On June 8, 1967, unmarked Israeli surveillance aircraft were spotted observing the Liberty several times. Without warning, the ship was attacked by three unmarked Dassault Mirage III fighter planes, equipped with rockets, thirty-millimeter cannons, and machine guns. The tattered American flag was replaced, under ruthless and constant heavy fire, with the ship’s oversized holiday flag, seven by thirteen feet, and when this flag was destroyed, a sailor raised a third flag. There was never a time when the American flag was not flying. The Israelis immediately targeted the communications antennas, radar equipment, and bridge, trying to disable the ship as quickly as possible so that it could not send for help. Simultaneously, the Israelis jammed all of the ship’s transmitting frequencies, which — as allies — had been graciously provided to them by the Navy. Sailors who attempted to photograph the planes were gunned to pieces. Once the initial three jets had expended all of their ammunition, two Super Mystère jets were dispatched to the Liberty with napalm. After dropping and igniting the napalm, the planes killed the sailors who attempted to fight the fires, and then killed the stretcher-bearers who came to the firefighters’ aid.
While these planes were still assaulting the ship, torpedo boats arrived, flying Stars of David. The sailors, some of whom had displayed miniature Stars of David in their quarters in support of the Six-Day War, were dismayed. One later said, “You see, it really wasn’t until that torpedo boat pulled up alongside the ship, and then I saw the Israeli flag and I was in shock. Everybody thought Israel was our ally. . . and here we were in international waters being attacked by Israel. Nobody could believe it. We were numb.” The boats immediately fired five torpedoes, and Captain McGonagle gave the order to abandon ship. When the sailors lowered their remaining life rafts into the water, the Israelis strafed them. The Israelis shot one life raft to ribbons and seized another as a trophy, taking it to a naval museum in Tel Aviv. The boats continued their brutal machine-gun fire for forty minutes, until two Israeli SA 321 Super Frelon helicopters arrived to finish the job. Stars of David adorned their sides, and their doors were open, revealing Israel Defense Forces commandos in camouflage with machine guns. All that the sailors aboard the Liberty had were WWII-issue M1 rifles and automatic pistols; however, the key to their small-arms locker was lost, and they couldn’t manage to get it open. As the helicopters lowered to the ship and the commandos prepared to board, the Israelis abruptly left. The entire assault had lasted for approximately ninety minutes.
During the maelstrom, an electronics specialist, Terry Halbardier, managed to jerry-rig an antenna under a hail of bullets, blood, and napalm awash on the deck, body parts strewn about. Halbardier was able to send out an SOS, which likely prevented the Israelis from completing their extermination mission. Halbardier was awarded a Silver Star for his gallantry in May 2009, almost forty-two years later. The Israelis either intercepted the distress signal or the launching of American fighter jets from the USS Saratoga, and aborted, having failed to sink the Liberty without a trace of evidence as to who had been responsible. Throughout the attack, which by all accounts should have sunk the Liberty, her valiant crew kept her afloat by the grace of God. The only doctor on board, Richard Kiepfer, worked on his feet for twenty-eight straight hours, despite having eleven pieces of shrapnel piercing his abdomen, a fifty-caliber machine gun bullet in his leg, extensive burns, and a broken kneecap. Kiepfer injected himself with morphine for the pain and did his duty.
As soon as Halbardier’s SOS was received, the Joint Chiefs authorized a retaliatory strike on the Israeli naval base at Haifa, a plan which was almost instantly countermanded and canceled by President Johnson. Saratoga Captain Joseph Tully launched twelve fighter-bombers and four tankers thirty minutes after the attack had commenced, to “destroy or drive off any attackers who are clearly making attacks on Liberty.” Tully was flummoxed that the nearby USS America had not taken any action, as the carrier had certainly received the signal at the same time that the Saratoga had. Little did he know, the bridge on the America was preoccupied by Martin frantically calling back bombers that had been dispatched to Cairo; these bombers were seven minutes away from decimating the Egyptian capital. When Martin heard the SOS from Liberty, Ms. Mellen explains, he realized that the operation to sink the Liberty with all of her crew, the pretext for the attack on Cairo that had already been set into motion, had failed. Martin had to recall the bombers, as the casus belli was gone. Ominously, Martin relayed to the Pentagon that the Liberty had been attacked by Egypt, a claim which the ship had not made and for which there was no evidence.
