ATTACK ON THE LIBERTY

The USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was the sister ship of the USS Pueblo. It was an intelligence gathering ship. Auxiliary Technical Research ship (AGTR),[9] a cover name for National Security Agency (NSA) “spy ships” carrying out signals intelligence missions. On 8 June 1967, during the Six-Day War, the Israelis did their best to sink her.

USS LIBERTY (AGTR-5)

BACKGROUND

Fresh back from a deployment, the USS Liberty was ordered to proceed to Rota, Spain and await further orders., By order of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as Russian speaking Marine was assigned to the Liberty at Rota. They then proceeded to a station 15 miles off the coast of Israel.

At this point in the war, Israel had destroyed the Egyptian Air Force and recaptured the Sinai peninsula. They were in the process of secretly moving their army North to meet the threats there. The Liberty posed a threat of disclosure by monitoring Israeli communications. The Liberty therefore needed to be sunk.

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.

TIMELINE

0600HRS* Liberty is overflown several times by Nord Noratlas aircraft bearing Israeli markings.

0900HRS Two unidentified delta winged fighter jets were seen orbiting the ship.

1000HRS Two unmarked, rocket-armed, delta-winged jets circle Liberty three times. Liberty officers can count rockets and see the pilots, but see no identifying marks on the plane. The jets radio Israeli headquarters that the ship is flying an American flag.

1015HRS Captain William L. McGonagle orders crew to openly sunbathe on deck. He joins them.

USS LIBERTY

1030HRS Israeli C-119 “flying boxcar” with Israeli markings circles Liberty at about 200 feet. Crew member Larry Weaver says, “I was actually able to wave to the co-pilot, a fellow on the right-hand side of the plane. He waved back, and actually smiled at me.”

ISDFA C-119’s

1357HRS Israeli Mirage jets attack Liberty with 30mm cannon fire. Eight crewmen were either killed immediately or received fatal injuries and died later, and 75 were wounded.[39] Among the wounded was McGonagle, who was hit in the right thigh and arm.[40] 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”.

ISDFA Mirage IIIC

1409HRS- The carrier USS America immediately launched the F-4 Phantom II aircraft that were on Alert 5. Unfortunately, these aircraft were armed with nuclear weapons and were recalled by SECDEF McNamara, personally, on the radio to the flight commander.

1424HRS Three French-built 62-ton Israeli motor torpedo boats approach Liberty in attack formation. Because the Israeli fighters had destroyed the American flag, Captain McGonagle orders the signalman to hoist the “holiday ensign,” the largest flag the ship has.

Photo Taken from aboard USS Liberty.

1435HRS Torpedo boats launch five German-made 19-inch torpedoes at Liberty. One torpedo strikes starboard directly into NSA area, accounting for 25 of the 34 men who would be killed. Torpedo boats then circle, machine-gunning the ship with armor-piercing projectiles for another 40 minutes.

1455HRS Unidentified aircraft drop napalm canisters on the Liberty, setting the ship on fire.

1500HRS NSA Sigint Command Center receives first notice of the attack from either the America or Saratoga: “USS Liberty has been reportedly torpedoed by unknown source in Med near 32N 33E. Request examine all communications for possible reaction/reflections and report accordingly.”

1515HRS Lifeboats are lowered into the water. The gunboats close and destroy them with cannon fire. Two Israeli SA-321 Super Frelon Hornet assault helicopters carrying soldiers in battle dress circle ship several times, then depart.

1520HRS The USS America has steamed out of range of the USS Liberty. However, volunteer crews including all four squadron commanders launch on a one way mission to defend the Liberty.

1530HRS Phantom II’s are recalled a second time.

1532HRS President Johnson is informed of the attack on the Liberty.

1535HRS Commander of Sixth Fleet announces that 12 aircraft will be launched at 1545 to arrive near Liberty at 1715.

1545HRS Third flight of Phantoms launch from the America.

1600HRS Liberty transmits: “Flash, flash, flash. I pass in the blind. We are under attack by aircraft and high-speed surface craft.” Deputy Director Louis Tordella is informed by Deputy Director of Joint Reconnaissance Center, Captain Vineyard, that “consideration was then being given by some unnamed Washington authorities to sink the Liberty in order that newspaper men would be unable to photograph her and thus inflame public opinion against the Israelis.” Tordella makes an “impolite” comment about the idea, writes a memo of the conversation for the record, and stores it away.

1614HRS American embassy relays Israeli apology to White House, Department of State, and Sixth Fleet that an unidentified “maybe Navy” ship has been erroneously attacked.

1630HRS Israeli jets and three torpedo boats return, offer assistance. Captain McGonagle refuses their help. Boats leave after 12 minutes.

1639HRS Secretary of Defense McNamara again orders rescue planes recalled; order is confirmed by President Johnson because “we are not going to embarrass an ally.” Naval Air Attaché at U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Commander Ernest Castle, is summoned to Israeli Defense Forces headquarters.

1729HRS Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis, commander of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, protests decision to recall rescue planes to Secretary of Defense McNamara. At that point President Johnson comes on the phone and says he didn’t care if the ship sunk, he would not embarrass his allies. Admiral Geis tells Lt. Commander David Lewis, head of the Liberty’s NSA group, of the remark, but asks him not to repeat it until after he dies. It is a promise Lewis will honor.

MOH

1915HRS Captain McGonagle, wounded and exhausted, dictates first report on estimated casualties: 10 dead; 15 severely wounded; 75 total wounded; undetermined missing. His estimates would prove low. Wounded early in the attack, McGonagle ordered that he be lashed to the wheel. For this action he will be awarded the Medal of Honor. On 11 JUN 1968, Captain McGonagle is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Medal, usually presented by the President of the United States at the White House, is presented by the Secretary of the Navy during a hastily arranged ceremony at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard. Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, the Chief of Naval Operations, calls the way the Medal is presented a back-handed slap. “Everyone else received their medal at the White House,” Moorer will later observe. “President Johnson must have been concerned about the reaction of the Israeli lobby.”

AFTER THE ATTACK

9 June 1967:

After midnight: Soviet guided missile destroyer sends flashing-light message in English: “Do you need help?” Liberty responds: “No thank you.” Soviets answer: “I will stand by in case you need me.”

0600: USS Navy destroyers Davis and Massey arrive.

Mid-morning: Dead and wounded are evacuated by helicopter. Thirty four Americans were killed in the attack and another 174 were wounded.  

Damage can be clearly seen in this picture. Click to enlarge.

The crew of the Liberty effect damage control on their ship and sail her to the Port of Valletta, Malta, under its own power. Of a crew of 294 officers and men (including three civilians), the ship suffered thirty four (34) killed in action and one hundred seventy three (173) wounded in action.  The ship itself, a Forty Million ($40,000,000) Dollar state of the art signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform, was so badly damaged that it never sailed on an operational mission again and was sold in 1970 for $101,666.66 as scrap.

*Local Time

References

Two 12-page articles have appeared in AMEU’s bimonthly publication The Link:

  • “The USS Liberty Affair,” by James E. Ennes, Jr. This issue is available in PDF download from the AMEU website. Search by author or year (1984).
  • “Remember the Liberty,” by John Borne, with an introductory memorandum by Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This issue is available in PDF download from the AMEU website. Search by author or year (1997).

Ennes, James, Assault on the Liberty, 2002 edition. Available from AMEU, $25.00 Ennes was the lieutenant on watch at the time the Israelis first attacked the Liberty. A full chapter is devoted to Israel’s motives for knowingly attacking the ship.

Bamford, James, Body of Secrets, 2001 edition. Available from AMEU, $19.95. Bamford offers several important pieces of information previous classified. On page 226, e.g., he tells of President Johnson’s reaction:

The official web site for the USS Liberty is: www.ussLiberty.org.

Senior Chief Edward C. Byers

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Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Edward C. Byers Jr., United States Navy, distinguished himself by heroic gallantry as an Assault Team Member attached to a Joint Task Force in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM on 8 December 2012.

Dr. Dilip Joseph is an American citizen, who was abducted with his driver and Afghan interpreter on 5 December 2012. Intelligence reports indicated that Dr. Joseph might be transported to another location as early as 9 December 2012. Dr. Joseph was being held in a small, single-room building.

The target compound was located in a remote area beside a mountain in the Qarghah’i District of Laghman Province, Afghanistan. Chief Byers was part of the rescue team that planned to make entry into the room of guards where the hostage was believed to be located. Success of the rescue operation relied upon surprise, speed, and aggressive action. Trading personal security for speed of action was inherent to the success of this rescue mission. Each assaulter in the rescue force volunteered for this operation with full appreciation for the risks they were to undertake.

