by Jim Houck, Jr.
Loren “Curly” W. Kruen
E-6 U.S. Navy (Retired)
Loren was born to Lawrence W. and Clorence Kruen in a small town in Minnesota in the northeast corner named Edgerton, population approximately three thousand, a farming community. Curly grew up with two brothers, Donovan and Carroll “Buck”, and two sisters, Lois and June. Curly and his brother Donovan are the only surviving members of his family today. When he was about twelve years old, the family moved to Tracy, Minnesota where he attended Tracy Public High School. Curly, at twelve years old, went to work on a farm for his brother-in-law on breaks from school and holidays.
Curly graduated from Tracy Public High School in 1960 and soon after decided to join the military because he had a lot of family – uncles, brothers, etc., in the military. He was very proud of them and decided it was the future for him. Curly wanted it to be his choice and not the draft boards, he chose the Navy.
On July 20, 1960, he went to boot camp in San Diego, California at the recruit training center. He then went to Naval School in Pensacola, Florida. After graduating there, he was sent to Camtasia, Japan for another field school before they sent him to Guam where he was stationed at the Naval Communication Center for ten months. For some reason, he was transferred from Guam early to Okinawa, at Troy Station. While Curly was at Okinawa in 1963, they asked for volunteers for a detachment to go to Vietnam and he volunteered. He went to Vietnam and landed aboard the USS Hancock where he was stationed for three months. When the Hancock was rotated back to Hawaii, it was replaced by another carrier, the USS Midway. Curly was transferred back and was on the Hancock until March of 1964.
He then returned to Okinawa. He was debriefed and spent another six months there before being transferred to the Naval Communications Center in Washington D.C., a small base in the woods south of Andrews Air Force Base. Curly was there for two years after which he was sent to the USS Liberty, home ported in Norfolk, Virginia. The day after Curly reported there, they pulled out to sea. They were on a mission off the west coast of Africa, up and down, for almost six months, returned to Norfolk for a couple of weeks and then went back out again on another mission on the west coast of Africa. When they were on port call at Accra on the Ivory coast for one day making their rounds of the bars, the shore patrol came and got them and told them they had to get back to the ship immediately because they were pulling out.
The ship had received orders to head straight for the Mediterranean Sea. Curly didn’t know where they were headed, but he had a suspicion they were headed for the eastern Mediterranean where things were getting awfully hot between Israel and Egypt. That was during the Six-Day War where Israel, in Curly’s words “kicked the hell out of Egypt.” His suspicion was right, because they headed for the war zone.
The Liberty was a non-combatant ship and had no guns except four World War II .50-cal. machine guns. They were sent with no protection and no cover whatsoever. Just a couple of days off the Sinai Peninsula, they were attacked by air and sea by Israeli Forces, our ally. They were first attacked by air. The planes that attacked them were unmarked. At the time, they had no idea who was attacking them. They thought it was the Egyptians because Israel was an ally. The fact that there were no identifiable markings on the planes had them really puzzled.
