By Ray McGovern
What's the difference between murder and massacre?
The answer is Terry Halbardier, whose bravery and ingenuity as a 23-year-old Navy seaman spelled the difference between the murder of 34 of the USS Liberty crew and the intended massacre of all 294.
The date was June 8, 1967; and for the families of the 34 murdered and for the Liberty's survivors and their families, it is a "date which will live in infamy" — like the date of an earlier surprise attack on the U.S. Navy.
The infamy is two-fold: (1) the Liberty, a virtually defenseless intelligence collection platform prominently flying an American flag in international waters, came under deliberate attack by Israeli aircraft and three 60-ton Israeli torpedo boats off the coast of the Sinai on a cloudless June afternoon during the six-day Israeli-Arab war; and (2) President Lyndon Johnson called back carrier aircraft dispatched to defend the Liberty lest Israel be embarrassed — the start of an unconscionable cover-up, including top Navy brass, that persists to this day.
Given all they have been through, the Liberty survivors and other veterans – who joined Halbardier to celebrate his belated receipt of the Silver Star – can be forgiven for having doubted that this day would ever come. In the award ceremony at the Visalia (California) office of Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican congressman pinned the Silver Star next to the Purple Heart that Halbardier found in his home mailbox three years ago.
Nunes said, "The government has kept this quiet I think for too long, and I felt as my constituent he [Halbardier] needed to get recognized for the services he made to his country."
Nunes got that right. Despite the many indignities the Liberty crew has been subjected to, the mood in Visalia was pronouncedly a joyous one of Better (42 years) Late Than Never. And, it did take some time to sink in: Wow, a gutsy congressman not afraid to let the truth hang out on this delicate issue.