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USS Liberty crew member recalls fatal '67 US-Israeli skirmish

WATERLOO, Iowa — Joe Carpenter has more questions than answers about what happened on June 8, 1967 — but no question about the valor of his shipmates.

Carpenter, a 1965 West High School graduate, was a crew member of the USS Liberty. The U.S. Navy ship was attacked by Israeli forces during the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel defeated a host of Arab nations and captured the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

Thirty-four of Carpenter's shipmates were killed and 174 wounded — two-thirds of the crew of 294. Carpenter himself was reported to have been severely wounded when he was mistaken for another "J. Carpenter" on the ship.

Friday is the 45th anniversary of the Liberty incident. Peace organizations are planning observances in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Carpenter wants no part of anyone's political agenda.

"Some of the guys on the ship got consumed with this," he said. "I didn't do that."

He believes his shipmates — particularly those who fought fires, kept the ship afloat and tended to the wounded — should be remembered for their heroism along with those wounded or killed.

Though the U.S. was officially neutral in the conflict, Israel and the U.S. traditionally had been considered friends. Initially Carpenter thought the attack was from an Arab nation.

"Myself, I thought it was probably Egypt," Carpenter said. But the attacking planes and torpedo boats were identified as Israeli.

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It was ironic, given the pro-Israel sentiments of much of the Liberty's crew

"We could see the war on the coast. We could see the planes," Carpenter said. "We were cheering the Israelis ... and then they came out and shot at us."

Israel claimed the Liberty was mistaken for an Egyptian vessel. Others have suggested the attack was deliberate. U.S. official reports say the Liberty was flying an American flag.

Now, 45 years later, Carpenter thinks the truth may never be known despite numerous investigations by both sides.

He believes Congress should have held hearings, "but the principals who were involved are all dead," Carpenter said.

"I would have liked to have seen McNamara grilled," Carpenter said. Robert S. McNamara, U.S. defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, died in 2009.

Some have suggested U.S. officials downplayed the incident to preserve relations with Israeli -- and may even have been negligent in a military response to support the Liberty.

"It was a spy ship" for the U.S., Carpenter said, conducting surveillance on the war in international waters near Gaza and the Sinai. Carpenter was a communications technician, transmitting encrypted messages.

But the Liberty was alone and significantly outgunned.

"We had four .50 caliber machine guns," Carpenter said, going up against French-made Israeli Mirage fighter jets and torpedo boats.

"It was pretty chaotic, to be sure," said Carpenter. He may have missed death by moments. He and a friend had just left an area of the ship when it was struck by an Israeli torpedo that was responsible for most of the deaths on board.

Much of the crew's efforts were spent putting out fires and keeping the ship afloat. Carpenter recalled one sailor who got separated from the group Carpenter was with and was killed by the attacking planes.

Carpenter enlisted in the Navy at age 17 upon graduation from West and had planned to re-enlist .

"That was before June 8, 1967," said Carpenter. He is now close to retirement from Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo.

Forty-three sailors received medals for heroism in the incident. Ship commander William McGonagle received the Medal of Honor.
 

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