The USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was the sister ship of the USS Pueblo. It was an intelligence gathering ship. Auxiliary Technical Research ship (AGTR), 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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. Among the wounded was McGonagle, who was hit in the right thigh and arm. 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: