The Violation of the Liberty
Richard K. Smith
At 1403 on Thursday, 8 June 1967, the US electronics intelligence ship Liberty (AGTR-5) was steaming at a leisurely five knots, 14 miles offshore from the Egyptian town of El Arish on the Mediterranean coast of Sinai, when she was attacked by Israeli fighter-bombers. The attack continued for seven minutes, leaving eight of the ship’s crew dead or dying, more than 100 wounded, and the ship riddled and burning.
Fourteen minutes later, the Liberty was attacked by three Israeli torpedo boats which raked the ship with gunfire – killing another four men – and then launched torpedoes. One torpedo hit a communications compartment, multiplying the Liberty’s dead to a total of 34. Within 30 minutes of the torpedo attack, two helicopters carrying armed troops appeared alongside, and two jet fighters loitered in the sky astern as if poised for strikes. As suddenly as it had started, everything stopped. Israel said it was a “mistake.” Thus ended the Navy’s bloodiest peacetime international incident of the 20th century.1
The Liberty was one of eight merchant-type ships which were modified between 1960 and 1966 to perform electronic intelligence missions.2 Built in 1945 as the SS Simmons Victory, she was in mothballs off and on from 1948 – 1963 before being converted to naval service. She was commissioned 30 December 1964 at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, then proceeded the following spring to her new home port, Norfolk, Virginia. Though nominally under Service Squadron Eight, her operations were in fact directly controlled by the Joint Reconnaissance Command, part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff organization.
Classified as a “technical research ship,” the world understood her mission as “research in communications and electromagnetic radiation.”3 This was a marvelous over-simplification of a vast spectrum of passive capabilities. The ship was usually manned by 20 officers and 300 enlisted men; about 100 of the latter were communications technicians. In the summer of 1966, the Liberty initiated a series of cruises along the west coast of Africa between Dakar and Capetown, showing the flag, making goodwill visits, and presumably studying the airways en route. On 1 May 1967, the Liberty took departure from Cape Henry under the command of Commander William L. McGonagle with 19 officers and 295 men on board. This was her fourth cruise to Africa.
Meanwhile, years of poison in the Middle East heated up to a new boil. In May, Egypt evicted a United Nations peacekeeping force (which had been watching the Egyptian-Israeli border since 1957) and began an ominous military buildup in the Sinai peninsula. Israel refused to accept the UN force on its side of the frontier and gave indications of preparing for a preventive war. The Eastern Mediterranean suddenly became a logical place to deploy a ship of the Liberty’s unusual capabilities.
At 0345 on 24 May, the Liberty was in the port of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, when she received orders to get under way immediately to Rota, Spain, whence she was to proceed to the vicinity of Port Said, Egypt. The rest of her African cruise was canceled. On the morning of 1 June, the Liberty moored in Rota and took on 380,000 gallons of fuel, miscellaneous stores, and some vitally need spare parts for her TRSSCOMS. The TRSSCOMS (technical research ship special communications system) was a radio device, experimental and quite exotic in 1967, which could transmit messages from most of the distant areas of the world to the United States by bouncing its signals off the moon. Otherwise, the ship’s data collections had to be sent via select relay stations ashore, a process which consumed many hours instead of a few minutes.
Within six hours of her arrival, the Liberty was ready to sail but was held at Rota until three civilian technicians from the National Security Agency could be flown in from the United States. When they were finally on board, she got under way on the afternoon of 2 June and during the next five days her best speed (17 knots) for the Eastern Mediterranean. While the Liberty was steaming off the south coast of Sicily on the morning of 5 June, Israel launched pre-emptive air strikes against the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and destroyed them on the ground. At the same time, Israeli ground forces invaded the Sinai and swept westward to occupy the east bank of the Suez Canal. This was the third Arab-Israeli War in 20 years. It lasted six days, ending in a cease-fire to which Israel agreed with great reluctance.4
A vital part of Israel’s war plan was preventing the rest of the world from knowing about its military victories until they could be presented together as a fait accompli. After two or three days, this news blackout created great anxieties among the civilian population of Israel, but it was more important to keep foreign powers in the dark. The Israeli leaders feared superpower pressures for a cease-fire before they could seize the territory which they considered necessary for Israel’s future security. Any instrument which sought to penetrate this smoke screen so carefully thrown around the normal “fog of war” would have to be frustrated.
