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Israel Attacks The United States

Israel Attempts to Sink the USS Liberty: 24 May 1967

By David Paul


The USS Liberty (AGTR 5) is ordered to leave its station off West Africa and proceed a "best speed" to the eastern Mediterranean stopping at Rota to refuel, take on supplies and receive further orders. The Liberty was a 'spy' ship-- technically an auxiliary general technical research ship designed to eavesdrop on electronic communications of all types.

The 45 antennas protruding from the ship's superstructure gave its intent away to any experienced observer. It was armed with only four .50 caliber Browning machine guns. The reason for the light armaments was that the Navy considered the Liberty a noncombatant. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that others might find having their private communications intercepted a hostile act.

1 June 1967

The Liberty arrives at the American Naval Station at Rota, Spain.

2 June 1967

The Liberty leaves Rota for the eastern Mediterranean.

5 June 1967

The Liberty hears news of the outbreak of fighting in the Middle East. the ship's captain Commander William L. McGonagle requests of Vice Admiral William I. Martin, commander of the Sixth Fleet, a destroyer escort that could both protect the Liberty and serve as an auxiliary communications station.

Martins' reply: "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." In the unlikely event of an attack he promised to launch jets that could be over the Liberty in 10 minutes. He denied the request.

The Liberty had been ordered to patrol within 12 1/2 nautical miles of Egypt and within 6 1/2 miles of Israel-- a half mile out from the distances each country claimed for its territorial waters. Several attempts were made by the Navy to move her station further out to sea but these messages mysteriously never reached the Liberty.

8 June 1967

6:00 AM

The Liberty, 170 miles from the site of Israel's planned invasion of Syria is reconnoitered by a flying boxcar.

9:30 AM

A single jet flies past to the starboard, too far for its markings to be discerned.

The sea is calm and the ship is making 5 knots. The new flag stood straight out in the 9 -- 12 mph wind. Its identification letters GTR 5 were painted in white on both sides of the bow and on the stern. Its name Liberty was also painted across the stern. Beyond these readily identifiable features her unique profile was like no other on the seas.

10:00 AM

The Liberty is reconnoitered by two armed jets, which report by radio to their headquarters that the ship is flying the American flag. They circle the ship three times, keeping a prudent distance.

The US Consulate in Jerusalem advised by flash cable that UN observers had reported that at 10 AM the Israelis "have launched intensive air and artillery bombardment of Syrian positions opposite central demilitarized zone as prelude to large-- scale attack in effort to seize heights overlooking border kibbutzim."

Secretary of State Dean Rusk replied by flash cable to express US concerns noting that such a development right after Israel had accepted the UN Security Council cease-fire resolution would cast doubts on Israeli intentions and create grave problems for the US Government. He stressed the need for "complete cessa-tion Israeli military action . . ." This strongly worded cable most assuredly contributed to the Israeli decision to delay its attack by one day and increase its interest in the Liberty. If the ship could listen in on Israeli military communications, as it could, then the US could discover Israeli plans to attack Syria. Foreknowledge of the attack would probably end US acquiescence to Israel's aggressions. Israel orders a 24 hour delay in the attack on Syria.

The Syrian front had been the quietest throughout the war with no major moves by the Syrians.

10:30 AM

The Liberty is overflown at near-masthead level by a flying boxcar equipped with lens openings for photo coverage. It had Israeli markings.

11:00 AM

The Liberty is reconnoitered by a flying boxcar.

11:30 AM

Again the Liberty is reconnoitered by a flying boxcar.


Three Israeli torpedo boats leave Ashdod on high-speed run to the Liberty.

12:15 PM

Yet another flying boxcar reconnoiters the Liberty.

12:45 PM

And again a flying boxcar reconnoiters the Liberty.

2:00 PM

Three jets approach. One flies 5 or 6 miles to starboard. Everyone expects it to settle into the now familiar reconnaissance pattern. As they watch a second plane dives in from port and fires rockets at the bridge. The attack on the United States has begun.

They attack again and again with rockets and 30 mm armor-piercing shells. Blood flows so thickly over the metal floor of the pilothouse that sailors trying to transverse the deck slip and fall into the blood. The dead, dying and wounded are scattered about.

More planes come with rockets, cannon, and the dreaded napalm turning the Liberty into a floating hell. The Israelis hit everything they wanted to hit. and they had the right ordnance to do the job required:

-- heat seeking missiles to take out the tuning coils of every HF antenna

-- fragmentation bombs to take out the parabolic disks fore and aft

-- the first strafing run destroys all means of communications and all means of survival

-- the last attack is with napalm.

However, the crew was able to patch up it high-command radio-circuit antenna to send out flash messages but they discovered that all frequencies were being jammed. The jamming only stopped when the planes launched their rockets. Thus, the jamming came from the planes and could not be used while the rockets were airborne.

2:09 PM

The carrier USS Saratoga acknowledges Liberty's call for help.

2:24 PM

The three high-speed torpedo boats are spotted.

About this time it is noticed that the air attacks had knocked down the flag. The signalmen, taking their lives in their hands, dodge the strafing to hoist the holiday colors-- a 9' X 13' flag.

The torpedo boats close in with their 20 mm and 40 mm machine guns blazing.

