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Post USS Liberty Incident, 1967
Created by John Eipper on 07/26/17 5:14 PM

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USS Liberty Incident, 1967 (Robert Whealey, USA, 07/26/17 5:14 pm)

In response to Eugenio Battaglia (26 July), the Israeli government never officially apologized for the attack on the USS Liberty. But several years later they contributed several million dollars in benefits for the families of about 16 Naval survivors.

JE comments: Wikipedia says there were three rounds of payments: 1. to the families of the 34 killed personnel, 2. to the wounded survivors, and 3. compensation (in 1980) for damage to the ship. Moreover, there was an apology from the Israelis, who claimed they mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian destroyer.

The attack happened 50 years ago this summer, in June '67.  What do WAISers remember from the incident?

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  • I Was in Egypt During Six-Day War; USS Liberty Incident (Edward Jajko, USA 07/27/17 4:00 AM)
    At the time of the attack on the USS Liberty, 50 years ago last month, I was interned in a pension in Alexandria, Egypt, along with other students and some faculty from the American University in Cairo, awaiting the outcome of the war. It had been a frantic day and a half in Cairo, packing up belongings and getting to the rendezvous point, and trying to contact my best friend there so that I could say goodbye to him. He is still my friend, and is a German citizen and a professor emeritus of the Martin-Luther Universitat Halle-Wittemberg.

    I spent weeks traveling home, which I was able to do because my Fulbright had provided return air travel and the AUC fellowship I got that extended my time in Cairo also gave me a return trip, so I knocked about Italy, France, England, and Germany, initially in an addled state because I had unwittingly received sun poisoning during the day's sailing, on the deck of the German freighter Ankara. Fifty years ago this month, I was in Poland, seeing Warsaw and Krakow and meeting my relatives, with whom I am still in touch.

    It was while I was traveling that I began to see reports of the attack on the Liberty. I saved up the magazines I bought in Italy and France and pursued the matter once I got home. But then life intervened; I reentered graduate school, then went to library school, married, was hired by Yale, had a family and a mortgage, etc. It was only after I joined the Hoover Institution in 1983 that I learned of the USS Liberty Veterans Association. Through them, I was put in contact with James Ennes, author of "Assault on the Liberty." Jim had been officer of the deck at the time of the attack and was wounded severely enough that he spent a year and a half in Naval hospitals. During that time he began work on his book. Jim donated all his papers relating to "Assault on the Liberty" to the Hoover Institution Archives. He put me in touch with other crewmembers and I was able to get several more significant collections for the Archives. These include personal papers relating to the attack and its aftermath, films taken on board before the attack, and even a uniform of crewmember Ron Kukal.

    Through Jim, the Hoover acquired the papers of the captain of the Liberty, James McGonagle, after his death. His family asked only to keep his Congressional Medal of Honor. It is a sign of the unsavory handling of this whole affair not just by the Israelis, but by the US Navy and the US government, that Medals of Honor are customarily bestowed on recipients by the president in a special White House ceremony. Captain McGonagle's medal, in recognition of his actions during and after the attack, was given to him by, I believe, the secretary of the Navy in a private ceremony in the Washington Navy Yard. There are on-line resources for finding Medal of Honor recipients. They are arranged by war and or theater of combat, then by date. Captain McGonagle's medal is the only Medal of Honor bestowed during the Vietnam War for actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the enemy forces are not identified.

    I have seen a lot of the materials relating to the attack and have known crewmembers. It was my honor to be allowed to speak at two Liberty Veterans' reunions, asking them and their families to consider placing their valuable papers in the Hoover Institution Archives, or in any responsible archives, for that matter. All too many of the crewmembers whom I knew have died. So many of them had stories that were riveting.

