In 1967, Israel attacked one of the United States ships located in the international waters near Egypt. The USS Liberty was attacked by torpedoes, rockets, and napalm seeking to sink the ship. Not only were the hostilities seeking to destroy the Liberty, but the Israeli aircraft surrounding the vessel ensured communications were jammed to prevent anyone from providing assistance. But why would Israel, a known ally of the United States, attack the ship unprovoked? What in their right minds could have possessed them to fire on the clearly marked, friendly vessel? Israel claims it was a mistake, but there are some who suspect foul play, and some who think this was a deliberate attack to pit the U.S. against the Egyptians, who were at war with their neighbors.
The day was June 8th. The USS Liberty was quietly monitoring the situation between Israel and several Arab nations as they waged their own conflicts. Lightly armed and clearly marked as an American ship, it was simply maintaining neutrality as it performed its mission to collect information just north of Sinai. As the situation deteriorated, several messages were sent to the Liberty, but unfortunately, these would only arrive after the attack. Furthermore, Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, claims to have notified the U.S. that their country would attack any “unidentified” ships that were found off their coast, but the U.S. states that these notifications weren’t received until after the attack.
When the U.S. questioned Ambassador Walworth Barbour in Israel, he confirmed that no such messages were received until after the attack. In fact, had they made such statements, the messages would have reached the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and even the Department of State. Yet, what exactly happened the day of the attack?
The USS Liberty’s deck logs claim that several Israeli Air Force planes were flying by the ship on the morning of the attack. IDF sources claim they were searching for enemy submarines in the area, and that their flight patterns were simply coincidental. On the other side of the line, Israel was receiving transmissions regarding unidentified vessels just west of Gaza. They marked these with a red flag, signifying potential enemies. However, at around 9:00am, the ship was (mistakenly) identified as a U.S. Navy supply vessel and marked green, as it was friendly. At around the same time, an Israeli pilot claimed his aircraft was shot at from the same direction, but when conflicts in his statement arose, the testimony was shut down.
Tensions, however, remained high, and reports of shelling in Arish had begun circulating. The Israelis began to suspect the USS Liberty was responsible. The reports passed from all commands until the CNO ordered a torpedo boat division to investigate the areas near Arish. Turmoil arose within the Israeli troops, with suspicions that the shelling was a prelude to a potential amphibious attack. As such, an order was issued to sink any potentially unidentified ships in the area, but to remain cautious of Russian ships in the zone. The Liberty at this time was still patrolling along the coast of Sinai.
Jets were dispatched to the area, and around two in the afternoon, the leader of the formation witnessed the USS Liberty and reported that it not only looked like a military ship but that it appeared to be a destroyer (when later questioned, they claimed to see no distinguishing features). Once the reports were given, the order to attack was cleared. A combination of cannon fire and rockets assaulted the Liberty, killing 8 of its crew and wounding at least 75. An urgent request was launched, but no help ever came. After the jets had expended their munitions cache, two more planes came loaded with bombs that were released on the ship. The Napalm bombs ensured the ship caught fire. After the attack, one more attempt was made to identify the ship. Once the GTR-5 markings were seen, the attack was ordered to cease. An SOS signal sent from the Liberty was launched and received by the USS America, but unfortunately, the aircraft sent to help them were recalled before reaching their objective.
As Israeli torpedo boats approached, the Liberty’s Captain McGonagle instructed one of his sailors to mount a machine gun, but he noticed that the flags on the ships were Israeli, which led him to believe the attack was a mistake. He tried to stop the sailor from firing on the torpedo boats, but the word came too late. Once the enemy vessels noticed the return fire, they began launching their payload. This new attack killed at least 25 more crew members, including the helmsman. Fortunately, since their attack was focused on a major hull, the impact was well-absorbed and prevented the ship from splitting apart. In addition, several torpedoes missed the target altogether. It wasn’t until 3:30 pm that the identity of the ship was clearly confirmed. The attacks stopped and an apology was issued.
Israel would later admit that they “mistakenly attacked” the ship, but this did little to remedy the loss of lives by the crew of the ship. Compensations were offered to the families of the victims by the Israeli government. At the time, President Johnson simply seemed to accept the explanation of mistaken identity rather than risk the breakout of war with the Soviets. But, multiple members of his cabinet expressed suspicion and disbelief in the tale. To this day, it remains a mystery as to whether the attack was intentional or not, but Israel still claims innocence. Multiple survivors of the attack received high honors and decorations.
Numerous inquiries were launched at the time by several high ranking members of both the Department of Defense and Congress. However, it seemed like the investigations were shallow, and disagreements between the CO and sailor’s testimonies gave rise to suspicions of foul play. The United States High Court explained that it wasn’t their responsibility to lay blame on the nation of Israel and that the current evidence suggested a simple case of mistaken identity…
What happened on that day remains a question in Naval History, but the brave men who survived and those who lost their lives will be forever remembered by their families and fellow shipmates. Still, the question remains. What could have motivated the Israelis to perform such a deed? We might never know.
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