By Samuel Cox
June 8 marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most bitterly contentious events in U.S. Navy history, and the controversy continues largely unabated to this day. It involves the mistaken attack by four Israeli jet fighters and three motor torpedo boats on the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) which was conducting an intelligence collection mission in international waters off the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula in the midst of the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War. Thirty-four U.S. personnel (31 Navy, two Marine Corps and one National Security Agency civilian) were killed and 171 were wounded, out of of 293 aboard, as a result of multiple strafing runs by jet aircraft, surface fire from the torpedo boats and one hit by a 19″ torpedo.
The crew of the Liberty performed their duty with exceptional valor during that attack and in saving their ship from severe damage that could easily have resulted in her loss. Liberty’s Commanding Officer, Commander William McGonagle, was a awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions directing response to the attack and saving his ship, refusing to leave his position on the bridge for many hours despite wounds incurred in the first strafing attack. Liberty’s Executive Officer, LCDR Philip Armstrong, was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross. He was killed by strafing while leading a party attempting to jettison burning fuel containers over the side. The ship’s Intelligence Officer, LT Steve Toth, was also killed by strafing while attempting to positively identify the attacking aircraft. Toth, along with 10 others, were awarded Silver Stars (two posthumously.) Bronze Stars were awarded to 21 other crew members for bravery under fire in rescuing wounded crewmen during strafing attacks and for subsequent actions in fighting fires and flooding and tending to the many wounded. The Liberty was subsequently awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
The central question that has caused the raging debate is whether the Israeli attack was premeditated or deliberately conducted against a ship known by them to be American, or whether it was a tragic accident resulting from negligent mistakes or the fog of war. To this date, no evidence has ever surface that the Israelis deliberately attacked what they knew to be an American ship, although numerous books and TV documentaries have attempted to make this case. There is certainly evidence that some Israelis began to doubt that the ship was Egyptian during the course of the air attack, and that failures in command and control contributed to the subsequent torpedo attack. In my view, looking at the evidence available, the initial Navy board of inquiry, led by Rear Admiral (RADM) Isaac Kidd, Jr., was correct in its judgment that the attack was a tragic accident. However, that board was focused on whether actions of the Liberty’s crew were in any way responsible for the event, which has led others to question the thoroughness of RADM Kidd’s investigation, but the investigation has actually stood the test of time.
There is certainly evidence that some Israelis began to doubt that the ship was Egyptian during the course of the air attack.
Nevertheless, beginning almost immediately after the attack and continuing over the years, numerous government and even very senior navy officials have gone on public record with some version of “in no way could this possibly have been an accident, and no way could the Israeli’s have been that incompetent.” Such opinions, however, have either been based on hearsay, or originated in opinions uttered in the immediate aftermath of the attack, and before any investigations were complete. Such expressed opinions by senior government and navy officials have lent gravitas to all manner of conspiracy and cover-up theories ranging from the somewhat plausible to ridiculously outlandish. To this day, various groups with both anti-Israel and pro-Israel agendas continue to challenge the official records in both the U.S. and Israel with alternative hypotheses.
It should be noted that members of the USS Liberty Survivors Association [one of whom lives in Palm Coast], who were on the receiving end of a devastating mass-casualty attack, remain adamant in their belief that it was a deliberate attack against a ship the Israelis knew to be American. This belief is not universally held among the survivors, but remains predominant. It was a horrific and traumatic attack, so hard feelings by the crew against the Israelis would appear completely understandable. There continues to be strong feelings among the crew that RADM Kidd’s investigation was a rush-to-judgment, that it too readily accepted the Israeli explanation (and apology) and that the U.S. government deliberately whitewashed the event for political reasons. There is no question that both governments sought to play down the incident. For example, on the advice of his staff, President Johnson declined to personally present the Medal of Honor to Commander McGonagle, and a low-key presentation was conducted at the Washington Navy Yard rather than the White House, an action viewed by some of the crew as disrespectful of the sacrifice of the commanding officer and crew.
There were, however, numerous blunders by both the United States Navy and the Israeli Air Force and Navy that resulted in the attack.
