Friday, July 9, 2010

From the Pages - Iftach Spector and the Attack on the USS Liberty (from "Loud and Clear")

On June 8, 1967, in the midst of the Six Day War, Israeli fighter planes and motor torpedo boats attacked an unidentifiable naval vessel in international waters north of the Sinai Peninsula. What was believed by pilots to be an enemy ship would, in fact, turn out to be the USS Liberty, a neutral United States Navy technical research ship.
          While senior Israeli government and military officials list the Liberty incident as a tragic case of mistaken identity, some sources claim the attack was premeditated; an effort to prevent what was viewed by the Israeli military as a “spy ship” from reporting on Israeli intentions during the Six-Day War.
          Iftach Spector was one of the first pilots involved in the attack on the Liberty. In the following exclusive excerpt from his book, Loud and Clear: The Memoir of an Israeli Fighter Pilot, Spector replays the tragic and confusing events of June 8, 1967.

On the fourth day of the Six-Day War, my two-ship section, code-named Kursa, was sent to patrol over the Suez Canal. My wingman was Lieutenant Y. The Mirage fighter I flew had been armed for aerial combat with one Matra 530 air-to-air, French-made heavy missile, and two 30mm cannons with antiaircraft explosive rounds.
           On our way westward I observed again, as in the morning, a big ship cruising off El-Arish, an Egyptian town on the Sinai coast where battles were still taking place. And again, as in the morning, I reported it to central control. This ship stood out like a sore thumb in the empty sea, and every pilot who passed had reported her, so I was not surprised when there was no particular reaction to my report. We continued to the west, looking for some MiG activity.
           For a time we circled over the Suez Canal with nothing happening, and then we got a call from air control. The controller ordered us to leave our patrol area and go check the identity of a ship that was sailing off El-Arish. It was instantly clear that the vessel was the same one we had seen before; it was the only ship around. So we turned north and headed out to sea, and after some vectoring I saw her again in the distance. I set my wingman in a swept-back formation and approached her.

