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Sat Jun 8, 2019, 07:37 AM

52 Years Ago Today; Attack on USS Liberty


Damaged USS Liberty one day (9 June 1967) after attack

The USS Liberty incident was an attack on a United States Navy technical research ship, USS Liberty, by Israeli Air Force jet fighter aircraft and Israeli Navy motor torpedo boats, on 8 June 1967, during the Six-Day War. The combined air and sea attack killed 34 crew members (naval officers, seamen, two marines, and one civilian), wounded 171 crew members, and severely damaged the ship. At the time, the ship was in international waters north of the Sinai Peninsula, about 25.5 nmi (29.3 mi; 47.2 km) northwest from the Egyptian city of Arish.

Israel apologized for the attack, saying that the USS Liberty had been attacked in error after being mistaken for an Egyptian ship. Both the Israeli and U.S. governments conducted inquiries and issued reports that concluded the attack was a mistake due to Israeli confusion about the ship's identity. Others, including survivors of the attack, have rejected these conclusions and maintain that the attack was deliberate.

In May 1968, the Israeli government paid US$3.32 million (equivalent to US$23.9 million in 2018) to the U.S. government in compensation for the families of the 34 men killed in the attack. In March 1969, Israel paid a further $3.57 million ($24.4 million in 2018) to the men who had been wounded. In December 1980, it agreed to pay $6 million ($18.2 million in 2018) as the final settlement for material damage to Liberty itself plus 13 years of interest.


Attack on the Liberty
Events leading to the attack

During the Six-Day War between Israel and several Arab nations, the United States of America maintained a neutral country status. Several days before the war began, the USS Liberty was ordered to proceed to the eastern Mediterranean area to perform a signals intelligence collection mission in international waters near the north coast of Sinai, Egypt. After the war erupted, due to concerns about its safety as it approached its patrol area, several messages were sent to Liberty to increase its allowable closest point of approach (CPA) to Egypt's and Israel's coasts from 12.5 and 6.5 nautical miles (14.4 and 7.5 mi; 23.2 and 12.0 km), respectively, to 20 and 15 nautical miles (23 and 17 mi; 37 and 28 km), and then later to 100 nautical miles (120 mi; 190 km) for both countries. Unfortunately, due to ineffective message handling and routing, these messages were not received until after the attack.

According to Israeli sources, at the start of the war on 5 June, General Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Air Force (IAF) chief of staff informed Commander Ernest Carl Castle, the American naval attaché in Tel Aviv, that Israel would defend its coast with every means at its disposal, including sinking unidentified ships. He asked the U.S. to keep its ships away from Israel's shore or at least inform Israel of their exact positions.

American sources said that no inquiry about ships in the area was made until after the attack on Liberty. In a message sent from U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk to U.S. Ambassador Walworth Barbour in Tel Aviv, Israel, Rusk asked for "urgent confirmation" of Israel's statement. Barbour responded: "No request for info on U.S. ships operating off Sinai was made until after Liberty incident." Further, Barbour stated: "Had Israelis made such an inquiry it would have been forwarded immediately to the chief of naval operations and other high naval commands and repeated to dept [Department of State]."

With the outbreak of war, Captain William L. McGonagle of Liberty immediately asked Vice Admiral William I. Martin at the United States Sixth Fleet headquarters to send a destroyer to accompany Liberty and serve as its armed escort and as an auxiliary communications center. The following day, Admiral Martin replied: "Liberty is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation. Request denied." He promised, however, that in the unlikely event of an inadvertent attack, jet fighters from the Sixth Fleet would be overhead in ten minutes.

Meanwhile, on 6 June, at the United Nations, in response to United Arab Republic complaints that the United States was supporting Israel in the conflict, U.S. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg told the Security Council that vessels of the Sixth Fleet were several hundred miles from the conflict. When the statement was made this was the case, since Liberty, now assigned to the Sixth Fleet, was in the central Mediterranean Sea, passing between Libya and Crete. It would ultimately steam to about 13 nmi (15 mi; 24 km) north of the Sinai Peninsula.

