The Cambria & The USS Liberty: One Marine's Story

The Cambria & The USS Liberty: One Marine’s Story

Editor’s Note: Yesterday was the 54th anniversary of the attack on the USS Liberty. I dedicated my “Digging Deeper” show to covering the stories of the survivors of that attack, playing excerpts from two documentaries on the attack and the coverup that followed. One of our regular listeners reached out with his first-hand experience of that fateful incident, when Liberty was Attacked. This is his story in his own words. God Bless our Veterans and may the truth come out. ~ Ed. 

Hi Radix,

Never did I expect to be any part of any story on my experiences during this episode of my time in the Marine Corps. I’ll try to be as accurate as possible but please remember 1967 was a long time ago and I spent a lot of time replacing the worse times of those years with the best times of those years … the good far outweighs the bad. You may paraphrase me or even quote me if you like but please put the caveat in that I did do a bit of burying these memories so some may be less than absolutely accurate.

(Editors Note: This is common among vets with PTSD, and anyone who has experienced trauma. The brain actually does this to protect the individual’s psyche and to be able to keep functioning. Sometimes later on these memories can be triggered by something and then the come back in waves, but it can be disjointed or scattered.)

I will try to confine this to the approximately two months that I spent on an amphibious ship part of the U.S. Navy 6th Fleet that is constantly on station in the Mediterranean. I’m pretty sure the name of the ship was the USS Cambria. I cannot remember the hull number but 35 sticks in my mind … mostly because the way the “Mike” boats were arranged on the deck of the ship (the boats used to take us Marines to the shore with the front gates that were lowered for us to “run off to battle”) I can see in my mind “CA35.” The ship is designed for troop carrying … lightly armed but we did have .50 cals and small anti-aircraft guns (40 mm cannons). Other than that all the extra space on the ship was for Marines. We always had Navy warships close by since our convoy was pretty easy to attack …a carrier fleet was always just over the horizon.

When this took place we were in port at Valletta, Malta for routine re-supply. The usual time in port for the “port calls” was about 4 days (sometimes 2 or 3 but never more than 4). Port liberty was split up so everyone gets a chance to go ashore and do what Marines and Sailors do … LOL. Everyone is assigned either Port Liberty or Starboard Liberty according to on which side of the ship your bunk is located (Navy/Marine speak … rack).

The day I became aware that anything was going on with Israel and the other Arab nations was when I was suddenly and mysterious caught up to by a couple or Navy Shore patrolmen wandering into a park I and a couple of sailors were exploring.  Valletta has some beautiful parks. It was pretty early and too early to start on the bar stuff so we were looking around a park we saw on a hilltop when we docked at port. I had volunteered to be part of the “ships company” which meant I was a Marine being a Sailor. I was assigned a specific job to work for the Navy … part of the Navy and all duties were for the Navy and the ship. Only if we were going to do a Marine thing like make a landing (either drill or real) was I excused from my Sailor’s duties. I still wore my Marine uniform but other than that I was a “squid.” I was more or less some sort of communications expert but that’s only what the Marines said … I had a voice, telegraph, and teletype communication MOS.

I knew both voice and telegraph comms … Morse Code was what I did mostly for the Navy.  Voice and a little bit of teletype for the Marines (though I did use Morse Code in the Marines for encrypted messages).  That’s why I was hanging with the sailors … I really didn’t know many Marines onboard.  It wasn’t unusual to see the SPs running around in their jeeps but only where Marines and Sailors hung out on liberty … the typical bar and red light districts of any port city.  We were where a tourist might be.  They simply said “Liberty is canceled.  Go back to your ship immediately.” The SP didn’t seem to have anything more to say so we didn’t ask … we just turned around and walked back down the hill to the ship.  We did notice a sort of quick but not hurried filing out of the bars, tattoo parlors and houses of ill repute … all headed to the docks.  We knew something was up but being Marines and Sailors we knew better than to question … just get our butts back on board and back to work.

