A Ship Too Far

A Review of What I Saw That Day by Phillip Francis Tourney and Mark Glenn.

Available here via Amazon in print form and here via Amazon as an audio book.

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Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?
(From Robert Browning’s poem: Andrea del Sarto)

I think we may be going a bridge too far.
(Attributed to British Lieutenant-General Frederick A.M. Browning)

—–

At 1:45 pm on June 8, 1967, 20 year-old Petty Officer 3rd Class Phillip Francis Tourney was just one of 294 mostly ordinary men on board the USS LIBERTY which was sailing all alone about twelve and one-half miles off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Tourney had just finished a horrible drill during which he nearly passed out from having to wear a hot and heavy “impregnated” suit as he practiced washing, in this case imaginary, chemicals from on board his ship. Just another grunt with a six-grade education on a boat far from home in a part of the world he knew nothing about. By 4:00 pm that same afternoon, Phillip Francis Tourney had become a real-life war hero whose courage under fire for close to two hours would lead to his receiving a Bronze Star With V for Valor and a Purple Heart. His life and the lives of the entire crew of his ship were changed forever, changed in ways none of them could possibly have known at 4:00 pm, June 8, 1967. His book removes the veil and allows us to see what happened to these men and why that day should always be remembered.

There were many heroes on board that ship that dreadful afternoon. What I Saw That Day is a first-hand account by one of them that is dedicated to Tourney’s shipmates, most especially the thirty four who were killed as a result of two hours of relentless assault by the air and naval forces of the state of Israel. Tourney, like virtually all of the crew, firmly believes that this assault was not only deliberate but that it was premeditated, conducted with malice of forethought. Read this gripping first-hand account and you will learn why.

This son of a full-blooded Cherokee mother and working class father had grown up believing that serving in the United States Navy was to be his destiny. When Tourney was at the tender age of 17 his father took him to the recruiting station so he could enlist. Tourney ended up in Damage Control aboard the LIBERTY and his job was to make sure his ship was secure and seaworthy at all times. What Tourney did not know at 1:45 pm on that fateful day was that he would be performing damage control in one way or another for the next 43 years.

What I Saw is not just a thrilling war story, which indeed it is, but it is something much more – something that the other fine books about Israel’s attack on the LIBERTY did not, could not, quite become. Tourney’s book is, and this may come as a surprise to many, in essence very much a “chick” book in that it is ultimately about relationships: relationships between men on a sinking ship, between officers and enlisted men, between countries, between men and their country, and relationships between these men and their families and with one another throughout the now almost 43-year aftermath of that terrible day.

It is also a story of betrayal. The betrayal is so shocking that even those who are extremely well versed in the USS LIBERTY story will be moved to outrage – and they should be. Tourney recounts betrayal after betrayal after betrayal of himself and his shipmates by not just the US government and its officials, civilian and military, which happened repeatedly for decades, but even by individuals who shared his fate on that awful day. You will gasp as you learn of each one.

It is also a story of redemption – Tourney’s for sure – but also of the likes of Captain Ward Boston who at the end of his life acknowledged what he had done to those ordinary men turned heroes who were on board that ship when it was attacked.

Tourney gives wonderful vignettes that are unforgettable. One is of “Doc” Richard Kiepfer – also immortalized in James Scott’s “The Attack on the USS LIBERTY.” Doc Kiepfer is indeed a true American hero. Tourney believes he deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor. Read this book to find out why this incredible man, the only doctor on board the entire ship, had even less morphine than he should have had to administer to the wounded and the dying during and after the assault.

Of the men in the ship’s boiler room, the most dangerous place in the ship to be when under torpedo attack, Tourney writes:

I sat and stared at them in awe. I knew that none of them, not even one, had abandoned their stations the whole time the ship was under attack. I learned later that during the worst part of the assault, Lt. Golden, fearing for the safety of his men, ordered everyone in the area to evacuate. Despite being given a direct order to leave the spaces, Benjamin Ash, a fireman, refused to obey and remained. In the boiler room one deck below, the other firemen had either not received the orders to evacuate or else had simply disregarded them as well. Knowing they were face to face with death and could be killed at any second, nevertheless they had continued their duties without consideration for the danger their own lives were in.

Tourney gives us their names, and makes a request of his readers:

The world owes a debt to these men it can never repay, and yet to this day these men have received nothing – officially or otherwise – for their bravery and their sacrifice.