On the night of 7 June Washington time, early morning on 8 June, 01:10Z or 3:10 am local time, the Pentagon issued an order to Sixth Fleet headquarters to tell Liberty to come no closer than 100 nautical miles (120 mi; 190 km) to Israel, Syria, or the Sinai coast. According to the Naval Court of Inquiry and the National Security Agency official history, the order to withdraw was not sent on the radio frequency that Liberty monitored for her orders until 15:25 Zulu, several hours after the attack, due to a long series of administrative and message routing problems. The Navy said a large volume of unrelated high-precedence traffic, including intelligence intercepts related to the conflict, were being handled at the time; and that this combined with a shortage of qualified radiomen contributed to the delayed transmission of the withdrawal message.

Visual contact
Official testimony combined with Liberty 's deck log establish that throughout the morning of the attack, 8 June, the ship was overflown, at various times and locations, by IAF aircraft. The primary aircraft type was the Nord Noratlas; there were also two unidentified delta-wing jets at about 9:00 am Sinai time (GMT+2). Liberty crewmembers say that one of the Noratlas aircraft flew so close to Liberty that noise from its propellers rattled the ship's deck plating, and that the pilots and crewmembers waved to each other. It was later reported, based on information from IDF sources, that the over-flights were coincidental, and that the aircraft were hunting for Egyptian submarines that had been spotted near the coast.

At about 5:45 am Sinai time, a ship-sighting report was received at Israeli Central Coastal Command (CCC) in respect of Liberty, identified by an aerial naval observer as "apparently a destroyer, sailing 70 miles [110 km] west of Gaza". The vessel's location was marked on a CCC control table, using a red marker, indicating an unidentified vessel. At about 6:00 am, the aerial naval observer, Major Uri Meretz, reported that the ship appeared to be a U.S. Navy supply ship; at about 9:00 am the red marker was replaced with a green marker to indicate a neutral vessel. About the same time, an Israeli jet fighter pilot reported that a ship 20 miles (32 km) north of Arish had fired at his aircraft after he tried to identify the vessel. Israeli naval command dispatched two destroyers to investigate, but they were returned to their previous positions at 9:40 am after doubts emerged during the pilot's debriefing. After the naval observer's Noratlas landed and he was debriefed, the ship he saw was further identified as the USS Liberty, based on its "GTR-5" hull markings. USS Liberty's marker was removed from CCC's Control Table at 11:00 am, due to its positional information being considered out of date.

At 11:24 am, the Israeli chief of naval operations received a report that Arish was being shelled from the sea. An inquiry into the source of the report was ordered to determine its validity. The report came from an air support officer in Arish. Additionally, at 11:27 am the Israeli Supreme Command head of operations received a report stating that a ship had been shelling Arish, but the shells had fallen short. (The investigative journalist James Bamford points out that Liberty had only four .50 caliber machine guns mounted on her decks and, thus, could not have shelled the coast. ) The Head of Operations ordered that the report be verified, and that it be determined whether or not Israeli Navy vessels were off the coast of Arish. At 11:45 am, another report arrived at Supreme Command saying two ships were approaching the Arish coast.

Israeli Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) in formation, c. 1967. These were the MTBs that attacked USS Liberty.

The shelling and ship reports were passed from Supreme Command to Fleet Operations control center. The Chief of Naval Operations took them seriously, and at 12:05 pm torpedo boat Division 914 was ordered to patrol in the direction of Arish. Division 914, codenamed "Pagoda", was under the command of Commander Moshe Oren. It consisted of three torpedo boats numbered: T-203, T-204 and T-206. At 12:15 pm, Division 914 received orders to patrol a position 20 miles (32 km) north of Arish. As Commander Oren headed toward Arish, he was informed by Naval Operations of the reported shelling of Arish and told that IAF aircraft would be dispatched to the area after the target had been detected. Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin was concerned that the supposed Egyptian shelling was the prelude to an amphibious landing that could outflank Israeli forces. Rabin reiterated the standing order to sink any unidentified ships in the area, but advised caution, as Soviet vessels were reportedly operating nearby.

At 1:41 pm, the torpedo boats detected an unknown vessel 20 miles northwest of Arish and 14 miles (23 km) off the coast of Bardawil. The ship's speed was estimated on their radars. The combat information center officer on T-204, Ensign Aharon Yifrah, reported to the boat's captain, Commander Moshe Oren, that the target had been detected at a range of 22 miles (35 km), that her speed had been tracked for a few minutes, after which he had determined that the target was moving westward at a speed of 30 knots (56 km/h; 35 mph). These data were forwarded to the Fleet Operations control center.