Once on board, I wasn’t sure where I should report … Marines or Navy.  I asked the Officer of the Deck who we each had to request boarding the ship.  He said go to your duty station you’ll be told when to report to the Marines.  He also said, “on the double, we are getting underway right now.” Hurry up, in other words. My post on the ship was the signal bridge … the highest deck on the ship (about 80 feet above the waterline).  After changing to my utilities work uniform I hurried up the stairs to the bridge and found everyone there waiting for the Captain to come to speak to us.  He came about the time someone standing next to bulkhead near the entrance to the wheelhouse said, “shit, what the fuck happened to him?”

It was the Liberty coming in port with a couple of tugs but still under her own power.  The most striking thing a remember is that she did not look like a Naval ship … she was dirty looking, black all over the bridge area, and all glass was broken out.  Holes and dents all over her from front to back (fore to aft).  And on deck was about 40 sailors standing the railings yelling as loud as they could “Go get those mother-fuckers.”  We just stared in silence … something big just happened and we were getting underway. The brain goes into overdrive but training takes over and we went back to work. The captain did come out and spoke to us … he basically said you will find out more once we are underway. In other words, he told us nothing … not sure if this was because he was under some orders or he just didn’t know. I think he just didn’t know. We were cast off about 30 minutes after I got back to the ship … and I was about the middle of the pack on the gangway waiting to board.  Usually, it takes 2 to 3 hours to get underway … this time it was about an hour (maybe 45 minutes).

Out of the port and turned left … we were steaming pretty fast too.  Normally it’s just a lazy pace and never in a straight line.  This time there was some sense of urgency and a beeline to some destination unknown to us. I don’t remember what time it was  It was in the afternoon well before the regular liberty hours of the drinkers and bar hoppers. I would guess after all these years it was around mid-afternoon when I saw the Liberty. Around the time it was getting dark the Captain finally gets around to telling us what is going on.  He told us that a US Naval Ship was staffed by the Egyptian Air Force and that Israel is at war.  He told us that we (our amphibious convoy) were on standby for deployment to allow civilians to be boarded in our place on the ship and taken to safety.

At this point, our military assistance was not needed. We were all puzzled about that explanation … it didn’t make much sense to disembark and board civilians back in our place. How were we going to get these civilians on the Mike and Papa boats for the trip to the ships and then have these civilians climb the cargo nets we use to board and disembark the ship from and to the boats? But “question not.” I was young (21) and believed in my country and could not have ever dreamed our leaders would lie to us about such things.

We didn’t disembark and load civilians back on.  We spent 55 straight days making circles about 50 miles off the coast of Israel. Not Egypt, but Israel. We all questioned that but never got a straight answer  We sometimes could see the mountains of Israel on the horizon. We always could see at least a few ships that were part of the carrier fleet who were our protectors. But we never hit a port for over 55 days.

That pretty much covers what happened directly that I experienced. But I guess I should say what I believed both at the time and for a number of years after. I didn’t completely buy the “save the civilians” thing … did not make sense to me. I think that we were there for a real amphibious assault on the beaches in Israel … like if Egypt won and we needed to get involved. I did not know that Israel had “won” that war until I got back to the US at the end of the deployment a few months later.

When I did get home the story had changed to Israel had mistakenly attacked the Liberty … that I never, not even for a second, believed. I saw that ship from a distance of maybe 500 yards. An accident would not put that many holes and damaged so much of that ship … turned the entire front of the ship black with soot and bend and ripped down the superstructure. I actually thought it was the USSR and to prevent some international incident or even war with the USSR, the “accident” was used. I still had faith in my country’s leaders. That’s pretty much what I believed for many years until I saw some, either documentary or some article (I can’t remember exactly) about 15 years later that started my total disbelief in the entire episode … I didn’t know the truth but I did know what I was told and led to believe was not true.  The documentary made a hell of a lot more sense than what I was told.  Now I saw the rest of the story … and it all came back to me. I’m sure my memory is distorted but this is what I recall as honestly and accurately as I can tell you.

~ A Loyal Listener and Veteran

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