At about 0300 on 8 June, the fourth day of the war, the Liberty arrived on her designated station which was bounded by 33 degrees and 34 degrees East longitude, by the 32nd parallel to the north. As for the southern boundary, Egypt claimed a territorial sea of 12 miles, Israel only six miles, so the Liberty had orders to approach no closer to shore from 12.5 and 6.5 miles respectively. From the center of this cruising station, an arc of 250 miles encompasses Damascus, most of Jordan and the Sinai peninsula, all of the Nile Delta including Cairo, and all of Israel. In her first hours on station, the Liberty was moving inshore toward the coastal town of El Arish to obtain visual bearings which would allow her to retire with accuracy to a more discreet distance.
In their blitzkrieg of 5 June, the Israelis had used “dibber” bombs to crater the paved runways of Arab air bases and thus render them unusable. The runways at El Arish were spared because the Israelis planned to over-run the base and use it for themselves. By the time the Liberty arrived, the former Egyptian airfield, which is inland from the sea, was functioning as an advanced Israeli air base.5
Shortly after daybreak on 8 June, the Liberty’s combat information center reported a slow-moving air contact on radar to Ensign John D. Scott, the officer of the deck. Around 0515, he watched the airplane circle the Liberty three times and fly away toward Tel Aviv.6 The airplane was a French-built Nord 2501 Noratlas transport. Until President Charles de Gaulle imposed a Middle East arms embargo on the eve of the Six-Day War, France was Israel’s principal supplier of military hardware. The Israeli Air Force operated a dozen Noratlases. A twin-engine cargo plane with its tail group carried on twin booms similar to an American C-119 “flying boxcar,” it was distinctive to the eye even at great distances. In the Six-Day War, the Israelis employed their Noratlases not only in troop carrying and battlefield resupply but also in maritime reconnaissance.7
Meanwhile, the engine room called for permission to blow soot from the boiler tubes. Ensign Scott went out on a wing of the bridge to look at the flag in order to determine the wind’s direction and force. The flag, a standard ensign of five by eight feet, was flying from one of the starboard halyards of the huge steel tripod mast which towered like an oil driller’s derrick almost 100 feet above the flying bridge. At 0553, Scott changed course to 190 degrees and gave permission to blow tubes.
At the moment of the Liberty’s course change, it was 0353 Zulu (Greenwich Mean Time) in US military command posts the world over and 2353 Eastern Daylight Time on June 7 in Washington, D.C., where the position of the Liberty had been of some concern for at least five hours. At 2350Z (1950 EDT), more than five hours before the Liberty arrived off El Arish, an officer of the Joint Reconnaissance Center in Washington phoned the headquarters of the Commander in Chief, US Naval Forces Europe (CinCUSNavEur) in London with an oral order to have the Liberty stay clear of the coasts of Egypt, Israel, and Syria by 100 miles. The telephone order was followed up by a message from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There was nothing extraordinary in this, because earlier on 7 June, Commander Sixth Fleet, acting upon orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered that all of his units should stay clear of belligerent territory by 100 miles. This order was a political reaction to the Egyptian accusation that Sixth Fleet aircraft had participated in the Israeli air strikes of 5 June. Because the Liberty might be understood – or misunderstood – to be an exception to this order, it was felt necessary to be certain she was included. Although the ship might prove to be a minor political embarrassment, no one imagined she was in danger.
At 0800, the watch changed. At 0850, a jet fighter circled the ship and headed off toward shore. At 1030, two jet fighters circled the ship twice and flew off toward the south. The jet planes were flying high enough that their national markings could not be seen, but ever since the morning of 5 June the skies over Sinai had been the exclusive property of Israel. At 1056, the Noratlas appeared again and flew four slow circles around the Liberty. It reappeared overhead at 1126 and again at 1220. Lieutenant James G. Ennes, officer of the deck, noted that on each overflight it circled for about ten minutes and did not make any attempt to signal the Liberty.
