Ralph Lopez majored in Economics and Political Science at Yale University. He has been published in the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun.
Due to the persistence of the surviving crew members and the continual emergence of new evidence, the national veteran's group American Legion has passed Resolution 40 calling for Congress to "publicly, impartially, and thoroughly" investigate the attack by Israel on an American ship in 1967, in which 34 American sailors were killed.
The crew members dispute the official conclusion that the attack was an accident, and say the Israelis knew before, during, and after the attack that it was an American ship. The resolution comes despite a veil of government secrecy which keeps key documents on the attack classified more than 50 years later. [NSA USS Liberty documents]
The attack, which surviving crew members to a man say was deliberate, as well as a stellar list of high-ranking officials, has never been officially investigated outside of a Navy Court of Inquiry and an NSA probe. Surviving crew members were not allowed to testify to key points which did not fit the official conclusion that it was an accident.
For example, according to James Ennes who was Officer of the Deck that day, crew members were never allowed to give testimony witnessing an Israeli patrol boat's methodical machine-gunning of the lifeboats, which supports the contention that the Israelis wanted no survivors.
Although the official Israeli IDF report contends the ship was not flying the American flag, two flags are in the possession of the National Security Agency Museum in Washington DC, the larger of them 13 feet long. The description on the display reads: "USS Liberty Flag: The Second Ensign (Flag) Flown During the Attack."
In the Navy report on the attack, crew members are asked repeatedly if they saw the American flag flying unfurled in that day's 6 MPH breeze, as the ship headed into the wind. The question is repeatedly answered in the affirmative. Nevertheless, the Navy concluded, to the dismay of the surviving crew, that the attack was an accident.
The surviving crew say that after the Naval Court of Inquiry concluded in only 10 days that the attack was an accident, they were ordered to never speak of the attack again, not even to their wives. The survivors say they were threatened with dire consequences if they did. In the past two decades, as fewer and fewer remain alive, the living have broken their silence nevertheless.
The surviving crew continues to hold a memorial service in Washington DC each year on the date of the attack, and issues invitations to members of Congress to attend. To date, not one Congress member has attended a service.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the other major US veterans' organization, passed a national resolution calling for a congressional investigation in 2013.
Although the American Legion leadership has fought hard over the years to prevent the Liberty survivors' resolution from passing, the rank and file have overwhelmingly supported the veterans and passed the resolution thunderously on a voice vote. The leadership had no choice but to introduce it into the record. Resolution 40 itself is a devastating document, reading in part:
WHEREAS, on June 8, 1967, while operating in support of the National Security Agency (NSA) in international waters, properly marked as to her identity and nationality, and in calm, clear weather in the eastern Mediterranean, the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was the target of an unprovoked attack by Israeli military forces that killed 34 members of the Liberty’s crew and wounded 173; and,
WHEREAS, according to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) information reports from June and October, 1967, sources in Tel Aviv reported: “Israel’s forces knew exactly what flag the [L]IBERTY was flying” and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan “personally ordered the attack” on the Liberty over the objections of senior uniformed military personnel, one of whom characterized the attack as “pure murder”; and,
WHEREAS, Richard Helms (Director of Central Intelligence, 1966-1973), stated in a 1984 CIA interview: “...I don’t think there can be any doubt that the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing..."; and,
WHEREAS, Lieutenant General Marshall S. Carter, USA (ret.) (Director of the NSA, 1965-1969), recalled in a 1988 NSA interview that he stated at a Congressional hearing in 1967 that the attack on the Liberty “couldn’t be anything else but deliberate...and,
WHEREAS...Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, USN (ret.) said: “there is compelling evidence that Israel’s attack was a deliberate attempt to destroy an American ship and kill her entire crew.”
The American Legion Resolution 40 harnesses two of the most powerful non-corporate lobbies in America, US military veterans. The survivors are now asking military veterans to forward the resolution to their congressional representatives.
