John Caleb Smith
July 13, 1943 — June 8, 1967
Jerry Smith recalls the day his brother John was killed aboard the USS Liberty in the eastern Mediterranean. He says he’ll never forget June 8, 1967.
By Stephen Landesman
Ithica Journal Staff, 2001
“I still get upset and choked up about it,” Smith said Tuesday by telephone from Rochester.
Smith’s brother, 24-year-old John C. Smith Jr., a graduate of Ithaca High School, was killed along with 33 other U.S. seamen on the Liberty when Israeli jets and torpedo boats attacked the Navy surveillance vessel at the height of the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab states.
“I was in Rochester with my wife and four children,” said Smith who was three years older than John. “We heard about the attack on television, then John’s wife got a telegram from the Navy. We got into our car and drove down to Ithaca to be with the family. But we didn’t know the whole story until we returned to Rochester several days later because the ship had to go to dry dock before they could extricate the bodies from the compartment.”
The History Channel is screening at 8 p.m. Thursday a one-hour, British-made documentary about the attack that ultimately became an embarrassing “incident” for both Israel and the United States. Israel claimed the Liberty was not flying a U.S. flag at the time and its pilots mistook it for an Arab vessel.
The crew denies it to this day. The U.S. Navy has officially remained quiet for 34 years. The survivors have remained hurt and angry that no investigation was ever undertaken by Congress.
“When John’s body was returned, it came back with a Navy guard with instructions that the casket not be opened,” Jerry Smith said.
John Smith was born July 13, 1943, the son of John and Rita Smith, and one of seven children. He had three brothers — Jerry, Joe and David — and three sisters — Peggy, Mary and Karen. Peggy Smith and Mary (Smith) Pace still work in Ithaca. Their mother died in 1992.
“She was cremated and her urn is on top of where John’s body is buried down on Floral Avenue,” said Jerry Smith, who talked about growing up in the full but happy house at 203 Wood St.
“We were all very close,” Smith said. “That’s bound to happen when there are seven kids in the family. The boys slept in the same room.”
All but Mary went to Immaculate Conception School before moving on to graduate from Ithaca High School.
Thomas Fauls, 58, a quality assurance manager at Evaporated Metal Films in Ithaca, was John’s closest friend when they were growing up. He had gotten out of the Air Force and was working in Michigan at the time John was killed. The family called him to come back to Ithaca to be a pallbearer at John’s funeral.
“They were inseparable,” Jerry Smith said.
“I knew John well,” Fauls said on Tuesday. “We’d gone to grade school together and then Ithaca High. After that, we stayed in touch over the years. I remember when he returned to Ithaca on leave in the winter of ’66 with his wife and young daughter. He was still up in the air about whether to make the Navy his career. He told me the Navy would be giving him extensive training before sending him back to sea for a new assignment.”
The extensive training was communications school, the assignment the USS Liberty.
Smith’s wife, Sandra Ann, and daughter, Stephanie, returned to Sandra’s native England after his death.
Mary Pace, 48, who lives in Fall Creek and works in information services at Cornell University, was 13 when her brother John was killed.
“I was at a friend’s house when mother heard the news,” Mary said. “She called me to come home, and when I got there, all the cousins from Syracuse were at the house. Everybody was watching television. They didn’t know whether John was dead or alive. On Friday, my mom received a telegram saying John was missing in action. Then, on Sunday morning, Navy personnel drove up to our house to tell us he was dead.”
Like Fauls, Mary remembered John’s leave Thanksgiving of 1966.
“Johnny came home and that’s the first time I met his daughter, Stephanie,” said Mary Pace. “He came back again for Christmas before leaving for his new assignment in Norfolk, Va.