Meanwhile at 1117, Commander Sixth Fleet, acting upon the orders of CinCUSNavEur and the JCS, had prepared the message for the Liberty which directed her to move 100 miles offshore.
During the lunch hour, most of the off-watch officers and crew spread themselves around the decks to soak up a bit of sun. Lieutenant George H. Golden, the chief engineer, was lying in a deck chair from which he watched the Noratlas fly directly overhead. Assuming that the crewmen of the Israeli aircraft were looking down at the Liberty in these moments, what they saw was a large merchant ship, its decks littered with a hundred or more half-naked bodies staring sightlessly at the sky. It was not a scene that suggested menace. The chief engineer’s eye also inspected his stack for smoke and caught on the flag flying from the bridge mast. At lunch Golden had remarked to Lieutenant (junior grade) Malcolm Warson that he wished they were flying their 7 by 13-foot holiday ensign which provided twice the area for identification.
The Liberty carried more conspicuous identification than her national ensign. Victory-type hulls festooned with antennae were rare commodities, limited to the Liberty and her sister USS Belmont (AGTR-4). And the big “GTR 5” painted on her bows and the sides of her stern was unique among the world’s ships. Very few of the world’s navies paint the “pennant” numbers of their ships on bows and stern, much less with white paint backed up by black shading to accentuate the white.8 The numeral “5” on the Liberty’s bows was almost 10 feet tall, freshly painted only a few weeks before and quite distinctive at distances of between one or two miles in good visibility. And on this day off El Arish the visibility was excellent.
Lieutenant Golden’s mind turned to the general quarters drill the captain had planned for after the lunch hour. Commander McGonagle was well aware that his ship’s assignment to the Eastern Mediterranean posed significantly greater hazards than the cruising conditions off somnolent West Africa. The Liberty’s “armament” was only a token of the expression. It consisted of four .50-caliber machine guns, two on the forecastle and two aft of the deckhouse. They were on open mounts which did not even have splinter shields.
The Liberty’s only real defense was effective damage control. On 5 June, the day the Arab-Israeli War began, the captain circulated a memo among his bridge and combat personnel which emphasized that “...maximum effort must be made to minimize personnel/material damage, safeguard the watertight integrity of the ship, and continue performance of primary mission.” And he added, “...it is better to set GQ [general quarters] in doubtful cases than to be taken by surprise; take immediate action as may be required by the situation, then advise me of what steps have been taken.”
At 1310, the Liberty’s general announcing system sounded with “This is a drill! General Quarters! All hands man your battle stations...” This was the Liberty’s third GQ drill within four days. All aspects of the drill went well except that it took four minutes and 45 seconds to set Condition Zebra, the ship’s maximum condition of watertightness. Commander McGonagle regarded this as excessive and gave his crew members a brief lecture over the announcing system. He called their attention to a great tower of oily black smoke boiling up into the brilliantly blue sky about 20 miles west of El Arish. It was grim evidence that their ship was in a potentially dangerous position. He insisted that they had to be a team of “heads-up ball players.”
The GQ drill was secured at 1350. The captain checked the ship’s position by radar. She was heading 283 degrees, a shade north of due west, as she had been since 1132. The Liberty was 14 miles off the shoreline. At 1400, lookouts reported jet aircraft to the north, and the captain went out on the starboard wing for a look with his binoculars. There was a single jet fighter about five miles off the starboard quarter at 5,000 feet and paralleling the track of the ship.
