A memorial plaque to the 208 Navy sailors killed and wounded in an attack by the Israeli military in 1967 has quietly taken its place among the plaques and memorials at Heroes Park, three years after the Palm Coast City Council killed a different version of the plaque because of its reference to Israel and a deceptive presentation to the council.
The installation a few weeks ago is a belated victory for Ernie Gallo, a survivor of the attack on the USS Liberty and an 18-year Palm Coast resident who’s sought for years to honor the crew of his ship and its survivors, who were awarded 208 Purple Hearts and other decorations. City Council member Jack Howell, who had opposed the council’s rejection of the memorial in 2017, also had a hand in the installation, which was carried out by the city’s public works department but with all materials paid for privately.
“I couldn’t be more pleased. I’m just delighted, beside myself, it’s wonderful,” Gallo said. “We haven’t planned any kind of ribbon cutting or anything like that because of the virus.” He’s still hoping that some ceremonial event can be held in September.
Gallo’s victory came at a price. “One thing that’s omitted is ‘attacked by Israel.’ The plaque has other benefits that I’m thrilled about,” he said. “I’m disappointed because it is a fact of life.”
The old plaque, “Dedicated to the Brave Men of the USS Liberty,” referred to the 34 Navy and Marine Corps members killed and 174 wounded “In An Attack By the Israeli Navy and Air Force” on June 8, 1967, “In the Mediterranean Sea.” It also included a quote by Henry Ward Beecher: “They Hover As A Cloud Of Witnesses Above This Nation.” None of the contents of the plaque are in dispute–neither by the Israeli government nor by the American government. The ship was in international waters. The attack was illegal, its motives still in dispute. President Johnson at the time thought Soviet warplanes had bombed it and scrambled American warplanes, triggering a near-confrontation with the Soviets. Israel eventually apologized for it and claimed it mistook the ship for an Egyptian vessel in the midst of that year’s Arab-Israeli war.
The new plaque, however, sanitizes the facts and introduces an error. It eliminates any reference to Israel or to an “attack,” and states it’s “In honor of the crew of the USS Liberty — AGTR 5 in recognition of their courageous and faithful service for military action on June 8 1967.” The ship was not, in fact, involved in military action, though it was a spy ship. The new wording, severed from its previous context, suggests that the Liberty crew members were killed and wounded as part of a military confrontation they were intentionally engaged in, which was not the case.
But its surviving crew displayed remarkable grit and valor as they managed to keep the eviscerated vessel afloat as it was escorted by other American ships to Malta. “I guess I can live with the plaque not having attacked by Israel on it, because it says some very wonderful things about the crew, and that’s fine with me,” Gallo said.
Monuments and memorials for Heroes Park, just west of the Flagler County Public Library on Palm Coast Parkway, are not normally approved by the City Council. The council established its Beautification Committee in part to do that. The older plaque in 2017 had been before the committee on numerous occasion, its design, wording and emplacement all vetted, until the committee approved it unanimously for installation at Heroes Park.
Then-City Manager Jim Landon intervened. He had received emails from then-U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis’s office raising questions about the plaque’s wording. Landon then brought the matter of the installation to the council’s attention. He did not refer to the communications from DeSantis’s office, and he claimed that the proposed plaque, if approved, would be a change in policy, as it would be commemorating a specific event, and refer to non-residents of Palm Coast. “We have never recognized specific events,” Landon said at the time.
Both claims were inaccurate. The 9/11 memorial, for example, recognizes a specific event with no direct connection to Palm Coast. A memorial to victims of PTSD had gone up soon before the Liberty controversy–itself recognizing victims in general, without naming specific victims with direct connections to Palm Coast. Another plaque commemorates Filipinos and Americans who fought as allies during World War II. Still, based on Landon’s claims, the council voted unanimously to kill the Liberty plaque’s installation.
“The plaque has no mention of the ship being attacked by Israel,” Howell said, “and that I understand was the rub that Mr. Landon felt would be politically incorrect to have that on the plaque, and he was the guy to put the thumbs down when it was first proposed.”
Howell last December made a brief speech to the council when he passed his own Purple Heart around, but did not ask for the plaque to be restored. That took place behind the scenes. “Based upon the fact that these things were awarded to the crew, they should be recognized,” Howell said. “Mr. Gallo who is a resident of our city and has fought for this remembrance of the crew, I think it’s justified. I had passed to each of my colleagues the purple hart, so they could see the medal, and that was it.” Of the attack itself, he said: “There were several blunders on everybody’s part–the Israeli part, our part, form what I understand, the ship shouldn’t have been where it was and there was a question of the recognition of the ship.” (In “Command and Control,” his 2013 book on the United States’ error-prone nuclear-weapons program, Eric Schlosser wrote that “urgent messages warning the USS Liberty to remain at least one hundred miles off the coast of Israel were mistakenly routed to American bases in the Philippines, Morocco, and Naryland.” The Liberty never received those warnings.)
The restoration of the plaque was “a non-issue,” City Manager Matt Morton said. “It usually doesn’t go to council. I don’t know why it was surrounded by politics or questions back then.” Morton said another vote by the council negating the 2017 vote was not necessary. “I had council support to follow the BEAC process,” he said, referring to the beautification committee. The language of the plaque was altered–Howell wrote the language, Gallo said–and it was installed.