USS Liberty Veterans Association aims to keep memory of controversial 1967 incident alive
By JIM ABBOTT | The News-Journal | Published: July 21, 2018
PALM COAST — It's more than 50 years ago now, but Ernie Gallo still remembers where he was working as a Naval communications technician aboard the USS Liberty when the American spy ship was attacked by Israeli fighter jets in the Mediterranean Sea during the Six-Day War on June 8, 1967.
"When the torpedo hit, I sat on the deck, and when it exploded, I went airborne," said Gallo, 74, surrounded in the cozy office of his Palm Bay home by books, paintings, plaques and memorabilia related to that day. Thirty-four of his shipmates were killed in the attack, which wounded an additional 174 crew members. "Living through his event, it was terrible for many reasons."
Gallo escaped physical injury, but the attack has become arguably the defining moment in his life. Following six years in the Navy, including more than two years in combat, Gallo worked for the CIA for 28 years in the realm of communication security.
As the years passed, however, the experience on the USS Liberty continued to trouble him.
In the immediate aftermath, a Navy Board of Inquiry determined that the two-hour attack led by four Israeli fighter jets on the defenseless intelligence-gathering ship was an accident, conducted in error.
Gallo and his shipmates didn't buy it.
Although initially ordered not to discuss the attack, crew members ultimately started comparing recollections that were at odds with the official report. By the time of a 15th anniversary gathering in 1982, they had formed the USS Liberty Veterans Association, a group dedicated to raising awareness of the Liberty's story and collecting information to clarify its history.
"Our mission is to have the truth told about what happened to us, so that history records the event accurately," said Gallo, now in his third three-year term as the organization's president. In an election year, the association is focused on persuading U.S. congressional candidates to push for a congressional investigation into the attack.
Gallo, author of a book on the attack, "Liberty Injustices," in 2013, was spreading the word at a recent history forum in DeLand, sponsored by the DeLand Memorial Hospital & Veterans Museum and DeLand Historic Trust.
In a poorly ventilated meeting room, he recounted the story and evidence that he maintains has cast doubt on the Navy's official findings. Nearby, literature and petitions calling for action from lawmakers were offered for a crowd of roughly 40 people adorned in topical T-shirts that trumpeted everything from the USS Liberty Veterans Association to conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.
The association's evidence "has all been confirmed by recollections from radio men and relay stations who heard communications," Gallo said, a few days after the meeting. "We heard the same information from three people in different locations. This didn't happen overnight. It took years."
Gallo estimates that the group's membership encompasses 90 surviving crew members and some 300 associate members, as well as additional volunteers.
The latter category includes Phil Restino, 57, of Port Orange, who served in the Army during peace time in early 1980s. Restino, a member of the Daytona Beach chapter of Vets for Peace until that group disbanded in 2016, was attracted to the Liberty association because it offered an opportunity to support the troops, he said.
"Our concern is for our men and women in uniform being misused in the name of the American people," Restino said. "That's the common thread. What happens to our men in uniform is in our name and it is our responsibility as citizens."
Controversy over actions of war always have been part of American history, said Leonard Lempel, retired professor emeritus of history at Daytona State College. Japan's attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941 sparked conspiracy theories about whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt had known about the attack, but declined to stop it because he wanted the United States to enter World War II, Lempel said.
Another example is the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, an 1898 event that triggered the Spanish-American War, Lempel said.
"Every once in a while, they send a crew out to investigate what actually caused the explosion," Lempel said. "I think the latest was in 1998, when National Geographic sent a crew to examine the Maine.
"The U.S. government at the time claimed that Spain was responsible, that they had set off an explosive and sunk the ship, because (President) McKinley and others were anxious for us to go to war," Lempel said. "There's no firm evidence to implicate the Spanish or anybody else. It's one of those mysteries, after all this time and all the investigations, we don't know if it was an accident or an act of war."
Despite occasional disappointments, such as a 2017 decision by the Palm Coast City Council not to approve a bronze marker to honor the ship's crew members at the city's Heroes Park, Gallo pledges to stay devoted to the USS Liberty cause "'til my dying breath."
After more than 50 years, he feels more encouraged than ever, he said.
"There's a silver lining to what I do," Gallo said. "The American patriots I have met, that the Lord just drops into our laps; that's part of it. That keeps me inspired. I keep hearing from people to keep it up.
"I think time is on our side," he said. "That people will say, 'After 51 years, these guys are still at it. There must be something there.'"