The airplane did not appear to be menacing, but the captain was uneasy. He called to Lieutenant (junior grade) Lloyd C. Painter, the officer of the deck, “You’d better call the forward gun mounts.” The guns were fully manned, but lookouts were being kept at the stations. Meanwhile, Ensign Malcolm O’Malley, the junior officer of the deck, was searching the fringes of the radar screen for a distinct bearing on the low and almost featureless shoreline when fast-moving contacts rushed onto the screen at 082 degrees. He reported, “Lloyd, I think I have three contacts here...” But Painter was looking through one of the forward portholes on the bridge and cranking a telephone, trying to alert men on the forecastle gun mounts. Because of peculiarities in the telephone circuit, this exercise was always frustrating.
In this same moment, Commander Sixth Fleet’s message ordering the Liberty to move offshore by 100 miles had just arrived at the US Defense Communications System’s radio station near Asmara, Ethiopia, and was about to be retransmitted to the Naval Communications Station in Greece for relay to the ship. It was a message that did not arrive aboard the Liberty until 10 June when it was hand-delivered to the captain at Malta.9
On board the Liberty, most attention was focused on the “decoy” jet fighter cruising to starboard. Painter was trying to “crank up” the gun stations. O’Malley was watching the three fast surface contacts when he saw additional high-speed “targets” rush onto the screen, pass over the original contacts, and speed toward the center of the radar display. The new blips which seized O’Malley’s eyes were jet planes moving at almost nine miles per minute, dashing in at masthead height from astern.
Before O’Malley could utter a word, a terrific explosion shook the port side of the bridge from amidships. Painter was looking directly at the starboard gun mount when it erupted in a flash and disappeared in a cloud of smoke. In the same instant, everything on the bridge seemed to dissolve into ripples of boom-boom-boom-boom as dozens of rockets ripped through the deckhouse. Commander McGonagle ran in from the wing of the bridge, hit the general quarters alarm, and called the crew to battle stations over the general announcing system. Then he lunged across the wheelhouse to jangle the engine order telegraph to full speed, then flank speed.
The air attack battered its way through the ship from 1403 to 1410. The planes criss-crossed the ship about every 45 seconds, first with rockets and napalm, then strafing. One napalm container hit the port side. Two others were seen to miss the ship and fall into the sea, and it may be presumed that others were dropped and missed. The airplanes were French-built Dassault Super Mystere B.2 fighter-bombers, which possessed a supersonic dash capability and were similar in performance to the US Air Force F-100. Armed to a low-level attack mission, each could carry about two dozen large-caliber unguided rockets. When the rockets were expended, each plane had two 30-mm. cannon to bring to bear. Trained to attack small, maneuverable targets such as tanks and armored vehicles, it was with the greatest ease that the Israeli pilots butchered the large, slow-moving, and defenseless Liberty.
The Israeli aircraft ordnance, designed to penetrate the armor of tanks, punched right through the Liberty’s 22-year old shell plating. Ripping through two or three bulkheads and into the heart of the ship’s living spaces, the projectiles exploded in compartments and passageways with devastating effects upon human flesh. When examined in a shipyard, the Liberty was found to have 821 holes large enough for a man’s fist, and 164 of these were in the vicinity of the bridge. Besides these holes there was fragmentation damage which exceeded reasonable count.
The seven-minute air attack left eight men dead or dying and more than 100 wounded, 50 of them seriously enough that they were completely out of action. And the ship was afire at three different points. In the first 60 seconds, the ship’s executive officer and operations officer were killed, and all of the senior deck officers were put out of action. The helmsman on watch was seriously wounded, and the man who replaced him was killed. The third helmsman, although wounded, managed to remain at his station until the end of the attacks.
The radar was shot away, and the combat information center was useless. Most of the ship’s radio transmitting equipment was badly shot up or put in temporary disarray. The antenna systems were badly damaged. The interior communications room was a shambles. The only internal communications working were the sound-powered telephones, and not all of those circuits were undamaged. Worst of all, the gyro compass was shot away, leaving only a jittery magnetic compass, and the rudder angle indicator mechanism was out of commission. The helmsman could have no idea of how much rudder he was applying. The only instrument on the bridge that still worked was the fathometer. This was fortunate because there was shoal water only a few miles off the port bow.