    The Israelis initially overflew the Liberty for a considerable period, at altitudes and speeds low enough (despite their Dassault Mirage jets), that the American crew were able to see the faces of the Israeli pilots and to wave to them. After all, friends, no? The whole time, the Liberty was flying its large American colors. Additionally, the Liberty was a sister-ship of the Pueblo, which the North Koreans took with impunity scant months later--a converted freighter. There was the big flag, there were all the antennas and dishes, there was only a handful of .50 machine guns for defense, there was the big GTR5 painted on the bows. The excuse that the Liberty was confused with an Egyptian horse transport or, please, a destroyer, is an insult to the intelligence.

    Sometime after the Mirages, which bore the Israeli markings, stopped their overflights, fighter planes returned, this time with any markings painted over. They strafed the ship and shot it up with cannon and rocket fire. The Americans, recovering from shock, tried to send out distress signals. The antennas were destroyed or heavily damaged. The American flag was shot down so at great risk the Liberty crew replaced it with what are called Holiday Colors. Imagine the giant flag one sees at US car dealerships, with brilliant gold braid on three edges. This was also shot down.

    They tried to reply with their ineffective .50 machine guns, and as sailors went for the guns they were cut down. The attack persisted for some lengthy period, then was broken off suddenly.

    While trying to attend to the dead and wounded and send out emergency messages, the Americans were suddenly faced with a new problem, the arrival of Israeli motor torpedo boats. Liberty survivors have told me, and have told those in Congress and among the public who are willing to listen, that as the American crew tried to lower life boats, the Israelis shot and destroyed them, a war crime. The torpedo boats shot torpedoes at the Liberty. One struck amidships, hitting the area where the NSA had listeners and interceptors of radio transmissions. Twenty-six men died immediately.

    A marvelous man, a Liberty survivor who had enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 and was only around 40 when I got to know him, told me that if the torpedo had hit the ship one foot away from where it pierced the hull, it would have split one of the main members holding the ship together and the Liberty would have sunk in minutes.

    As it is, for reasons unknown, the motor torpedo boats broke off their attack and then there was a call to the Liberty, asking if help was needed. None of the crewmembers told me precisely what the reply from Captain McGonagle and his men was, but I can imagine. The Liberty was left on its own, listing severely but afloat.

    The ship made its way west, finally meeting up with an escort and ships that offloaded the dead and seriously wounded. Then, at some point, came something truly disgraceful. This was related to me by Liberty crewmembers. I can't remember when and where this happened, but a US Navy Court of Inquiry was convened, on board the Liberty. The court was headed by Adm. Isaac Kidd, with Ward Boston of the JAG Corps. Ward Boston, in recent years, published documents stating his disagreement with the findings of Adm. Kidd and that he disagreed with how it all was handled.

    The court of inquiry was set up to inquire into the conduct of the ship and the crew, not the actual attack, the who, how, and why. I was told by several crewmembers that Adm. Kidd made a show of appearing before the Liberty survivors, of removing his admiral's insignia, and then saying that he was now one of them, that they could talk freely. So they did, about the whole attack. When they had finished, Adm. Kidd put on his insignia once again and ordered the crew to maintain silence about the attack, on pain of the most severe discipline. The Liberty crew were broken up and transferred around the fleet, so as to prevent them from getting together and talking about the attack. One crewmember told me that he had serious problems in his new ship because he wouldn't tell anyone about his previous service, even though it was clear that he was an experienced sailor.

    The whole business about Israel explaining and apologizing is, in my opinion, fiction. I may not be recalling this accurately but I seem to recall reading that within hours of the attack, days perhaps, US congressmen and senators spoke in their respective houses, not denouncing this treacherous attack that cost American lives, but explaining it away as a tragic mistake.

    The US Congress has never investigated the attack. There have never been congressional hearings. And fifty years on, the USS Liberty Veterans held a reunion in Virginia, that included a graveside ceremony at burial site of several crewmembers. They continue to lobby, to the extent they can, for a fair deal from their own government.

    JE comments:  This is a chilling narrative, Ed.  You've literally transported us back to that tragic day.  Is it safe to say that if any other nation had attacked a US naval ship in such a sustained and callous manner, it would have been treated as an act of war?

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