Bob Schnell was wounded but did not have time to feel pain.
Forty-two years ago this afternoon Schnell was one of 254 men aboard the U.S.S. Liberty, a non-combat intelligence gathering U.S. Navy ship 11 to 12 miles from the Sinai Peninsula.
Suddenly a quiet afternoon on the Mediterranean Sea became deafening. Rockets and 50-caliber machine gun bullets began raining from the sky, one of which ripped through Schnell’s right knee.
Schnell and his shipmates, some of whom had been sunbathing on deck, all were asking the same question between terrified gasps: What’s happening?
The ship’s crew members soon learned to their horror what was occurring, but four decades later nobody knows why.
Israel, a U.S. ally in the midst of its Six-Day War with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, was attacking the Liberty, a ship that had only four machine guns. The bombardment, which started at 1:30 p.m., lasted two hours.
The toll from bullets and rockets fired from Israeli planes and torpedoes launched from boats was devastating — 35 men were killed and 171 were wounded.
Schnell, who has lived in La Grande since 1969, talked about his injury.
“It did not hurt that much,’’ said Schnell, then a second class U.S. Navy communications technician.
Today he has plastic kneecap because of the bullet wound but considers himself among the most fortunate members of the Liberty’s crew.
“Most of those who were hurt were wounded much more seriously than I was.’’
Finally at 3:30 p.m. the Israelis pulled back. The battered Liberty was still afloat but had 800 holes from machine gun bullets.
“It was dead in the water,’’ Schnell said.
It was only able to crawl through the Mediterranean at a pace of 3 to 5 knots. It did not meet up with a fleet of U.S. Navy ships sent to rescue it until 7 a.m. the next day, 15 1/2 hours after the attack.
The wait was the longest of Schnell’s life as he and others, also ignoring injuries, did everything they could to help the wounded with limited medical supplies and personnel.
Schnell said he will never forget the sight of the fleet of U.S. ships.
“It was such a relief to see the American flags,’’ Schnell said.
The Liberty also had a clearly visible U.S. flag when Israeli planes opened fire the day before. The ship was clearly identified with 5-foot-tall letters on its front and 1- to 2-foot-tall letters on its stern. This makes the attack that much more inexplicable.
Israeli officials said that the attack was a tragic case of mistaken identity. They claimed that the Liberty was mistaken for the El Arish, an Egyptian cattle ship.
Schnell does not see how this was possible since the Liberty, which was in international waters, was not only clearly marked but 100 feet longer than the El Arish.
The days and years following the attack have been painful and frustrating for Schnell and his shipmates. They were frustrating because the magnitude of the incident was kept quiet by the U.S. government, which did not allow the survivors to speak about it for years.
“I was told that we absolutely could not talk about it. If we did, we were told we could be fined $100,000 and spend 20 years in the brig (military prison). Everybody else I know was also told this,’’ Schnell said.
News of the attack reached the United States through the international press. The U.S. government did not acknowledge it for years, Schnell said. The incident received limited press coverage and was often referred to as an “alleged attack.’’
The veil of secrecy was partially lifted in 1979 when a book by James M. Ennes Jr., “Assault On The Liberty’’ was published, bringing the tragic incident to light.
Ennes wrote of many theories for why the attack occurred. Schnell, who lauds Ennes’s book, has his own theory.
He said the United States, had provided Israel with extensive intelligence including photos from U-2 spy planes of Egypt’s military operations. In exchange, Israel had agreed to respect the United States’ request that Israel not expand its territory.
Israel, though, was violating the United States’ wishes during the war, taking Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the the Golan Heights from Syria.
Schnell said he believes Israel was afraid the Liberty crew would discover what it was doing and report it. The United States might have stepped in and prevented Israel from expanding its territory if this had occurred, Schnell said.
Israel felt it had to attack the U.S.S. Liberty, Schnell said he believes.
“They wanted to shut us down and shut us up,’’ Schnell said.
Ironically, Schnell felt much safer on the Liberty than he had months earlier when he was involved in the Vietnam War. Schnell was part of flight crews that flew 128 missions over North Vietnam.
His planes were shot down twice, both times over the Gulf of Tonkin. The first time five of the seven men in Schnell’s crew died. The second time all survived and were rescued.
Schnell, who grew up in Milton-Freewater, was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1968. He then returned to Northeast Oregon and enrolled at Eastern Oregon University, from which he graduated in 1971.
Schnell, now retired, knows of crew members who were not able to cope with the emotional aftermath of the attack and the frustration of not being recognized for what they endured. The emotional strain took a physical toll.
“The stress ate them up. It killed them at an early age. Some died in their mid-30s,’’ Schnell said.
The La Grande resident pauses momentarily when asked about the emotional fallout he has experienced.
“Yes, I’m bitter. I just cope,’’ Schnell said.
Talking about the incident is not a cathartic one for Schnell. He said that his best coping mechanism is pushing it out of his mind.
“I try not think about it.’’
Few things would make Schnell feel better than if there were a congressional investigation of the incident. He wants to know why the attack occurred and why the United States government has worked so hard to keep the incident quiet.
A congressional investigation would change this.
“I’d like for our government to acknowledge we existed and bring it into the public eye.’’