In those same 60 seconds, Commander McGonagle received an ugly shrapnel wound in his right leg. It spurted blood which transformed the leg of his trousers into a crimson wick which trailed blood across the deck as he rushed from one wing of the bridge to the other, directing firefighting parties through his phone talker, taking photographs of the attacking planes for the record, calling orders to the guns as long as they were manned – and conning his ship.
Ensign David G. Lucas was alarmed by the captain’s blood-soaked trouser-leg, so he whipped off his belt and applied it as a tourniquet. This took only a minute, and then the captain was up and around again, but with increasing pain and increasing hazard to his well-being. In spite of this grievous wound, Commander McGonagle didn’t leave his bridge until after 0700 on 9 June.
The Liberty was still fighting fires when, at 1424, three motor torpedo boats were sighted off the starboard quarter. These were the contacts Ensign O’Malley spotted initially at 1401. Commander McGonagle noticed that the Israeli air attacks had shot away the US flag. Signalman Russell O. Davis rigged a new hoist and ran up the big 7 by 13-foot holiday ensign.
At 1428, one of the motor torpedo boats flashed a message to the Liberty, but it could not be read because of all the smoke from fires burning on the lower weather decks. In any case, the Liberty had no means of reply because the air attacks had destroyed her 24-inch searchlights. There was a 6-inch Aldis lamp on the bridge, but the air attacks had damaged feeders and receptacles on the bridge. Moreover, circuit breakers supplying the bridge had opened, and repair parties had been too busy fighting fires to reset them.
The French-built torpedo boats were of the Israeli AYAH class, 62-tonners capable of 42 knots. They bore in on the Liberty at high speed and raked her decks with 20-mm. and 40-mm. guns, Four more Americans died in this hail of steel.
At 1431, the captain passed the word over the announcing system: “Stand by for torpedo attack, starboard side!” One torpedo was seen to pass 75 yards astern. But at 1435, another torpedo hit the ship in Number 3 hold which was immediately forward of the machinery spaces and enclosed the Liberty’s special communications compartments.
Twenty-two Americans died in those communications spaces.
The concussion of the torpedo’s explosion knocked open the main circuit-breakers in the engine room, and all power was lost. The air attacks had knocked out the emergency diesel generator. The Liberty was dead in the water. Below decks, scores of men in damage control parties worked in a stifling darkness to establish flooding boundaries, shore up weakened decks and bulkheads, plug holes and cracks, and assist a new parade of bloodied men with broken bones, collapsed lungs, and blown-out ear membranes to the dressing stations on the upper decks. And in the engine room machinist’s mates and boilermen labored by flashlight to make their plant come alive once again.
Meanwhile, the torpedo boats broke off from attack and retreated astern of the Liberty as if waiting for the curtain to go up on a third act of the attack. At this moment, the curtain had indeed gone up on a new act. During the attacks, the Liberty’s radio operators had labored at great hazard to their lives to get off a message report of the ship’s ordeal. The ship’s own radio communications were wholly separate from the complex of “mission-oriented” systems below decks. The Liberty’s radiomen worked in radio central which had one of the biggest fires on the ship burning on the weather deck outside, and one bulkhead of their compartment was untouchably hot. The air attacks had damaged their main transmitter. An auxiliary had to be cut in and tuned. Antennae had to be repaired. Meanwhile, rockets and 30-mm. shells were bursting around the radiomen.
When transmissions became possible, they were sent against intense jamming.10 In spite of this, by 1420 the Liberty’s operators had gotten off an attack message to the Sixth Fleet. By 1430, there was enough of a surge in the fleet’s radio traffic to suggest to anyone monitoring these frequencies that something unusual had happened. The carrier America (CVA-66) launched four A-4 Skyhawks armed with Bullpup missiles, the Saratoga (CVA-60) launched four attack planes with a fighter cover, and both carriers launched a cloud of F-4B Phantoms to cover the fleet just in case. The pilots flying to the Liberty’s assistance were “authorized to use force including destruction as necessary.”
