June 8 marks the 47th anniversary of the attack on the USS Liberty (GTR-5), in international waters, approximately 17 miles off the Gaza Strip, killing 34 and wounding 171 of the 295-man crew. I was aboard one of Liberty's sister ships (USS Jamestown GTR-3). We had just left Singapore and were steaming toward our assigned station off the coast of Vietnam.
Americans not yet born, or have long since forgotten the attack on this virtually unarmed U.S. Navy ship and every administration since Lyndon Johnson has down-played the incident, national media cooperating by rarely mentioning the event.
The reason is simple. Liberty was not attacked by any of our adversaries but by our perceived friend and ally, Israel. Without warning, Israeli Air Force Mirage fighters strafed Liberty, resulting in 820 rocket and cannon holes topside. After the fighters, Mystere bombers dropped napalm. While the crew battled the fires, Israeli torpedo boats fired five torpedos at Liberty with the clear intent to sink her. Fortunately four missed but the one that didn't, left a 40-foot hole in her starboard side, killing 25 men.
When the smoke had cleared, 34 sailors were dead (or missing) and 171 were wounded, including the captain (CDR William McGonagle) who, although severely wounded, refused to leave the bridge. Only the bravery and resolve of the captain, officers and crew kept Liberty from sinking with all hands.
Liberty managed to send an SOS to our 6th Fleet and two aircraft carriers (the America and Saratoga) launched (and then were ordered to recall) squadrons of Navy fighterbombers to aid Liberty. When Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis (Commander of America's battle group) protested the recall, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara retorted that, "President Johnson is not going to go to war or embarrass an American ally over a few sailors" (Chicago Tribune - Web Edition - October 2, 2007).
That was but one of many wrongs done the men of USS Liberty. The bodies of six crew members were never recovered. A small monument at Arlington National Cemetery memorializes their deaths. "Died in the Eastern Mediterranean, June 8, 1967," is all it says.
Liberty is likely America's most decorated warship, earning a Congressional Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, 38 Silver or Bronze Stars, the Presidential Unit Citation and an incredible 205 Purple Hearts. As adult Americans know, a Medal of Honor is traditionally conferred by the president in a ceremony at the White House. Commander McGonagle was handed his medal by the Secretary of the Navy at the Washington Navy Yard.
For 47 years, no U.S. President or Congress has ever attempted to hold Israel fully accountable for this murderous and unconscionable act of aggression against the United States. Israel always maintained it was a case of "mistaken identity," believing Liberty was the El Quseir (an Egyptian freighter) despite the fact Liberty was flying the U.S. flag, the ship's designation (GTR-5) clearly printed on both sides of her bow, and USS Liberty clearly printed across her stern, and that the El Quseir was 1/4 the displacement of and looked nothing like the Liberty. The Israelis lied, and America (wrongly) has always accepted that lie.
It's painful for Liberty survivors, and families of those lost, never to have experienced satisfactory closure to this totally unnecessary loss of life and ship. To keep faith with them and their loved ones, we who served in our nation's uniform on the day of that catastrophe think often of the USS Liberty, and we remember.
David L. Snell — Dillsboro, N.C.