“But, sir, it’s an American ship—I can see the flag!”
“Never mind. Hit it.”
—communication between an Israeli pilot and Israeli ground control, June 8, 1967, 45 years ago today, off the Mediterranean coast near Gaza.
The pilot and his squadron followed the order, and Israeli gunboats followed them in. The attack inflicted 205 casualties on the crew of 293 on the USS Liberty. The following 34 crew members were slaughtered:
LCDR Phillip McCutcheon Armstrong, Jr.
Lt. James Cecil Pierce
Lt. Stephen Spencer Toth
CT3 William Bernard Allenbaugh
SN Gary Ray Blanchard
CT2 Allen Merle Blue
QM3 Francis Brown
CT2 Ronnie Jordan Campbell
CT2 Jerry Leroy Converse
CT2 Robert Burton Eisenberg
CT2 Jerry Lee Goss
CT1 Curtis Alan Graves
CTSN Lawrence Paul Hayden
CT1 Warren Edward Hersey
CT3 Alan Higgins
SN Carl L. Hoar
CT2 Richard Walter Keene Jr.
CTSN James Lee Lenan
CTC Raymond Eugene Linn
CT1 James Mahlon Lupton
CT3 Duane Rowe Marrgraf
CTSN David Walter Marlborough
CT2 Anthony Mendle
CTSN Carl Christian Nygren
Marine Sgt. Jack Lewis Raper
Marine Cpl. Edward Emory Rehmeyer III
ICFN David Skolak
CT1 John Caleb Smith Jr.
CTC Melvin Douglas Smith
PC2 John Clarence Spicher
GMG3 Alexander Neil Thompson, Jr.
CT3 Thomas Ray Thornton
CT3 Philippe Charles Tiedke
CT1 Frederick James Walton.
Alaskan Philip Munger honored these 34 fallen heroes in his blog on Memorial Day. His blog was the only medium, mainstream or otherwise, we know of to do so on that date.
“This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?”
--Israeli pilot ordered to attack USS Liberty, June 8, 1967
“Yes, follow orders.”
--Israeli ground control response to Israeli pilot ordered to attack the USS Liberty, June 8, 1967
“Israel was attacking, and they know it’s an American ship.”
--Dwight Porter, the late American ambassador to Lebanon during the Six-Day War, who was discussing English-language transcripts of Israeli pilots talking to their controllers. The discussion took place during a lunch at the Cosmos Club in Washington with another retired American diplomat, Andrew Kilgore, former US ambassador to Qatar. Porter asked that his recollections not be made public while he was alive because they involved information the US government declared “classified.”
The Americans had “clear proof that from a certain stage the pilot
discovered the identity of the ship and continued the attack anyway.”
---Avaraham Harman, the Israeli ambassador in Washington in a diplomatic cable to Foreign Minister Abba Eban in Tel Aviv.
“The Israelis initially claimed they had "mistaken" the Liberty for the Egyptian ship El-Quseir. But the El-Quseir was only 40 percent the size of Liberty (4000 vs. 10,400 tons). The El-Quseir was an old, rusted-out horse transport... The Liberty was arrayed with numerous specialized antennas, and an ultramodern (for 1967) 16ft microwave dish, a device possessed by no other ship in the world except her sister ship the USS Belmont. She (the Liberty) bore standard U.S. Navy markings, whch included a freshly painted 10 foot high hull number, and Liberty on the stern.”
--Admiral Thomas Moorer (ret), a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined a dozen surviving crew members of the USS Liberty at a seminar during the annual convention of the AmericanArab AntiDiscrimination Committee in Washington. Moorer has suggested the incident was a deliberate attack to prevent the Liberty from picking up signals that could have forewarned the United States of an Israeli military push into Syria the next day.
“What was Israel's motive for this act? The scheduling of the Israeli assault on the Golan Heights for 8 June was a move to defeat an intense effort in the United Nations to halt the war, a ceasefire having been scheduled for 9 June. Such pressure was also being applied by the U.S. Government. The IDF leaders were under pressure to acquire the Golan before the ceasefire was imposed, preferably without being labeled the aggressor (as in 1956 when Israel had colluded with Britain and France to attack Egypt).