An NSA technician intercepted a call from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis, ordering Geis to force Tully to recall his planes shortly after launch. McNamara reportedly said, “We’re not going to war over a bunch of dead sailors.” Lewis believes that had Tully’s first launch not been recalled, they would have arrived at the Liberty prior to the torpedo boats and thus saved 28 American lives. Almost ninety minutes after Tully’s first aborted rescue mission, the Saratoga and America launched a second rescue mission. Fifteen minutes into this second flight, McNamara canceled the mission. Geis requested confirmation from a higher authority, protesting, “These people are under attack!” Another intelligence analyst heard Johnson himself grab the telephone and say, “I don’t care if the ship sinks. I don’t give a damn if the ship sinks. I will not embarrass my allies.” This statement is an admission of American foreknowledge of the attack, as Israel was not to admit responsibility for the attack until an hour later, and the President had not taken any phone calls since the Liberty dispatched the SOS to alert our government to the attack.
On June 9, the USS Davis and Massey destroyers arrived, with the America, Saratoga, and Little Rock not far behind. A day late and a dollar short, the cavalry had finally come. Martin visited five of the wounded sailors, one of whom reports that Martin, apparently trying to salve his own conscience, confessed to the men that Johnson had twice called off their rescue. This sailor, Moe Shafer, is the only one of the five who eventually went to the press; in the early 1980s, he was interviewed for twenty-five minutes by CNN, who aired a twenty-five-second clip and insinuated that the sailor was an anti-Semite, while his Nightline interview was never aired. Martin ordered the Liberty to proceed to Malta, one-hundred twenty-five hours and seven days’ travel away, rather than to the equally equipped Souda Bay in Crete, sixteen hours and three days’ travel away; to the survivors, it was evident that “the long voyage to Malta meant that the US government wanted us to sink.” McNamara, among other officials, considered outright scuttling the Liberty in order “to shield Israel” and prevent her from being photographed.
Admiral John McCain, Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Naval Forces for Europe, ordered Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd to convene a Naval Court of Inquiry, ostensibly to investigate the attack. Kidd’s “inquiry,” still the only official American investigation ever performed, took a total of one week to cover up the truth of what had happened. When Kidd visited the Liberty, he passed out pints of brandy and made various statements, such as: “Keep your mouth shut or you’ll end up in Leavenworth.”; “If you guys talk about this, I’ll make sure you’re in prison.”; “Just forget it ever happened.”; “You cannot divulge what you saw or what you think, or you. . . will be court-martialed. You still have time in the Navy. You would spend the rest of your time in jail. The officers have a right to shoot you.”; and “You will never repeat, never discuss this with anyone, not even your wives. If you do, you will be court-martialed and will end your lives in prison or worse.” One sailor told officers from the Office of Naval Intelligence that he believed the attack had been intentional, to which they replied, “Let me tell you how this works. If you ever repeat what you told us, you will spend a few years in Leavenworth.”
Captain McGonagle rewrote the ship’s log and wrote up an almost entirely false report of the attack, minimizing it to fit the narrative of the Johnson Administration. On June 8, shortly after the attack, Johnson “went on the air and said there had been a minor six-minute attack with ten sailors killed.” McGonagle claimed that a sailor had fired on the Israeli torpedo boats to precipitate their assault, when in truth that sailor had long been dead by the time the boats arrived. McGonagle contended that the brutal ninety-minute onslaught had only lasted for “five to six minutes,” and failed to mention the Israeli war crimes, such as their machine-gunning the life rafts. McGonagle also omitted from his story the fact that the Israelis continued to fire for forty minutes after they had fired the torpedoes. He also asserted that the Israelis must have felt threatened, and said that he had never given an order to abandon ship. For his lies, McGonagle was promoted and given command of a new ship, as well as awarded a Medal of Honor.
When McGonagle showed his “report” to Kiepfer and Chief Engineer George Golden, who later renounced Judaism, the two strenuously objected. McGonagle merely replied that he “trusted that their story would not conflict with his” and, “Don’t volunteer a thing. Answer. . . but don’t tell them anything you don’t have to.” Dave Lucas, the first sailor witness before the inquiry, contradicted McGonagle and even brought a jar of the jellied napalm from the ship’s deck; this, of course, was left out of the final report. At the inquiry, one radioman who offered testimony about the Israelis having jammed the ship’s transmissions was removed from the room. Another sailor brought an official weather report proving that there had been a sufficient breeze blowing for the American flag to fly; this, too, was disregarded. If any of the sailors criticized Israel in the slightest, they were cut off with, “We don’t want to hear about that.” NSA Director Marshall Carter remarked, “It couldn’t be anything else but deliberate. There’s just no way you could have a series of circumstances that would justify it being an accident.” Carter was immediately cut off by Cyrus Vance, saying that that was “premature”; when Carter returned to Fort Meade, he told his Chief of Staff that “Cy Vance told me to keep my mouth shut. These were his exact words.”