A ship’s identity can be checked in one of three ways: by identifying her profile, by identification of signs she displays (such as flags), or through radio communication. Control passed us through to the general maritime radio channel, but those who answered us on it were from the Israeli Navy. This ship never answered any radio calls. So we approached her from astern, and began circling to check her out. 
           Although there was no other object around for reference, the ship seemed pretty large to me. She was gray, and looked to me like a military vessel. The profile of the ship was totally unfamiliar to me. Before the war we had studied all the enemy vessels, like the Soviet Skury destroyers the Egyptian Navy operated, as well as others. But this one was definitely not one of those. 
           I began transmitting its physical description to air control and the navy. I was hoping that they might have something in their manuals to help with the identification. I described the shape of the hull, the lines of the forward superstructure, stacks, and mast. Most of all, I was looking for the sea-to-air recognition sign of our Israeli Navy. That sign was a large red “X” in a white square. It should have been painted all over the upper deck, to be seen clearly from the air. 
           I saw no such mark. But other signs weren’t found either. Above the ship protruded a chimney, a mast, and some antennae. Both of us—Lieutenant Y. and myself—searched for flags or signals but saw nothing. As pilots, we both had excellent vision, at least twenty-twenty. To get a better look, I reduced my airspeed to 350 knots—a lower than optimal operational speed, and unsafe in wartime. Then I approached the ship even closer, carefully. I was concerned, and kept a safe distance from that ship—several hundred meters—because I had no idea what kind of antiaircraft measures she had. 
           The conversations between the air controller and me lasted for five to six minutes, in which time we made two full circles of the vessel. At last I finished my description and waited for orders. Finally I heard, “Kursa flight leader, if you are certain that this is a military vessel, you are cleared to attack.”
           “Roger.” But I was still not sure. 
           I sent my wingman to fly high cover, and I came in low and flew parallel to the right side of the ship. Only then did I see the lettering “CTR-5” on its side. I spelled it to air control: “Charlie Tango Roger five.” 
           To me this meant nothing. This wasn’t a name in any language I knew. It seemed just a serial number, like the number 73 on the tail of my Mirage. This convinced me that this was indeed a military vessel. The letters were not in Hebrew, so it was not one of ours. 
           Later I was to learn that I had made a mistake in reading the letters. Another pilot, who came after I left, read it as “GTR-5.” I don’t know if misreading the letter G for C had any effect on what followed.
           Then air control came back on, and he sounded more confident. “This ship has been in action against our forces in El-Arish. She is disengaging to the west.” He went on to give the order, “Attack her and stop her.” 
           From my point of view, there was no problem. We were at war, and for the past days I had been attacking enemy vehicles and installations and setting them on fire. This ship was certainly a military vessel, and she didn’t have Israeli markings. And this part of the Mediterranean Sea was in the heart of the battle zone, bordered only by Israel and Egypt. It was clear as daylight that the controller who had commanded me to attack knew who she was, and why she should be stopped in place. And this is exactly what I was going to do.
           The only problem was technical: how do you stop a ship that big? I was sorry we weren’t carrying bombs. A half-ton bomb would surely have stopped the ship, and perhaps even have sunk her. But we were armed only for aerial combat. For a moment I even considered launching our Matra missiles at her. The French radar-guided missile had a thirty-five-kilogram warhead, in itself a small bomb. But I changed my mind. The Matra was a rare and expensive weapon designed for shooting down aircraft. So all I had left were our guns. 
           Here I had a problem, too: 30mm cannon rounds are just like fireworks hitting the steel side of a ship. But 30mm rounds are like small hand grenades, and their shrapnel can hit people and installations on the ship’s decks. The two Mirages in my flight had four cannons, 125 rounds in each. Five hundred rounds are at least something; they can inflict considerable damage on the surface of the target. I was hoping we could at least harry her—prevent her from getting away. And during this delay, another, properly equipped force might come up and finish the job. 
           I came in first, my wingman following. Each of us attacked the ship two or three times. I did a good job, and the bursts from my 30mm cannons strafed the deck and superstructure. I saw my rounds exploding, and streams of fragments and splinters flew off the ship and into the water beside her and turned it white, like spray from a fountain. Even before we were out of ammunition, smoke was rising from the ship. It was my impression that we had slowed her down. 
           That was all I could do. All four cannons were empty, and we left the ship and returned to base, satisfied with our attempt to delay her escape.

This sad story had one small coda, not a thing that would have interested the investigators who questioned me a few weeks later. Just something a person like me keeps deep inside. And today, in retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake.
           When we landed back at Hatzor and went down the stairs to the Fighting First’s underground operations room to report and receive our next assignment, the officer of the day, Lieutenant Colonel David Ivry, met me with a strange expression on his face. He had been managing the squadron’s missions during the past hour. 
           He said to me: “Spector, you attacked a ship.” 
           “Yes, sir!” I was pretty proud of myself. 
           “For your information, you made a mistaken identification. The ship was one of ours.” 
            For a moment I thought this was just an ugly joke. But David Ivry—a man who later became commander of the Israeli Air Force—was not the joking kind. I saw from his face that he was not kidding. I was stunned. I needed time to pull myself together. 
           I let my flight gear slip to the ground and left the room. I climbed up the stairs and found myself on the outside balcony, darkness before my eyes even though it was full daylight. I ended up somehow at the end of the building, across from the restrooms. I entered and locked the door behind me. There, sitting on the bowl, I put my head against the cool tiles and tried to think.            I thought I had brought disaster on everyone. It was certain. I was there, I saw the hits. How could I fuck up like that? I tortured myself, convincing myself that yes, I had seen a red “X” on white background there, and surely there had been an Israeli flag flying from that mast.
What gotten into me? What had I done?
           Here, in the restroom of the Fighting First, I lived the last moments of my former life. I knew that in a short time, within minutes, the windlass of fate would begin to turn, crushing me and all I had in the world, my dear Ali and my three-year old son, Etay, my mother, and my foster parents from the Galilee. What would they all say? What would everybody who knew and raised me say? What would my friends who were fighting and shedding their blood just then, think of me? What had I done to my squadron, my Fighting First? I had shot up my friends, fact.  There is no way I can live in this country anymore. 
           Plans began rushing around my head. Perhaps I should commit suicide? But how to do it, and where? Or maybe flee to America, Australia, or Brazil? How to sneak unseen out of this room, change clothes, change my name? All sorts of crazy thoughts, some practical and some fantastic, ran though my mind, and even one important thought, that before anything else, I had to get my wingman out of this mess. After all, he was only following me.

