Visalian receives Silver Star medal

Lewis Griswold
Fresno Bee
May 27, 2009

The spy ship USS Liberty was sailing off the coast of Egypt on June 8, 1967, under clear skies when, without warning, Israeli military aircraft began strafing the ship with 20-caliber rounds, sending shrapnel everywhere and demolishing virtually every antenna on the ship.

It was the fourth day of the Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states.

The strafing lasted about an hour, then a torpedo hit the ship's right side, killing 26 men. Electronics technician Terry Halbardier, 23, was hit by shrapnel in both arms, body and left leg, but he kept going.

Forty-two years after the USS Liberty was attacked by Israel, electronics technician James Halbardier was awarded a Silver Star by the Navy.

Forty-two years after the USS Liberty was attacked by Israel, electronics technician James Halbardier was awarded a Silver Star by the Navy.

A 24-foot whip antenna on the ship's left side toward the rear had somehow escaped damage, but the cable connecting it to a transmitter was destroyed. Halbardier ordered a reel of cable. With planes still strafing the ship, he ran onto the deck and attached new wire to the antenna so a radioman could send out a Mayday distress signal to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which also was in the Mediterranean Sea.

The attack finally ended -- but 34 were dead and 171 wounded out of 294 officers and enlisted crew members.

Halbardier's heroism under fire 42 years ago earned him a Silver Star -- the third most prestigious medal after the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. The medal was finally awarded to him Wednesday in Visalia.

"I may be the lucky sailor to wear this, but it took us all that day," Halbardier said after Rep. Devin Nunes pinned the medal on him. "I didn't do anything more than anyone else."

Halbardier's "conspicuous gallantry" under fire "were instrumental in saving the ship and hundreds of lives," according to the citation signed by the Secretary of the Navy.

Shipmates say they believe that if the antenna hadn't been fixed and the Mayday sent by Morse code, the ship would have been sunk.

To this day, the attack remains controversial.

Israel apologized and said the Liberty had been mistaken for an Egyptian ship. It paid reparations.

But the crew of Liberty remains convinced Israel meant to sink the ship. Theories abound as to why.

Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst who attended Wednesday's Silver Star ceremony and has had a longtime interest in the Liberty attack, said there's speculation that Israeli didn't want the U.S. electronic surveillance spy ship listening in on Israeli military communications as it was about to take the Golan Heights. Another is that Egypt could have been easily blamed for a sunken ship with no survivors, giving the U.S. a pretext to attack Cairo and kill President Nasser.

Whatever the case, the Mayday was answered by the USS Saratoga, which sent helicopters to fight off the Liberty's attackers -- only to recall them before they arrived. Officials said Israel by then had communicated an apology to the United States. Halbardier said Liberty crew members are suspicious of the official Navy investigation but believe the Mayday caused a chain of events that "forced Israel to back off."

At any rate, after the Liberty limped into Malta for repairs, an admiral gathered the remaining crew members and warned them not to talk to reporters, tell drinking buddies at bars about it, wear clothing with Liberty markings on shore leave or even tell their wives what happened, Halbardier told reporters Wednesday. As a low-ranking crew member, he said, the warning was taken seriously.

So he kept quiet. He left the Navy in 1970 and became a real estate investor, first in Texas and then later after moving to Visalia. But 20 years ago, he started going to reunions. A few years ago, two ex-officers from the Liberty talked him into seeking a commendation for repairing the antenna. Nunes' office made the official request, and the officers wrote letters explaining what Halbardier did that day.

Halbardier, now 65, said he thought he might get a letter of commendation, or maybe a Bronze Star. He never thought he'd get the Silver Star.

"I'm stoked," Halbardier said. "This is an extreme honor for me."

The wording in the official citation caught the attention of Halbardier and of David Pegeler of Westminster, a fellow former crew member.

They noted that all previous citations for Liberty crew members have never mentioned Israel by name, just "attack by enemy aircraft." This one specifically states: "The USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats in the East Mediterranean Sea on the fourth day of the Six Day War."

"We need another investigation" of the Liberty incident, Halbardier said: "It's not going to happen in our lifetime, but the truth will someday come out."

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