“But with all the pressure to attack Syria, and after all the hurried preparations to do so, the Golan attack was suddenly called off within hours of its scheduled commencement. Why? Obviously, someone in the IDF leadership feared the Liberty might intercept some of the many signals then filling the air that would expose Israel's preparations for invasion. They might then be forced into a ceasefire before they conquered the coveted territory.
“Why did Israel try to sink a naval vessel of its benefactor and ally? Most likely because 'Liberty's' intercepts flatly contradicted Israel's claim, made at the war's beginning on 5 June, that Egypt had attacked Israel, and that Israel's massive air assault on three Arab nations was in retaliation. In fact, Israel began the war by a devastating, Pearl-Harbor style surprise attack that caught the Arabs in bed and destroyed their entire air forces.
“Israel was also preparing to attack Syria to seize its strategic Golan Heights. Washington warned Israel not to invade Syria, which had remained inactive while Israel fought Egypt. Israel's offensive against Syria was abruptly postponed when 'Liberty' appeared off Sinai, then launched once it was knocked out of action. Israel's claim that Syria had attacked it could have been disproved by 'Liberty.'
"Most significant, 'Liberty's' intercepts may have shown that Israel seized upon sharply rising Arab-Israeli tensions in May-June 1967 to launch a long-planned war to invade and annex the West Bank, Jerusalem, Golan and Sinai.”
--- Intelligence expert James Bamford, author of “Body of Secrets”
NSA transcripts of the communications between the Israeli pilots and
Israeli ground control said, “We’ve got them in the zero, whatever that
meant—I guess the sights or something. And then one of them said ‘Can
you see the flag?’” They said, ‘Yes it’s a US, it’s US.’ They said it several times, there wasn’t any doubt in anybody’s mind that they knew it.”
--Oliver Kirby, the NSA deputy director for operations at the time of the
“We sure did.”
--Kirby when asked whether the NSA had in fact intercepted the
communications of the Israeli pilots who were attacking the Liberty.
“I am certain that the Israeli pilots that undertook the attack, as well as their superiors, who had ordered the attack, were well aware that the ship was American.
“I saw the flag, which had visibly identified the ship as American, riddled
with bullet holes, and heard testimony that made it clear the Israelis
intended there be no survivors. Not only did the Israelis attack the ship
with napalm, gunfire and missiles, Israeli torpedo boats machine-gunned
three lifeboats that had been launched in an attempt by the crew to save the most seriously wounded—a war crime.”
--Ward Boston, Jr. Captain, JAGC, USN (Ret.), counsel to the US Navy
Court of Inquiry’s investigation into the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty
“Ultimately all of the transcripts were deep-sixed. I was told they were
deep-sixed because the administration did not wish to embarrass the
--Haviland Smith, CIA officer stationed in Beirut during the Six-Day War
“The first attack lasted about five minutes, A few minutes later, three
unmarked Super-Mysteres attacked with napalm and dozens of rockets.
There was them a short respite, and two more Mirages, also unmarked,
attacked. The entire two-part engagement lasted about 22 minutes.
“Throughout the attack, the ship tried to contact Sixth Fleet
headquarters, But the Israeli planes knew the frequencies of the
transmission and were able to block the messages, except when the attacks were underway. During those few seconds, the radio operator, one of the many on board the Liberty who performed heroically, was able to make contact with the Sixth Fleet. The first ship to receive and acknowledge the distress signal was the carrier Saratoga, which almost immediately dispatched 12 F-4 Phantom jets and four tanker planes to defend the Liberty. The Sixth Fleet flagship, the Little Rock, which had received the messages at almost the same time, was informed, and the Liberty was told that help was on the way.
“It never arrived. Very shortly after Washington got word of the attack
and of the 12 planes that had been dispatched to support it, Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara personally got on the radio circuit and said, ‘Tell (the) Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately.’ That
message did get through, and the planes were recalled. In subsequent
discussions of the affair, the White House directed the Pentagon to say
the Israelis had acknowledged their ‘mistake,’ that the attack had been
called off, and that the Israelis would give assistance to the ship.