Samuel J. Cox, RADM, USN (Retired), is the curator and director of Naval History and Heritage Command. Below is his more complete history of the attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967.
Attack on the USS Liberty
The USS Liberty’s mission was to collect intelligence on activity along the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Although the Liberty was a U.S. Navy ship with a mostly U.S. Navy crew, its mission was in support of National Security Agency and Joint Chiefs of Staff tasking, i.e., a “national mission” not a “navy mission,” which at the time resulted in a convoluted chain-of-command. The Six-Day War broke out between the time she was ordered to proceed to the Eastern Mediterranean in response to rising tensions and the time she arrived on station 13-17 NM off the northern Sinai Coast on 7 June. Liberty had Arab and Russian linguists embarked (including USMC and NSA civilians), but no Hebrew linguists. Her designated patrol area was out of VHF/UHF collection range of Israel proper, but she could monitor and collect (but not understand in real time) Israeli military activity in the Sinai which had commenced with the Israeli pre-emptive strikes on 5 June. At the time of the attack, she had been transiting westerly for six hours. Liberty was armed only with four 50 caliber machine guns intended to repel boarders. At the time, the fact that the Liberty was an intelligence collection ship was classified. She was officially designated as a general purpose auxiliary technical research ship (AGTR) and she carried “GTR-5” freshly painted on each side at bow and stern.
Five messages originating in Washington changing Liberty’s orders and instructing her to approach no closer than 100 NM to the war zone were misrouted or dropped; none were received by the ship until after the attack, or were not received at all. The Liberty received a message just prior to the attack directing her to take a referenced JCS message for action. The referenced message directed the 100 nm stand-off but had not been received by the Liberty. The massive and multiple communications foul ups were a major embarrassment to the U.S. Navy, which at the time had no interest in this fact becoming widely known. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations had also made public assurances on 6 June that no U.S. ships or aircraft were operating within 100 miles of the combat zone, so the fact that the Liberty was well inside that was a major embarrassment to the U.S. State Department. No one in a position of significant authority was held accountable for the communications errors, but the event did lead to Congressional investigation and a subsequent massive overhaul of U.S. Navy communications systems and networks.
In the very early morning of 8 June, an Israeli Air Force propeller driven aircraft (a Nord 2501) flew a standard dawn maritime reconnaissance mission on behalf of the Israeli Navy (which had no organic air capability.) The aircraft located the Liberty at 0558, which was correctly identified as the USS Liberty by an Israeli naval intelligence officer when the aircraft landed. The Liberty was then plotted as a neutral on the situation board at Israeli naval headquarters in Haifa. By late morning, the contact had gone stale and in accordance with standard operating procedure was removed from the plot. However, the fact that a U.S. ship was out there did not survive an 1100 watch turnover (following an investigation and “pre-trial hearing” the responsible watch officer was not referred to trial.) Other Israeli aircraft flew in the vicinity to-and-from combat air patrol (CAP) and ground-attack missions in the Sinai throughout the morning; these flights did not report on the Liberty (since it was not their mission) but were observed from the Liberty and have since come to be erroneously reported as additional Israeli pre-attack surveillance.
In the early afternoon of 8 June, Israeli Army forces in the vicinity of al Arish reported that they were being shelled from the sea. An unidentified grey ship (the Liberty) could be observed on the horizon and was presumed to be the source. At that time, Liberty was operating about 14 NM off the coast, and at least one massive explosion and other smoke near al Arish were observed from the Liberty at 1300 as the Liberty commenced a general quarters drill (which concluded at 1345.) At the time, the Egyptian army had been driven well out of artillery range, and the Egyptian air force had been destroyed on the ground in the initial Israeli preemptive strikes on 5 June. Whether the explosions were the result of sabotage, or some other activity, remains unknown, but certainly was not due to any action by the Liberty.
