Texan Sails Across Atlantic to Mark a U.S. Government "Cover-Up" of the USS Liberty Incident (Update)

Larry Toenjes was living a pretty nice life in Clear Lake Shores, Texas with his wife Jean Garst. Then, in April, the 74-year-old retiree decided that he would ditch his comfy existence to sail to a region where fellow nautical travelers have been threatened, taken hostage and killed, in order to commemorate, in his words, a "definite cover-up" by the U.S. Government 40-plus years ago.

During the Six-Day War in 1967, the USS Liberty, a U.S. Navy technical research ship, was bombarded by Israeli military forces in international waters near Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Despite the damages and loss of life (34 crew members died and 170 were injured), the event remains, according to the Brookings Institution, "the only maritime incident in U.S. history where [U.S.] military forces were killed that was never investigated by the [U.S.] Congress."

Toenjes, who found out about the episode eight years ago, decided that he would sail from Galveston to the site in order to hold a memorial service. He and two friends left the States in a 39-foot sailboat on April 20.

"The cover-up occurred because President Lyndon Baines Johnson did not want to embarrass Israel, thus alienating the powerful Israel lobby that would then pour money into his opponent's campaign," says Toenjes. "The cover-up continues to this day, which is why I undertook this voyage."

Speaking by satellite phone, Toenjes -- a retired University of Houston research professor and state employee of Texas and Illinois -- explains that his journey, thus far, has been mishap- and drama-free.

He and two crew members, Joe and Sherry Wagner of Port Aransas, safely arrived in Malta late last month. The Wagners have since abandoned ship because, Toenjes says, "They didn't have any interest in the political aspects of it." Now it's just Toenjes and Rusty Glenn of Corsicana making the daring voyage across the Mediterranean.

Says Toenjes, "There's this issue of whether or not we're going to be harassed by the Israeli Navy forces or not. We may turn around, depending on the degree of harassment. If they just kind of come by and make noises, that's one thing. If they order us out, well, that's quite something else.

"I talked to a fellow who was with a platoon of 50 to 60 boats that were visiting several countries in the eastern Mediterranean. Each country knew in advance that they were coming and which boats were there and who their crews were, but when they got into Israeli waters, an Israeli patrol boat still circled them and pointed a 20-millimeter cannon at them for some period of time. They can be pretty arrogant assholes."

Toenjes, however, feels like he'll be good to go because he and representatives of the USS Liberty have been in contact with the U.S. embassies in Tel Aviv and Egypt. "They ensure me that we're not imposing on Israel and they have no reason to harass us," he says.

At the time of writing, Toenjes was expected to arrive at the dedication site in the next day or two, where he'll hold a memorial service.

What does his wife think about all of this?

"Until recently, she thought I could make better use of my time. But when she started seeing other people perk up and take notice, particularly some of the spokespeople for the survivors of the USS Liberty, she said, 'Hey, maybe this isn't such a bad idea after all.' Right now, she's 100 percent on board."

Larry's wife Jean -- who says that Larry and USS Liberty veterans were "turned down cold" when they requested that a federal government representative join them -- may be supportive, but she is still freaking out.

"This is a very anxiety-provoking situation for me," she tells Hair Balls. "I know the history of the Israeli Defense Force in dealing with boats in the proximity of Gaza, even if they are in international waters, which Larry will be. The IDF has rammed boats at night, shot at them, napalmed them, arrested the crews and impounded the vessels."

Update: Larry Toenjes, according to his wife Jean Garst, arrived at the site and held the memorial service.

Garst writes, "Many survivors participated via phone hookups. I can send you the text of the service if you like. It was a very solemn time.

"He has not been hassled. There have been Israeli planes circling over low, but other than that, he has had no problems. I think it helped that he made it very clear in numerous e-mails to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv that he was not going to Gaza and he did not enter the Gaza blockade zone."

Rather than flying home, Toenjes intends to sail back to Texas.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen