On June 8 1967, the USS LIBERTY (AGTR 5) was attacked in international water by Israeli forces killing 34 Americans and wounding another 171. Seven out of every 10 crew members was either killed or injured.
The names of the 34 men who gave their lives:
CT3 William B. Allenbaugh, USN
LCDR Philip M. Armstrong, Jr. USN
SN Gary R. Blanchard, USN
Allen M. Blue, NSA Civilian (CT2 Reserve)
SN Francis Brown, USN
CT2 Ronnie J. Campbell, USN
CT3 Jerry L. Converse, USN
CT2 Robert B. Eisenberg, USN
CT3 Jerry L. Goss, USN
CTI Curtis A. Graves, USN
CTSN Lawrence P. Hayden, USN
CTI Warren E. Hersey, USN
CTSN Alan Higgins, USN
SN Carl L. Hoar, USN
CT2 Richard W. Keene, Jr., USN
CTSN James L. Lenau, USN
CTC Raymond E. Linn, USN
CTI James M. Lupton, USN
CT3 Duane R. Marggraf, USN
CTSN David W. Marlborough, USN
CT2 Anthony P. Mendle, USN
CTSN Carl C. Nygren, USN
LT James C. Pierce, USN
ICFN David Skolak, USN
CTI John C. Smith, Jr., USN
CTC Melvin D. Smith, USN
PC2 John C. Spicher, USN
GMG3 Alexander N. Thompson, Jr., USN
CT3 Thomas R. Thornton, USN
CT3 Philippe C. Tiedtke, USN
LT Stephen S. Toth, USN
CTI Frederick J. Walton, USN
Sgt Jack L. Raper, USMC
Cpl Edward E. Rehmeyer, USMC
Timeline of Events:
24 May 1967. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) orders USS Liberty, an intelligence-gathering vessel, to depart Abidjan for eastern Mediterranean, via Rota, Spain.
1 June 1967. Commanded by Capt. William McGonagle, Liberty arrives at Rota to load technical support material and supplies.
2 June 1967. Liberty departs Rota at top speed of 18 knots en route to a point 13 miles off the Gaza Strip, well within international waters.
5 June 1967, 7:45 (all times cited are local Liberty time). Israel attacks Egypt, simultaneously putting out false reports that Egypt had attacked first. Captain McGonagle asks Vice Admiral William Martin at Sixth Fleet headquarters to send a destroyer as an armed escort and auxiliary communication center, noting that Liberty’s “self-defense capability limited to four .50 caliber machine guns and small arms.”
6 June 1967. Admiral Martin replies “Liberty is 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 for escort denied.”
8 June 1967:
0600: Israeli Nord 2501 Noratlas (flying boxcar) reconnoiters Liberty.
0603: Reconnaissance aircraft reports to Israeli naval headquarters that “GTR-5” is written on the ship, identifying it as an NSA intelligence vessel.
0720: Fresh American flag is raised.
0900: Jet aircraft approaches Liberty, then veers off towards Gaza. Liberty crewmen unable to identify markings.
1000: 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.
1030: Israeli “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.”
1055: Pinchas Pinchasy, naval liaison officer at Israeli air force headquarters, reports to Naval Headquarters that the ship cruising slowly off El Arish is “an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy, named Liberty, whose marking was GTR-5.”
1100 & 1130: Israeli reconnaissance aircraft again circle Liberty.
1205: Three Israeli motor torpedo boats leave Ashdod at high speed headed toward Liberty. They are followed by Israeli air force fighters, loaded with 30mm cannon ammunition, rockets, and napalm.
1215 & 1245: Israeli reconnaissance aircraft again circle Liberty.
1341: Israeli torpedo boats spot Liberty and call for an immediate air strike.
1358: Two unmarked delta-winged Mirage jets attack Liberty. After taking out gun mounts, they target ship’s antennae and bridge with heat-seeking missiles.
1405: Three unmarked Dassault Mystère IIIC jets attack with napalm and rockets. Ship tries to contact Sixth Fleet headquarters, but five of Liberty’s six shore circuits are jammed. Radio operator manages to send distress signal from Captain McGonagle: “Under attack by unidentified jet aircraft, require immediate assistance.” Attack lasts approximately 22 minutes, involving 30 to 35 sorties, killing nine men and wounding around 60. Israeli pilot reports to base: “Great, wonderful, she’s burning, she’s burning.”