In response to the report of shelling from the sea, the Israeli Navy was ordered to dispatch ships to intercept. Two destroyers were promptly recalled, but three MTB’s (MTB Division 914) under the command of Lieutenant Commander Moshe Oren, were ordered to continue. At that time, Liberty was heading westerly in the general direction of Port Said, held by the Egyptians, at a slow speed under 15 KTS. As the MTB’s made initial radar contact with the Liberty (at fairly long range, 22 NM, due to atmospheric ducting) the Combat Information Center (CIC) officer on the command MTB erroneously calculated the Liberty’s speed as 30 KTS. By Israeli SOP, an unidentified ship transiting at greater than 20 KTS was presumed to be a warship and could be attacked. It also meant that the MTB’s would be unable to make the intercept before the contact reached Port Said, which forced LCDR Oren to call for air support. Given the testy and competitive relationship at the time between the Israeli Navy and Air Force, it is very unlikely LCDR Oren would have called for air support unless he believed there was no alternative. In fact, the Israeli Air Force and Navy had only narrowly averted a potentially catastrophic “friendly fire” engagement the previous night.
Two Israeli Mirage IIICJ fighters returning from a CAP (air-to-air) mission over the Sinai were ordered to locate, identify, and if the contact was a warship, to attack the contact. In their initial stand-off reconnaissance the two fighters identified the Liberty as a warship (painted grey, and not Israeli, and the fighters identified the three MTB’s to ensure deconfliction.) The fighters also identified the Liberty as a destroyer (which it definitely was not) because that was what they expected to see, since the only ships the Egyptians had that could have been responsible for shelling Al Arish were destroyers (or missile patrol boats, which even Air Force pilots could tell the contact certainly was not.) At a safe distance and altitude, the fighters did not discern the 5 ft by 8 ft American flag nor the “GTR-5” on the bow and stern, and requested clearance to engage. After double-checking with the Navy that the contact was a warship, which Navy headquarters verified (based on the erroneous calculated speed), the Air Force controller cleared the fighters to engage.
At 1358, the two Mirages commenced a bow-to-stern firing pass from out of the sun. CDR McGonagle had already ordered the machine guns (which were already manned as a precaution) to Condition One because he didn’t like the look of the jets’ actions and immediately called general quarters. Flying at a speed of a half mile every three seconds, each Mirage opened fire with a 3 second burst of 30mm cannon fire, aimed at the forward superstructure, with devastating result, before looping around for another pass. Neither jet noted any return fire. Although not noted in the ship’s log, but noted in the board of inquiry testimony, one Sailor (GMG3 Alexander Thompson, Jr.) did open fire, and was killed on the second pass trying to do the same. The first pass ignited a fire in two 55gal drums holding fuel for the motor whaleboat, and set the whaleboat on fire as well. The first pass either shot away the American flag, or the halyards burned; either way the flag was gone by the second and third passes. In the Israeli gun camera footage, the flag is not visible on any pass, and on the second and third pass, the heavy smoke from the gasoline fire is rising straight up, indicating that at least at the point of the first pass the flag would not have been flying straight out, and even if it was, making out a flag from a high speed jet from a bow-on aspect would have been exceedingly difficult. The pilot would have been concentrating on hitting the target and then not crashing into the ship or the water in the three or so seconds after firing. Some accounts claim that the Mirages fired rockets, however since their primary mission was air-to-air, that would have been very unlikely; the hundreds of impacts from high velocity 30mm canons were more than adequate to cause major damage throughout the ship. The first air attack concluded by 1404.
A few minutes after the Mirage attack concluded, two Super Mystere B-2 fighters, diverted from a ground attack mission in the Sinai, commenced a stern-to-bow pass at 1407, dropping two napalm canisters each; three missed and one ignited a fire in the bridge area. The aircraft then looped around for a strafing pass from the beam, again inflicting severe damage with 30mm canon fire. However, on the second pass, the lead pilot noticed unusual markings, and the Israeli air control officer in Tel Aviv was already becoming seriously concerned by the lack of any reported return fire. On the third pass, the lead pilot reported that the target had “CTR-5” on the bow. The Israeli air control officer immediately ordered a halt to the attack, and ordered a third flight tasked against the ship, two Mystere IV fighters armed with 500 LB iron bombs, to resume their original ground attack mission in the Sinai. The air attacks were over by 1410. Nine U.S. crewmen, including the XO and the Intelligence Officer had been killed or would die of their wounds.
