Analysis. The American military has always contended there was no military action on the night of the Ustica tragedy, which killed 81 Italian civilians. But an ex-sailor now says that’s not true.

U.S. sailor blows American cover about 1980 plane crash

“That night we launched fighter planes, fully armed. And, on their return to the ship, we noticed that they no longer had the ordinance they left with, a fact that could not be hidden from 5,000 men. Afterwards, Captain [James] Flatley informed us, on the ship’s speakers, that during our flight operations, two Libyan MiGs had headed us off in an aggressive formation and we had to push them back. That’s what they told us at the time, and for many years I believed it.”

This is one of the highlights of the interview conducted by Andrea Purgatori, which aired Wednesday night on La7, with a man referred to as B.S., a junior helmsman on board the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. The American sailor had on-deck duties on June 27, 1980, the night an Italian civilian plane with 81 people on board disappeared from radar screens, never reaching its destination in Palermo. The wreckage was discovered near the island of Ustica. Now, an officer has come forward to shed more light on what might have happened.

More than 37 years have passed since that night, and a criminal trial and several civil suits were conducted and concluded. While they did offer partial compensation to the family members of the victims, they never managed to deliver a final version of the facts: what really happened, who was involved, who is materially responsible for the deaths of 81 Italian citizens, and who covered up, hid, and concealed the truth. An investigation by the head prosecutor of Rome is still ongoing, but at a slow pace, in part because of the lack of witness testimonies.

But now we have B.S., a now-retired U.S. Navy man, who is breaking the silence, admitting in clear terms that he had been afraid to come forward until now. He is telling his version of events: the story of what he saw that day, of what was given to him as an explanation, and of how he connected the dots between several different events around that time, until the moment when he finally decided to come forward.

To get a full understanding of his testimony, we must return briefly to the context and to the days before the massacre.

During the Iranian hostage crisis, with the staff of the U.S. embassy in the hands of Khomeini’s followers, the strongman in Tripoli had managed to raise the ire of half the Western world and a quarter of the African coast against him. He was angry at Italy, which was hosting his enemies; France was angry at him for having taken away its influence in Chad; and he harbored hostility toward the Egyptians, who had accepted a kind of outside support by the American military, through an operation called Proud Phantom, that stationed a squadron of F-4 fighters, together with the support they required, at Cairo airport. This operation, as well as others, began with long-distance airborne transports from the U.S. and from German military bases on June 20, 1980.

The tension between Gaddafi and his opponents, primarily the Americans, was skyrocketing.

The Italians, as usual, were double-dealing. In the words of Andreotti, “we had an American wife and a Libyan mistress.” And Malta, at that time “occupied” by the Libyans and protected by the Soviets, was negotiating to find a protector from among the Western countries. It was in those days of conflict brewing just beneath the surface that the Ustica tragedy happened.

On June 27, a Friday, Itavia’s Bologna-Palermo flight took off from the capital of Emilia-Romagna after a long delay, accurately followed the route indicated to it by air traffic control, overflew Rome, and, right when it should have started its descent toward the arrival airport, all contact with it was lost.

The focus of the subsequent investigations has always been on this question: Were there any military exercises or operations happening in the sky around the DC-9, or on the sea below it, of which the airplane might have been an unintended victim?

This is the question to ask, for the simple reason that, after recovering the wreckage, no traces of an internal explosion were found, while the recovered black box did not indicate any structural causes for the crash of the plane.

The second reason is that all the parties concerned (to name them: the Italians, Americans and French) have always denied having any presence in that area at all. All of them.

We will omit the endless and at this point superfluous attempts at reconstructions of the events (especially for young people, who don’t know much about this story), and we will come to the third reason.

The junior helmsman on the Saratoga recalls that in late June, the aircraft carrier departed suddenly from the Bay of Naples to “go and provoke” Gaddafi, and that they sailed in none other than the area relevant to the Ustica investigation. This was a full-scale military operation. The Phantoms and other fighters took off from its mobile bridge and support aircraft were also sent up, all under the guidance of an airborne radar plane as well as the fighters’ own electronic eyes. And a few of the Phantoms returned “empty,” without the missiles they departed with. Some way off, but still present in the area, were a British ship and a French aircraft carrier.

This is the summary of B.S.’s story, and it contradicts the often-repeated official account.

The U.S. Navy and the Captain of the Port of Naples have always maintained that the Saratoga had remained at anchor from June 23 to July 25. Wedding photos with the Gulf of Naples in the background that were retrieved for the investigation phase of the first trial showed the silhouette of the aircraft carrier in the bay at 6:30 p.m. June 27 and 1 p.m. June 28. In the time in between that is unaccounted for, the facts narrated by B.S. fit in perfectly.

And there is more. There were frantic phone calls between civil and military air traffic controllers in the hours following the disappearance of the Itavia DC-9, which kept mentioning American Phantom aircraft and the urgent need to contact the U.S. embassy’s military attaché or U.S. officials at the military base at Sigonella. And it has been conclusively established that an American AWACS was flying that night.

Last but not least, there are the navigational logs of the Saratoga that have been tampered with, or rather entirely rewritten, by the same hand, in the first 24 hours after the accident. B.S. says such a thing is unthinkable: logs are simply not rewritten.

Except, of course, if there has been a cover-up.

We cannot jump to conclusions. But there is certainly enough material here for someone, either from the lead prosecutor’s office in Rome or from the government, to finally make a move, because the cover has been blown. Someone shot down that DC-9, or caused it to crash because of some (near-)collision.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!