SHERIDAN — Ron Kukal cannot forget the date of June 8, 1967. The incident that took place more than a half-century ago has never left him.
On that day, 34 people died and Kukal was one of 171 others injured aboard the U.S.S. Liberty. It occurred during the Six-Day War that involved Israel against Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
The Liberty was attacked by Israeli forces who mistook it for an Egyptian ship, although Kukal and many other survivors maintain the attack was intentional and involved the cooperation of the United States government.
Born in Rushville, Nebraska, in 1939, Kukal has resided in Sheridan for the past 40 years and is the chaplain and secretary for the U.S.S. Liberty Veterans Association. The organization held a memorial ceremony June 8 at noon this year in Pennsylvania.
Kukal was honorably discharged shortly after the 1967 attack and since then has had a tumultuous life marred by symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kukal has gradually come to terms with his experiences, and a recent book to which he contributed has played a small role in that. Along with three others, Kukal co-wrote “Remember the Liberty!: Almost Sunk by Treason on the High Seas” that was released May 2017.
“The horrible events all of us experienced were, without a doubt, life-changing,” Kukal wrote in the book.
The tome’s main author, Phillip F. Nelson, asked Kukal to participate. It took Kukal about a year to write the different sections of the book that detail his firsthand experiences as a senior enlisted man aboard the ship.
Kukal said working on the book helped him deal with the horrors he witnessed.
“I think it did help me,” Kukal said. “… The only healing that’s really going to happen for me is when the lights go out, but I’m not sure when that’s going to happen.”
Kukal was about 40 feet from where a torpedo hit the ship and caused serious damage.
“I found myself flat, my nose to the steel deck, and I could hear the shrapnel just flying over my head, killing everybody around me,” Kukal said.
After surviving the attack, Kukal was put in charge of recovery and identification of his shipmates’ bodies on the lower deck of the flooded ship, a harrowing three-day experience.
Kukal said that process “made a complete mess out of me.”
“The scene could compare to a wrecking yard of autos,” Kukal wrote in the book. “But these were human body parts strewn everywhere, carnage that escapes description with mere words … Those bodies were wedged between steam pipes, and in places that a body wouldn’t fit.”
He didn’t remember much about the three days recovering corpses, something that was a form of self-preservation.
“The mind cannot remember anything that horrific,” Kukal said.
Ernie Gallo, President of the U.S.S. Liberty Veteran’s Association, contributed to the book as well. Like Kukal, Gallo felt some degree of catharsis describing his account of that day. He has also published his own book about his time aboard the U.S.S. Liberty.
Aboard the Liberty, Gallo was a greenhorn sailor trying to get through each day, and he said Kukal helped him with that. Kukal was Gallo’s superior in 1967, and Gallo recalled Kukal’s diligence and hard work.
“He always had his nose to the grindstone, a totally responsible petty officer,” Gallo said. “I admired him for his, just, how can I put it? He was a total professional.”
In their roles with the veteran’s association, Gallo and Kukal talk almost every day. Every year on the anniversary of the attack, they aim to make sure no one forgets their deceased colleagues.
“We will continue to fight until our last breath,” Gallo said.
Kukal served in the Navy from September 1959 to August 1967. He joined at age 20 and after nine weeks of boot camp, Kukal said he learned discipline and felt he could accomplish something in life.
“They took a hell-raising kid and turned him into a man,” Kukal said.
In the 12 years after his Naval discharge and before he moved to Sheridan, Kukal dealt with PTSD and credited his first wife for supporting him.
“Very seldom do the wives of some of these men that come back ever get credit for being as strong as they are,” Kukal said. “I’d sure like to thank them all for the strength that they’ve shown. Being around me was not good. (My) anger was terrible.”
Kukal came to Sheridan in 1979 after more than a decade spent trying to find his footing and worked at the Sheridan Veteran Affairs Heath Care System for more than 20 years as an electrician. He retired in 2001 and has volunteered at The Hub on Smith and played the organ and piano at churches around town.
His personal life has not entailed smooth sailing, though. Kukal has been married three times and is estranged from some of his four children.
He credited the Sheridan community with helping him handle life’s difficulties over the past four decades.
“I felt it was time to say thank you,” Kukal said. “… I feel very fortunate to have moved to this town where there are men of integrity … I’m just very, very happy to still be sitting here.”
His days are now spent mostly taking care of grandchildren and working around the house.
In assessing his 79 years of life, Kukal said he doesn’t hold any grudges and does his best to consider the positives.
He feels “as comfortable as a man in my position can possibly be,” Kukal said. “That’s not exactly really comfortable, but it’s as good as it can get.”
As he nears his 80th birthday, Kukal feels lucky to be alive but has the battle scars to show for it, as evidenced in the recent book.