The Liberty Incident

Exculpatory evidence supporting a mistaken attack

In addition to the VQ2 voice materials that I contend support a case for a mistaken attack on the USS Liberty by Israeli forces on June 8, 1967, the following discussion is germane to my argument that the erroneous attack was carried out by the Israelis in the heat of battle. Much of my counter-argument is based on the Jim Ennes' narrative in his book, Assault on the Liberty (Random House, NY, 1979), and my experience that includes 20 years of naval service. Ennes says he and the Liberty crew are convinced the Israelis deliberately attacked the ship. He further argues that certain high-level US Government officials colluded with the Israelis to hide the intentional attack. His argument does not hold up to scrutiny.

First, to defend my hypothesis of an accidental attack one must consider the psychological frame of mind of the Israeli warriors. For most of them this was their first real test in war. Their fathers before them craved out the State of Israel under constant wartime pressure from the Arab states before and after 1948. Now the sons were being challenged to defend the nation. Apparently, they could expect no help from the United States, if Israel initiated the attacks. President Johnson said as much (see Ennes, p. 210).

For weeks and months before June 1967, the leaders of the Arab states in Cairo, Damascus, and Amman publicly threatened coordinated annihilation of Israel. By May 1967, taking the threats seriously, the Israeli leaders devised a battle plan that incorporated a preemptive attack to wipe out the Arab military forces in Egypt in one felt swoop, with subsequent follow-on attacks on the Syrians and Jordanians. Everything depended on this new generation, "sabra," the youth of Israel. The sabras must defend their nation, they were told. This was a war of survival. Their very lives and the lives of their families and the future of Israel depended on them!

Add to the above picture, the Israelis now being in their third day of war when the hapless Liberty arrives in the East Med. The sabras were attacking every Arab military target in their gunsights, and were doing a complete job. Along comes a slow moving ship toward the Israeli coast from the direction of Port Said, Egypt. An early morning Israeli airborne reconnaissance mission (Noratlas aircraft discussed below) is flown over the ship. As it turns out, the Liberty is not identified by the Israelis as she continues to steam toward Israel (see reasons discussed below).

Nobody knew the identity and function of this mystery ship, and that includes some US naval authorities in the Mediterranean. For example, senior officials on the USS Saratoga, operating near Crete, referred to the Liberty as the USNS Liberty, a civilian-manned contract ship (see Ennes, p. 75, footnote 4). Further, those authorities who knew did not know the precise location of the Liberty in the war zone off the coast of El Arish, Egypt. Additionally, our VQ crew had no idea of the Liberty's presence that fateful day.

The track of the USS Liberty in the battle zone had to look ominous to the planners in the Israeli war room and the "pumped up" Israeli sabras. Just as our VQ2 mission commander was concerned about our safety on an ominous track on the June 5/6 night flight, the approach of the Liberty to El Arish must have appeared ominous to the Israelis as the vessel came toward them from Egypt. Moreover, as the Liberty passed Port Said close-in shore during the night of June 7/8 heading easterly, the crew reported seeing the sky around the city filled with smoke and fire. The Liberty was very close to the shore that morning, so close that a "little prop plane" could be seen every few moments skimming the sand dunes on the beach (see Ennes, p. 50).

Following the first Israeli reconnaissance morning flight by the flying boxcar (a Noratlas) at 080600 (local), the Liberty crew notices its flag is fouled. Besides, the flag was "dark with soot and badly tattered." It was replaced sometime after 080720 (local), well after this Noratlas reconnoitered the Liberty. The ship was barely in international waters (see Ennes, pp. 50-51).

One or more Israeli Noratlas aircraft overfly the Liberty at least six times between 081030 and 11245 (local) (see Ennes' narrative and sequence of events inside the cover of his book). After the overflight at 0600, the next overflight occurs at 1030. It was made at near masthead level, reminiscent of our VQ2 low level flights (explained below).

While I will concede it is likely this Noratlas crew observed the American flag, we have no way of actually knowing that fact, nor if identified, when the information reached the war room in Tel Aviv. We on the VQ2 EC121M did not hear any such reporting by radio; only later in the afternoon did we hear references to flag during the attacks.

Therefore, I must conclude that the report to Tel Aviv authorities was probably passed to the war room post facto. We have no idea what time any of the Noratlases recovered at home nor the time the intelligence information about the American flag was made available in the war room. I think it was probably during the MTB attack because the torpedo boats halted their attacks when they could have finished off the Liberty.

