The Torpedo Attack

When the jets realized they couldn’t sink Liberty, they called off the attack and left. Before the crew could breathe a sigh of relief, Captain McGonagle came over the intercom, ordering the crew to prepare for a torpedo hit, starboard side.
“I could see the torpedo boats coming at us at a high rate of speed,” Tourney recalls. “Unlike the jets, the boats were proudly flying their flag with its Star of David. I initially breathed a sigh of relief, foolishly thinking that our beloved ally had scared off the jets and were coming to our rescue. That delusion lasted for only a minute, until I saw the splash of several torpedoes being dropped in the water as they headed toward us. Unable to find a big enough vein during the air assault, the vampire now moved to a different part of our neck, searching out the jugular.”

Three torpedo boats fired 40mm cannons and launched five torpedoes at Liberty. Since she was a virtually unarmed vessel and not a military threat, at no time did the torpedo boats request the Liberty surrender.

The crew braced themselves in “torpedo attack mode, which meant bending your knees and elbows, putting your hands against the bulkhead and relaxing your neck. This last action is nearly impossible when you know that death is approaching,” says Tourney.

Many crewmembers credit their skipper for his skill and professionalism under pressure. “Realizing Liberty was in immediate danger, [McGonagle] took evasive action and yelled to Helmsman Frank Brown to make a hard left,” notes Casale from his research. This action forced four of the five torpedoes to miss the ship, but the fifth found its mark, “striking Liberty on the starboard side, a little forward of the bridge [piercing the hull at the waterline].”

“I was directly above the explosion … a mere eight feet away … and it was literally deafening,” says Tourney. “My eardrums were blown out, something I live with to this day as a reminder of what happened. My feet remained on the floor and, at the same time, I was airborne. We all were, because the ship was picked completely up out of the water by the force of the explosion. When it came back down, it bounced like ball that had been tossed onto the pavement.”

Even with his impaired hearing, Tourney could hear “moaning, groaning and wailing … not of wounded men, but rather of a wounded ship, as metal gave way to the rush of sea water in the compartment directly below me.” Grateful that the torpedo hadn’t hit the engine room and blown the Liberty to bits, Tourney still braced himself as the ship settled and began to list. “It seemed impossible that she would not go down, but miraculously … and I do mean miraculously … she steadied herself.”

Bowen was one deck above the secure Communications section and the Process and Reporting (P&R) shop, which was where the torpedo hit, at and below the water level. “We were thrown from the deck to the overhead and back, as was a lot of the equipment. Many suffered concussions and injuries as a result. And the torpedo hit knocked out all our [electrical power]. We immediately realized that the shipmates below needed to be evacuated from the research spaces that had been hit. Lt. Maurice Bennett sent me to secure the entrance to the research space, which was restricted to CTs. I was positioned at the door to ensure security and also to hand out life jackets to those who were evacuated from the flooded compartment.

“When we believed we’d gotten all the surviving crew out of the compartment, the water was four or five inches from coming over the hatch. Lt. Bennett yelled in, asking if anyone was still down there. He told them to bang on something if they weren’t able to yell.” Bowen’s voice catches as he continues, “After [50] years, that memory is just as vivid as if it happened yesterday. Bennett gave the command to dog down the hatch. If he hadn’t, we would have sunk. He had to do it to save the ship and the rest of the crew.”

After helping to secure the Comm spaces, Tourney and Aimetti returned to the main deck and where they helped get survivors to a hatch or corner that might provide some protection as they fought for their lives. The fight wasn’t over yet.

“Now, instead of the jets firing at us with machine guns, it was the gunner aboard the torpedo boats,” recollects Tourney. “They circled the ship like vultures and shot at anything that moved; including firefighters or stretcher bearers. It seemed to last forever. They were also shooting at the waterline, as well, right in the direction of the boilers and from no further than 35 yards away. There’s no way, from less than 100 feet, they could have missed ‘USS LIBERTY’ and ‘GTR-5’ on our hull. It was obvious to me they were trying to blow up the ship by hitting the boilers.”

As the captain ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship, it became even clearer that the attackers were bent to sink the ship and kill the crew. “When we started our voyage from Norfolk, we had enough life rafts for 294 crewmembers. Most of them had been destroyed by rockets, gunfire or napalm and there were only three left … each large enough to hold about a dozen men,” explains Tourney. “I personally jettisoned one of them into the water and watched as all three inflated. A few minutes later, I watched in horror as they were machine-gunned by Israeli gunners. In an act that still makes my blood boil, I watched as one of the destroyed rafts was taken aboard a torpedo boat as a trophy, while the other two were sunk. Those life rafts were intended to evacuate our most seriously wounded and gunning those rafts was a war crime. I realized then that there was no hope for our crew. Israel clearly understood [what they were doing] and they were not about to allow even one of us to live to tell our story.”

“The Israeli choice that day was live target practice as the USS Liberty could not fight back,” recalls Gallo. “The motor torpedo boats leisurely circled our ship, shooting at anything that moved and whatever target suited their whim. It defies logic as to why they expended so many munitions on a defenseless ship unless they were trying to send the United States a message. When they were finished, the Liberty was riddled with 821 holes [the size of a man’s fist or larger], sustained two napalm bombs, and had a 24- by 39-foot hole in her starboard side from a direct torpedo hit. It was obvious to the Liberty crew that survivors were not to be taken.”

The revelation that the ship and crew had been attacked by an ally hit hard. “Betrayal is always heartbreaking, especially when it’s coming from someone really close to you. I could make no sense of it. The knowledge that this had been done to us by a friend filled me with seething rage,” remembers Tourney. “I was determined to do whatever was necessary and at whatever cost to save the ship in whatever way I could. Knowing we had been betrayed by a friend made me stronger. And, as angry as I was at the time, it was nothing compared to when I later learned the terrible truth that we were also betrayed by others even closer to home.”