AMES, Iowa – On Veterans Day, Iowa State University will honor Jerry Leroy Converse, a former student from Boone who died on the U.S.S. Liberty during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Iowa State will recognize Converse and four other former students who died in military service during the Gold Star Hall Ceremony, 3:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11, in the Memorial Union Great Hall. It is free and open to the public.
Former students are eligible for name placement in the Gold Star Hall — the war memorial in the university's Memorial Union — if they graduated from or attended Iowa State full time for one or more semesters, and died while in military service in a war zone. As names become known, they are added to the wall and the soldiers are remembered in the university's annual ceremony.
Iowa State has been able to memorialize Converse with help and materials from his brother Allan Converse, Gilbert, Arizona.
A life of great promise
Jerry Leroy Converse was born on June 11, 1943, in Puyallup, Washington, to Phyllis and Melvin Converse, a pipefitter in the shipyard. In 1954, the family moved to Cherokee — Converse was 11, brother Allan was 7 and twin sisters Mary and Martha were 1 year old. Growing up, the brothers were inseparable.
The family eventually moved to Boone, where they purchased businesses that needed fixing up. The children pitched in at a young age. The many projects gave Converse, who had an affinity for engineering and mechanical things, access to tools and equipment.
Converse did well in school. In high school, he discovered a love of music. He played the accordion and sang in choir and ensemble chorus. But when he finally got to study his true passion of engineering and mechanics in physics and electronics classes, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
After graduating from Boone High School in the spring of 1961, Converse attended Iowa State. By this time, he had grown quite tall, nearly 6 feet 7 inches. And, although he never played sports, the ISU basketball team desperately wanted him to join. The coach even made personal visits to the Converse household to try to recruit him – but he resisted.
Instead, Converse concentrated on his electrical engineering major. During that time, he and his brother ventured to the World Fairs in New York and Seattle. Seeing all the inventions and gadgets of the future inspired him in class and he thrived in his major.
Tall, color blind and intelligent
Not surprisingly, he wanted to fly. Converse approached the Air Force about signing up. In a series of tests, he discovered that he was color blind. And he was an inch too tall to fit in the cockpit of a plane. Denied by the Air Force, he signed up with a Navy recruiter to fly.
However, Navy testing revealed Converse's great aptitude for intelligence. After training, Converse started with a high security clearance, running a machine he told his brother “was like a typewriter with 5,000 keys.” Stationed in Maryland, he thrived in his assignment, listening to coded messages that he interpreted and passed on to intelligence in Washington, D.C.
While in Maryland, Converse became active in a church youth group and met his girlfriend. He told his brother Allan that he wanted to marry her, but his new assignment on the USS Liberty came with risk: The Liberty's sister ship, the USS Pueblo, recently had been captured and held hostage. The Liberty was a possible target, as well. He would wait to propose.
On Thursday, June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War between Israel and several Arab nations, the USS Liberty was positioned 14 miles from the Egyptian town of El Arish off the coast of Sinai. There she was attacked by Israeli fighter-bombers.
The initial attack killed several members of the crew, injured many more and left the ship riddled and burning. Fourteen minutes later, the Liberty was attacked by three Israeli torpedo boats that raked the ship with gunfire. The boats launched torpedoes and one hit the communications compartment of the Liberty — where Converse was located. He perished alongside all the other communications specialists onboard save one, three days before his 24th birthday. The attack resulted in 34 deaths and injured 174.