At the time that the alarm was ringing through the Sixth Fleet, the Israelis hurried into diplomatic channels to announce their mistake. The Sixth Fleet airplanes were recalled. At 1503, one of the Israeli torpedo boats came abeam of the Liberty and signaled in English: “Do You need assistance?” The printed record says the Liberty replied “negative” or “no thank you.” Other sources say that Captain McGonagle leaned over the wing of his bridge and shouted “GO TO HELL!”11
Within four minutes of this exchange, two French-built Sud 321 Super-Frelon troop-carrying helicopters appeared alongside the Liberty, straddling the ship to port and starboard, one forward and the other aft. And two jet fighters were seen loitering astern of the ship, as if on call for a second strike. The helicopters hovered as if they did not know what to do next – as if they had missed their cue. They were not there for rescue service; they were carrying armed troops. Neither machine attempted to signal the Liberty. And as ominously as they has appeared, they mysteriously departed.
The men of the Liberty did not know it yet, but the torpedo assault of 1435 was the last attack. Power was regained at 1435, and the Liberty limped off to the north at eight knots. She had a ten degrees list from the tons of water in her flooded communications spaces. Steering had to be done from the emergency station aft and by magnetic compass, both of which were awkward. For more than an hour, the torpedo boats buzzed around the ship, occasionally threatening high-speed runs on the Liberty. From time to time, unidentified jet fighters circled the ship.
At 1841, a Sikorksy S.58 helicopter with Israeli markings approached the ship. Commander Ernest C. Castle, the naval attaché to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, was on board. He dropped a note and indicated he wanted to come aboard. But under the circumstances this was scant identification, a landing was inexpedient, and Commander McGonagle waved the helicopter away.
The captain continued to conn his ship. At sunset a chair was rigged for him on the port wing of the bridge so he could conn the ship through the night by keeping one eye on her wake and the other on the north star. He could have gone below for detailed medical attention to his wounds, but his ship and his men were more important. As Lieutenant Richard F. Kiepfer, the Liberty’s medical officer explained it:
“The commanding officer at that time was like a rock upon which the rest of the men supported themselves. To know that he was on the bridge grievously wounded, yet having the conn and the helm and through the night calling every change of course, was the thing that told the [wounded] ‘we’re going to live.’ When I went to the bridge and saw this, I should say that I knew that I could only insult this man by suggesting that he be taken below for treatment of his wounds. I didn’t even suggest it.”
At 0700 on 9 June, the Liberty rendezvoused with the destroyer Davis (DD-937), and shortly thereafter the America appeared on the scene. After spending 18 hours on the bridge, Commander McGonagle finally went below.
The Liberty’s scores of wounded were shuttled to the America by helicopter, and the most critically wounded were flown off the carrier by C-1A Trader logistics planes to Athens for further air transport to the naval hospital in Naples. Commander McGonagle was not among them. He remained on board his ship until she was dry-docked in Malta, and it was he who took the Liberty home to Pier 17 at the amphibious base, Little Creek, Virginia, where she moored on 29 July.
During the action of 8 June, the Liberty’s crew was certain that their attackers were from the Arab states. At that time, the relations between the Arab states and the United States were at a diplomatic low, and during the Six-Day War diplomatic relations were ruptured. However, for all the men of the Liberty knew, World War III had begun. When they discovered that their attackers were in fact Israelis – ostensible friends – they were baffled, then angry, and finally bitter. And through the bitterness of more than ten years has been asked, “Why?”
Israel claimed that the 10,000 ton, 459-foot Liberty was mistaken for the ancient Egyptian troopship El Quseir of 2,640 tons, 275 feet long, and which had a radically different deck plan and silhouette. Indeed, it is likely that the Israelis just picked out the Egyptian ship which most resembled the Liberty, even though this was a remarkable exercise in imagination. And the Israelis attempted to make much out of the allegation that the Liberty was not flying a flag, which was nonsense – until the Super-Nysteres shot it away.