Kidd’s “inquiry” did not interview a single person in Israel, as “any dealings with any other nation or any like sources beyond our own people were precluded.” Kidd’s final report concluded that the attack was nothing but a case of “mistaken identity” and that the Liberty’s American flag (actually, her three American flags) were “difficult to identify,” continuing that it had been a windless day and that there were “no available indications that the attack was intended against a U.S. ship. . . the Israel Defense Forces conducted air and surface searches for survivors.” Kidd’s counsel, Ward Boston, later admitted that “we both believed with certainty that this attack was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew. . . the Israelis intended that there be no survivors.” Boston continued that “LBJ had ordered us to put the lid on it.” The Liberty survivors had been Shanghaied, and they knew it. They “had a deep feeling of betrayal, bewilderment, and abandonment. . . a deep-seated anger at those who had murdered our shipmates. . . It wasn’t until the Court of Inquiry began that we realized what a massive cover-up had been put in place. Then a real sense of abandonment, anger, and frustration emerged.”
As one sailor succinctly put it: “The White House left us for dead.”
Israel claimed that they had mistakenly identified the Liberty as an Egyptian freighter. This was nonsensical, as that ship was two-hundred feet shorter than the Liberty and had a maximum speed of only fourteen knots. The Liberty was also, as aforementioned, highly distinctive, with a completely unique deck. Israel further claimed, contradicting itself, that the Liberty had been moving at twenty-eight knots, another “report” claiming thirty-two knots, when the ship had a maximum speed of eighteen knots and was only traveling five at the time, trolling at her normal cruise speed.
Though Israel had produced doctored transcripts of their records, multiple American intelligence analysts at different listening posts in the region intercepted the communications between the Israeli pilots and their ground control. Captain Richard Block, from an Air Force base in Crete, heard the pilots report, “It’s an American ship! It’s an American flag!” Their handlers replied, “Never mind, hit it! You have your orders! Attack it! Attack this ship!” All three of the initial attackers had their orders confirmed and were commanded to target the Liberty’s communications and radar equipment. The NSA also intercepted Israeli ground control, distressed that the Liberty had not yet been sunk, ordering the two additional planes to drop napalm. When a pilot reported, “She’s not shooting back,” his handler replied, “Great, wonderful. She’s burning! . . . Napalm. . . would be more efficient. You can sink her.”
One intelligence analyst reported that “horrified by the attack, people in Air Force intelligence. . . were taking bets on which Israeli city would be obliterated by morning. It did not occur to anyone that so purposeful an attack could be an ‘accident’, let alone that the United States would not immediately retaliate.” As Lewis would later say, “It was an attack on the United States! And no one did anything about it.”
The Joint Chiefs’ fact-finding team focused on the “lost” messages, rather than on who had placed the Liberty in her position in the first place. Their report, however, failed to redact that “it was the Deputy Secretary of Defense [Cyrus Vance] and the 303 Committee which ‘initiated movement of the USS Liberty to the Eastern Mediterranean by way of Rota, Spain.’” On June 30, Vance resigned, citing his health. On June 10, NSA officer Walter Deeley, later Chief of Signals Intelligence Operations Center (who, according to a memorial posted at the NSA website, was “known for his skill at crisis management”), ordered subordinates, “Well, damn it, write down some reasons for sending that ship out there.” As a mission directive for the Liberty was retroactively drafted, the CIA released a report which omitted the aborted rescues and repeated the falsified Israeli transcripts. These farcically claimed that Israel had attacked mistakenly and had then attempted to rescue American sailors in the water. This heavily suggests that the CIA collaborated with Mossad in producing the report.
President Johnson dispatched W.W. Rostow, his Special Advisor on National Security, to “tell the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of the Navy to forget about Liberty.” Rostow publicly said, “I could never imagine any Israeli, no matter what his politics were, deliberately firing on the American flag.” When Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach was asked how the United States was going to pursue what had been done to the Liberty, he replied, “We’re not going to. What good would it do?” Katzenbach was the same man picked by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to “head off public speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort” about the assassination of President Kennedy. Katzenbach wrote a memo to Johnson aide Bill Moyers that read, “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin. . . and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.”
