Liberty Hero, Silver Star Recipient, Dies

Liberty damage

A sailor whose courage under fire more than 45 years ago is credited with preventing Israeli air and naval forces from sinking the USS Liberty with all hands during the Six Day War died Aug. 11, a little more than five years after he was awarded the Silver Star for his actions.

James Terry Halbardier, then an Electronics Technician 3rd Class, braved continuing hostile fire to run a coaxial cable line across the deck so that the radio room could link to an antenna and get out a message to the U.S. Sixth Fleet, according to his Silver Star citation.

"I think the attack would have continued until we were sunk," retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Ennes said. He believes the Israelis were monitoring all communications from the Navy ship and heard the fleet reply that "help was on the way."

Israel has long claimed the attack was a case of mistaken identity. The U.S. State Department has never accepted that explanation and Congress has never investigated the attack.

Ernie Gallo, a communications technician aboard Liberty in 1967, said Halbardier's daughter plans to inter his ashes at Arlington National Cemetery next year on June 8, the anniversary of the attack.

"He's going to be sorely missed," Gallo said. "He was not only a shipmate but a good friend. Most of us feel we would not be here now if it was not for him."

Gallo said ship communications were jammed during the first phase of the attack -- the fighter jet assault  -- but opened up briefly in the moments they actually strafed the ship. With the exception of a single antenna, which was not even being used, the rest of the array was destroyed or otherwise inoperable.

"Under fire [Halbardier] ran this coaxial cable to the antenna," Gallo said on Monday. "Once it was connected we were able to call up a voice circuit with the USS Saratoga, who received our Mayday."

As this was happening, Gallo said Israeli helicopters had moved in and he could see troops on board. He said they appeared ready to "take the rest of us out."

But then they pulled away, he said. Like Ennes, Gallo believes the Israelis realized their attack was now known to the Fleet.

However, no U.S. aircraft responded. Twice jets scrambled into the sky but were recalled.

Ennes said the ship would have gone down with all hands if Halbardier had not acted. The ship's dead numbered 34 after the attack, with another 171 wounded. Its skipper, Capt. William McGonagle, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions to keep the ship afloat while he was seriously wounded.

In addition, according to former USS Liberty Association president Joe Meadors, crew awards included two Navy Crosses, 11 Silver Stars, 20 Bronze Stars, nine Navy Commendation Medal, 208 Purple Hearts, 294 Combat Action Ribbons, the Presidential Unit Citation and the National Security Agency Exception Service Civilian Award.

Halbardier was presented with the Silver Star in 2009 after Ennes began pushing for the medal. Ennes, then an ensign and the electrical materials officer, was Halbardier's supervisor.

Ennes laughs now to remember that Halbardier had actually asked his permission to run the cable.

"My femur was broken from the first rocket strike" on the ship, he said. "Terry came up to me when I was on a stretcher, where I'd been carried down to a passageway. He asked if I thought it would be okay if he could go up and fix one of the antennas -- they were all shot down or the wires [to them] were destroyed.

"I said, 'by all means, but try and do it between [strafing runs], and be careful,' " Ennes recalled.

It was Ennes who nominated Halbardier for the Silver Star -- the military's third-highest award for combat valor -- back in 2009. It was only a few years before then that Halbardier finally received the Purple Heart he earned. It came in the mail.

The Silver Star was presented to Halbardier by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, at his district office in Visalia.

"Terry's actions aboard the USS Liberty undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his fellow sailors," Nunes told Military.com in a statement on Monday. "His medals may have come late, but Liberty crewmembers knew all along that Terry was a bona fide American hero -- and that is how he will be remembered."

Israel has long maintained that the attack was a case of mistaken identity. The State Department never accepted the Israeli explanation and Congress has never investigated.

Lawmakers have largely relied on a Navy court of inquiry report that concluded the attack was accidental, even though the court's work has been slammed as a whitewash for years, including by the retired Navy attorney assigned to it.

Ennes said Halbardier's Silver Star, because it was awarded too many years later, reads differently than the other award citations related to the attack on Liberty. Unlike the others, Halbardier's actually identifies the attackers as Israeli.

"Since I wrote the citation I was really afraid that if I put 'attacked by Israel' that it would kill the whole thing," he said."But I put it in. Fortunately, it slipped through. Even the captain's Medal of Honor [citation] doesn't say Israel."

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com.

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