I ask the reader to memorize the names of these men and always pay them the respect they deserve when recounting this story to others:

-Lt. George Golden
-Chief Richard Brooks
-Fireman Benjamin Ash
-Petty Officer Gene Owens
-Petty Officer Gary W. Brummett
-Petty Officer JP Newell
-Damage Controlman James Smith
-Petty Officer Robert C. Kidd
-Ensign Malcom Watson
-Petty Officer Rick Aimetti
-Albert Brammelsburg
-Steven J. Krasnasky
-Richard Munford
-Jim Kelly

Tourney manages somehow to downplay his own courageous role throughout this attack, but there is one vignette of himself that he gives at the end of his account of the assault that will forever stay in my mind. I will not reveal it here.

But I will take a moment to mention another hero. This one was never a sailor, was never aboard the USS LIBERTY, was never shot at. Lisa Tourney, Phillip Tourney’s second wife, whom he married years after the events that gave Tourney a permanent case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. This woman, in my estimation, made it possible for Tourney to do so much of the work he has done on the issue of the USS LIBERTY for the past decades. No doubt this book does not quite tell you everything that she has done and endured, but it tells you enough.

There are a host of other good and bad souls to whom Tourney will introduce you as he recounts the stories of betrayal alluded to above. One of the most humorous and most important is the story of “the nerdy guy with glasses.”

What I Saw is a book of thirty chapters. The first four deal with the attack itself, the other 26 deal with the aftermath. The first four chapters are so gripping you will not be able to put the book down.

But the greatest fact about “What I Saw That Day” is that the other 26 are equally gripping – spanning the time between 4:00 pm June 8th, 1967 to the year 2009. Surprise after surprise appears the more deeply one reads into the book. The final chapter will make you . . . well you will see. This book would make a great movie.

I’ve mentioned some of the heroes you’ll read about. But there is a host of villains too and Tourney wrote this book to name names. And he does. Some people are going to be squirming.

You will also see Tourney’s first marriage crumble to pieces and how hard he had to work to put his life back together, how he became reunited with his shipmates and became a leader among them.

Oh, and if you are thinking of enlisting in the United States Navy, when you find out what the United States Navy did to Phillip Francis Tourney, you may change your mind.

What I Saw also recounts the efforts over decades by USS LIBERTY survivors to not let what happened to them be forgotten as well as their efforts to demand a true investigation into the reasons for what happened. No true investigation has ever taken place and that is because the perpetrator of the attack was the holy state of Israel – a country with a death grip on the throats of virtually all US politicians. Tourney has had it with this situation and his book documents his heroic efforts to never let this country forget what happened on June 8, 1967. I believe that thanks to his book, more so than to any of the others written about the event, the USS LIBERTY will not only be forever remembered, but also that many Americans who have never heard of that ill-fated ship will learn of the USS LIBERTY story and the relevance of that story to certain critical world events happening today; and when they do, they will be pissed.

Fine accounts of the USS LIBERTY attack have been done by James Ennes, James Scott, John Edgar Borne and Peter Hounam. James Bamford also included a powerful chapter of the LIBERTY in one of his books. Plus the BBC documentary based on Hounam’s book is very informative and free on the Internet. LIBERTY buffs should study them all, many have.

But if you are going to read just one book on the USS LIBERTY, What I Saw That Day is the one to read.

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By 4:00 pm on June 8th, 1967, the USS LIBERTY was lying virtually dead in the water and listing badly. 34 men were dead or about to be, over 170 others wounded. The ship had a huge torpedo hole near its boiler room, hundreds if not thousands of rocket and bullet holes, blood was everywhere, so was the napalm the Israelis used. No help from the United States would arrive for at least 16 hours. In fact, twice planes that had been sent from the Sixth Fleet had already been called back. USS LIBERTY Captain William McGonagle, who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, tried to move his crippled ship into deeper waters in case it were to sink so that classified equipment and information would be harder to find.

James Scott reported in his book that there was actual discussion in Washington DC of not coming to the LIBERTY to save it, but to sink it – apparently with the men on board, by the way.

4:00 pm, on June 8th, 1967, just a few miles off the shores of Israel, but 500 miles removed from the Sixth Fleet, the bloody, battered, but unsinkable USS LIBERTY and its crew, both dead and alive, stood on the waters of the Mediterranean defiantly flying the flag of the United States of America. Israel’s reach had exceeded its grasp. And thanks to men like Phillip Francis Tourney, the USS LIBERTY remained a ship too far.
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