The Liberty was hit from forward to aft with rockets and tandem fire, striking a bunch of men, including Curly, who had just assembled on the port side of the ship towards the fantail and were waiting to go on watch at 4 o’clock. They were just standing around smoking cigarettes like sailors tend to do and were missed by the tandem fire by about fifteen feet. As soon as they were hit, a message came over the intercom for general quarters battle stations. Curly said they all scrambled down below. Some of the guys on deck got hit by the tandem fire. The rockets hit the bridge and blew that apart and several guys were killed on the deck and bridge. Curly’s battle station was down in his work station and orders were that if he had to, he was to destroy all records. He and some other guys were demolishing all classified equipment and paper work. They were an intelligence-gathering ship, or in other words, a spy ship. Curly was down there for quite a while. He could hear the bullets from cannons and rocket fire and they were being hit left and right. All but one of their life rafts were destroyed and all of their communicating antennas were knocked out, so they couldn’t call for help. One of the radiomen managed to get out, fix one antenna, and was able to send an SOS to the rest of the fleet located next to Crete, hundreds of miles away from the Liberty and her crew. Curly said after the planes hit them, there were three Israeli torpedo boats that fired – what some guys said was five torpedoes, but Curly said he only knows of two of them. He said one went about twenty feet aft and missed the ship, but the other one hit them dead center in their working spaces where he was located. When that torpedo hit, it killed twenty-five of his buddies. They had been warned about bullets coming through the side of the ship, so they all made as small a target of themselves as they could. They were laying down on the deck of the compartment with their feet pointed to the outside the bulkhead of the ship. That way, if any bullets did hit them, it would hit their feet and not their head. Curly said no bullets hit them, but the torpedo did. The guy that laid next to him about a foot away, instantly disappeared – just blown away. Curly was blown up into the air. While he was in the air, he thought for quite a while about his fiancée because they had planned to be married the next time he pulled back in to Norfolk. He remembers thinking, or saying out loud, he doesn’t remember which, “I am so sorry, Judy.” That was the last he remembers. He lost consciousness, he doesn’t know for how long. When Curly came to, he was laying in salt water. Mediterranean Sea water was coming through the hole the torpedo made in the side of the ship. He remembered thinking “This is warm,” it was a hot day.
The ship was listing to the starboard side where the water came in and filled the compartments. Curly didn’t know what to do because he said his brains were scrambled. He lay there a few minutes, got up, and said, “I’ve got to get the heck out of here,” but he didn’t know what to do or where to go because the whole compartment was absolutely pitch black. He said he could have scratched his nose and never seen his hand. He sustained a concussion from the torpedo blast that made him temporarily deaf. He could hear nothing, but had pressure like you get at high altitude. Curly couldn’t see or hear, but over to his left was a very gray faint light that gave off no illumination, just a pale gray light. He figured that had to be the hole in the side where the water came in, so he stood up and headed towards that hole. He figured anything that could blow a hole like that could also blow away the deck. He could easily, at any time, just step off into space and he would be gone.
He headed toward that light, but he had to shuffle his feet instead of taking a step, so he would not step off into the hole. He had to slide his feet so he could feel where the edge of the hole would be. Curly was sliding along and kicked a body. He bent down to see if he could do anything to find out if he was alive or dead, but the body was under about three feet of water. When Curly reached down for him, there was no life response from him. Curly tried to pick him up, but he couldn’t because he thinks something was laying across him holding him down—or maybe he didn’t have the strength to lift him. Either way, there was no response from him and Curly knew he was dead. He had no idea who the sailor was, so he sat down for a couple of minutes next to him until he decided he had to do something to get the heck out of there, because if he stayed, he would die with him.
Curly got up again and headed for the pale light. The closer he got to it, his ears started to work again. He could hear shouting and he said, “Thank God, I’m not alone.” He said he heard a horrible sound, but to hear any sound at that time Curly said was Heaven. He saw other guys standing at the ladder. There was only one ladder to get up out of that hole to the upper deck. For some reason, the ladder didn’t come down. If it would have, he would not have survived. Curly could have dived out through that hole in the side. He found out later that if he had, he would probably have been shot.
The torpedo boats were circling the ship and shooting at anyone showing themselves in any way. He got lucky by staying inside the ship. His comrades opened the hatch above them and they started to climb out. They had a bunch of injured that had to be taken care of, and they managed to get them all out. Curly and the crew took the injured to the mess deck which was turned into a medical station. He said they carried quite a few of the wounded with arms missing and torsos torn open. They turned them over to the medics. They only had one doctor and a couple of corpsmen. There were some guys that weren’t wounded that helped and they laid the wounded out on tables on the mess deck and the medics took over from there.
Curly said thirty-four men were killed and one hundred and seventy-one wounded, including himself. The total number of able-bodied men aboard before the strike was two hundred and ninety. The count after the strike was eighty-five able-bodied men.
