Oct. 10, 2003 | ARIEH O'SULLIVAN

Jerusalem Post 10/10/2003 9:29 AM PDT
< http://www.freerepublic.com/%7Eyonif/>

An Israeli pilot who mistakenly attacked the American intelligence ship USS Liberty during the 1967 Six Day War said they were lucky he had no bombs otherwise he would have sunk her.

"There was a mistake. Mistakes happen. As far as I know, the mistake was of the USS Liberty being there in the first place," said Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yiftah Spector.

After 36 years Spector, who this week was dismissed by the IAF for signing the pilots' refusal letter protesting the policy of targeted killings, agreed to speak to a reporter for the first time on his role in the attack on the Liberty, an American spy ship strafed on the fourth day of the war.

Flying a Mirage III fighter jet code named "Kursa" or couch, Spector was the first pilot to reach the ship, which was about 20 nautical miles west of Gaza. He had been on an air-to-air mission and was not loaded with bombs.

Spector, now 63, went on to become a triple ace, shooting down 15 enemy aircraft, and take part in the 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, earning himself a place in the pantheon of Israeli fly boys. This week he ended a 20-year stint teaching new generations of pilots.

Spector had always refused to discuss the attack on the USS Liberty, which killed 34 US sailors and wounded 172, or even be revealed as the pilot who led the attack on her. Until now.

"I did not fire on the Liberty as a human target. I was sent to attack a sailing vessel. This ship was on an escape route from the El Arish area, which at that same moment had heavy smoke rising from it," Spector said.

"It was thought to be an Egyptian vessel. This ship positively did not have any symbol or flag that I could see. What I was concerned with was that it was not one of ours. I looked for the symbol of our navy, which was a large white cross on its deck," he told The Jerusalem Post. "This was not there, so it wasn't one of ours."

The concern of the IAF was that Spector and his wingman, who had been diverted from the Suez Canal, would strike one of the Israel Navy ships in pursuit of the vessel, which was assumed to be Egyptian. IAF archival recordings of the pilots' radio transmission of the actual attack obtained by the Post show that Spector was specifically requested to verify that the ship was a military vessel and not Israeli.

According to the June 8, 1967, radio transmission, Spector said: "I can't identify it but in any case it's a military ship."

Speaking of the event 36 years later may have caused Spector to mix what he remembered with what he may have read and his testimony does not always match archival facts.

"I circled it twice and it did not fire on me. My assumption was that it was likely to open fire at me and nevertheless I slowed down and I looked and there was positively no flag. Just to make sure I photographed it," said Spector, who retired from active duty as a brigadier-general in 1984.

Experts intimately acquainted with the incident said that the only photos Spector took were from his gun-sight camera during his strafing run. Regardless of whether the 455-foot ship bristling with eavesdropping antennas flew a US flag, which it evidently did from its starboard halyard, that banner was shot off in Spector's first strafing pass.

"I was told on the radio that it was an Egyptian ship off the Gaza coast. Hit it. The luck of the ship was that I was armed only with light ammunition [30mm] against aircraft. If I had had a bomb it would be sitting on the bottom today like the Titanic. I promise you," Spector said.

The 30mm rounds were armor piercing, which to this day led Liberty survivors to believe they had been under rocket attack. Spector's first pass ignited a fire which caused the ship to billow black smoke. Ironically, Spector transmitted he suspected the Liberty was putting out smoke to deliberately mask itself.

"Every order is given by commanders and the last one to receive it has to decide whether he will pull the trigger or not. In this instance I was the fighter. I checked what I had to check [i.e. that it was a military ship and not one of ours] and pulled the trigger," Spector said.

"The crew should be thankful for their luck [that I was on an air-to-air mission and did not have any bombs]. It is a pity we attacked. I'm sorry for poor Capt. (William Loren) McGonagle, who was wounded in the leg and the other guys who were killed and wounded."

"I'm sorry for the mistake. Years later my mates dropped flowers on the site where the ship was attacked," Spector said. "I'm the last guy who has a problem with admitting mistakes and asking for forgiveness. There was a mistake, but it wasn't my mistake."

He added he remains baffled that the conspiracy theories live on that Israel deliberately attacked the US intelligence ship. He suggested it might be due to anti-Semitism, or anti-Israeli sentiments.

"I know that after the war one of the first things that was done was the establishment of a [US] senator's inquiry. I know this personally, because I was called upon to testify before it. They came to the country and I was questioned. I told them what I told you just now ­ that there was a mistake. I am sorry for the mistake. In war mistakes happen," Spector said.

NOTE: No such inquiry was ever made by the US Senate or any other United States governmental entity. Spector could not possibly have "testified" in this matter.

He said that he had never in the past 36 years ever met with any of the Liberty survivors, but has no qualms about doing so now.

"They must understand that a mistake was made here," Spector said. "The fool is one who wanders about in the dark in dangerous places, so they should not come with any complaints."