The 'USS Liberty': Case Closed

By Michael B. Oren

June 8, 1967: Why did the IDF open fire on an American spy ship?

Throughout these sorties, no one aboard the Liberty suspected that the planes were Israeli. Indeed, rumors spread that the attackers were Egyptian MiGs. After the first strike, the visibility that had enabled crewmen to identify IAF reconnaissance craft earlier in the day was lost to the smoke of battle. One of the Israeli pilots, curious as to why the vessel had not returned fire, made a final pass at ninety feet. “I see no flag,” he told headquarters. “But there are markings on the hull—Charlie-Tango-Romeo-five.”25
While Egyptian naval ships were known to disguise their identities with Western markings, they usually displayed Arabic letters and numbers only. The fact that the ship had Western markings led Rabin to fear that it was Soviet, and he immediately called off the jets. Two IAF Hornet helicopters were sent to look for survivors—Spector had reported seeing men overboard—while the torpedo boat squadron was ordered to hold its fire pending further attempts at identification. Though that order was recorded in the torpedo boat’s log, Oren claimed he never received it.26 It was now 2:20 in the afternoon; twenty-four minutes would pass before the squadron made contact with the Liberty.
During that interval, the ship’s original flag, having been shredded during the attack, was replaced by a larger (7-by-13-foot) holiday ensign. As the crew labored to tend to the wounded, extinguish the fire, and burn classified papers, contact was finally made with the Sixth Fleet. “Help is on the way,” replied the carrier America, which quickly unleashed eight of its most readily available warplanes—F-104s armed with nuclear weapons. Before they reached their objective, however, the jets were recalled by Vice-Adm. Martin. If Rabin feared that the ship was Russian, Martin suspected that its attackers were Russian, and without authorization from the highest level, he did not want to risk starting a nuclear war.27
Meanwhile, the Israeli torpedo boats came within range. The Liberty was shrouded in smoke, but even so, Oren could see that it could not be the destroyer that had supposedly shelled El-Arish. Rather, he believed, it was a slower-moving vessel that had either serviced that destroyer or evacuated enemy soldiers from the beach. At 6,000 meters, Oren’s T-204 flagship paused and signaled “AA”—“identify yourself.” Due to damaged equipment, McGonagle could only reply in kind, AA, with a hand-held Aldis lamp.28 Oren remembered receiving a similar response from the Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim al-Awwal, captured by the Israeli navy in the 1956 war, and was sure that he now faced an enemy ship. Consulting his naval intelligence manual, he concluded that the vessel in front of him—its deck line, midship bridge and smokestack—resembled the Egyptian freighter El-Quseir. The officers of the other two boats reached the same conclusion independently, and followed Oren into battle formation.29
Any lingering doubts were soon dispelled as the Israeli boats came under sudden fire from the Liberty. Unaware of McGonagle’s order not to shoot at the approaching boats, a sailor had opened up with one of the Brownings. Another machine gun also fired, apparently on its own, triggered by exploding ammunition. Oren repeatedly requested permission from naval headquarters to return fire. Rahav finally approved. 30
Of the five torpedoes fired at the Liberty only one found its mark, a direct hit on the starboard side, killing twenty-five, almost all of them from the intelligence section. The Israeli craft closed in, their cannons and machine guns raking the Liberty’s hull and, according to the crew’s testimony, its life rafts as well. One of those rafts, picked up by T-203, was found to bear U.S. Navy markings—the first indication that Oren had that the ship might be American. His suspicions mounted when while circling the badly listing ship, Oren confronted the designation GTR-5. But still no flag was spotted, and it would take another half an hour, until 3:30 p.m., to establish the vessel’s identity.31
“I must admit I had mixed feelings about the news—profound regret at having attacked our friends and a tremendous sense of relief [that the boat was not Soviet],” Rabin later recalled.32 News of the ship’s American nationality had arrived during an emergency meeting of the General Staff to discuss possible Soviet reprisals. An apology was immediately sent to Castle, and none too soon, as eight conventionally armed warplanes had been launched from the USS Saratoga and sanctioned to “use whatever force required to defend the Liberty.”