The speed of the target was significant because it indicated that the target was a combat vessel. Moreover, Israeli forces had standing orders to fire on any unknown vessels sailing in the area at over 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph), a speed which, at the time, could only be attained by warships. The Chief of Naval Operations asked the torpedo boats to double-check their calculations. Yifrah twice recalculated and confirmed his assessment. A few minutes later, Commander Oren reported that the target, now 17 miles (27 km) from his position, was moving at a speed of 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph) on a different heading. Bamford, however, points out that Liberty's top speed was far below 28 knots. His sources say that at the time of the attack Liberty was following her signal-intercept mission course along the northern Sinai coast, at about 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) speed.

The data on the ship's speed, together with its direction, gave the impression that it was an Egyptian destroyer fleeing toward port after shelling Arish. The torpedo boats gave chase, but did not expect to overtake their target before it reached Egypt. Commander Oren requested that the Israeli Air Force dispatch aircraft to intercept. At 1:48 pm, the Chief of Naval Operations requested dispatch of fighter aircraft to the ship's location.

The IAF dispatched two Mirage III fighter jets that arrived at Liberty at about 2:00 pm. The formation leader, Captain Iftach Spector, attempted to identify the ship. He radioed to one of the torpedo boats his observation that the ship looked like a military ship with one smokestack and one mast. He also communicated, in effect, that the ship appeared to him like a destroyer or another type of small ship. In a post-attack statement, the pilots said they saw no distinguishable markings or flag on the ship.

At this point, a recorded exchange took place between a command headquarters weapons systems officer, one of the air controllers, and the chief air controller questioning a possible American presence. Immediately after the exchange, at 1:57 pm, the chief air controller, Lieutenant-Colonel Shmuel Kislev, cleared the Mirages to attack.

Air and sea attacks
After being cleared to attack, the Mirages dove on the ship and attacked with 30-mm cannons and rockets. The attack came a few minutes after the crew completed a chemical attack drill, with Captain McGonagle on the command bridge. The crew was in "stand-down mode", with their helmets and life jackets removed. Battle readiness "modified condition three" was set, which meant that the ship's four .50 caliber machine guns were manned and ammunition was ready for loading and firing. Eight crewmen were either killed immediately or received fatal injuries and died later, and 75 were wounded. Among the wounded was McGonagle, who was hit in the right thigh and arm. During the attack, antennas were severed, gas drums caught fire, and the ship's flag was knocked down. McGonagle sent an urgent request for help to the Sixth Fleet, "Under attack by unidentified jet aircraft, require immediate assistance".

The Mirages left after expending their ammunition, and were replaced by two Dassault Mysteres armed with napalm bombs, flown by Captain Yossi Zuk and his wingman, Yaakov Hamermish. The Mysteres released their payloads over the ship and strafed it with their cannons. Much of the ship's superstructure caught fire. The Mysteres were readying to attack again when the Israeli Navy, alerted by the absence of return fire, warned Kislev that the target could be Israeli. Kislev told the pilots not to attack if there was any doubt about identification, and the Israeli Navy quickly contacted all of its vessels in the area. The Israeli Navy found that none of its vessels were under fire, and the aircraft were cleared to attack. However, Kislev was still disturbed by a lack of return fire and requested one last attempt to identify the ship. Captain Zuk made an attempt at identification while strafing the ship. He reported seeing no flag, but saw the ship's GTR-5 marking. Kislev immediately ordered the attack stopped. Kislev guessed that the ship was American.

The fact that the ship had Latin alphabet markings led Chief of Staff Rabin to fear that the ship was Soviet. Though Egyptian warships were known to disguise their identities with Western markings, they usually displayed Arabic letters and numbers only. Rabin ordered the torpedo boats to remain at a safe distance from the ship, and sent in two Hornet (Aérospatiale Super Frelon) helicopters to search for survivors. These radio communications were recorded by Israel. The order was also recorded in the torpedo boat's log, although Commander Oren claimed not to have received it. The order to cease fire was given at 2:20 pm, twenty-four minutes before the torpedo boats arrived at the Liberty's position.

During the interval, crewmen aboard Liberty hoisted a large American flag. During the early part of the air attack and before the torpedo boats were sighted, Liberty sent a distress message that was received by Sixth Fleet aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. Aircraft carrier USS America dispatched eight aircraft. The carrier had been in the middle of strategic exercises. Vice-Admiral William I. Martin recalled the aircraft minutes later.

McGonagle testified at the naval court of inquiry that during
the latter moments of the air attack, it was noted that three high speed boats were approaching the ship from the northeast on a relative bearing of approximately 135 [degrees] at a distance of about 15 [nautical] miles. The ship at the time was still on [westward] course 283 [degrees] true, speed unknown, but believed to be in excess of five knots.

McGonagle testified that he "believed that the time of initial sighting of the torpedo boats ... was about 14:20", and that the "boats appeared to be in a wedge type formation with the center boat the lead point of the wedge. Estimated speed of the boats was about 27 to 30 knots [50 to 56 km/h]", and that it "appeared that they were approaching the ship in a torpedo launch attitude".

When the torpedo boats arrived, Commander Oren could see that the ship could not be the destroyer that had supposedly shelled Arish or any ship capable of 30 knots (56 km/h) speed. According to Michael Limor, an Israeli naval reservist serving on one of the torpedo boats, they attempted to contact the ship by heliograph and radio, but received no response. At 6,000 meters (20,000 ft), T-204 paused and signalled "AA", which means "identify yourself".[citation needed] Due to damaged equipment, McGonagle could only reply using a handheld Aldis lamp.[citation needed] Oren recalled receiving a similar response from the Ibrahim el Awal, an Egyptian destroyer captured by Israel during the Suez Crisis, and was convinced that he was facing an enemy ship.[citation needed] He consulted an Israeli identification guide to Arab fleets and concluded the ship was the Egyptian supply ship El Quseir, based on observing its deckline, midship bridge and smokestack. The captain of boat T-203 reached the same conclusion independently. The boats moved into battle formation, but did not attack.

Liberty turns to evade Israeli torpedo boats

As the torpedo boats rapidly approached, Captain McGonagle ordered a sailor to proceed to machine gun Mount 51 and open fire. However, he then noticed that the boats appeared to be flying an Israeli flag, and "realized that there was a possibility of the aircraft having been Israeli and the attack had been conducted in error". Captain McGonagle ordered the man at gun mount 51 to hold fire, but a short burst was fired at the torpedo boats before the man understood the order.

McGonagle observed that machine gun Mount 53 began firing at the center torpedo boat at about the same time gun mount 51 fired, and that its fire was "extremely effective and blanketed the area and the center torpedo boat". Machine gun mount 53 was located on the starboard amidships side, behind the pilot house. McGonagle could not see or "get to mount 53 from the starboard wing of the bridge". So, he "sent Mr. Lucas around the port side of the bridge, around to the skylights, to see if he could tell [Seaman] Quintero, whom [he] believed to be the gunner on Machine gun 53, to hold fire". Ensign Lucas "reported back in a few minutes in effect that he saw no one at mount 53". Lucas, who had left the command bridge during the air attack and returned to assist Captain McGonagle, believed that the sound of gunfire was likely from ammunition cooking off, due to a nearby fire. Previously, Lucas had granted a request from Quintero to fire at the torpedo boats, before heat from a nearby fire chased him from gun mount. McGonagle later testified, at the Court of Inquiry, that this was likely the "extremely effective" firing event he had observed.

After coming under fire, the torpedo boats returned fire with their cannons, killing Liberty's helmsman. The torpedo boats then launched five torpedoes at the Liberty. At 1235Z (2:35 local time) a torpedo hit Liberty on the starboard side forward of the superstructure, creating a 40 ft (12 m) wide hole in what had been a cargo hold converted to the ship's research spaces and killing 25 servicemen, almost all of them from the intelligence section, and wounding dozens. It has been said the torpedo hit a major hull frame that absorbed much of the energy; crew members reported that if the torpedo had missed the frame the Liberty would have split in two. The other four torpedoes missed the ship.

