CHICAGO: Early in the morning of the fourth day of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israeli fighter jets flew a half-dozen reconnaissance flights over the USS Liberty, an American “intelligence ship” that was monitoring the conflict 15 miles north of the Sinai Peninsula. They did it several times.
The Liberty was originally a “victory” ship that supplied cargo to the Allies during World War II. It was later converted into an auxiliary technical research ship (AGTR-5) first deployed in 1965 to provide intelligence-gathering information for the National Security Agency, the chief US electronic intelligence gatherer and codebreaker.
When Israel launched a “pre-emptive” war against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan on June 5, 1967, then US President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared that America would remain “neutral.” The Liberty, which was not an assault vessel by any stretch of the imagination, was sent to the Mediterranean Sea to monitor the conflict.
Liberty Commander Capt. William L. McGonagle had asked Vice Admiral William Martin to provide an armed escort for his ship as it sailed to the coast of Egypt. But Martin said that the Liberty was, “a clearly marked American ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation. Request denied,” according to documents published in the exhaustive 1979 book “Assault on the Liberty: The True Story of the Israeli Attack on an American Intelligence Ship” by Liberty survivor and officer James Ennes, who was on the ship’s bridge during the attack.
Flying a standard American flag, five feet tall and eight feet wide, the Liberty was clearly marked on all sides and was identifiable as an American ship to any naval force in the world.
After the attack was ordered, an Israeli fighter pilot reported that the Liberty might be an American ship, prompting the commander to repeat the order. The attack began at 1:57 p.m. on June 8.
For the Liberty’s 294 crew members, the attack was no ordinary “friendly fire” incident: It led to the tragic loss of the lives of 34 Americans and injuries to 173 more.
The tragedy was compounded, according to some, by the US government’s insistence during several inquiries on suppressing facts, defending Israel, and threatening to imprison survivors if the incident embarrassed Israel.
A US naval court of inquiry conducted a quick probe but only heard testimony from 14 crew members. Survivors say they were threatened with jail if they blamed Israel and that all testimony critical of Israel was redacted.
Several survivors said they believe Israel attacked the spy ship in an effort to sink it and kill all of its crew and then blame the sinking on Egypt to force the US to enter the war.
“The most important thing about this whole coverup is the coverup. It’s worse than what they did to us, and it has been going on for 55 years,” Phil Tourney, a Liberty attack survivor, said.
“They (the US government) owe survivors, their families, and most of all America. America was betrayed. Treason on the high seas by our own president, LBJ (Johnson), his flunkies, the Congress of the United States, and every president since LBJ to President Joe Biden hasn’t brought this up because it is something of a hot potato. If our ship goes down, they (the Israelis) are going to blame it on the Arab states.”
Israeli Mirage jets strafed the Liberty from bow to stern, killing seven Americans. The largest group died when an Israeli torpedo struck the ship, killing more than 25 sailors.
Electrician second mate, Mickey LeMay, said he saw a plane approach the Liberty just before 2 p.m.
“I looked to my right and a fighter jet was flying the same way we were. He wasn’t too high. We could have waved to each other he was so low. The plane was totally black and had no markings on it at all.
“As I turned to point to the plane that I saw, another plane, and this was the first strafing, came from bow to stern diagonally across us and strafed us. I looked down and there was blood coming out of me everywhere. I looked at (the lieutenant) and he looked just like me and he had blood coming out of everywhere,” LeMay added.
The lieutenant later died.
Don Pageler, who was helping the wounded, said the first airstrike killed more than seven shipmates and that around 25 were killed when one of several torpedoes struck the boat.
“Yes, we were flying our steaming colors, which I believe was a five-by-eight flag. And during the attack, that flag got so tattered that in the middle of the attack our signal man ran up our holiday colors, which was a seven-by-13 flag, which is a huge flag. Through all that they later said they did not see a flag,” said survivor Pageler, noting that the ship only had .50-caliber machine guns.
Pageler added that he later learned that Israel had claimed the Liberty had shelled its positions.
Another survivor, Larry Bowen, told Arab News: “The story hasn’t been told properly.
* Liberty was an auxiliary technical research ship sent to the Mediterranean to monitor the Arab-Israeli war.
* The Israeli air attack, which began at 1:57 p.m. on June 8, 1967, left 34 Americans dead and 173 injured.
“There wasn’t a full and impartial investigation by Congress; (as per) my understanding, by law they should have done that. The navy conducted a quick court of inquiry, (but) they interviewed only 14 crew members. But any one of the crew members who said anything disparaging about Israel got excised out of the final court of inquiry document. A lot of inputs got redacted.”
Bowen said the Israelis were firing at the wounded as they were being placed in lifeboats. That detail was redacted from the US Navy report.
“In our opinion, the attack was absolutely intentional. They knew well in advance that we were the USS Liberty. They actually had us on their war board in their war room early in the morning. They were overflying us in the morning. There was at least a half-dozen overflights before the attack.
“The crew would definitely say it was a deliberate attack. They knew who we were. We were flying the American flag. And when one got blown apart, the holiday colors (American flag) were raised,” Bowen added.
Israeli officials later said they did not know the Liberty was an American ship.
“But we actually had intercepts from the (Israeli) pilots to the ground control and one of the pilots radioed back, ‘it’s an American ship. I can see the flag.’ The person on ground control told him (the Israeli pilot), ‘hit the target,’” Bowen said.
There was no way that the Liberty could not be identified as an American ship, LeMay said.
“When you are circling the ship and shooting into the hull, you have the letters GTR 5 on the bow, port, and starboard, and on the stern port and starboard, and then, Liberty. As you are circling the ship, you have got all the identity telling you it is a US ship,” he added.
LeMay was injured during the first air attack and still has 52 pieces of shrapnel in his body.
He said: “And also, on top of that, there were only two ships in the world that looked like us, the Liberty and the Belmont, our sister ship. Other than that, no other ship in the world looked like us. And Israel is too good of a military to know if it was a US ship or an Egyptian ship. No way in the world could they think it was anything but a US ship.”
The survivors pointed out that a nearby American aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, had offered to send planes to help defend the Liberty, but the help was rejected by Johnson.
“The American Saratoga sent planes to our aid two times, but President Johnson called them back. And he would not let them come to defend us,” LeMay added. He said it was all about “not embarrassing Israel,” an ally.
“When you have the president of the United States ordering the admiral to call the planes (from the US Saratoga) back and not come to our aid. If the planes on the first group had come out, we would have only lost seven men. A lot of us, me included, would have been seriously injured. But that’s all we would have lost. But him calling the planes back allowed for another 25 great Americans to die.”
Israel convened an official inquiry on June 18 and reiterated the US inquiry conclusion exonerating Israel and calling the two-hour attack “an accident.”
On June 8, 2007, the 40th anniversary of the attack, the NSA acknowledged that the Liberty incident had “become the center of considerable controversy and debate.” It was not the agency’s intention, it said, “to prove or disprove any one set of conclusions, many of which can be drawn from a thorough review of this material.”
On the same occasion, Mark Regev, the then Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, called the attack “a tragic and terrible accident, a case of mistaken identity, for which Israel has officially apologized.”
Israel also paid reparations of $6.7 million to the injured survivors and the families of those killed in the attack, and another $6 million for the loss of the Liberty itself.
The Congressional Medal of Honor, normally presented at the White House by the president to America’s military heroes, was given to McGonagle a year after the attack by the secretary of the navy during a closed ceremony at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. President Johnson did not attend.
For more information on the USS Liberty and the survivors, visit www.USSLibertyVeterans.org.