According to Ennes, the three MTBs left the port of Ashdod at 1200 local, some 125 miles away, heading for the Liberty at 35 plus knots. They commenced a machine gun attack and launched torpedos at 1435 local. Three minutes later, the sabras mysteriously broke off the engagement. If the boat commanders had wanted to sink the Liberty, they could have done so at this time. Instead, they ceased fire and retreated, returning later to offer assistance to the stricken Liberty. I contend it was during the attack the identification of the American ship became known to the Israeli war planners. I also believe our VQ-2 voice intercepts showed this identification causing the cease-fire.

In reconstruction of the attack, the Liberty crew makes much of flying the American flag, as if it would somehow protect them in harm's way (see Ennes, p. 152). Little does the crew appreciate the difficulty of identifying a ship from an aircraft merely on the basis of a flag or even a hull number (GTR 5 displayed by the Liberty). Based on my experience of flying many "low and slow" reconnaissance flights over ships in the Med and Atlantic with VQ2, unless the flights are almost overhead, target identification is virtually impossible. High-powered binoculars are not much good in a bouncing low-level aircraft. Even post facto photos do not always reveal identification. See, for example, Ennes' photo of the ship on page 146. This crisp overhead photo does not clearly show the identity of the American ship. So how could the attacking Israeli forces conclude this was a friendly ship?

Additionally, in an interesting commentary Mr. Ennes takes Captain McGonagle to task about identifying flags. The MTBs were flying the Israeli flag prior to the torpedo attack (pp. 148-148). Ennes says his captain must have erred (Ennes' emphasis) during the Naval Court of Inquiry; because "it would have been practically impossible to identify a tiny and wildly fluttering Star of David [flag] a mile away..." Mr. Ennes also doesn't understand why the Israeli MTB's did not recognize the hull number, GTR 5, in their July 6, 1967 account (pp. 171-173). He claims the Israeli sailors had to understand the significance of GTR 5. I would challenge him; I believe I know American sailors who could not decipher such a hull number.

I point out the above in the interest of showing the difficulty of identifying vessels by flags and hull numbers in the heat of battle. Further, identification of a ship's flag by high-performance jet fighters would be even more difficult. Consider that the Israeli pilots are engaged in a war situation, flying combat air patrols (CAPs) and flying to and from the front. They could hardly be expected to identify a small fluttering flag on a ship far below them. My son, an ex-Navy F18 pilot, confirms my contention. While the Liberty crew thinks these pilots were intent on identifying them, in fact the pilots were probably engaged in more pressing activity to protect their country.

At 1400, when the Israeli aircraft commenced their attack, the Liberty crew had no idea who the attackers were, even mis-identifying them as Arab MIGs (pp. 69, 75, 97).

At 1430 or so, as the Israeli MTBs approached the Liberty, the senior boat commander may have tried to ascertain the true identity of the ship. Captain McGonagle of the Liberty reported seeing a flashing light from the middle boat. He told his gunners to hold their fire while he attempted to communicate with the MTBs by a hand-held Aldis lamp. One Liberty gunner evidently did hear the captain and opened up with a burst of machine-gun fire. Near simultaneously, the rear gun mount opened fire, "blanketing the center boat." The captain called for all gunners to cease fire but by this time the MTBs returned fire and shortly thereafter launched torpedoes (p. 81). The attack was abbreviated, lasting only three minutes from 1435 to 1438 local. It was during this attack that the Israelis finally identified the American ship. Without such identification, the MTBs would surely have sunk the Liberty.

Less than two hours later, at 1614 local, the American Embassy in Tel Aviv announced in a Flash precedence message to all concerned American authorities that the Israelis erroneously attacked a "may be Navy" ship and apologized for their misdeed (p. 99).

Even the Liberty did not know who her attackers were. According to Liberty log, approximately 15 minutes later, at 1632 local, the crew finally identified the nationality as Israeli as the MTBs returned again, this time to offer assistance to the listing Liberty.

In conclusion, even without taking into account the VQ intercepts, I think Jim Ennes's book makes a strong case the Israelis mistakenly attacked the USS Liberty. The main reason is because they mistook her for an enemy ship. Consequently, I agree with Ennes's citation on page 154. He says the Naval Attachè in Tel Aviv evaluated the attack as "...erroneous attack from trigger happy eagerness to glean some portion of the great victory being shared by IDF Army and Air Force and which the Navy was not sharing." The sabras carried out their duty. Other evidence of a mistaken attack follows in the next enclosure.