The torpedo boats then closed in and strafed the ship's hull with their cannons and machine guns.[citation needed] According to some crewmen, the torpedo boats fired at damage control parties and sailors preparing life rafts for launch. (See disputed details below.) A life raft which floated from the ship was picked up by T-203 and found to bear US Navy markings. T-204 then circled Liberty, and Oren spotted the designation GTR-5, but saw no flag.[citation needed] It took until 3:30 pm to establish the ship's identity. Shortly before the Liberty's identity was confirmed, the Saratoga launched eight aircraft armed with conventional weapons towards Liberty. After the ship's identity was confirmed, the General Staff was notified and an apology was sent to naval attaché Castle. The aircraft approaching Liberty were recalled to the Saratoga.

Aftermath of the attack

The 6th Fleet flagship, USS Little Rock standing by Liberty

USS LIBERTY Memorial Arlington National Cemetery

According to transcripts of intercepted radio communications, published by the U.S. National Security Agency, at about 2:30 pm, near the beginning of the torpedo boat attack, two IAF helicopters were dispatched to Liberty's location. The helicopters arrived at about 3:10 pm, about 35 minutes after the torpedo hit the ship. After arriving, one of the helicopter pilots was asked by his ground-based controller to verify that the ship was flying an American flag. The helicopters conducted a brief search for crew members of the ship who may have fallen overboard during the air attack. No one was found. The helicopters left the ship at about 3:20 pm.

At about 4 pm, two hours after the attack began, Israel informed the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv that its military forces had mistakenly attacked a U.S. Navy ship. When the ship was "confirmed to be American" the torpedo boats returned at about 4:40 pm to offer help; it was refused by the Liberty. Later, Israel provided a helicopter to fly U.S. naval attaché Commander Castle to the ship.

In Washington, President Lyndon B. Johnson had received word from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Liberty had been torpedoed by an unknown vessel at 9:50 am eastern time. Johnson assumed that the Soviets were involved, and hotlined Moscow with news of the attack and the dispatch of jets from Saratoga. He chose not to make any public statements and delegated this task to Phil G. Goulding, who was an assistant secretary of defense for public affairs at the time. Soon afterward, the Israelis said that they had mistakenly attacked the ship. The Johnson administration conveyed "strong dismay" to Israeli ambassador Avraham Harman. Meanwhile, apologies were soon sent by Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Foreign Minister Abba Eban, and chargé d'affaires Efraim Evron. Within 48 hours, Israel offered to compensate the victims and their families.

Though Liberty was severely damaged, with a 39 ft wide by 24 ft high (12 m × 7.3 m) hole and a twisted keel, her crew kept her afloat, and she was able to leave the area under her own power. Liberty was later met by the destroyers USS Davis and USS Massey, and the cruiser USS Little Rock. Medical personnel were transferred to Liberty, and she was escorted to Malta, where she was given interim repairs. After these were completed in July 1967, Liberty returned to the U.S. She was decommissioned in June 1968 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register. Liberty was transferred to the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) in December 1970 and sold for scrap in 1973.

From the start, the response to Israeli statements of mistaken identity ranged between frank disbelief to unquestioning acceptance within the administration in Washington. A communication to the Israeli ambassador on 10 June, by Secretary Rusk stated, among other things:

At the time of the attack, the USS Liberty was flying the American flag and its identification was clearly indicated in large white letters and numerals on its hull. ... Experience demonstrates that both the flag and the identification number of the vessel were readily visible from the air ... Accordingly, there is every reason to believe that the USS Liberty was identified, or at least her nationality determined, by Israeli aircraft approximately one hour before the attack. ... The subsequent attack by the torpedo boats, substantially after the vessel was or should have been identified by Israeli military forces, manifests the same reckless disregard for human life.

George Lenczowski notes: "It was significant that, in contrast to his secretary of state, President Johnson fully accepted the Israeli version of the tragic incident." He notes that Johnson himself only included one small paragraph about the Liberty in his autobiography, in which he accepted the Israeli explanation, minimized the affair and distorted the number of dead and wounded, by lowering them from 34 to 10 and 171 to 100, respectively. Lenczowski further states: "It seems Johnson was more interested in avoiding a possible confrontation with the Soviet Union, ... than in restraining Israel."