On the morning of June 8th, 1967, starting at sunrise, propeller-driven Israeli reconnaissance aircraft circled slowly around the Liberty, according to the sailors, for 7 hours, making 13 close passes. This was after hearing Israeli radio chatter on the night before discussing the ship's presence. The presence of Israeli reconnaissance aircraft was also documented on that previous night, June 7th.
The Liberty crew members recall the planes in the morning were at times close enough to wave at the pilots, who waved back. The ship flew the American flag, including at one point the Holiday Colors, a particularly large flag. The breeze was about 6 MPH on a sparkling clear day, and the flags flew fully unfurled. A crew member recalled, "You could see it for miles."
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Even without flags, the Liberty was as conspicuously unique a ship as any other afloat, with a bristling array of high-tech antennae, atop over-height transmitter masts, and a 20-foot-wide satellite dish capable of listening to the Moon. It was nearly twice as long as the outdated, rusty Egyptian steamer that Israel claims it was mistaken for, the El Quiser. Fresh-painted ten-foot-tall lettering on the stern read "USS Liberty" The Liberty was unarmed save four .50 caliber machine guns to repel boarding parties, essentially helpless against jet aircraft.
At two in the afternoon, the recon planes broke off, and Israeli Mirage jets came roaring over the horizon and opened fire, with .30mm cannon, rockets, missiles, and napalm bombs. Then an Israeli Navy patrol boat arrived and launched torpedoes. The attack lasted nearly two hours.
According to the timeline of If Americans Knew, a website run by survivors, at 12:15 and 12:45, Israeli recon aircraft again circled the ship. The timeline reads:
1215 & 1245: Israeli reconnaissance aircraft again circle Liberty.
1341: Israeli torpedo boats spot Liberty and call for an immediate air strike.
1358: Two unmarked delta-winged Mirage jets attack Liberty. After taking out gun mounts, they target ship’s antennae and bridge with heat-seeking missiles.
1405: Three unmarked Dassault Mystère IIIC jets attack with napalm and rockets. Ship tries to contact Sixth Fleet headquarters, but five of Liberty’s six shore circuits are jammed. Radio operator manages to send distress signal from Captain McGonagle: “Under attack by unidentified jet aircraft, require immediate assistance.” Attack lasts approximately 22 minutes, involving 30 to 35 sorties, killing nine men and wounding around 60. Israeli pilot reports to base: “Great, wonderful, she’s burning, she’s burning.”
1409: Captain Joe Tully of the USS Saratoga acknowledges call for help, dispatches four F-4 Phantom jets, and informs Liberty that help is on the way. Within minutes U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara orders rescue jets to return: “Tell Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately.” Rear Admiral Geis relays message and tells them to re-launch jets in 90 minutes.
1424: Three French-built 62-ton Israeli motor torpedo boats approach Liberty in attack formation. Because the Israeli fighters had destroyed the American flag, Captain McGonagle orders the signalman to hoist the “holiday ensign,” the largest flag the ship has.
1435: Torpedo boats launch five German-made 19-inch torpedoes at Liberty. One torpedo strikes starboard directly into NSA area, accounting for 25 of the 34 men who would be killed. Torpedo boats then circle, machine-gunning the ship with armor-piercing projectiles for another 40 minutes.
1450: Commander of Sixth Fleet orders carriers USS America and USS Saratoga to send aircraft to defend Liberty.
In 2004 the Jerusalem Post published what it said was a partial transcript of Israeli radio traffic during the attack, in which at 2:14 pm an exchange between Israeli air controllers reads:
14:14 (2:14 pm) MENACHEM Kislev, what country?
KISLEV Apparently American.
However, according to Israel's own official report on the attack "IDF History," the torpedo attack by three Israeli patrol boats commenced at 2:43 pm ("1443" military time), a full 29 minutes after the Post reports that Israel knew the ship was American.