1409: Captain Joe Tully of the USS Saratoga acknowledges call for help, dispatches four F-4 Phantom jets, and informs Liberty that help is on the way. Within minutes U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara orders rescue jets to return: “Tell Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately.” Rear Admiral Geis relays message and tells them to re-launch jets in 90 minutes.
1424: 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.
1435: 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.
1450: Commander of Sixth Fleet orders carriers USS America and USS Saratoga to send aircraft to defend Liberty.
1500: 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.”
1505: Message sent to Liberty from Sixth Fleet: “Sending aircraft to cover you. Surface units on the way.” Liberty is off the air and does not receive the message.
1511: First “official” notice that Liberty is under attack reaches National Military Command Center in Washington.
1515: After the order to “prepare to abandon ship” comes over the loudspeaker system, the lifeboats are lowered into the water. Israeli torpedo boats move in closer and fire on them, as well as those still on deck, making them all unusable. “I watched with horror as the floating life rafts were riddled with holes,” recalled Lieutenant Lloyd Painter, in charge of the evacuation. Said Petty Officer Rowley, who also witnessed the event: “They didn’t want anyone to live.” After destroying the life rafts, the Israeli boats departed. Next, two Israeli SA-321 Super Frelon Hornet assault helicopters carrying soldiers in battle dress circle ship several times, then depart.
1520: Commander of Sixth Fleet announces that 12 aircraft will be launched at 1545 to arrive nearLiberty at 1715.
1532: Walt Rostow, President Johnson’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, notifies the president of the attack.
1536: Israeli torpedo boats return, then leave.
1545: USS Saragota and America launch second rescue flights.
1555: Liberty regains its transmitter; still has no receiver.
1600: 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 theLiberty 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.
1605: Liberty transmits: “Request immediate assistance. Torpedo hit starboard side.”
1614: American embassy relays Israeli apology to White House, Department of State, and Sixth Fleet that an unidentified “maybe Navy” ship has been erroneously attacked.
1615: Two unidentified jets approach Liberty, then veer off.
1630: Israeli jets and three torpedo boats return, offer assistance. Captain McGonagle refuses their help. Boats leave after 12 minutes.
1639: 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.
1717: Deputy Secretary of Defense orders that all news releases on attack are to be made in Washington. Soon after, Israeli helicopter approaches Liberty and requests permission to land. McGonagle refuses. Helicopter departs.
1729: 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.
1915: 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.
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.
1450: Israeli Lt. Col. Michael Bloch telephones Commander Castle that Liberty, because it was not flying a flag, had been mistaken for the Egyptian supply ship El Queseir. State Department assures Congress that attack was accidental.
10 June 1967: Vice Admiral McCain orders Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd to convene Navy Court of Inquiry.
11 June 1967: Admiral Kidd boards Liberty with small staff to head Navy Court of Inquiry.
14 June 1967: Liberty arrives in Malta. Total news blackout imposed. Rear Admiral Kidd warns crew: “You are never, repeat never, to discuss this with anyone, not even your wives. If you do, you will be court-martialed and will end your lives in prison or worse.” Secretary of Defense McNamara informs media that, “Department of Defense will have no further comment.”
15 June 1967: Secretary of State Dean Rusk tells NATO ambassadors in Luxembourg that Israel’s attack was deliberate. His remark is reported in European, but not U.S. papers.
18 June 1967: Israeli Court of Inquiry exonerates Israeli government and all those involved, saying that its torpedo boats erroneously reported the Liberty’s speed at 30 knots instead of 5, and that the Liberty flew no flag and had no identifying markings. Later, Israel will honor Motor Torpedo Boat 203, the one that fired the deadly torpedo at the Liberty, by putting its wheel and bell on display in its naval museum, among those maritime items of which it is most proud.
July 1967: Shortly after the burial of six Liberty crewmen in Arlington National Cemetery, a monument is erected describing the six as having “Died in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Liberty survivors complain that the marking is evasive and improper.
September 1967: State Department legal adviser Carl Salans finds many discrepancies with the Israeli report. His report is classified Top Secret.
11 June 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.”
28 June 1968: The Liberty was decommissioned and stricken for Naval vessels register.
December 1970: The Liberty was transferred to the Maritime Administration for disposal.
1973: Liberty was sold for scrapping to the Boston Metals Company of Baltimore, Maryland.