McGonagle received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. medal, for his actions. The Medal of Honor is generally presented by the president of the United States in the White House, but this time it was awarded at the Washington Navy Yard by the Secretary of the Navy in an unpublicized ceremony. Other Liberty sailors received decorations for their actions during and after the attack, but most of the award citations omitted mention of Israel as the perpetrator. In 2009, however, a Silver Star was awarded to crewmember Terry Halbardier, who braved machine-gun and cannon fire to repair a damaged antenna that restored the ship's communication; in his award citation Israel was named as the attacker.


Details in dispute

Many of the events surrounding the attack are the subject of controversy:

Visibility of American flag: The official Israeli reports say that the reconnaissance and fighter aircraft pilots, and the torpedo boat captains did not see any flag on the Liberty. Official American reports say that the Liberty was flying her American flag before, during and after the attack; the only exception being a brief period in which one flag had been shot down and was replaced with a larger flag. The helicopters sent to the attack site to provide assistance after the air attack noticed an American flag flying from the ship almost immediately upon their arrival at the attack site and informed their controller.

U.S. crewmen's perceptions of intent: Surviving crewmembers of the Liberty say that Israel's attack on the ship was "deliberate" and with full knowledge that the vessel was American. Israeli investigation and history reports agree that the attack was deliberate—but against what they believed was an Egyptian vessel.

Distinctiveness of USS Liberty's appearance: It is disputed whether the Liberty would have been immediately recognizable as a different vessel from the Egyptian ship El Quseir. Admiral Tom Moorer stated that the Liberty was the most identifiable ship in the U.S. Navy and in an interview with the Washington Post stated that it was "ridiculous" to suggest that it would not be identified as such.
Israel states in its inquiry and history reports that the identification as the El Quseir was made by the torpedo boats while the Liberty was enveloped in smoke and was based on "The Red Book", a guide to Arab fleets that did not include U.S. vessels.

Identification markings: Liberty bore an eight-foot-high "5" and a four-foot-high "GTR" along either bow, clearly indicating her hull (or "pennant" ) number (AGTR-5), and had 18-inch (460 mm)-high letters spelling the vessel's name across her stern. These markings were not cursive Arabic script but in the Latin alphabet. Israeli pilots initially said they were primarily concerned with ensuring the ship was not an Israeli warship and that they ended the air attack when they noticed the Latin alphabet markings.

Ship's identification known during attack: A James Bamford book published in 2001 said that secret NSA intercepts indicate that Israeli pilots had full knowledge they were attacking a U.S. vessel. The NSA website denies that there are any U.S. recordings of the attack itself; this is disputed by several intelligence specialists who say they have read the original transcripts.

Effort for identification: The American crew says the attacking aircraft did not make identification runs over Liberty, but began to strafe immediately. Israel says several identification passes were made. The Naval Court of Enquiry, based on the Israeli timeline of events, found: "One may infer from the fact that within a period of approximately 15 minutes, the request was transmitted (for aircraft to be dispatched), received, a command decision made, aircraft dispatched, and the attack launched, that no significant time was expended in an effort to identify the ship from the air before the attack was launched."

Speed of the vessel: According to Israeli accounts, the torpedo boat made erroneous measurements that indicated that Liberty was steaming at 30 kn (35 mph; 56 km/h). Israeli naval doctrine at the time required that a ship traveling at that speed must be presumed to be a warship. A second boat calculated Liberty's speed to be 28 kn (32 mph; 52 km/h). The maximum sustained speed of Liberty was only 17.5 kn (20.1 mph; 32.4 km/h), 21 kn (24 mph; 39 km/h). According to the Court of Enquiry findings the ship was steaming at 5 kn (5.8 mph; 9.3 km/h) at the time of the attack.

Commander W.L. McGonagle in his damaged cabin after the attack

Motive: James Bamford, among others, says one possible motive was to prevent the United States from eavesdropping on Israeli military activities and monitoring the events taking place in nearby Gaza. In a study of the incident concluding that there was insufficient evidence to support either accidental or deliberate attack, Colonel Peyton E. Smith wrote of the possibility that "The attack was most likely deliberate for reasons far too sensitive to be disclosed by the US (or) Israeli government and that the truth may never be known". Author and former crew member James M. Ennes theorized, in the epilogue of his book Assault on the Liberty, that the motive was to prevent the ship's crew from monitoring radio traffic that might reveal Israel as the aggressor in its impending invasion of Syria, which the White House opposed. According to the Anti Defamation League "the argument that Israel knowingly attacked an American ship has always lacked a convincing motive".

