1967 was also the height of the Cold War, part of which was "hot" with the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. The Arab-Israeli conflict presented an excellent intelligence gathering opportunity for the United States, as the Arabs were largely armed with lots of Soviet weaponry. Our technical intelligence experts at the National Security Agency couldn't pass up the availability of either signals intelligence (SIGINT) or electronic intelligence (ELINT) that could be obtained as the war raged.
The USS Liberty (AGTR-5) began her life as the Victory Ship SS Simmons Victory carrying cargo in the Pacific during World War II. The United States Navy acquired the vessel in 1963 and converted her to a "technical research ship"- a floating intelligence gatherer for all things electronic. She was commissioned on April 1, 1964.
The United States officially remained neutral during the Six-Day War. Liberty was dispatched to the far eastern Mediterranean Sea before the war started for the aforementioned intelligence gathering purposes. Israel had warned the American naval attaché in Tel Aviv on June 5th that any unidentified ships off the coast of Israel or the Sinai would be subject to attack.
Liberty's original orders allowed her to approach to within just 6.5 nautical miles of the Israeli coast and 12.5 of Egypt. When the war started Liberty's commanding officer, Commander William L. McGonagle, requested a destroyer escort from the US Sixth Fleet. His request was denied. Subsequent changes to Liberty's orders required her to stay at least 100 nautical miles off the shores of the warring nations.
Tragically, due to delays in processing and being sent on the wrong frequency, the change in orders would be received too late.
Israeli Air Force aircraft overflew and identified Liberty as an American ship the morning of June 8, 1967. In the late morning, the Israeli General Staff Headquarters received a report that some of their units were being shelled from the sea near Arish on the Sinai coast. They ordered another air search and dispatched torpedo boats to the vicinity.
At this time, Liberty was steaming at the slow speed of 5 knots, 25.5 nautical miles north of Arish in international waters.
What happened next may have been a case of mistaken identity (this is the view I hold). The Israeli pilots and sailors, keyed up by the war with their Arab enemies and a standing order to engage and sink any unidentified ship, simply reacted in the fog of war. Others think Liberty was a real target; the Israelis knew full well it was an American ship and intended to sink it lest it continue to gather intelligence (Liberty was monitoring both sides in the conflict).
Liberty was attacked by cannon fire and napalm bombs by the Israeli aircraft. The Israeli pilots were surprised that they did not receive any return fire from their target and one made a close approach to further identify the ship. He observed the "GTR-5" markings on Liberty's hull, determined that the ship was American, and ordered that the attack be broken off.
Then, unaware the ship had been identified as a neutral party, the torpedo boats attacked. Miraculously, of the five torpedoes fired at the already stricken vessel, only one hit.
34 of Liberty's crew lost their lives and 171 were wounded. 205 casualties out of a crew of 358.
I am not interested in exonerating or convicting the actions of Israel in the USS Liberty incident. Ultimately, this is a story of brave fighting men of the United States attacked completely by surprise and the courage they exhibited in the aftermath. Three men were recognized above the others. Commander McGonagle received the Medal of Honor for his heroism and refusal to leave his bridge despite his own wounds. Liberty's Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Philip M. Armstrong, Jr., and one of the bridge crew, QM3 Francis Brown, both lost their lives while gallantly manning their posts. For their actions, each was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
Medal of Honor Citation for Commander William L. McGonagle (from Vietnam War, M-Z):
McGONAGLE, WILLIAM L.
