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A Daughter Discovers What Really Happened

At last, the Internet reveals how Al Palya died. Why had it been kept secret? Because the government wanted the legal right to be more secretive.

April 19, 2004|Barry Siegel | Times Staff Writer

There were days, growing up in her family's New Jersey home, when the attic beckoned to Judy Palya Loether.

That's where her mother had stored every mention of Judy's late father. Elizabeth Palya had no time for grieving or falling apart after her husband died in 1948. She remarried three years later, and after that didn't even leave photos around the house. She didn't talk much about Judy's father, either. Once on Veterans Day, Judy asked whether her dad was a veteran.

"In a way," her mom said.

Judy knew only that Al Palya had died in the crash of an Air Force B-29 in Waycross, Ga. She knew there'd been a lawsuit and thought they'd won. She carried deep pride about her father, a vision of a fabulous person. Whenever people did talk about him, they went on about his genius, his enthusiasm, how he was a great musician, a carpenter, a photographer.

Judy's family still lived in Haddon Heights. Her stepfather, William Sacker, was a butcher. Her mom taught home economics and carried herself with a brave grace that drew admiration from all who knew her. They had a Dutch Colonial house on a quiet street with a big backyard. Upstairs in the detached garage, Judy's brothers, six and ten years older, made booby-trapped forts while she practiced birdcalls -- oy-oh-oit -- with the boy next door. In those days, Judy didn't know what she was missing, not having her father. There was always a daddy in the house, after all. She wasn't aware of loss.

Yet one of Judy's childhood friends sensed something. Susan White felt there was an "elephant in the closet" at Judy's house. She believed that the elephant was Judy's father. One afternoon, she and Judy visited the attic. Only with great reluctance did Judy point out her father's things.

In time, the family moved to Cherry Hill, N.J. Judy's mom and stepfather now had their own daughter. Judy became aware that this new sister, six years younger, had a different last name. Later, she came to feel that in her stepdad's eyes, she and her two brothers weren't the same as his own daughter. How hard is it, she wondered, at least to pretend you love your kids equally?

At 20, Judy married a computer specialist and left for Illinois, then Spain, then Massachusetts. In 1975, when she was 27, she gave birth to her first son. Loving her own child brought to mind her father. She began to grasp what she'd been missing.

Judy bore a second son. With her boys, she spent more and more time at her mother's house. They'd go in the summer and on vacations. During those stays, Judy often found herself climbing up to the attic. It was a cool, comfortable place to visit. One morning, she opened a trunk full of costumes and other neat stuff. By nature, she liked to put things in order, so she set to work.

Soon enough, she came across newspaper articles about her father. She read them all. She also looked through her dad's notebooks, which were full of arcane diagrams, computations and terms. She found most of them incomprehensible. Shoran. Rheostat. Banshee. What did they signify? It depended on how much you wanted to figure out, Judy reasoned.

She knew so little then. She didn't know the courts had awarded her mother and two other widows compensation after government lawyers refused to turn over an accident report about the fatal B-29 crash. She didn't know the U.S. Supreme Court had reversed those judgments in 1953, after government lawyers declared that the accident report contained "military secrets" so sensitive not even judges should see them. She didn't know this Supreme Court ruling, U.S. vs. Reynolds, had formally established the government's "state secrets" privilege -- a privilege that a growing number of legal experts had come to believe was based on a falsehood.

Judy Palya Loether knew only that she'd lost her father when she was 7 weeks old. He was a mystery to her. Who would she be now if she'd had him, if she'd had a daddy who loved her and made her feel like his darling girl? Sifting through documents in her mother's attic, she sought connection to her father. It had not yet occurred to her to ask the Supreme Court to correct a decades-old error. She was trying only to find her own past.

On occasion, in that cool, quiet attic, she held up certain documents, the ones stamped "secret." That's what truly fascinated her: the word secret.

Government's 'Absolute Privilege'

To this day, U.S. vs. Reynolds represents the Supreme Court's only substantive examination of the state secrets privilege. Law professors consider Reynolds the judicial foundation of national security law.

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