Israeli aircraft markings: The USS Liberty Veterans Association says that the attacking Israeli aircraft were not marked, but a crewmember recalls watching a Jewish officer cry on seeing the blue Star of David on their fuselages. The torpedo boats that attacked Liberty flew the Israeli flag.

Jamming: During U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry testimony, Wayne L. Smith, Radioman Chief, testified that radio communications were intermittently jammed. Rear Admiral Kidd (a senior member of Naval Court of Inquiry) reported: "Liberty reported apparent discriminate jamming on certain CW and voice circuits just before and during each aircraft's individual attack." None of the Israeli Defense Forces' investigations or reports confirm or deny radio frequency jamming.

Jamming as a motive: A UPI report published by The Washington Star on 19 September 1977 indicated CIA documents obtained by the American Palestine Committee suggested Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan ordered the attack because Liberty was jamming Israeli communications. A CIA document dated 23 June 1967 said Liberty had been jamming Israeli communications. Another CIA document dated 9 November 1967 quoted unidentified agency informants as saying Dayan personally ordered the attack; the CIA said the documents were "unevaluated for accuracy".

Israeli ships' actions after the torpedo hit: Officers and men of Liberty say that after the torpedo attack and the abandon ship order, motor torpedo boats strafed the ship's topside with automatic gunfire preventing men from escaping from below, and either machine-gunned or confiscated the empty life rafts that had been set afloat. The IDF says that Liberty was not fired upon after the torpedo attack and that a rescue raft was fished from the water while searching for survivors.

Israeli offers of help: The Liberty's captain, several of the Liberty's crewmen and the Israelis stated that help was offered, but at different times. The Liberty's Deck Log, signed by the captain, has an entry at 15:03 stating: "One MTB returned to the ship and signaled, 'Do you need help.' " The Israel Defense Forces's History Report and the Ram Ron report both say that help was offered at 16:40 and the offer was rejected.

U.S. rescue attempts: At least two rescue attempts were launched from U.S. aircraft carriers nearby but were recalled, according to the Liberty's senior Naval Security Group officer, Lieutenant Commander David Lewis. Lewis made an audio recording and later wrote about a meeting 6th Fleet Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis requested in his cabins:

He told me that since I was the senior Liberty survivor on board he wanted to tell me in confidence what had actually transpired. He told me that upon receipt of our SOS, aircraft were launched to come to our assistance and then Washington was notified. He said that the Secretary of Defense (Robert McNamara) had ordered that the aircraft be returned to the carrier, which was done. RADM Geis then said that he speculated that Washington may have suspected that the aircraft carried nuclear weapons so he put together another flight of conventional aircraft that had no capability of carrying nuclear weapons. These he launched to assist us and again notified Washington of his actions. Again McNamara ordered the aircraft recalled. He requested confirmation of the order being unable to believe that Washington would let us sink. This time President Johnson ordered the recall with the comment that he did not care if every man drowned and the ship sank, but that he would not embarrass his allies.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 07:47 AM

1. I'm not sure this story was covered in the news.

It's a new history lesson for me.

Damn, Johnson was heartless.

Thank you for posting.

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Response to Ilsa (Reply #1)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:28 AM

2. I know it's been a touchy subject on DU for a long time

I think my first post about the event was removed years ago by mods - the reasoning was that it should've been posted in I&P forum (although it had nothing to do with Palestinians). Another time, I posted about it and had one DUer call it "anti-Semitic". I was a bit nervous about posting it today.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Reply #2)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:31 AM

4. Me, too.

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Response to marble falls (Reply #4)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:36 AM

5. I love Israel and its citizens...

...never been overly-fond of some of their government's actions. That makes me anti-Semitic.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Reply #5)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:42 AM

8. It shuts down any possible discussion.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Reply #2)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 10:12 AM

12. I posted it about 14 years ago an it immediately was removed

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Reply #2)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 02:53 PM

17. Certainly not an I&P discussion.

This is international political and military history. I'm glad the Navy hasn't forgotten. It was unconscionable.