Although Egyptian ships had been known to use subterfuge in ship markings, they used Arabic script for names and numbers, not the Latin alphabet. The Israeli air controller’s concern that they might have hit a U.S. ship was quickly replaced by concern they had hit a Soviet intelligence collection ship (AGI.) The Israeli fighter had misidentified the GTR-5 as “C”TR-5, an easy mistake. Soviet AGI’s would normally have CCB-## (Cyrillic for SSV-##.) This resulted in a flurry of reports up the Israeli chain of command.
At 1424, the Liberty sighted the three MTB’s approaching at high speed. At 1417, LCDR Oren had requested authorization to employ torpedoes, which was granted by the Deputy Commander of the Israeli Navy, under the mistaken presumption that the contact was an Egyptian destroyer (since that was the only thing that could have shelled Al Arish and be making 30KTS.) The three Israeli MTB’s caught up to the heavily damaged Liberty about 1430, which was billowing heavy black smoke, and obviously not making 30 KTS, nor was it a destroyer to anyone with rudimentary recognition skills.
The MTB’s held short about a mile from the Liberty while LCDR Oren, and the skippers of the other two MTB’s identified the Liberty as the Egyptian transport vessel El Quseir. One junior officer under instruction expressed doubt about the identification. The El Quseir was somewhat superficially similar in silhouette to the Liberty, although less than two-thirds the size. However, the rationale for why a 1929-vintage horse and passenger transport, armed only with two antiquated 3-pounder guns, would have been anywhere near that location defies easy explanation, nor could the El Quesir possibly have been responsible for shelling Al Arish. The Israeli MTB’s did not see the much larger 8×13 ft “holiday” American flag that had been hoisted after the air attacks. Due to the fire, the flag was on a halyard on the opposite side from the MTB’s and mostly likely obscured by the heavy smoke. The Israelis were also looking into the sun, and the GTR-5 on the bow and stern would have been harder to see in shadow.
The Israeli command MTB attempted to signal the Liberty with a hand-held Aldis lamp, flashing “AA” the international maritime signal to “identify yourself.” The Israeli signal was obscured by smoke, and the Liberty’s signal lamps had been destroyed in the air attacks. Accounts conflict as to whether Liberty responded with a hand-held Aldis lamp, but what the Israeli’s reported seeing was “AA” flashed in return. In an encounter with an Egyptian destroyer in the 1956 Arab-Israeli war, a then very junior Moshe Oren had seen the Egyptian destroyer respond with “AA” in a response to an “AA” challenge from an Israeli warship.
In the Israelis’ minds, the identification issue was rendered moot, when the Liberty opened fire as they began to close. Commander McGonagle give the order to fire, but immediately countermanded it after he saw what he interpreted as a possible Israeli flag on an MTB. However, with all communications destroyed, except for shouting down from the bridge, a forward gunner got off one 50 caliber round before hearing the cease-fire order. An amidships machine gun (to which there was no easy access from the bridge due to the fire) may also have opened fire, or much more likely, ammunition cooked off due to the fire at a most unfortunate time.
Believing they were being fired upon, (and unaware that the Commander-in-Chief of the Israeli Navy had countermanded the torpedo launch authorization as soon as he was briefed) the MTB’s opened up with a sustained barrage of 40mm, 20mm and 50 cal fire, which killed Liberty’s helmsman (who had taken over from the helmsman wounded in the air attack) and commenced a high speed attack run, firing five of the six torpedoes on the MTB’s (each was armed with two torpedoes.) LCDR Oren did not even wait to set up a doctrinally correct multi-axis shot, and four of the five torpedoes missed, one ahead and three astern.
One torpedo hit the intelligence space on the Liberty, virtually wiping out the entire intelligence detachment in the space at the time. The torpedo opened a 39 FT by 40 FT hole below the waterline, and the ship quickly took on a 9-10 degree list. Fortunately much of the blast was dissipated by a mainframe that likely prevented the ship from breaking in two and sinking immediately.