Inside the fog in my head, I heard voices coming from the outside. I heard somebody calling my name again and again. Doors banged open and closed. Then Ivry was there, standing in front of the door to the men’s room.
           “Spector, are you in there?”
            “I’m here,” I answered after he shook the door. 
           “There was a mistake; that ship was not one of ours. Come out of there!” 
           I got up and went out. “Whose ship was it then?” 
            I collected my flight gear. Before dusk I was scrambled again to patrol over the Suez Canal. The ship was still there, farther out to sea.

Only later did I learn that this was not a French ship either, but an American spy vessel, the USS Liberty. How did she get there? What was she doing there? All that was none of my business, and the thing was totally suppressed during the flights and fighting that came after. A few weeks after the Six-Day War was over, an investigating committee came from the United States and I gave a deposition. I told them what I have said here, and answered their questions in my high school English. When I left the interrogation room into the light of day, the issue was closed as far as I was concerned, and I gave it no further thought. Another sad event, neither the first nor the last of its kind. In war, mistakes happen.
           A decade later I learned that a conspiracy theory was being advanced about the attack on the USS Liberty. One day a friend came in and put before me a copy of Penthouse magazine. Enormous tanned tits stared at me as I began leafing through it curiously; one didn’t find such pictures in Israel. 
           “No, not that.” He pointed out an article. “Read this.” 
           I read. There was a long and interesting story that claimed Israel had attacked the Liberty on purpose. Israel, according to this article, decided to attack the Liberty to silence it, and prevent the ship from discovering Israel’s plans, such as capturing the Golan Heights. The reasoning seemed odd to me, but the story was well written, and I enjoyed reading it.
           “You were there,” asked my friend. “Could this be true?” 
           Initially, I chuckled and dismissed the whole thing as ridiculous. But then I stopped and began thinking again. I recalled the voice that spoke to me on the radio, ordering me to attack. Had he known something he didn’t tell me? I sank in a sea of question marks.
           I thought: “All in all, I was just the tip of the spear. It’s the point that pierces for sure, but it’s just a dumb point. I was manipulated by somebody from a distance.” 
           My friend kept looking at me, and I didn’t know what to say. As a tool, how could I tell whose hand manipulated me, and what its intentions were? Was I deceived and sent to shoot up a friendly American ship? Did they cheat Ivry, too, telling him the ship was French? For a moment I was really confused.
           Then I remembered the simple fact that the Liberty had carried no signs or flags clear enough for two sharp-eyed fighter pilots to discern (and after us, several other pilots, and a number of capable sailors who soon arrived on the scene hadn’t seen anything either). So if there was a conspiracy, which in my opinion is nonsense, it had to come from the Liberty herself.
           When I remembered that the Liberty did not identify herself, it cleared up the issue, because neither I nor any other Israeli pilot would have attacked a ship—even a military vessel—that flew an American flag, or for that matter British, French, Chinese, Upper Volta, Schleswig-Holstein, or the flag of the kingdom of the Martians. 
           I have no idea what this ship was doing there, in the middle of a war, and why she couldn’t have been tapping into our communications from a little farther out to sea. In any case, if there was no conspiracy, there was certainly a mistake. Somebody on the Liberty stuck his ship into a forbidden and dangerous place. And while he was there, he didn’t do his job: he didn’t fly a visible flag, didn’t respond in any way to our calls for identification, and didn’t signal to our jets when we circled him for long minutes. If he had gotten on deck and sent up a flare—any color would have done the trick—or just waved a white sheet, I would not have fired on him. 
           This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in the affair of the USS Liberty, as far as I know and remember it. And I pray for the souls of those American sailors who perished or who were injured or maimed through no fault of their own.

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