Rank and organization: Captain (then Comdr.) U.S. Navy, U.S.S. Liberty (AGTR-5). place and date: International waters, Eastern Mediterranean, 8-9 June 1967. Entered service at: Thermal, Calif. Born: 19 November 1925, Wichita, Kans. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sailing in international waters, the Liberty was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats which inflicted many casualties among the crew and caused extreme damage to the ship. Although severely wounded during the first air attack, Capt. McGonagle remained at his battle station on the badly damaged bridge and, with full knowledge of the seriousness of his wounds, subordinated his own welfare to the safety and survival of his command. Steadfastly refusing any treatment which would take him away from his post, he calmly continued to exercise firm command of his ship. Despite continuous exposure to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Capt. McGonagle's extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of the Liberty's crew, many of them seriously wounded, to heroic efforts to overcome the battle damage and keep the ship afloat. Subsequent to the attack, although in great pain and weak from the loss of blood, Captain McGonagle remained at his battle station and continued to command his ship for more than 17 hours. It was only after rendezvous with a U.S. destroyer that he relinquished personal control of the Liberty and permitted himself to be removed from the bridge. Even then, he refused much needed medical attention until convinced that the seriously wounded among his crew had been treated. Capt. McGonagle's superb professionalism, courageous fighting spirit, and valiant leadership saved his ship and many lives. His actions sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Navy Cross Citation for Lieutenant Commander Philip McCutcheon Armstrong, Jr. (Military Times' Hall of Valor)
The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander Philip McCutcheon Armstrong, Jr. (NSN: 0-569825/1100), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in connection with an armed attack on the U.S.S. LIBERTY (AGTR-5) in the Eastern Mediterranean, on 8 June 1967. During the early afternoon hours, the U.S.S. LIBERTY was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and three motor torpedo boats. Subjected to intense incendiary, machine-gun, and rocket fire, and placed in extreme jeopardy by a torpedo hit below the waterline on the starboard side, the U.S.S. LIBERTY sustained numerous personnel casualties and severe structural damage. Serving as Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Armstrong was on the bridge when the first strafing attack occurred. A large fire erupted in the vicinity of two 55-gallon gasoline drums, creating the grave danger that the drums might explode and cause a widespread conflagration. Lieutenant Commander Armstrong fearlessly exposed himself to overwhelmingly accurate rocket and machine-gun fire while proceeding to jettison the gasoline drums and organizing a party of men to extinguish the blazing lifeboats nearby. At this time, he received multiple injuries which proved to be fatal a few hours after the attack terminated. By his aggressiveness, composure under fire, and inspiring leadership, Lieutenant Commander Armstrong upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Navy Cross Citation for Quartermaster 3rd Class Francis Brown (Military Times' Hall of Valor):
The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Quartermaster Third Class Francis Brown (NSN: 7787670), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in connection with an armed attack on the U.S.S. LIBERTY (AGTR-5) in the Eastern Mediterranean, on 8 June 1967. During the early afternoon hours, the U.S.S. LIBERTY was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and three motor torpedo boats. Subjected to intense incendiary, machine-gun, and rocket fire, and placed in extreme jeopardy by a torpedo hit below the waterline on the starboard side, the U.S.S. LIBERTY sustained numerous personnel casualties and severe structural damage. Serving as Quartermaster, Petty Officer Brown was on the bridge during the initial phase of the air attack. When the helmsman became incapacitated, Petty Officer Brown fearlessly exposed himself to overwhelmingly accurate rocket and machine-gun fire while assuming the helmsman's duties. He steadfastly maintained the ordered course while many men in the immediate proximity received serious and fatal injuries, remaining on his post until felled by strafing fire from the torpedo boats at the moment the torpedo struck the ship. By his aggressiveness, composure under fire, and courageous actions, Petty Officer Brown upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
In addition to these three men, twelve crew members were decorated with the Silver Star. Links are to their records at Military Times' Hall of Valor (posthumous awards are italicized).
- LT Maurice Hogue Bennett
- MMC Richard John Brooks
- LT George Houston Golden
- ET3 James Terry Halbardier
- LT(MC) Richard Francis Kiepfer
- SN Dale Duane Larkins
- SSgt Brice F. Lockwood, USMC
- ENS David George Lucas
- ENS John Deaderick Scott
- ICFN David Skolak
- GMG3 Alexander Neil Thompson, Jr.
- LT Stephen Spencer Toth
LCDR William R. Pettyjohn, acting Executive Officer after LCDR Armstrong's death, received the Legion of Merit. The names of the twenty-nine other men who lost their lives follow (all are USN unless otherwise noted):
After he passed away on March 3, 1999 the Liberty's captain, William McGonagle, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery next to six of his shipmates.
A final note: any comment attached to this post seeking to debate the Liberty incident on either side of the issue will likely not receive approval during moderation. I will not tolerate under any circumstances the use of this post for anti-Israel or anti-Semitic comments or propaganda. Who was to blame or was responsible - if anybody, as it could have been an accident - for the attack on June 8, 1967 is not relevant to the recognition of that day's American living and fallen heroes.