Twenty-two Sailors, two Marines and one NSA civilian were killed as a result of the torpedo boat attack. Among other things, life rafts that had been thrown over the side were shredded by the volume of fire from the Israeli boats. The apparent “precision” of the Israelis in destroying the intelligence compartment served as fuel for the “deliberate attack on a known U.S. ship” theory, a high degree of accuracy that doesn’t explain why the other four torpedoes completely missed (as had every torpedo the Israeli’s had previously test launched.)
After the torpedo attack, the MTB’s came close enough to read the name on the stern (which even then was initially reported as Cyrillic (i.e., Russian.) Released U.S. and Israeli transcripts of Israeli communications, show a high degree of confusion within the Israeli Air Force and Navy over whether the ship was Egyptian, Soviet and U.S. The MTB’s realized their mistake at about 1500 when the recovered a life raft marked U.S. Navy, and Israeli Headquarters became convinced at 1512 following a close pass by an Israeli helicopter that was the first to report that the Liberty was flying a flag and that it was definitely American. (The MTB’s had previously reported seeing a red flag, which added to the “possible Soviet” confusion.)
The Israelis admitted and formally apologized for the attack, and eventually paid several million dollars in restitution to the families of those killed, but balked at paying for the ship because they believed that the U.S. had erred in sending the Liberty into a combat zone without prior notification (a compromise was eventually reached.) Nevertheless, the apology and restitution were viewed as inadequate by much of the Liberty’s crew. I will not go in to the myriad of conjectural theories as to why Israel would have chosen to deliberately and knowingly attack a ship of the only nation in the world that was standing by them at that point. The most prevalent theory is that the Israelis attacked the Liberty to prevent the U.S. from finding out they were about to attack the Syrian Golan Heights. However, the Israeli Chief of Defense had already notified the U.S. Ambassador and the U.S. Special Representative of their intent to do so some eight hours before the attack. None of the other theories stand up to rigorous scrutiny either.
Because of the then-classified nature of the Liberty’s intelligence collection mission, the initial Department of Defense press release deliberately contained false information (a definite “don’t do that” lesson learned,) that the press and others quickly determined to be false, adversely affecting the U.S. government’s credibility in the matter. In addition, the results of the board of inquiry and much official documentation remained classified for many years. As a result, the “cover up/conspiracy/the Israelis did it with malice aforethought” school-of-thought had an over ten-year head-start in disseminating their versions of events, which continues to impact virtually every story done on the Liberty to this day.
Of note, two days before the Liberty attack, U.S. Air Force jets, in broad clear daylight mistakenly shot up the Soviet merchant ship Turkestan in a North Vietnamese port, flying a Soviet flag, and killing a wounding a number of Soviet sailors. The Soviet’s refused to accept our admission that it was an accident.
One thing about the Liberty Attack that has never been contested was the heroism of the Liberty’s crew in saving their ship and many shipmates. As the Board of Inquiry determined, they were actually as well-drilled and prepared as possible, and they were well-led by Commander McGonagle. As I mentioned in my previous H-gram about the courageous actions of U.S. Navy Sailors in the debacle of the fall of the Philippines and Dutch East Indies during WWII, Sailors on even the most unglamorous non-combat naval vessel can find themselves with no notice called upon to conduct the most heroic of acts under the most horrific of circumstances. The Sailors on the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) more than lived up to the highest standards of valor exhibited by any combat ship in U.S. Naval History, and deserve our nation’s gratitude for their exemplary service in harm’s way.
There have been many books and articles written on the Liberty Attack and I have read most of them. There have also been a number of TV documentaries, and I have seen some of them. Almost all the books and documentaries have major historical inaccuracies, and many have an agenda. A recent book, published by U.S. Naval Institute in 2013, The Liberty Incident Revealed (a follow-on to an earlier book) by Jay Cristol, is the most thoroughly researched with verifiable sourcing and certainly the most objective account that I have seen.