With the approval of the Commander of all International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, the rescue force launched from its forward operating base. The infiltration was an exhaustive patrol across unimproved trails and mountainous terrain. After nearly four hours of patrolling, the rescue force was positioned to make its assault on the target compound.

As the patrol closed to within 25 meters of the target building, a guard became aware of the rescue force. The forward-most assaulter shot at the guard and ran towards the door to make entry as the guard disappeared inside. Chief Byers was the second assaulter in a sprint towards the door. Six layers of blankets securely fastened to the ceiling and walls served as the Afghan door. While Chief Byers tried to rip down the blankets, the first assaulter pushed his way through the doorway and was immediately shot by enemy AK-47 fire. Chief Byers, fully aware of the hostile threat inside the room, boldly entered and immediately engaged a guard pointing an AK-47 towards him. As he was engaging that guard, another adult male darted towards the corner of the room. Chief Byers could not distinguish if the person may have been the hostage scrambling away or a guard attempting to arm himself with an AK-47 that lay in the corner. Chief Byers tackled the unknown male and seized control of him. While in hand-to-hand combat, Chief Byers maintained control of the unknown male with one hand, while adjusting the focus of his night vision goggles (NVGs) with his other. Once his NVGs were focused, he recognized that the male was not the hostage and engaged the struggling armed guard.

By now other team members had entered the room and were calling to Dr. Joseph to identify himself. Chief Byers heard an unknown voice speak English from his right side. He immediately leaped across the room and selflessly flung his body on top of the American hostage, shielding him from the continued rounds being fired across the room. Almost simultaneously, Chief Byers identified an additional enemy fighter directly behind Dr. Joseph. While covering the hostage with his body, Chief Byers was able to pin the enemy combatant to the wall with his hand around the enemy’s throat. Unable to fire any effective rounds into the enemy, Chief Byers was able to restrain the combatant enough to enable his teammate to fire precision shots, eliminating the final threat within the room.

Chief Byers quickly talked to Dr. Joseph, confirming that he was able to move. He and his Team Leader stood Dr. Joseph up, calmed him, and let him know he was safe with American Forces. Once Dr. Joseph was moved to the helicopter-landing zone, Chief Byers, a certified paramedic and 18D medic, assisted with the rendering of medical aid to the urgent surgical assaulter. Chief Byers and others performed CPR during the 40-minute flight to Bagram Airfield where his teammate was declared deceased.

Chief Petty Officer Byers displayed superior gallantry, extraordinary heroism at grave personal risk, dedication to his teammates, and calm tactical leadership while liberating Dr. Dilip Joseph from captivity. He is unquestionably deserving of the Medal of Honor.

CITATION TO ACCOMPANY
THE AWARD OF
THE MEDAL OF H0ONOR
TO
SENIOR CHIEF EDWARD C. BYERS

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a Hostage Rescue Force Team Member in Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM from 8 to 9 December 2012. As the rescue force approached the target building, an enemy sentry detected them and darted inside to alert his fellow captors. The sentry quickly reemerged, and the lead assaulter attempted to neutralize him. Chief Byers with his team sprinted to the door of the target building. As the primary breacher, Chief Byers stood in the doorway fully exposed to enemy fire while ripping down six layers of heavy blankets fastened to the inside ceiling and walls to clear a path for the rescue force. The first assaulter pushed his way through the blankets, and was mortally wounded by enemy small arms fire from within. Chief Byers, completely aware of the imminent threat, fearlessly rushed into the room and engaged an enemy guard aiming an AK-47 at him. He then tackled another adult male who had darted towards the corner of the room. During the ensuing hand-to-hand struggle, Chief Byers confirmed the man was not the hostage and engaged him. As other rescue team members called out to the hostage, Chief Byers heard a voice respond in English and raced toward it. He jumped atop the American hostage and shielded him from the high volume of fire within the small room. While covering the hostage with his body, Chief Byers immobilized another guard with his bare hands, and restrained the guard until a teammate could eliminate him. His bold and decisive actions under fire saved the lives of the hostage and several of his teammates. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of near certain death, Chief Petty Officer Byers reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas D. Checque, 28, of Monroeville, Pa., died of combat related injuries suffered Dec. 8, 2012 while supporting operations near Kabul, Afghanistan.