Tragedy remembered

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- June 8, 1967, technical research ship USS Liberty AGTR-5 was attacked while on maneuvers 13 miles off the Gaza strip during the Six-Day-War between Israel and its adversaries Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The attack killed 34 and injured 171 of the 294 crew members on board and caused heavy damage to the ship.

Forty-nine years later, Ronald Kukal, a Liberty survivor reflects on his experience, and the continued process of coping with the loss of shipmates after so long.

“I was within 20 feet of the torpedo when it hit the ship,” said Kukal. “Something told me to get on the ground quick and just as I did the torpedo struck.”

Surviving the attack itself was only the physical battle on the ship. The next battle was mental and it continues with Kukal today.

“I was the petty officer in charge of body recovery after the attack,” added Kukal. “It was my job to put the pieces back together and identify them. I will never forget those 34 people.”

An E6 at the time with hopes to be an E7 and turn the Navy into a career, that August Kukal was honorably discharged due to a back injury sustained in the attack, two months after the strike of the Liberty.

In the 49 years since the attack Kukal has dedicated his time to helping other veterans. He worked in Veterans’ administration for 23 years and is currently a chaplain for the Liberty Veterans Association.

“I feel strongly about my dedication to this country,” said Kukal.

In October 2003, Goodfellow dedicated the Liberty Memorial Park outside of the Navy Detachment in remembrance of those who were lost and effected by the attack.

“I thank Goodfellow for maintaining the memorial down there,” said Kukal. “It is one of the best that I have seen.”

In 2004, the park underwent renovations to expand the memorial.

The Six-Day war began June 5 because of unresolved conflicts from the 1948 Arab-Israel War. Expecting an attack from Egypt, Israel chose to strike first, attacking Egypt, then Jordan and finally Syria. Israel destroyed each nation's air power in a matter of hours, giving them complete air superiority.

By June 8, the tensions had heightened and Israel was on a full offensive. According to the Liberty Veterans Association, the Liberty was maneuvering through the Mediterranean Sea and had been experiencing numerous radio and communication glitches. This caused immense difficulties contacting Israel and Egypt to communicate their exact location and identification. With communications so bad, the Liberty failed to receive orders from the U.S. to move back a few hundred miles, an order that would have altered their fate.

Israeli jets flew overhead and performed flybys for most of the morning. The jets flew low, but, other than that, gave no indication of the impending attack of the Liberty.

After reflecting on his experiences Kukal had no regrets, noting that, “It’s all worth it when you have the best interest of your country in mind.”