The 'USS Liberty': Case Closed

By Michael B. Oren

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

Johnson’s idea of a convoy aimed at breaking the blockade came to nothing, and Nasser’s troops remained mobilized in the Sinai. Syrian and Jordanian forces were also poised to attack. On the morning of June 5, with diplomatic options exhausted, the Israeli government went to war.13 The IDF launched lightning air and ground strikes against Egypt, quickly gaining the initiative, and repulsed attacks from Syria and Jordan. Yet the Israelis remained highly concerned about threats to their coastline, along which most of the country’s major industrial and population centers were situated. The Egyptian navy outnumbered Israel’s by more than five to one in warships and, in a crisis, could call on the support of some seventy Soviet vessels in the vicinity.14 The failure of the Israeli navy’s attacks on Egyptian and Syrian ports early in the war did little to assuage Israel’s fears. Consequently, the IDF Chief of Staff, Gen. Yitzhak Rabin, informed the U.S. Naval Attaché in Tel Aviv, Cmdr. Ernest Carl Castle, that Israel would defend its coast with every means at its disposal. Unidentified vessels would be sunk, Rabin advised; the United States should either acknowledge its ships in the area or remove them.15 Nonetheless, the Americans provided Israel with no information on the Liberty. The United States had also rejected Israel’s request for a formal naval liaison. On May 31, Avraham Harman, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, had warned Under Secretary of State Eugene V. Rostow that “if war breaks out, we would have no telephone number to call, no code for plane recognition, and no way to get in touch with the U.S. Sixth Fleet.”16
Before dawn on June 8, three days into the war, the Liberty finally reached its destination, barely within international waters north of the Sinai coast. Plying at a speed of five knots between Port Said and Gaza, the Liberty entered a lane rarely used by commercial freighters, which Egypt had declared closed to neutral vessels. Anxious about his proximity to the fighting, McGonagle asked the Sixth Fleet commander, Vice-Adm. William Martin, for permission to pull back from the shore, or else to be provided with a destroyer escort. Martin rejected these requests, noting that the Liberty “is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation.”
Unbeknownst to both Martin and McGonagle, however, the JCS had repeatedly cabled the Liberty the previous night with instructions to withdraw to a distance of one hundred miles from the Egyptian and Israeli coasts. The transmission was delayed, however, by the navy’s overloaded, overly complex communication system, which routed messages as far east as the Philippines before relaying them to their destinations. The JCS’ orders would not be received by the Liberty until the following day, June 9, by which time they would no longer be relevant.17
At 5:55 a.m. on June 8, Cmdr. Uri Meretz, a naval observer aboard an Israel Air Force (IAF) reconnaissance plane, noted what he believed to be an American supply vessel, designated GTR-5, seventy miles west of the Gaza coast. At Israeli naval headquarters in Haifa, staff officers fixed the location of the ship with a red marker, indicating “unidentified,” on their control board. Research in Jane’s Fighting Ships, however, established the vessel’s identity as “the electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the United States, the Liberty.” The marker was changed to green, for “neutral.” Another sighting of the ship—“gray, bulky, with its bridge amidships”—was made by an Israeli fighter aircraft at 9:00 a.m., twenty miles north of El-Arish, on the Sinai coast, which had fallen to Israeli forces the day before.18 Neither of these reports made mention of the 5-by-8-foot American flag which, according to the ship’s crewmen, was flying from the Liberty’s starboard halyard.
The crew would also testify later that six IAF aircraft subsequently flew over the ship, giving them ample opportunity to identify its nationality. Israel Air Force reports, however, make no further mention of the Liberty.19 There may indeed have been additional Israeli overflights, but the IAF pilots were not looking for the Liberty. Their target was Egyptian submarines, which had been spotted off the coast. At 11:00 a.m., while the hunt for Egyptian submarines was on, the officer on duty at Israel’s naval headquarters, Capt. Avraham Lunz, concluded his shift. In accordance with procedures, he removed the Liberty’s green marker on the grounds that it was already five hours old and no longer accurate.20
