William McGonagle was born November 19, 1925 in Wichita, Kansas. After attending secondary school and college in California, he enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and for the next three years participated in a Navy training program at the University of Southern California.
In June 1947 he accepted a commission into the Navy as an ensign. He was assigned to the destroyer USS Frank Knox and after that was posted to the minesweeper USS Partridge from 1947–1950. During the Korean War he served on the minesweeper USS Kite during the extensive operations that earned him and the other members of the crew a Presidential Unit Citation. From 1951 to 1966, he was assigned to various positions ashore and afloat, including commands of the fleet tug USS Mataco from 1957–1958 and the salvage ship USS Reclaimer from 1961–1963.
He took command of the USS Liberty in April 1966. On June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors, the Liberty was attacked by Israeli forces while sailing in international waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Israeli government claims to this day that they thought that the ship was an Egyptian vessel. Israel relentlessly attacked the Liberty with jets, helicopters, and motor torpedo boats. McGonagle was severely wounded during the first air attack and although the bridge had sustained heavy damage he stayed and directed the defense of the ship, refusing to leave his post for medical attention. As the Israeli fighters continued their attack he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Captain McGonagle remained at his battle station and continued to command his ship for more than 17 hours. It was only after rendezvous with a U.S. destroyer that he relinquished personal control of the Liberty and permitted himself to be removed from the bridge. The combined air and sea attack killed 34 crew members including naval officers, seamen, two Marines, and a civilian, wounded 171, and severely damaged the ship. Although the ship had a 39 ft (12 m) wide by 24 ft (7.3 m) high hole and a twisted keel from a torpedo impact, the crew kept the ship afloat, and were able to leave the area under their own power. When the damage to the ship was assessed 821 rocket, shell, and machine-gun holes were found in the ship’s hull.
On March 3, 1999 he died in Palm Springs, California and, following services at the Post Chapel at Fort Myer, Virginia, he was buried with full military honors on April 9, 1999 at Arlington National Cemetery with members of his USS Liberty crew in attendance. His grave can be found in section 34, lot 208 map grid U/V 11 near the common gravesite of six other members of the USS Liberty crew.
Congressional Medal Of Honor Citation
Captain William L. McGonagle, U.S. Navy
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sailing in international waters, the Liberty was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats which inflicted many casualties among the crew and caused extreme damage to the ship. Although severely wounded during the first air attack, Capt. McGonagle remained at his battle station on the badly damaged bridge and, with full knowledge of the seriousness of his wounds, subordinated his own welfare to the safety and survival of his command. Steadfastly refusing any treatment which would take him away from his post, he calmly continued to exercise firm command of his ship. Despite continuous exposure to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Capt. McGonagle’s extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of the Liberty’s crew, many of them seriously wounded, to heroic efforts to overcome the battle damage and keep the ship afloat. Subsequent to the attack, although in great pain and weak from the loss of blood, Captain McGonagle remained at his battle station and continued to command his ship for more than 17 hours. It was only after rendezvous with a U.S. destroyer that he relinquished personal control of the Liberty and permitted himself to be removed from the bridge. Even then, he refused much needed medical attention until convinced that the seriously wounded among his crew had been treated. Capt. McGonagle’s superb professionalism, courageous fighting spirit, and valiant leadership saved his ship and many lives. His actions sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
[Note: Captain McGonagle earned the Medal of Honor for actions that took place in international waters in the Eastern Mediterranean rather than in Vietnam.]
From The Log: Spring 1999 (Front Page): Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient – CAPT William McGONAGLE – Commissioned: USC NROTC, Class of 1947, dies.
McGonagle lost his bout with lung cancer on Wednesday, Mar 3, 1999, the same day as the NROTC Alumni League Board of Directors spring meeting in the Commons Building on the USC campus. At that meeting, unaware of McGonagle’s passing, Bill Stevens announced that McGonagle’s lung cancer had recurred. After the announcement, the Board voted to assume the funding of the annual William McGonagle Scholarship Award for an outstanding midshipmen at League expense, if and when the Captain passed on.
The story of Captain McGonagle’s ordeal with the air and sea attacks on his ship, the USS Liberty, by Israeli planes and PT boats was chronicled in the 1997 Alumni League Log.
Half of Bill’s ashes were scattered at sea off of Hawaii. The other half buried with the 34 members of his crew, who were killed on the LIBERTY, in a special section at Arlington National Cemetery.
Bill had undergone chemotherapy treatments during the first half of 1998. Recently, while on the east coast, he discovered his cancer had recurred. He is survived by two daughters, Cindy and Sandi.