States?
RK: No, I think that they--I’m talking mainly about the leadership in Israel--are Zionists. And from a Biblical standpoint, Pastor, I’ll be really truthful on this. I’ve been involved with the church for many many years. I played the piano for a church several times; I was on worship teams several times. And one of my biggest mistakes at a church right here in my hometown of Sheridan, Wyoming, was I told the story about the Liberty, and I told it truthfully. And I’ve got to tell you, things got pretty cold there at that church for me.
CB: Amazing. So you perceive that this infatuation that most Christians have with the State of Israel is misplaced? Unfounded?
RK: I certainly do! I really don’t believe that physical Israel has a thing to do with Biblical Israel at all.
CB: I totally agree with you, Ron.
Has there ever been any of the crew that you’ve talked with--survivors of this attack--have you guys ever put your minds together and come up with anything that you could figure why Israel attacked you like they did? Have you come to any hypothesis on that? We know it was not an accident. We know it was deliberate. We know that it was not only deliberate but they intended to sink the ship and kill the entire crew.
RK: And people have said that in very high positions. The [deputy] director of the National Security Agency back then--I think his name was Louis Tordella--he knew it was no accident. I can quote Dean Rusk who said in his book “As I Saw It,” “[I] didn't believe the Israelis then, and I don’t believe them now.” That’s in his book. And people in very high places, including Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer, said it was no accident. Could not have been.
I believe it was the intent of Israel to sink the Liberty [and] blame it on Cairo, which would draw the U.S. into the war. And a lot of people have thought that’s exactly what they were trying to do.
CB: Ron, your story is a testament to God’s sovereign power and grace in your life and the lives of all of those crew members that survived. But I think it’s also a story that needs to be told in regard to what Israel did. And that there has been not only no accountability for what they did but not even an acknowledgement for what they did. Which says that there is an evil nature in this that transcends politics. This is something far greater than Democrat/Republican or Liberal/Conservative.
RK: Oh absolutely. I think I’ve said a couple of times in a couple of interviews that I believe on June 8, 1967, we looked Satan in the eye and lived to tell about it.
CB: Yep. I believe that’s true. And I think that the cover-up proves the serious nature of the offenders. I equate the story of the USS Liberty to the assassination of President Kennedy. I’m personally convinced that there was a massive cover-up of what really happened in Dallas in 1963. I don’t think the American people have ever been told the truth about it, at least not by the mainstream media or by our government. Which means (if that’s true in any stretch) you’re talking about an evil that is extraordinary.
RK: Oh I believe that implicitly. To the hilt.
CB: Well, anyway, I just really appreciate what you’re doing. I know you’re going to have a busy week this week. I can imagine you’re going to be telling your story. I hope God gives you great audiences and widespread coverage.
CB: Ron, is there a website or Facebook page people can go to in order to learn more about the attack on the USS Liberty or to participate in helping to spread the word?
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