Bonds of Liberty and love unite family, former shipmates of a fallen veteran


June 04, 1999|By Lourdes Sullivan | Lourdes Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LIBERTY SPICHER HAS MADE her mother proud. So much so, that Sharon Spicher called this reporter to announce that the Bollman Bridge Elementary School fourth-grader has received an award for her participation in the Peabody Training Choir.

But that's only one of the 10-year-old's accomplishments. She and her family, residents of Savage, have an unusual and inspiring history.

Liberty is named in honor of her grandfather, John Clarence Spicher. Her older brother, Sean -- "John" in Gaelic -- was given the variation of his grandfather's name (and that of his maternal grandfather, John Souder.)

Liberty's eldest brother, Frank Jr., 14, is named for his father, and her sister Heather, 18, is so named because that's a lovely name.

But Liberty was named for the ship on which John Clarence Spicher died in the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states.

It may be unusual to name a child after a ship, but the history of the USS Liberty is intertwined with the history of the Spicher family.

The converted World War II Victory ship was fired upon by Israeli forces in international waters north of the Sinai Peninsula.

There is controversy about the role of the Liberty -- which was loaded with electronics gear -- in the conflict and whether Israeli forces knew that they were attacking a friendly vessel.

Thirty-four Americans died, among them the man from Savage -- who was on his last scheduled voyage on the ship -- and 171 were wounded. Surviving crew members suffered through the prolonged investigation that followed the incident.

Crew members later formed an association that pressed to reopen the investigation, memorialized the fallen and offered support to their survivors.

But at the time, Linda, the young widow of John C. Spicher, was left alone with their 18-month-old son, Frank.

Frank Spicher grew up, married Sharon and began his own family. One day, he came across a book about the incident, "Assault on the Liberty," by former Lt. James M. Ennes Jr., a member of the ship's crew.

The book described the incident in detail, but didn't mention Spicher, who was the Liberty's postal clerk. Sharon suggested to her husband that they talk to the author to see if he could provide more details.

One thing led to another and the young family was invited to the 20th anniversary reunion of the Liberty's crew.

It was the beginning of a relationship that changed the Spichers' lives.

When Sharon found herself pregnant, she asked her new friends from the Liberty if they'd mind if she named her daughter after the ship. The former crew members loved the idea.

Since then, the family has been become actively involved in the Liberty Veterans Association.

Liberty Spicher has participated in memorial services at Arlington National Cemetery, where six of the Liberty's crew members are buried in a common grave. Last year, Liberty read the Pledge of Peace at Arlington during a remembrance ceremony sponsored by No Greater Love, an organization that honors veterans and offers support to their survivors.

The Liberty veterans have also taken the Spicher family under their collective wing. Joe and Colleen Lentini have become stand-in grandparents to the Spicher children, who call them Grandpa Joe and Grandma Colleen.

And when Frank Jr. had an opportunity to attend a writing course at the Johns Hopkins University this summer, the Liberty veterans pitched in to help pay expenses.

In that mysterious accounting of the heart where an act of kindness is repaid by generosity to others, the Spichers continue to serve those who have been touched by tragedy.

When four journalists were killed at the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last month, Carmella LaSpada, founder of No Greater Love, called the Spichers and asked if the family would participate in a brief ceremony at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Liberty and Sean went to the embassy on May 15 to present two wreaths to the families of the four journalists who died, as their grandfather John Spicher had, from "friendly fire."

The wreaths of white chrysanthemums included the word "Peace," written in Chinese and English, along with photographs of the fallen.

The children presented these with their condolences. And they asked that the wreaths be sent to the journalists' families in China.

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