“Nine men had been killed and about 60 wounded. But, in spite of what
the White House said, that was not the end of the Israeli action. While
most of the lifeboats had been destroyed in the first attack, the ship
managed to launch three, but they were immediately attacked by Israeli
motor torpedo boats. The Israelis destroyed two of the lifeboats—a war
crime in itself—and captured the third. The torpedo boats also fired their cannons into the ship in an apparent attempt to sink it…
“(The) ship limped into Malta, where 821 rocket and missile holes and
more then 3,000 holes from armor piercing bullets were counted.... The Liberty was clearly marked and it flew a standard American flag that measured five-by-eight-feet. The flag was destroyed during the first attack, but it was replaced immediately by a nine-by-15 foot ‘holiday flag,’ which remained aloft throughout the subsequent attacks. The Israelis never attempted to explain how they had acquired the frequencies on which the ship transmitted, and why they had
blocked them (the Egyptian frequencies would have been quite different.)
"Nor have they explained why their aircraft were unmarked, or why the
American flag was ignored.”
--former Ambassador James Akins speaking at the Center for Policy
Analysis on Palestine, September, 1999
The radio jamming is by itself damning evidence that the assailants knew exactly whom they were attacking. Such jamming requires intimate advance knowledge of the target being jammed, obtained by extended monitoring of its signals. And this was selective jamming; it struck Liberty's frequencies and no others.
-- judgment of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty, the Recall of Military Rescue Support Aircraft While the Ship was Under Attack, and the Subsequent Cover-up of the United States Government, Oct. 11, 2004; Vol. 150, No. 130; pages e1886 to e1889.
“Secretary of State Dean Rusk…considered the payments meaningless as Congress merely increased the annual Israeli allotment by that amount.”
--Reverdy S. Fishel, reporting that Rusk pointed out that the US taxpayers financed the $6 million-dollar reparation Israel paid the US as compensation for the attack on the USS Liberty
“We had been surveilled all morning and part of the afternoon by Israeli
forces. They knew who we were. We heard them reporting over radio who we were and how we were sailing and where we were sailing. They saw the flag and everything else. We were in international waters.
"At 2:00 the action started when we had just completed a general quarters drill. I had just come out or the engine room to get some fresh air when the firing started. That's when I took my shrapnel hit, nothing fantastic but pieces of shrapnel. I went back to the boiler room and prepared to start lighting off number one boiler to get steam to get out of there.
"This persisted for probably 25 or 35 minutes with the aircraft rocketing us and hitting us with everything they had, napalm and cannon fire and after that there was a comparatively small lull. We heard that they were getting hit all over the place and we could see the torpedo boats moving in and firing torpedoes at us, and then one hit and put a 40 foot hole in the side of the ship and knocked all power off.
"By that time the ship's interior was blackened, you couldn't see anything except with battle lanterns. We were still in the process of lighting off the boiler and trying to head the ship out to sea. The ship was listing and we got the word to prepare to abandon ship. We were ordered by Lieutenant Golden who was in charge in the engine room to exit, and the last one out of there was myself, and I had to cut off the boilers' fuel supply. I was the last one. We got outside at the main battle dressing station where a lot of injuries were.
"We were just about to go topside when we heard a lot of shots and cannon fire and machine gun fire. Evidently they were trying to pick off people who were fighting fires and trying to put life rafts in the water. They were picking these people off with machine guns. We were told, I didn't see them, but we were told that they were shooting up the life rafts that were in the water, so needless to say they weren't going to take survivors at all.
"And so we headed back to our spaces and did not abandon ship. We stayed with it. And it continued probably for another 40 minutes with them shooting and finally after seeing that the ship was not going to sink they grabbed one of the life rafts and they exited the scene. And through that, the helicopters had come over loaded with Israeli troops.
"This lasted almost two hours and finally we got the ship turned around and boilers lit off and headed out to sea.
"We also heard that nine minutes into the attack we had reached a message to the Sixth Fleet and they were on their way with aircraft to help us. Little did we know until afterwards that three sets of aircraft were turned back.”
—Liberty crew member John Hrankowski interview with Peter Houman on BBC documentary “Dead in the Water”
“There are people out there waiting for us to die, and the Liberty story to die with us. That is not going to happen. The truth will finally win out.”
--Ron Kukal, shipmate, who was assigned to recover and identify dead Liberty crew members, and who spoke at Hrankowski’s funeral after his March 22, 2011 death.
(Al-Hajj Frederick H Minshall co-produced this essay to honor the memory of his fellow Navy personnel.)