In 1982, after the first reunion of the USS Liberty Veterans Association, Ron Grantski returned to his Modesto home and flipped on the phone’s message recorder.
Several played, and then this one: “You’d better stop talking about the USS Liberty and Israel,” Grantski recalls the voice saying. “Something will happen to you.”
Nothing’s happened. Grantski is still here at 70 years old. He believes the best way he can honor 34 shipmates killed when unmarked Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats attacked the super-secret spy ship on June 8, 1967, in the Mediterranean Sea is to speak his mind about the attack and the coverup that followed. Memorial Day, he said, is as good as any to do so after being told for decades to shut up.
Grantski and others believe the attack was intentional, that Israel did not as it claimed mistake the USS Liberty for another ship when it tried to sink it on the fourth day of the Six Days War.
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Israel later admitted to the attack. It paid more than $3.2 million to the families of those killed and over $3.5 million to 74 of the wounded by 1969. Then, in 1980, it paid the U.S. $6 million for damages to the ship’s communications equipment. But the governments of Israel and the U.S. refuse to say the attack was purposeful even though cryptographers and techs aboard the Liberty – including Grantski – intercepted messages they believe inferred the Israelis staged the attack to make it look like Egypt or other members of the Arab coalition did it in order to draw the U.S. into the war on Israel’s side.
“I had top-secret crypto clearance – the highest you could get,” Grantski said. His job was to copy the messages transmitted. “They would change the station in the middle of a message and someone else would say, ‘Ski, he’s on .. ’ whatever station, and I’d switch to that one.’ They were using lots of Morse Code, and sending at 50 to 70 words per minute, which is pretty darned fast to be copying in code.”
One message in particular stood out.
“I had intercepted a message the Israelis were going to attack (a U.S.) base and blame it on the Arabs, or implied so,” he said. The message forwarded as top-secret to the White House. “Unbeknownst to us, it was our ship that was going to be attacked.”
He’d just finished his shift and was smoking a cigarette on the fantail when the captain sounded the call to general quarters. In came the fighter planes with their 20 mm cannons blasting away, some dropping napalm that sent the crew scrambling to get below deck.
Grantski felt the burning of the napalm on his hands and later took shrapnel in the buttocks, wounds for which he received a Purple Heart.
The gunners front and midship had no chance, he said, holding an armor-piercing bullet he’d found on the deck after the attack. “This one was a dud.”
Then the torpedo boats came upon them.
“The captain had the ship zig-zagging,” he said. “They fired five torpedoes. One hit.”
It blew a huge hole in the side. The crew closed the hatches to keep the ship afloat, but most of those killed were below deck.
“I was down there on my first cruise,” Grantski said. “If I had still be down there, I’d have been dead. The captain (William L. McGonagle) was wounded. He ran the ship on his back, with an aide holding a megaphone so he could give orders.”
At one point, someone told the crew to prepare to abandon ship – an order McGonagle quickly overruled.
“He said, ‘Gentlemen’,” Grantski recalled, “ ‘get to your battle stations. We are not abandoning ship’.”
The attack, according to accounts, lasted about 80 minutes though it seemed much longer to those aboard. U.S. fighter planes never arrived to drive off the attackers. Grantski said the image of the fires, the blood and carnage are etched in his mind forever.
“It was 50 years ago, and its sharp like it was yesterday,” he said.
So is the memory of the message left on his answering machine when he returned from the reunion in 1982. Hearing it chilled him, he admits, because he knew there was a chance whoever uttered it wasn’t kidding. Other crew members received similar calls, he said.
He muted his educated opinions to protect the family he and partner Sharon Rocha raised in Modesto. (Rocha’s daughter, Laci Peterson, was murdered in 2002 by husband Scott Peterson in a case than drew national attention.)
But those days are over for Grantski and those who believe the Israeli attack not only was intentional, but also that the Johnson administration likely ordered the coverup, ruled accidental in a game of international politics. Grantski isn’t alone. Admiral Thomas H. Moorer wrote a detailed 1997 memorandum that is posted on USSLiberty.org.
A couple of passages from that document:
“Israel knew perfectly well that the ship was American. After all, the Liberty's American flag and markings were in full view in perfect visibility for the Israeli aircraft that overflew the ship eight times over a period of nearly eight hours prior to the attack,” Moorer wrote. “I am confident that Israel knew the Liberty could intercept radio messages from all parties and potential parties to the ongoing war, then in its fourth day, and that Israel was preparing to seize the Golan Heights from Syria despite President Johnson's known opposition to such a move. I think they realized that if we learned in advance of their plan, there would be a tremendous amount of negotiating between Tel Aviv and Washington.”
And Moorer questioned why U.S. air support for the ship never arrived.
“In the Liberty case, fighters were put in the air not once, but twice. They were ordered to stand down by Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Johnson for reasons the American public deserves to know,” Thomas wrote. “The captain and crew of the Liberty, rather than being widely acclaimed as the heroes they most certainly are, have been silenced, ignored, honored belatedly and away from the cameras, and denied a history that accurately reflects their ordeal.”
The USS Liberty Association will meet in Norfolk, Va., on Wednesday to mark the 50-year anniversary of the attack. Only 20 then, the 70-year-old Grantski has health problems that will prevent him from joining the 150 or so surviving crew members. He will be with them in spirit, though, and half a century later his goal remains unchanged.
“It’s important that the true story comes out,” he said.