National Security

Survivors of Israel's attack on USS Liberty tell their stories

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jim Kavanagh was scraping and repainting a satellite dish atop the USS Liberty when an Israeli plane flew overhead on June 8, 1967. The 19-year-old seaman waved to the allied aircraft before heading below deck to shower off sweat and sea salt.

Little did he know the Liberty was moments away from a bewildering ambush that would kill 34 U.S. sailors. More than 42 years later, the Israeli attack — the subject of a new book by a first-time S.C. author — is a continual source of frustration for Kavanagh and two other Carolinians who survived the incident.

Three days before the attack, war had started in the Middle East, pitting Israel against Egypt, Jordan and Syria in a conflict that would become known as the Six-Day War.

The Liberty, a World War II freighter recently converted by the Navy into a spy ship, was cruising more than 12 miles off the Egyptian coast, eavesdropping on Egyptian war communications. The ship was lightly armed and without an escort, but its sailors expected no trouble as they sailed in international waters.

As he washed himself just before 2 p.m. that summer day, Kavanagh heard a startling rattle from above, like “heavy marbles banging around a metal drum.” Bewildered, he stared at the shower ceiling as the rattling started a second time.

Suddenly, a piece of armor-piercing shrapnel flew into his hip, snapping him to attention. With blood running down his leg, Kavanagh ran toward a communications room to join others destroying equipment and classified material.

Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats attacked the U.S. ship for an hour, killing 34 and injuring 171 others.

The inexplicable attack by a U.S. ally — and subsequent efforts to sweep the incident under the rug by U.S. and Israeli officials alike — is the subject of Charleston author James Scott’s book, “The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship.”

In compiling his book, Scott, 34, a former reporter for The (Charleston) Post & Courier and The (Rock Hill) Herald, makes use of interviews with survivors, sailors’ correspondence with loved ones, ship records and declassified government documents.

He provides a harrowing and frequently graphic account of the one-sided attack and its aftermath, when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration was reluctant to publicly challenge Israel’s claim that it had incorrectly identified the U.S. ship.

Kavanagh is among a handful of Liberty survivors who came perilously close to dying at sea that day and now live in South Carolina.

Another is Columbia resident Thomas Lemond, who still has a piece of shrapnel in his lung.

The then-22-year-old seaman was talking with buddies in the bow of the Liberty when the strafing and rocket attacks started. He ran up to the deck and headed toward his duty station on the bridge. Along the way, he ducked down below deck again to conceal himself from the Israeli planes. A fellow sailor stopped him on the way.

“Look at your arm! Look at your arm!” the sailor yelled to him.

Lemond was so excited he didn’t notice shrapnel had passed through his left arm. He headed toward the sick bay and, eventually, a makeshift hospital in the ship’s mess, where the Liberty’s single doctor worked to stitch and save as many men as possible.

Helping the doctor with one badly wounded man was Ensign John Scott, the father of author James Scott.

John Scott and three other men restrained one sailor on a table as the ship’s doctor tried, to no avail, to stop massive bleeding in the man’s abdomen. The man died on the table, calling for his mother.

“It was like a nightmare,” said Scott, who splits his time these days between houses in Charlotte and on Kiawah Island. “Everything was pleasant. Then, everything went to pieces.”

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