Most knowledgeable persons wondered how the unmistakable silhouette of the ubiquitous Victory ship, not to mention the Liberty’s unusual antenna arrays, did not make for immediate recognition.12 These elementary factors led some American news media to speculate immediately that the attack may have been deliberate.13 The US government accepted Israel’s apology. The Israeli explanation was rejected. On 27 May 1968, Israel paid $3,325,500 in compensation to the next of kin of the 34 men killed.14
Two weeks later, in a muted ceremony in the Washington Navy Yard, Secretary of the Navy Paul Ignatius decorated Captain William L. McGonagle (promoted since the attack) with the Medal of Honor.15 By then, Captain McGonagle was prospective commanding officer of the new ammunition ship Kilauea (AE-26) which was on the eve of her commissioning. And a few days later in Norfolk, the Silver Star was awarded to Lieutenant Maurice H. Bennett, who had taken over as the ship’s communications officer and labored below decks during the attack, and to Ensign David G. Lucas who had functioned as executive officer, operations officer, officer of the deck, quartermaster of the watch, lookout, messenger, and hospital corpsman during the attack.
Engineering personnel are often overlooked when decorations are awarded, but not on board the Liberty. The Silver Star was awarded to Lieutenant George Golden and to Chief Machinist’s Mate Richard J. Brooks, the latter being in charge of the engineering watch during the action. In spite of dreadful circumstances in the machinery spaces, these men kept the “heart of the ship” in working order, and thus held the Liberty’s survival in the realm of possibility.
Lieutenant Richard F. Kiepfer, the medical officer, was also awarded the Silver Star. The fact that 170 Purple Hearts were awarded among the Liberty’s complement provides an idea of the problems faced by Dr. Kiepfer and his two corpsmen. Other decorations were awarded, two of them posthumously. Captain McGonagle himself traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to present the Bronze Star to Virgil L. Brownsfield, who had been his telephone talker on the bridge during the attacks.15 As for the Liberty, her only unusual aspect was the extraordinary communications equipment in her Number 3 hold, most of which was especially manufactured for her mission. And it was destroyed by the Israeli torpedo. The Liberty could not be economically repaired, and on 28 June 1968 she was decommissioned. The officer who closed out her log was David Lucas. In December 1970, the Navy turned the Liberty over to the Maritime Administration, and she was sold to a ship-breaker for $101,666.66. Towed away to Baltimore’s Curtiss Bay, she was finally reduced to scrap in 1973.
In the meantime, on 28 April 1969, 22 months after the attack, Israel paid $3,556,457 in compensation to those men who were wounded.16 This was obtained only after the claimants retained private legal counsel, the latter taking a substantial part of the award. Although the United States submitted a claim of $7,644,146 for the material damage inflicted upon the Liberty, the government of Israel has refused to pay it.
The whole Israeli attitude toward the Liberty incident has been singularly callous. Americans in Israel at the time of the attack remarked with some surprise that no Israelis of their regular acquaintance saw fit to offer their personal regrets about the unfortunate attack upon the Liberty, even by way of off-hand conversation.17 These Israeli attitudes make an interesting contrast to the only comparable incident which has occurred within recent years, the attack upon the USS Panay (PR-5) 30 years earlier.
On 13 December 1937, the gunboat Panay was strafed, bombed and sunk in the Yangtze River by Japanese dive-bombers during the initial weeks of the confused “China Incident” which four years later became an aspect of World War II. Three men, including one civilian, were killed; a dozen were seriously wounded. Many individual Japanese called upon the US Embassy in Tokyo to express their personal regrets; many others telephoned. Japanese schools took up collections for the survivors and next of kin. The admiral in charge of operations in China and the air officer who commanded the squadrons that took part in the attack were relieved of their commands. And Japan remitted its monetary compensation on 22 April 1938, less than five months after the incident.18
If there is a timeless lesson to be relearned from the savage violation of the Liberty it is that nations do not have “friends.” They have only interests. An elementary lecture on this subject was given by George Washington in his farewell address. His words are every bit as valid today as they were in 1796, and perhaps a bit more so. They deserve the review of every American and the special attention of officers serving with the Sixth Fleet.19 In any given set of circumstances nations are guided to action by what they perceive to best serve their own interests. They do not act in terms of the dreadfully over-simplified caricatures with which Americans and their news media like to personalize and sentimentalize the iron politics among nations.