As the American jets returned to their carrier, the two Israeli Hornets reached the Liberty and offered assistance. Oren, shouting through a bullhorn, also tried to communicate with the ship. But McGonagle refused to respond. Realizing, finally, that his assailants had been Israeli, he flagged the torpedo boats away and gestured provocatively at the Hornets. Even Castle himself, arriving just before dusk in another Israeli chopper, was denied permission to land. By 5:05 p.m., the Israelis had broken off contact, and the Liberty, navigating virtually without systems, with 34 dead and 171 wounded aboard, staggered out to sea. 33
The center of the crisis then shifted from the Mediterranean to Washington. It was only at 9:50 a.m. eastern time—nearly two hours after the first shots were fired34—that the White House received word from the JCS that the Liberty, “located 60-100 miles north of Egypt,” had been torpedoed by an unknown vessel. Johnson assumed that the Soviets were involved. To forestall further escalation, he hotlined the Kremlin with news of the attack and of the dispatch of jets from the Saratoga.
But then the Israelis informed the Americans of the “mistaken action,” and Johnson, like Rabin before him, breathed a sigh of relief.35 While “strong dismay” was conveyed to Ambassador Harman, so too were the Administration’s thanks for the speed of Israel’s notification. Apologies soon came in from Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (“Please accept my profound condolences and convey my sympathy to all the bereaved families”) and Foreign Minister Abba Eban (“I am deeply mortified and grieved by the tragic accident involving the lives and safety of Americans”), as well as from the Israeli chargé d’affaires in Washington, Efraim Evron, a personal friend of Johnson’s (“I grieve with you over the lives that were lost, and share in the sorrow of the parents, wives and children of the men who died in this cruel twist of fate”). Within forty-eight hours, the Israeli government offered to compensate the victims and their families.36
At first, Israeli expressions of regret and offers of restitution seemed to satisfy the Administration, whose initial reaction was to downplay the incident. Of particular concern was the danger that the Liberty’s presence in the area might reinforce Nasser’s charge that the Sixth Fleet had aided Israel in the war—what Washington called “The Big Lie.”37 These reservations soon faded, however, as senior officials began to ask pointed questions: Why did the Israelis attack a neutral ship on the high seas, without the slightest provocation? How had they failed to see the Liberty’s flag or the freshly painted markings on its hull? How could they confuse the Liberty with the El-Quseir, a far slower, smaller boat, with no distinctive antennas? And finally, how could a ship sailing at 5 knots, whose maximum speed was 18, be gauged at 30?
“Beyond comprehension,” fumed Secretary of State Dean Rusk. “We cannot accept such a situation.” Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board chief Clark Clifford, known for his pro-Israeli views, reported to Johnson that the attack was “inexcusable... a flagrant act of gross negligence for which the Israeli government should be held completely responsible.” While no official could explain what motivation Israel might have had for assaulting an American vessel, neither did the facts seem to square. Either the Israelis had exhibited rank incompetence—in the midst of a victory that was nothing short of brilliant—or they had struck the Liberty on purpose. Indeed, many in the Administration had already concluded that the attack was intentional and that Israel’s explanations were entirely disingenuous. Increasingly, the charge of negligence gave way to one of cold-blooded murder.38
The Israelis moved to dispel these accusations with two preliminary reports on the incident. These admitted the IDF’s culpability in erroneously reporting a naval barrage on El-Arish, miscalculating the Liberty’s speed, and confusing the ship with the El-Quseir. Yet both studies insisted that the attack was an “innocent mistake,” with no malice or gross negligence involved.39
“This makes no goddamned sense at all,” remarked Under Secretary of State Eugene Rostow when presented with these findings on June 10. The attack, wrote Rusk, was “quite literally incomprehensible... an act of military recklessness reflecting wanton disregard for human life.” Further umbrage was taken at the Israeli reports’ suggestion that the Liberty had no business being where it was, had failed to inform Israel of its presence, and had failed to use all means (semaphores, flares, flags) to identify itself to the torpedo boats. The United States now demanded that Israel not only pay compensation but admit wrongdoing and court-martial those responsible for the attack “in accordance with international law.”40

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