After the Attack
Miraculously, the Liberty refused to sink and was able to get underway on her own power. The crew worked tirelessly through the night to care for the wounded and secure the ship for its voyage to Malta. Despite the USS Saratoga and USS America being only 15 air minutes from Liberty, help did not arrive until 18 hours after the attack.
“We received no immediate air or sea support from Sixth Fleet. We learned later that support had been recalled. We did what we could to keep the ship afloat and prepare her for transport. She was listing and it took us some time to restore power. The next morning, the USS Davis, USS Popago [and other vessels] arrived, then America and Saratoga provided support,” remembers Bowen. “We eventually headed to Malta in a zig-zagging pattern, with a Soviet vessel trailing us.”
USS Liberty, one of the most advanced intelligence ships of the day, would eventually be declared a total loss. Besides the loss of life and two-thirds of the crew being wounded, a $40 million, state-of-the-art signals intelligence platform was later declared unsalvageable and sold for scrap.
Many of the crew believe they were not only betrayed by the Israelis, but also by their own government. It started with the recall of U.S. air support during the early stages of the attack, and after the ship limped into Malta it became apparent that the investigation into the attack was not conducted appropriately.
“We were surprised that the Court of Inquiry didn’t include the entire crew. I don’t know how many enlisted personnel were included, but certainly not me and certainly not the whole crew,” says Bowen.
“The subsequent U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry was a sham,” according to Gallo — a view supported by many Liberty crewmembers. “It sorely lacked naval judicial standards (as cited by Rear Admiral Merlin Staring, former Judge Advocate General of the Navy) and was deliberately falsified to complement the Israeli story (as observed by retired Navy Lawyer Captain Ward Boston in a sworn affidavit). Details acquired were either changed or dropped [to reflect Israel’s claim] that the attack was a tragic mistake. The orders to falsify came directly from President Johnson. This is obstruction of justice at the highest levels. The rights of 291 military personnel were violated.”
“I retired from the Navy in 1986 and then spent another 22 years as a civilian contractor working with the National Security Agency (NSA),” says Bowen. “I had a top secret document in my desk that was released in 1980 or so. NSA folks would tell me to my face that they never believed the attack was a case of mistaken identity, but that document … the official position … was that it was just a tragic mistake.”
Surviving crewmembers don’t buy Israel’s claim that they didn’t know Liberty was an American vessel. In his video essay on the attack (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYjvOhuFr5g), Casale notes that “the 5 [on the ship’s bow] was almost the size of a phone booth. [Fellow crewmember] Jim Ennes could see the pilots, so surely the pilots could see the U.S. flag. Liberty radio operators heard the pilots reporting that it was a U.S. ship and could see the flag.”
“After the air attack, the captain looked up at the yard arm and noticed that our flag was shot down,” echoes Gallo. “He ordered the signalmen to run up our holiday colors — a 9-by-15-foot U.S. flag.”
Bowen agrees. “It is impossible for the Israelis NOT to know we were a technical research ship. They flew over us, took photos and they knew what we were doing, which is why they attacked us, in my opinion. In a war, you know who your target is, just like when you go hunting. There is no doubt among the crew that the attack was deliberate.”
Gallo, who has written a book and numerous essays on the attack, cites more decisive proof. He references three U.S. Air Force intelligence personnel (Ronald Gotcher, Steve Forslund and Richard Block) who observed real-time U.S. Air Force Security Group aircraft translations (Hebrew to English) of intercepted communication between the attacking Israeli fighter pilots and their ground controllers. When the Israeli pilots confirmed the target was American, ground control then ordered the aircraft to attack, sink the target and ensure no survivors. This has been confirmed by other reliable news sources, as well, and Gallo says everything he’s written about the Liberty attack “is accurate and can be proven by corroborated individual witness testimony, logical deduction and documentation.”
The survivors of the attack were told never to talk about the incident under penalty of fine and/or imprisonment. This order was followed by a White House directive that Israel not be referenced as the attacker in any documents, monuments and the like. As an example, the USS Liberty skipper was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions to keep the ship afloat and operational, saving countless lives. Captain William McGonagle’s award was presented not by President Johnson at the White House, as is customary, but by the Secretary of the Navy at a low level Washington Navy Yard ceremony. His citation lacked any mention of an Israeli attack.
According to Liberty crewmember Ron Kukal (FRA Member at Large) and many other survivors of the attack, “USS Liberty is the most decorated ship in the U.S. Navy for a single action, but that is rarely mentioned.” Among the awards earned by the officers and crew of the USS Liberty are the Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, 11 Silver Stars, 20 Bronze Stars, nine Navy Commendations, 208 Purple Hearts, 294 Combat Action Ribbons and a Presidential Unit Citation and a Navy “E” Ribbon for Battle Efficiency.
“What gnaws at the crew is that we were abandoned,” says Bowen. “Israel is a key ally, particularly with regard to the Middle East. Politics being what they are, I can understand why we wouldn’t want to embarrass them. But when you choose to protect an ally over defending your own troops, you’re telling those troops that they are, indeed, just cannon fodder.”
If the attack was intentional, what would be the motive? Why would an ally attack a defenseless American vessel?
There are a variety of theories, but none can be proved or disproved. Many believe the intent was to sink the ship and kill everyone aboard so Egypt would be blamed for the tragedy. This would convince President Johnson and the American public to join in the fight against Israel’s enemy. Others believe that Israel perceived Liberty as a threat to its war agenda to take the Golan Heights, and it didn’t want to risk U.S. involvement or intervention in the Six-Day War.