Curly said the heck with it he was going up on deck and help with what he could because there was so much to do. He joined a working party that went around and picked up the bodies of the nine men that were killed on deck. Curly said he knew he had been hit in the back but he couldn’t see it, so he went ahead and joined the party picking up bodies. They picked up two of his buddies’ bodies at the forward machine gun mounts. They wrapped them up and put them in the line locker where they keep all the ships mooring lines and laid them out on the lines. Curly said he was ashamed to say he had to quit because his back was killing him, plus he had broken bones in his right foot. When he quit, he was going to go down to the mess deck and turn himself in to the medics. He had to stop and lean over the rail of the ship to ease the pain in his back. A chief petty officer came over. He was going to talk to Curly, but when he saw the blood on the back of his shirt and pants the Chief said, “Buddy, you are coming with me now.” He took Curly down to the mess decks and turned him over to the medics. They put him on the table. By that time, there had been so many seriously injured, they were running out of all medications. The only things the medic could do was put a battle dressing on Curly’s back and give him two aspirins. The Chief that brought him down got a Navy coffee cup, which is about a half a cup larger than a kitchen or restaurant cup, and filled it with whiskey. No one is supposed to have whiskey aboard ship, but he put just enough coffee in it to give it color to look like coffee. The chief gave it to Curly and told him not to tell anyone where it came from. Curly made the Chief a promise he keeps to this day; he said until he dies, he’ll never give the Chief’s name. He said he feels that cup of whiskey did more for him than all the pain killers they would normally have had, could have done for him. He said that was the best cup of coffee he has ever had in his life.
They had no protection during the whole time they were there and no help from anybody. They went through that night scared that at any time they could be attacked again or a bulkhead could buckle under the water pressure. If that would have happened, the ship would have gone down with them all aboard. They had watches out for any approaching aircraft or boats or anything else. Watches were also set to continuously check for water leaks and any bulkhead that may be buckling under that pressure. Since only a third of the crew was left that could do anything, and that’s not many men, Curly said he thinks they had some help from above because no planes came and no bulkheads buckled until the next morning.
Eighteen hours later they joined with four other ships. The America, being a medical ship, sent over some supplies and personnel by helicopter. The Davis tied up alongside of them and sent over a whole bunch of medical personnel, engineers, damage control people, and electricians – Curly said, “You name it, they sent it over. They took over the ship, except for command of it. They took over everything that needed to be done. They sent over stretchers and crutches and everything.” They started to take the critically injured patients above deck. The most seriously injured went first. By the time they got to Curly, there were no stretchers left. They gave him a pair of crutches. He went over next to the ladder ready to climb up on deck and he saw this other sailor who had a mangled leg. He didn’t have a crutch. The sailor was being helped by a friend of his and he was having a pretty hard time of it. Curly gave him one of his and fell in behind him. Between Curly and the sailor’s friend, they got him up on deck. When they got up on deck the sailor wanted to give Curly his crutch back, but he wouldn’t take it back. Curly said the grateful look on the sailor’s face got him right in the heart. Curly said he didn’t know him because he was from a different division on the ship and he went off to where his people were gathered on the ship.
Curly went up forward to the ship by himself with one crutch to be air lifted aboard a chopper for transport to the carrier USS America. Once aboard, the America crew took them in hand and helped them down into their hospital. They were a great bunch of guys and really did a good job, according to Curly. When they got down in their hospital they had to go through triage which is a process for sorting injured people into groups based on their need for medical attention. Curly went through triage. He waited two days before they got to him, because the doctors were working twenty-four hours a day in the operating rooms since there were that many wounded. By the time they got to Curly, they took him in, fixed his foot, and then performed surgery on his back. They dug shrapnel out of his spine and when they did, they made a hole too big to close. So, he was walking around with an open hole in his back. Curly was there for two weeks and then they put him in a helicopter and he left the USS America for Naples, Italy to a Naval Hospital where they did surgery again. This time, they closed the hole in his back. He was there a week when he was transferred to Frankfort, Germany to an Army Hospital for another week. There, he just lay around and healed.
