Seattle resident Michelle Kinnucan was just out of Coast Guard boot camp when she became interested in the USS Liberty. She was on her way to her first duty station, a cutter home ported in Guam, in 1983, and heard legendary investigative journalist James Bamford speaking to Larry King about his new book, a history of the National Security Agency. She bought the book at the Stars and Stripes bookstore in Guam upon arrival, and in it learned about the ship that was attacked by Israeli forces during the Six-Day War in 1967 while collecting communication for the NSA.
The attack left 34 Americans dead and 171 crew members wounded.
A few years later, she was sent to a navy damage control school in Pearl Harbor, and encountered the vessel again. “I remember walking down the hall and noticing black-and-white photos of a damaged ship, and it turned out it was the USS Liberty. There wasn’t much explanation. I figured it was a Navy chief trying to make a point,” she remembers now.
The point, she says, is one that’s been floated around naval circles and veterans’ groups ever since the attack: Despite the official line, of both the U.S. and Israeli governments, that the attack on the USS Liberty was because the Israeli military mistook it for an Egyptian vessel, a proper investigation has never been conducted into what led to the deadly confrontation, which included both air and torpedo strikes from Israeli forces in international waters.
After an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard, Kinnucan moved to Seattle, where she’d spent time as a child. Here she learned that the ship had been commissioned as the USS Liberty at the navy base in Bremerton. For years, on Memorial Day and on the anniversary of the attack (June 8), Kinnucan, along with members of Veterans for Peace, would stand on the pier that moors the USS Turner Joy in Bremerton and hand out fliers about the attack. Then, earlier this year, Kinnucan decided to try to make a bigger impact by submitting a resolution with her American Legion Post, Post 40 in Ballard, to direct the national organization of 2.4 million veterans to lobby Congress for an investigation into what happened that day in the Mediterranean Sea.
This effort was more controversial than it may seem. The general outline of the USS Liberty attack has made it a ripe target for anti-Semitic groups to co-opt for their anti-Jewish messaging. The Anti-Defamation League has argued that some efforts to raise awareness about the USS Liberty are meant to “demonstrate the supposed treachery and power of the Jewish State and its American supporters. The story, told from this perspective, has become a propaganda tool to undermine the legitimacy of Israel.”
Veterans’ groups advocating for survivors of the Liberty attack take pains to distance themselves from far-right groups that claim common cause with them.
Still, it’s a stigma that Liberty advocates have to compete against. “When I first raised the resolution at my Legion post, the accusation of anti-Semitism came up right away,” says Kinnucan. “There’s really nothing to say about it except that there’s nothing anti-Semitic about wanting this incident investigated when it hasn’t been investigated yet. It’s a red herring.”
The Ballard post ultimately approved the resolution, which began its journey up the flagpole of the American Legion. It was approved at the state convention, which qualified it for the docket at the national convention in Reno.
When he found out that a resolution about the USS Liberty had made the national docket, Bryce Lockwood booked a last-minute flight to Reno to lobby for the Seattle post’s resolution. At the time of the attack, he was serving on the Liberty as a voice intercept section supervisor. His section included three sailors, two Marines, and a civilian. “All of them were killed, but one, by the torpedo explosion,” Lockwood says by phone from his home in Strafford, Missouri.
There had been resolutions to make it to the national convention in the past, Lockwood says, but they usually got squashed by leadership. This was the first time, he says, that the Legion actually allowed a hearing on the matter. Again, the resolution faced strong opposition for fear of anti-Semitism. “When the resolution came before the subcommittee, the leadership recommended rejection, saying the fringe groups would use the resolution to shape Mideast policy,” Lockwood says. “We’re not an anti-Semitic group; we’re not a fringe group. We were a group of servicemen that were wronged on the high seas.” Despite the continued opposition from some members of leadership, the resolution made it through to a vote and was approved. “This is a huge weight lifted off our shoulders,” says Lockwood.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the attack; four years ago, the Veterans of Foreign Wars passed their own resolution calling for an investigation. Lockwood says he hopes the Legion’s support creates a critical mass of support. “Here’s two major veterans’ organizations that have passed this, to tell Congress to investigate the attack on the USS Liberty.”
Kinnucan says that while she believes the preponderance of evidence points to a deliberate attack by Israel, if Congress determines that the Israeli attack was truly a mistake, she says she’s OK with that. “Time is running out for the survivors,” she says. “These guys are in their 70s or older now, feeling that their country sort of betrayed them. They saw their shipmates die, and most of them were wounded. More than half the ship’s company was killed or wounded. They feel like the American Legion, their brother and sister veterans, are standing on their side again.”
Correction: This story has been edited to correct the spelling of James Bamford’s last name and the timing of the VFW’s resolution passage.