By Joan Mellen
In 2014 I was completing a book exposing dark truths about President Lyndon Johnson that had been suppressed by Johnson’s official biographers whose goal in recent years was to provide cover for an official whose actions not infrequently bordered on the criminal. One day I received an email from a fellow researcher who offered a challenging question: will you be including Johnson’s role in the attack on the USS Liberty? I had never heard of the USS Liberty. When I learned of the ambush of this unarmed USS Intelligence ship, and of Johnson’s role in planning it and then covering it up, I was at once committed to a course that resulted in a new book, “Blood in the Water,” whose subtitle is “How the US and Israel Conspired in the Ambush of the USS Liberty” devoted entirely to the events surrounding the LIBERTY. My goal was to discover who had planned the attack and what was their motive.
I had for more than a decade been writing books of investigative journalism, tackling historical issues about which the government had kept the public in the dark. The best known is called “A Farewell to Justice,” which tackled another unsolved case, the assassination of President Kennedy, and is set in New Orleans where Lee Harvey Oswald lived during the spring and summer of 1963. “A Farewell to Justice” became a biography of District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation and took seven years to complete.
By the time I committed to the Liberty story I had published 23 books. None focused on Israel or the Middle East. Nor had I written anything about the U.S. military.
When you begin a book whose issues are unfamiliar, the writer invariably hears an inner voice with the warning, “I can’t do this.” I knew nothing about the US Navy, its protocols and hierarchies. I knew a bit about the intelligence services whose activities figure in this story, CIA and the NSA, National Security Agency. There had been several books published about this attack on LIBERTY, an unarmed US intelligence ship, by Israeli commandos and ships, on June 8, 1967, in the middle of the Six-Day War. All insisted that Israel, who admitted to have attacked ship by planes and torpedo boats, was acting alone, but they made no sense to me: why would Israel attack a vessel belonging to its sole ally, for by now France had canceled its arrangements to offer Israel military support? None of the books or articles, and I read them all, could answer this question or entertain why Israel would engage in so foolhardy an operation. Israel had on the same day admitted that they had been behind the attack, but the “explanation”, that it was an “accident,” was flimsy and easily challenged.
None of the authors even suggested that the attack was not Israel’s idea alone. It didn’t take long for me to unearth the motive: Liberty was attacked, the purpose to send the ship and everyone on it to the bottom of the sea, because the perpetrators were determined to unseat the premier of Egypt, Gamal Abel Nasser by blaming him for the attack. Nasser was highly influential among powers in the Middle East as a neutral, a thorn in the side of the U.S. and Israel. The motive was to so discredit Nasser that he would fall easily from power, leaving his adversaries to maintain political control over the region.
I did then what I have done with all my investigative books, I made a list of people whom I might interview in my effort to penetrate what had been a nearly fifty year cover-up of the truth. High on my list was Commander David Edwin Lewis, who had been the chief intelligence officer on LIBERTY. Lewis was also the direct source of the most astonishing piece of evidence in the Liberty story: that Lyndon Johnson, defying the military code to leave no man behind, had abandoned the wounded sailors on the Liberty by cancelling the air support the Admirals had dispatched to the ship once they received an SOS: Johnson’s explanation was that: he did not want to “embarrass an ally.” He would rather that the unarmed sailors perish than his relations with Israel be disrupted. Those who would take Johnson’s pro-civil rights rhetoric seriously might ponder the old-bloodedness of his abandoning the sailors of the LIBERTY.
When I reached Dave Lewis, he demurred. He lived on the Canadian border, accessible by air only from Manchester, New Hampshire. Surely it would be easier for me to talk to others; he himself was not able to endure the hardships of travel. He was, however, friendly, matter of fact and given to an ironic sense of humor. He was not unwelcoming. He seemed to enjoy answering my questions.
Off I went to outer New England. I was teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia, but as soon as the spring 2014 semester concluded I found myself in Manchester, and then in Colebrook, a small town in New Hampshire which seemed charmingly and unapologetically mired in the 1940’s. Dave Lewis turned out to be humble, modest, brilliant, and yet at the same time forceful and determined that the truth be told about the USS Liberty. He felt personally responsible for two of the 34 who died because they had applied for retirement only for Dave to urge them to participate in one last mission, one that cost them their lives.
Over the next four years, with Dave’s help, I was initiated into the intricacies of Navy protocols. Dave says he taught me to “speak Navy.” I figured out what had happened, and why it had to be covered up by Johnson and all the presidents who succeeded him. The planning of the attack on these young sailors – by rockets, torpedoes, napalm and machine gun fire – would remain a secret from history and from the American public, and even from the surviving sailors themselves.
“Blood In The Water” opens not on the east Mediterranean Sea, but at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, in particular on the top floor presided over, not by members of the diplomatic services, but by the CIA chief of station whose name was John Hadden. Hadden figures prominently in my book, which alone sets it apart from other histories of this tragic event.
I happened upon a memorandum of a meeting between Hadden and Meir Amit, the chief of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence services. John Hadden may be numbered among those who knew what happened in the attack upon LIBERTY, and was aware of the fierce antipathy toward Nasser by both the US intelligence services and their Israeli counterparts.
Hadden died with his secrets. In the last years of his life, at his own suggestion, he did a series of interviews with his son, also named John Hadden. On one subject alone, Hadden refused to speak, and that was the USS LIBERTY. It seems apparent that he knew exactly what happened. The truth was too dark, unspeakable really, and even as Hadden was open about his discoveries with respect to Israel’s flourishing nuclear program, ignoring Israeli government denials that they had the bomb, about the LIBERTY he remained silent. In his later years, Hadden revealed that he regretted having served with CIA.
The unsung hero of my book is a man who never sought notoriety or recognition, and who eschewed the notion that he is a hero. He is a man who always put the needs of others above his own, and who was acknowledged by his fellow sailors as a person of unblemished integrity even fifty years after the attack. That’s of course Dave Lewis, an active member of many communities, LIBERTY veterans, veterans of the US Navy, of the small towns of New Hampshire and Vermont. Without Dave Lewis, I could not have figured out what happened to the LIBERTY and who was to blame.
He is a political conservative, so he surprised me by being open to whatever truths I uncovered, including and especially truths contradicting the insights that those in the higher reaches of government were determined were never to be made accessible to the public. To his men in the research spaces of the USS Liberty, no matter that he was a lieutenant commander, he was plain “Mr. Lewis.” Dave might be described, as the novelist Joseph Conrad, who wrote about men who followed the sea, once put it, “one of us.”
BLOOD IN THE WATER is dedicated to him.
Joan Mellen, Pennington, New Jersey
May 29, 2018