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Response to Ilsa (Reply #1)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:28 AM

3. It was being covered as it was happening. The Navy has never forgotten. I haven't forgotten.

Then again we haven't been able to explain Iraq and Afghanistan, either.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:39 AM

6. 'But Sir, It's an American Ship.' 'Never Mind, Hit Her!'


Officially, a “mistake.”

Unofficially, someone wanted the USA to think someone sank* their spy ship.

*Someone must’ve been surprised the Liberty didn’t sink.

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Response to Kid Berwyn (Reply #6)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:52 AM

9. Because of this, the USS Liberty is the "most highly decorated ship ... for a single action."


As a result of the crew's heroic response to the Israeli attack, Liberty is the US Navy's "most highly decorated ship ... for a single action". For the action with Israeli forces she was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon (8-9 June 1967) and the Presidential Unit Citation (8 June 1967). Although President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Presidential Unit Citation in 1968 it was not formally presented to the crew until June 1991. President George H. Bush declined to attend the 1991 White House ceremony instead merely waving at the crew while passing by.

Commander (later Captain) William McGonagle, Liberty’s commanding officer, received the Medal of Honor. Numerous members of the crew were decorated, including eleven members of the crew who were awarded Silver Stars, twenty with Bronze Stars, and over two hundred who received Purple Hearts. The unidentified remains of six of Liberty’s crew are buried under a single headstone in a mass grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Reply #9)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 11:06 AM

13. Heroism is the United States Navy.

From a surviving officer:

When our regular flag was shot down, Signalman Joe Meadors and Quartermaster Francis Brown hauled up an oversize seven-foot by 13-foot flag. Still the attack continued.

The helmsman fell. Quartermaster Francis Brown took the wheel and died there. Ens. David Lucas helped move Brown's body, then took the wheel himself.

When gasoline stored on deck burst into flame, Lt. Cmdr. Philip Armstrong tried to release the burning drums into the sea; the effort cost him his life.

When the ship's doctor, Richard Kiepfer, spotted two helplessly wounded men on deck, he tucked a man under each arm and carried them through gunfire to safety.


The torpedo boats, meanwhile, circled the ship, firing on firefighters and anything that seemed to move. Soon the general announcing system echoed the order that every sailor dreads:"Prepare to abandon ship." Rubber rafts dropped into the water, but the torpedo boas moved closer and fired upon the empty rafts.



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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:39 AM

7. I was at DLIWC learning Russian at the time.

These Signal Intelligence gatherers were working in the field I was to be joining after my training and upon hearing the news of the attack my reaction was "Oh Shit."

Astonishing that it was so carefully covered up, mistake or intentional. Very much played down.

Of course, it corresponded with the early days of the anti Viet-Nam movement and most attention was to the 500,000 troops being deployed there, and how to avoid that quagmire.

On a leave to San Francisco of that year I ran into this:

On April 15, 400,000 people organized by the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam marched from Central Park to the UN building in New York City to protest the war, where they were addressed by critics of the war such as Benjamin Spock, Martin Luther King, event initiator and director James Bevel, Harry Belafonte, and Jan Barry Crumb, a veteran of the war. On the same date 100,000, including Coretta Scott King, marched in San Francisco.


Seeing the monument with birthyear of one of the killed indicating just 19 or 20 years old reminds me of my childhood friends who also lost their lives during that decade. Just kids sent to do the dirty work.

Thanks for the post.

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Response to rgbecker (Reply #7)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 09:26 AM

10. Bad year for USN "spy ships"...

So bad that this one's still in USN commission... in North Korea.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 09:45 AM

11. I remember it well.

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Response to MineralMan (Reply #11)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 12:48 PM

14. Terrible event, not only for US / Israeli relations, but how the crew's been treated ever since

It just seems so grossly unfair.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Reply #14)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 01:15 PM

16. Yes. I was a Russian linguist/analyst stationed in Turkey at the time.

I wasn't involved with any of that, though. It wasn't our focus.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 01:15 PM

15. Very sad day

May all of those who lost their lives rest in peace.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Sat Jun 8, 2019, 03:36 PM

18. We've still never had a full resolution of this, either...

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