Curly then flew by military plane from Rhein-Main Air Base back to the United States and landed at Andrews Air Force Base. It was a full plane-load and the wounded were sent all over America to different hospitals. Curly, being engaged to be married, chose Washington, D.C. He was sent to the Navy Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland. He said he thought that was great because that’s where the President went, and if it was good enough for the President of the USA, it was good enough for Curly. While he was there, the stitches were removed from his back. He spent a month going through therapy.
On August 10, 1967, three days after being discharged from the hospital, he was married. Curly’s new bride was Judith Lee who was a descendant of General Robert E. Lee. He was then transferred to Norfolk, Virginia to the naval Communications Station. He was given three medals: Combat Action, Purple Heart, and the Presidential Unit Citation. Curly was at Norfolk for a year, then transferred to Rhoda Naval Base in Spain. While there, he was awarded the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation “That ended the Liberty incident,” Curly said. He remained in Rhoda, Spain for four years. Curly was sent there for three years, but at the end of three years, the Navy ran out of money, so they delayed all transfers for another year. He lived there in a Spanish town for four years and said they had a ball and loved it there.
Curly was then transferred to Turks Island in the British West Indies, just off Florida, and he was on isolated duty there for a year. His family couldn’t go with him. He and Judy bought a house in Lanham, Maryland and his family stayed there. Curly was then transferred to Bermuda for a year. He said he hated that place. It was no place for him. He said it was beautiful, but duty there was bad.
Curly was next transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Independence for two years. He loved it. They made several cruises; one was in the middle of winter. They went up the North Atlantic and across the Arctic Circle to see if they could hold flight ops, war games, in those conditions. They went to Northern Norway. Curly said it was rough up there. For an aircraft carrier, they were bobbing around like corks. They couldn’t run flight ops, but they chipped tons and tons of ice off the flight deck; otherwise, it would have gotten too heavy and they wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Curly said, “Cold! My gosh, whoever said salt water doesn’t freeze should go up there in the middle of winter.” He said when you cross the Arctic Circle you become a blue nose. They finished their flight ops there and then pulled into Portsmouth, England for down time. Two years later, Curly came back to the states again and was stationed at the Naval Communications Station at Annapolis, just across the water from the Naval Academy. After two years there, he was again transferred to another ship, the USS Guam, a landing platform for helicopters. While Curly was on there, he was part of a Master of Arms Force. He said it’s like a police department in town. He spent a year on the USS Guam. He retired May 30, 1980, and the ship was in dry dock at the time at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.
That completed twenty years of service for Curly. He went back to his home in Lanham, Maryland to be with his wife, Judy. He went to work in D.C. for Press Releases Wire, a news wire service where he was a wire chief for six years. Curly and the family moved from Lanham to Thurmont in 1986. He has two sons, Tom and Ed, a daughter Darlene, three grandsons and two granddaughters. His oldest boy, Tom, lives in Smithsburg, Maryland, His second son is Ed who lives in Flugerville, Texas and his youngest, Darlene, lives in Taneytown, Maryland. Tom has three children, one son and two daughters, Ed has one son, Corey, and Darlene has a son, Joshua. Curly said he worked for so many years behind closed doors in the intelligence field, it was a breath of fresh air to be able to drive a truck over the road and see the sunshine. He drove for several different companies since moving to Thurmont in 1986: Bowers Lumber, J&R Transports, Delauter Construction Company and Home Run, hauling oversized loads. After twelve years, he retired. Curly’s wife, Judith, had a heart attack and needed care. He took leave, turned sixty-two, then quit any jobs. He retired. For eight years, he was his wife’s care-giver. Curly lost her two and a half years ago. Since then he’s been on his own. He told me that he has never told his story to anyone, even his family, and that I am the first to hear it. He said he felt it was time for his children to hear the story and reading it would be a good way. He had to stop several times while telling his story to me and I can understand why. It was getting to me emotionally and I didn’t live it. I only heard it from Curly.
I know that Curly is the true definition of Hero. When you see him, shake his hand and thank him for sacrificing so much to serve our country.
I am so proud to have met and talked with Curly. Thank you and may God Bless you, Curly.