When Kidd produced his final report, a heavily altered version of which was later released to the public, McCain required that the document be given a legal endorsement by Force Legal Officer Captain Merlin Staring. Staring took his job seriously, and pored over the document, making copious notes on items he believed necessitated further investigation. McCain, impatient, ordered Staring to tender his endorsement by “that evening.” When Staring said that he could not do so in good conscience, McCain responded that the report “would be prepared elsewhere within the staff.” The report, along with Staring’s notes, was removed from his office overnight, without his knowledge. Staring wrote, “I had the 650-page record for a total of 18 hours, during 15 of which I concentrated on it. I had been having problems finding evidence in the record to support some of the court’s findings, and was only about a third of the way through it when the Admiral had the record withdrawn from me.” Years later, when Staring became the Navy’s Judge Advocate General, he saw the report with McCain’s alterations. In 2005, he called Kidd’s inquiry “a near-total farce. . . It could neither then nor now be considered an honest or a thorough, or a reliable investigation of the major tragedy that was the attack upon the USS Liberty.” McCain also appears to have covered up evidence of his son’s involvement in the July 1967 USS Forrestal incident which left 134 Americans dead, as well as evidence of his son’s probable treason in Vietnam. That son was the late Senator John McCain, who then went on to cover up the intentional abandonment of American prisoners-of-war in Vietnam. When asked about the Liberty, Senator McCain said only that “if my father did it, it must have been right.”
Admiral McDonald, Chief of Naval Operations, attacked the report, saying, “I don’t believe it. . . it leaves me with the feeling that we’re trying our best to excuse the attackers. . . Were I a parent of one of the deceased, this release would burn me up. I myself do not subscribe to it.” Three days after the Liberty docked in Virginia, McDonald was relieved of his position. On June 15, Secretary of State Dean Rusk told a meeting of NATO ambassadors in Luxembourg that the attack had been deliberate. CIA Director Richard Helms said that “it was no accident. . .There could be no doubt that the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing in attacking the Liberty. It was no mistake.” In 2004, Admiral Thomas Moorer, McDonald’s replacement and later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1970 to 1974, called for a Congressional investigation. The attack on the Liberty marked the first time since the War of 1812 that America had been attacked without any Congressional investigation.
Johnson maintained his lies forever after. In his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, he wrote that “ten of the Liberty crew were killed and a hundred were wounded. . . carrier aircraft were on their way to the scene to investigate,” referring to the planes he had called back and prevented from rescuing. By 1971, Israel was receiving six-hundred million dollars of American weapons per year. Two years later, that number was three billion dollars. As aforementioned, it has only climbed since. When six crewmen from the Liberty were buried at Arlington National Cemetery, their monument read, “Died in the Eastern Mediterranean.” This was amended to the almost as ignominious “Killed USS Liberty” in 1984.
One of the most troubling details that Ms. Mellen touches on, but for an almost total dearth of information cannot investigate further, involves the position of a nuclear submarine, the USS Amberjack. Evidence suggests that the Amberjack was very close behind the Liberty, though no information exists as to what its mission was. A periscope, presumably from the Amberjack, was witnessed observing the entirety of the attack on the Liberty. In any case, Israel emerged victorious from its unprovoked war crime on an American ship. On the first day of the Six-Day War, Israel “had destroyed Egypt’s air force, appropriated the Sinai and the West Bank, subdued Jordan, and annexed East Jerusalem. . . All that remained to be conquered was Syria.” As aforementioned, Israel doubled its territory and was emboldened by the power that it was able to exercise over the United States of America. If it could get away with the cold-blooded massacre of 34 Americans and the attempted murder of 260, what else could it accomplish? After all, what are 34 compared to 2,977 and counting?
The sordid tale of the USS Liberty does not leave us without redemption, however, for the scheme ultimately failed. The men of the Liberty were sent as sheep to the slaughter, yet they clung to life. Against all odds, these brave Americans survived. They kept their ship afloat, and lived to tell the tale. Had they been annihilated, we would never have known who killed them. The Liberty’s proximity to the Egyptian shore would have allowed Israel and our nation to pin the blame on Egypt and thereby justify the destruction of Cairo, a scheme avoided with seven minutes to spare by the pluck and the ingenuity of a single electronics technician. Israel eventually made settlement payments to some of the survivors of its attack on the Liberty, but these were merely nominal. The money came out of American aid to Israel, which was commensurately increased such that Israel incurred no cost whatsoever, while the American taxpayer paid its own sailors, the victims of a foreign power.
With “allies” like these, who needs enemies?
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