Then, at 11:24, a terrific explosion rocked the shores of El-Arish. The blast was clearly heard by the men on the Liberty’s bridge, who had been navigating according to the town’s tallest minaret, and who also noted a thick pall of smoke wafting toward them. In El-Arish itself, Israeli forces were convinced they were being bombarded from the sea, and the IDF Southern Command reported sighting two unidentified vessels close offshore. Though the explosion probably resulted from an ammunition dump fire, that fact was unknown at the time, and both Egyptian and Israeli sources had reported shelling of the area by Egyptian warships the previous day. There was therefore good reason to conclude that the Egyptian navy had trained its guns on Sinai.21
Minutes after the explosion, the Liberty reached the eastern limit of its patrol and turned 238 degrees back in the direction of Port Said. Meanwhile, reports of a naval bombardment on El-Arish continued to reach IDF General Staff Headquarters in Tel Aviv. Rabin took them seriously, concerned that the shelling was a prelude to an amphibious landing that could outflank advancing Israeli troops. He reiterated the standing order to sink any unidentified ships in the war area, but also advised caution: Soviet vessels were reportedly operating nearby. Since no fighter planes were available, the navy was asked to intercede, with the assumption that air cover would be provided later. More than half an hour passed without any response from naval headquarters in Haifa. The General Staff finally issued a rebuke: “The coast is being shelled and you—the navy—have done nothing.”22 Capt. Izzy Rahav, who had replaced Lunz in the operations room, needed no more prodding. He dispatched three torpedo boats of the 914th squadron, code-named “Pagoda,” to find the enemy vessel responsible for the bombardment and destroy it. The time was 12:05 p.m.
At 1:41 p.m., Ensign Aharon Yifrah, combat information officer aboard the flagship of these torpedo boats, T-204, informed its captain, Cmdr. Moshe Oren,23 that an unidentified ship had been sighted northeast of El-Arish at a range of 22 miles. The ship was sailing toward Egypt at a speed, Yifrah estimated, of 30 knots.
Yifrah’s assessment, twice recalculated and confirmed by him, was pivotal. It meant that the ship could not be the Liberty, whose maximum speed was 18 knots. Moreover, the Israelis had standing orders to fire on any unknown vessel in the area sailing at over 20 knots, a speed which, at that time, could only be attained by fighting ships. This information, when added to the ship’s direction, indicated that the target was an enemy destroyer fleeing toward port after having shelled El-Arish.
The torpedo boats gave chase, but even at their maximum speed of 36 knots, they did not expect to overtake their target before it reached Egypt. Rahav therefore alerted the air force, and two Mirage III fighters were diverted from the Suez Canal, northeast to the sea. When they arrived, the vessel they saw was “gray with two guns in the forecastle, a mast and funnel.” Making two passes at 3,000 feet, formation commander Capt. Spector (IDF records do not provide pilots’ first names) reckoned that the ship was a “Z” or Hunt-class destroyer without the deck markings (a white cross on a red background) of the Israeli navy. Spector then spoke with air force commander Gen. Motti Hod, who asked him repeatedly whether he could see a flag. The answer was “Negative.” Nor were there any distinguishing marks other than some “black letters” painted on the hull.
IAF Intelligence Chief Col. Yeshayahu Bareket also claimed to have contacted American Naval Attaché Castle at this point in an attempt to ascertain whether the suspect ship was the Liberty, but the latter professed no knowledge of the Liberty’s schedule—a claim later denied by Castle but, strangely, confirmed by McGonagle.24 One fact is clear, however: After two low sweeps by the lead plane, at 1:58 p.m., the Mirages were cleared to attack.
The first salvos caught the Liberty’s crew in “stand-down” mode; several officers were sunning themselves on the deck, unaware of the Israeli jets bearing down on them. Before they could take shelter, rockets and 30-mm cannon shells stitched the ship from bow to stern, severing the antennas and setting oil drums on fire. Nine men were killed in the initial assault, and several times that number wounded, among them McGonagle. Radio operators on board found most of their frequencies inoperable and barely managed to send an SOS to the Sixth Fleet. The Mirages made three strafing runs and were then joined by two additional aircraft, Israeli Super-Mysteres returning from the Mitla Pass with a payload of napalm. After fourteen minutes of action, the pilots reported having made good hits—over eight hundred holes would later be counted in the hull. The entire superstructure of the ship, from the main deck to the bridge, was aflame.

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