Whatever euphoric sentiments may seem to be at large in the farrago of foreign relations, the firm fact remains that there is such a thing as raison d’etat. In a clutch, nations act upon it. Its execution usually leaves hurt feelings. On occasion, it spills blood.
1. Except as noted, all data herein are taken from the Liberty’s court of inquiry, the testimony, appendices, and exhibits of which run to 600-some pages, and the deck logs of the Liberty, America (CVA-66), Saratoga (CVA-60, Little Rock (CLG-4), Davis DD-937), Massey (DD-778), and Papago (ATF-160).
2. See J.A. Culver, “A Time for Victories,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings, February 1977, pp. 50-56, and especially the extended comment by H.L. Holthaus, September 1977, pp. 87-89.
3. Raymond V.B. Blackman, editor, Jane’s Fighting Ships: 1965-66 (Great Missenden, Bucks., England: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd., 1965), p. 394.
4. Zeev Schiff, A History of the Israeli Army (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), pp. 159-160.
5. “Blasted Arab MIG’s Clutter Base in Sinai,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 14 August 1967, pp. 92-93.
6. Except as noted, all times cited herein are Bravo, i.e. local time off El Arish.
7. “Noratlases Flew Patrol, Supply Missions,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 17 July 1967, pp. 89-91, 93, 96.
8. Australia and Chile are two nations whose navies use systems virtually identical to that of the US Navy, including large block numerals on both bow and stern. It was, however, unlikely that any Australian or Chilean warships would be in the Mediterranean that day.
9. The American news media subsequently made much about messages to the Liberty being “misrouted,” etc., but these accounts are terribly garbled and produce a substantial perversion of the truth. Given the time frame in which everything occurred, there is no way in which the “move off” message could have reached the Liberty before the attack except by way of high precedence “flash,” but there was no reason to use that precedence until after 1403 Brava.
10. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Israelis “error” is that they jammed US Navy communications frequencies, then claimed they thought they were attacking an Egyptian ship.
11. Micha Limor, “Israeli Navy Man Describes Attack on the Liberty,” New York Times, 7 July 1967, p.3.
12. For editorial comment, see “Death on the Liberty,” New York Times, 10 June 1967, p. 32.
13. “Sinking the Liberty: Accident or Design?” Newsweek, 19 June 1967, p.21.
14. US Department of State Bulletin, 2 June 1969, p. 473.
15. “Honor Medal Awarded To Skipper of Liberty,” Navy Times, 26 June 1968, p.2; “Hero Travels To Give Medal,” Navy Times, 21 July 1968, p. 2.
16. US Department of State Bulletin, 2 June 1969, p. 473.
17. “Damage to Ship Described,” Evening Star (Washington), 16 June 1967, p. A-3.
18. Hamilton Darby Perry, The Panay Incident: Prelude to Pearl Harbor (New York: Macmillan, 1969), pp. 195-196, 220-222, 233.
19. Reprinted in Henry Steele Commager, editor, Documents of American History, 6th edition (New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts, 1958), pp. 169-175.
Dr. Richard K. Smith spent more than 12 years (including two as a Naval Reserve officer) at sea as a marine engineer. He holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Airships Akron and Macon: Flying Aircraft Carriers of the US Navy and the prize-winning First Across! The US Navy’s Transatlantic Flight of 1919, both Naval Institute books. This article originally appeared in Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1978.
Now-dead link: www.kilroy.cx/Vietnam/AGER_AGTR.html
‘In an article by Richard K. Smith it is stated that the two AGTR’s were the Liberty and Belmont. There were in fact six AGTR’s. I was aboard USS Oxford (AGTR-1) from 1963 until 1965. There were a bunch of us and not all were naval vessels, only the AGxx’s.’
Al Jazeera English, 3 November 2014: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tx72tAWVcoM