Forty years ago this week, I was asked to investigate the heaviest attack on an American ship since World War II. As senior legal counsel to the Navy Court of Inquiry it was my job to help uncover the truth regarding Israel's June 8th 1967 bombing of the USS Liberty.
On that sunny, clear day 40 years ago, Israel's combined air and naval forces attacked our American intelligence-gathering ship for two hours, inflicting 70 percent casualties. Thirty-four American sailors died and 172 were injured. The USS Liberty remained afloat only by the crew's heroic efforts.
Israel claimed it was an accident. Yet I know from personal conversations with the late Admiral Isaac C. Kidd -- president of the Court of Inquiry -- that President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara ordered him to conclude that the attack was a case of "mistaken identity."
The ensuing cover-up has haunted us for forty years. What does it imply for our national security, not to mention our ability to honestly broker peace in the Middle East, when we cannot question Israel's actions -- even when they kill Americans?
On June 8th, survivors of Israel's cruel attack will gather in Washington, DC to honor their dead shipmates as well as the mothers, sisters, widows and children they left behind. They will continue to ask for a fair and impartial congressional inquiry that, for the first time, would allow the survivors themselves to testify publicly.
For decades, I have remained silent. I am a military man and when orders come in from the Secretary of Defense and President of the United States, I follow them. However, attempts to rewrite history and concern for my country compel me to share the truth.
Admiral Kidd and I were given only one week to gather evidence for the Navy's official investigation, though we both estimated that a proper Court of Inquiry would take at least six months.
We boarded the crippled ship at sea and interviewed survivors. The evidence was clear. We both believed with certainty that this attack was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew.
I am certain the Israeli pilots and commanders who had ordered the attack knew the ship was American. I saw the bullet-riddled American flag that had been raised by the crew after their first flag had been shot down completely. I heard testimony that made it clear the Israelis intended there be no survivors. Not only did they attack with napalm, gunfire, and missiles, Israeli torpedo boats machine-gunned at close range three life rafts that had been launched in an attempt to save the most seriously wounded.
I am outraged at the efforts of Israel's apologists to claim this attack was a case of "mistaken identity."
Admiral Kidd told me that after receiving the President's cover-up orders, he was instructed to sit down with two civilians from either the White House or the Defense Department, and rewrite portions of the Court's findings. He said, "Ward, they're not interested in the facts. It's a political matter and we cannot talk about it." We were to "put a lid on it" and caution everyone involved never to speak of it again.
I know that the Court of Inquiry transcript that has been released to the public is not the same one that I certified and sent to Washington. I know this because it was necessary, due to the exigencies of time, to hand correct and initial a substantial number of pages. I have examined the released version of the transcript and did not see any pages that bore my hand corrections and initials. Also, the original did not have any deliberately blank pages, as the released version does. In addition, the testimony of Lt. Lloyd Painter concerning the deliberate machine-gunning of the life rafts by the Israeli torpedo boat crews, which I distinctly recall being given at the Court of Inquiry and including in the original transcript, is now missing.
I join the survivors in their call for an honest inquiry. Why is there no room to question Israel -- even when they kill Americans -- in the halls of Congress?
Let the survivors testify. Let me testify. Let former intelligence officers testify that they received real-time Hebrew translations of Israeli commanders instructing their pilots to sink "the American ship."
Surely uncovering the truth about what happened to American servicemen in a bloody attack is more important than protecting Israel. And surely forty years is long enough to wait.
In addition to serving as chief counsel to the Navy's Court of Inquiry into the attack on USS Liberty, Ward Boston served as a naval aviator in World War II on the carrier Yorktown, and as an FBI agent prior to his assignment to the Navy's Judge Advocates General Corps. He is a graduate of the Law School of the College of William and Mary, and a resident of Coronado, California.
This article was originally published by The San Diego Union Tribune.