As to whether the Israeli attack pilots could see the American flags, the survivors note, and the Navy report confirms, that they were flying at slow speed, and could see well enough to methodically take out, before anything, the four machine gun tubs and all radio antennae with precision accuracy.
History has charged LBJ with failing to assist the ship and ordering a cover-up. As to the reason for the attack, Admiral Thomas Moorer once speculated it was an Israeli attempt to draw the US into war with Egypt, which Israel was fighting at the time in the Six Day War. The apparent attempt to kill all hands and leave no witnesses is cited as support for this thesis. Indeed, sources say LBJ had already launched nuclear-tipped jets toward Cairo when word came that the Liberty had not sunk.
If true, it has also been speculated, the Liberty crew, by saving the ship, may have prevented World War III. Survivor Phil Tourney, in his talks recounting the damage from over 800 cannon rounds, rockets, missiles, napalm bombs, and torpedoes, has said that the ship not sinking is to him a "miracle."
In 2007, the Chicago Tribune published an explosive exclusive, in which US officers who had seen presently classified NSA transcripts of radio transmissions that day disputed the accuracy of leaked transcripts published by the Jerusalem Post.
"The transcript published by the Jerusalem Post bore scant resemblance to the one that in 1967 rolled off the teletype machine behind the sealed vault door at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, where Steve Forslund worked as an intelligence analyst for the 544th Air Reconnaissance Technical Wing, then the highest-level strategic planning office in the Air Force.
"The ground control station stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it," Forslund recalled. "The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by the American flag.
"The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors."
The Tribune reported the words of James Gotcher, who was then serving with the Air Force Security Service's 6924th Security Squadron, an adjunct of the NSA. Gocher said:
"There is simply no way that [the Post transcript is] the same as what I saw,"
Even more damning are the recollections to the Tribune of Air Force Capt. Richard Block, who was commanding an intelligence wing of more than 100 analysts and cryptologists monitoring Middle Eastern communications.
"Some of the pilots did not want to attack," Block said. "The pilots said, 'This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?'
"And ground control came back and said, 'Yes, follow orders.'"
Forslund, Gotcher, and Block agree that the Jerusalem Post transcript was not at all like what they remember reading.
During the attack, some Liberty crew fought fire and damage even while wounded. Less wounded cared for more gravely wounded. With Israeli 30mm cannon being made for tank killing, the rounds punched through the thin steel hull and butchered men deep inside the ship. Survivors recall the ship's deck and hull ran red with blood, as crew ran to and from battle stations slipping on blood and body parts.
As the Liberty was attacked, it attempted to send out calls for help to the nearby Sixth Fleet. This was made more difficult because one of the first things the attack aircraft did was shoot all antennas out. But even more ominously, it was revealed in the Naval Court of Inquiry hearings, by Chief Radioman Wayne Smith, that the Israeli warplanes, as the attack commenced, jammed the frequencies used by the US for emergency calls. How would they know which frequencies to jam, say the survivors, unless they knew the ship was American? (Page 70 Naval Court of Inquiry transcript)
For the incredible drama of that day, in which one Medal of Honor was won and a rafter of other heroism decorations, the bare facts of the USS Liberty attack are little-known to most Americans, with barriers and stumbling blocks placed in the paths of survivors at every turn. Even though the American Legion passed Resolution 40, in 2018 it denied booth space to Liberty survivors at their annual convention. James Ennes, the Officer of the Deck that day, has written a book which, although well received and with many orders, seems to have problems finding its way into major bookstores.
It is clear that the surviving veterans are not fading into the sunset quietly.
As the Chicago Tribune reporter reached out to survivors for telephone interviews he relates:
...decades later, many of the more than two dozen Liberty survivors located and interviewed by the Tribune cannot talk about the attack without shouting or weeping.
The epic struggle to be heard and avenge their shipmates, almost all young in their twenties when killed, by forcing Israel and the US government to admit it was not an accident, might recall the Dylan Thomas lines:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.