In the early morning on the 8th of June 1967 the United States spy ship USS Liberty was struck by a torpedo breaching its hull. It already suffered a devastating aerial attack with planes littering it with armor piercing shells and napalm bombs. It could not radio for help because the SOS frequencies were jammed and escaping in life boats was not a good idea: the life-boats were “greeted” with a hot lead dispatched from nearing torpedo boats. Total body count: 34 killed and 171 wounded US Navy personnel.
It would seem that the attacker clearly completed the mission objective – destroying the enemy American vessel just off the Mediterranean coast. But the attacker was no enemy, the attacker was Israel, one of the biggest American allies! If you are scratching your head at this moment you are not alone.
Not only was the official Israeli label of it “a terrible accident”, true nature and motives of the incident were later covered-up by the White House, US president Lyndon Johnson and Israeli government. Here is the story of what happened.
At that time, in May 1967, Gamal Abdel Nasser was raising tensions in the region when he sent thousands of Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula after the Soviets circulated false reports that the Israelis were massing troops on the Syrian border. He was pressured to uphold the mutual defense pact Egypt had signed with Syria. He also closed the Straights of Tiran a vital point for the Israeli harbor of Eilat. War seemed inevitable and Israel, seeking to gain strategic advantage and avoid mass casualties in war on three fronts, chose to attack Egypt preemptively on May 5th 1967. And so the Six Day War started in which Israel, in 6 days, achieved air land and naval superiority and control over the region. Superiority which it holds to this day.
The United States was in the middle of Cold war with the Soviet Union and it feared that the conflict would lead up to a potential world and nuclear war as the Soviets had influence in Egypt. So president Lyndon Johnson ordered his military to close in, observe and listen in the situation in case Israel, its ally, would need help. Best way to do it was through ships and USS Liberty was the best and closest ship to do the job. An unarmed state of the art ship, USS Liberty, was designed to listen in to electronic communications and pass intelligence to the NSA and to the US Government. She had 45 antennae and communication analysts and translators capable of understanding every military or other communication almost anywhere. “If it was broadcast on a radio wave…on any frequency, we could receive it” says Joe Lentini who served on the ship.
On June 8th The Liberty stationed itself in international waters. It was a clear, sunny day and the crew was reassured when they saw Israeli reconnaissance planes flying over them in total of nine times. As they were flying low the pilots could clearly distinguish the big American flag on the ship. Moreover some of the sailors waved to the pilots and the pilots waved back to them.
However the next three planes did not just do a fly-by. They released rockets, napalm bombs and sprayed the deck with machine gun fire. The crew of the struck Liberty could not see the markings on the planes but they had a distinct delta-wing shape – planes that Israeli Airforce used. The attacked crippled the ships communications and it could not radio for help because emergency navy frequencies were jammed too! The only ones, except of course the US, who knew the correct US distress frequencies were its allies – the Israelis. The attack was finished off with torpedo boats releasing torpedoes. Of the 5 torpedoes one hit the target opening a big hole in the hull of the ship and tilting it 10 degrees.
The SOS signal was finally successfully dispatched amid the chaos and picked up by US 6th fleet that was 500 miles away off Crete. Upon receiving the signal aircraft carrier USS America was ordered to launch a retaliation attack against the presumed attacker – Egypt. And the planes were dispatched.
According to some eyewitness reports the fighter aircraft were in “condition November” which meant prepared for a nuclear assault. Nuclear “package” was intended for Cairo. About 10 minutes later Defense Secretary Robert McNamara called USS America directly and ordered the attack to be recalled. Meanwhile the Liberty was still being attacked by Israeli torpedo boats machine gunning the crippled ship and its life rafts.
Two IAF helicopters were dispatched to Liberty’s location. The helicopters arrived about 35 minutes after a 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 ten minutes later.
Two hours after the attack Israel informed US embassy in Tel Aviv about a “terrible mistake” in which its forces mistakenly attacked a US Navy ship. News of the events reached US President Lyndon Johnson at about 10 a.m. Eastern time. Privately he and his administration knew that the attack was not a mistake however in public they accepted the Israeli version of a “mistaken identity” thus preserving the status quo with Israel.
After the attacks, although badly damaged, USS Liberty was able to retreat under her own power. She 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.
The commander of USS Liberty W.L. McGonagle received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. medal, for his actions. Interestingly wasn’t awarded the medal in the usual practice – official ceremony in the White House with the President – but in the Washington Navy Yard in an unpublicized ceremony.
Fifteen years after the attack, an Israeli pilot approached Liberty survivors and then held extensive interviews with former Congressman Paul N. McCloskey about his role. According to this senior Israeli lead pilot, he recognized the Liberty as American immediately, so informed his headquarters, and was told to ignore the American flag and continue his attack. He refused to do so and returned to base, where he was arrested.
Subsequent inquiries by Israel concluded that it was a mistake in time of war due to Israeli confusion about the ship’s identity. Israel agreed to pay compensation to the families of the 34 men killed in the attack. However of the requested $17 million Israel agreed to pay only $6 million dollars.
As for the motives for the attack, 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. 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 being the aggressor in its impending invasion of Golan Heights in Syria, which the White House opposed.
Whatever the reason was, the public will likely never find out the truth.