2:35 PM

At first the torpedo boats fired 3'' shells into the engineering spaces in hopes of blowing up the boilers. When that failed they loosed their torpedoes. In all they fired five torpedoes but only one hit the Liberty. The thousand pound torpedo struck the starboard side ripping open a 39 foot gaping hole. Twenty five men were killed as a result of the torpedo attack.

After their attacks the three torpedo boats reduced speed and began firing machine guns at the waterline with the purpose in mind to sink her. On the Liberty it looked like the ship would sink so three life rafts were lowered into the water. One of the Israeli boats shot up two of them and the third was brought aboard as a war trophy.

There were to be no survivors!

3:05 PM

But the Liberty refused to sink and eventually the torpedo boats retired toward Israel. They were replaced by two large Israeli troop-carrying helicopters that circled the ship and then departed without any attempt at communication.

3:45 PM

The Sixth Fleet launches planes from the USS Saratoga. Its not clear why the USS America did not also launch aircraft. Perhaps the planes were armed with nuclear weapons. Expected time of arrival over the Liberty was 5:15-- so much for the promise to provide air cover in ten minutes.

Since the Liberty would not sink it became imperative for the Israelis to get out as soon as possible the false story that an "accident" had occurred and thus avoid a direct confrontation with US forces. It worked fine for with the Israeli admission the Sixth Fleet was ordered to retrieve its planes.

Planes were ordered to the rescue of the Liberty on two occasions. In the second attempt the USS America also launched aircraft. Both time the Secretary of Defense MacNamara ordered the planes back. There was a challenge from the fleet when ordered back the second time. President Johnson came on the line and confirmed the order saying, "We will not embarrass an ally."

The fix was in. The whole incident was to be played down. While the Russians were informed the American people were not.

4:32 PM

The torpedo boats return and offer "assistance." It is bluntly refused.

6:35 PM

An Israeli helicopter arrives and indicates that it wants to land. Commander McGonagle gave then the finger. Someone in the helicopter dropped a paper bag weighted with two oranges and enclosing a calling card of the naval attaché Commander Ernest Carl Castle with this note on the back: "Have you casualties?" Since there were still bodies scattered about the answer was obvious.

The devotion of the crew had saved the Liberty but her mission was finished. Israel could now attack Syria as planned.

In his memoirs Johnson asserted that, we did know Israel's military intentions towards Syria." He never elaborated and such papers that exist relating to this remain classified. Did the Liberty accomplish a major part of its mission afterall? No one will say.

If so, then the US acquiesced in both Israeli aggressions and it would seem the height of folly for any Arab state to thrust the US in any position of mediator in a diplomatic venue between Arabs and Israelis.

The Administration's efforts to kill the Liberty story succeeded admirably. The story quickly dropped from the front page of The New York Times and the Washington Post. During Rusk's long background briefing that Friday the question never came up. Even Whitehouse correspondents displayed an untypical lack of concern. The survivors were ordered not to speak with the press. Then the crew was dispersed across the fleet so they could not talk among themselves.

The Naval board of inquiry was a total farce. first Admiral Kidd interviewed everyone on the ship. Then, at the inquiry, only those whose testimony fit the picture need were called to testify. Those that tried to get out the truth during their testimony were brought up short and told to answer only the questions asked. As designed, it accepted the Israeli version and pronounced the attack an accident.

The Liberty had cost some $30 million to outfit as a spy ship. It was decommissioned 28 June 1968 and sold for scrap for $101,666.66. The US government asked Israel for only $7,644,146 to cover the loss of the Liberty. For years Israel refused to pay and Washington did not push the issue. As Rusk later put it, "in light of our aid program for Israel, we would, in effect, be paying ourselves." Thirteen years later Israel agreed to a partial payment at a time when US aid (mostly in the form of grants) had soared to over $2 billion annually.

34 Americans were killed and 171 wounded, some with wounds that will impair their life expectancy. The gravestone placed in the Arlington National Cemetery where 6 of those killed were interred read merely: "Died in the Eastern Mediterranean." Eventually the survivors' association got it changed a wee bit: "Killed USS Liberty." Not much, but closer to the truth.

Commander McGonagle was awarded the nation's highest honor, the Medal of Honor. The written citation, while mentioning an attack by jets and torpedo boats refused to identify the aggressors. The award, presented 11 June 1968, was not given by the President as is customary, but rather by the secretary of the navy, and not in the Whitehouse but in the Navy Yard in Washington.

Israel must be protected no matter what--

When a small town in Wisconsin decided to name its library in honor of the USS Liberty crewmen, a campaign claiming it was anti-Semitic was launched. and when the town went ahead, the US government ordered that no Navy personnel attend and send no messages.

Survivors of the Liberty who finished their service and were thus able to speak out found that upon doing so they were vilified as drunks, anti-Semites and incompetents.


Based on a number of sources:

Ennes, James M., Jr. Assult on the Liberty, New York: Random House, 1979.

Neff, Donald. Warriors for Jerusalem, New York: Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Taylor, Jim. Pearl Harbor II, Washington, D.C.: Mideast Publishing House, 1980

The Video: USS Liberty Survivors: Our Story. Sligo Productions.

USS Liberty Home Page


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