Murder on the High Seas: The Day Israel Attacked America
June 8, 1967 was too beautiful a die to die, especially if you were a young American, full of dreams with your whole life ahead of you. Your home was the Liberty, a World War II-era freighter repurposed as an intelligence (spy) ship sailing in international waters off the coast of El Arish in the curve of land between Gaza and Egypt. The weather was exquisite, bright blue skies, visibility 25+ miles, impossible not to see the big American flag flying and the ship’s identifying numbers GTR-5. As the afternoon wore on, some of the crew were sunbathing on the deck, others writing letters to family back home. What they didn’t expect was gunfire, missiles and napalm raining down on the deck from the skies. The attack was fierce, nine men died after the initial twenty-two-minute shelling, “The mirages raked the ship from bow to stern…” That wasn’t the end of it. As the planes departed, three torpedo boats appeared and fired five torpedoes into the ship causing the death of another twenty-five men. In all, thirty-four men of the 294-man crew died that day on the Liberty.
Where was the help that Admiral William Martin, commander of the Sixth Fleet had promised Captain McGonagle, the Liberty’s skipper, after assuring him— “Liberty is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation.” He promised that in the event of an attack jet fighters from the Sixth Fleet could be overhead in ten minutes.
Admiral Martin’s promises didn’t hold water. When the crew was finally able to get off an SOS, “Any station, this is Rockstar. [Liberty’s voice call sign] We are under attack by unidentified jet aircraft and require immediate assistance. Sad to say, no help came for the men of that doomed ship until it was too late. Read on to find out why the Sixth Fleet abandoned fellow servicemen in their hour of need.
At the end of that day, thirty-four men would be dead, their bodies ripped to shreds by the rockets, cannons, machine guns, 1,000 pound bombs and napalm hurled at them from none other than Israeli fighter planes, and torpedo boats. For those whose lives were spared, a life-changing memory of that brutal attack would haunt the rest of their lives. Soon the deceit and treachery of their own government, the unearthing of the elaborate cover-up intended to shield Israel from the public censure it richly deserved was added to the anguish of losing their mates and their ship.
If like most Americans, particularly the 130 million born after 1967, you’re scratching your head right now and wondering what in the world happened on June 8, 1967. It’s a complicated story that like most events of the sixties was spawned in the rice paddies of Vietnam. The Vietnam War was becoming a giant pit of quicksand sucking up an increasing number of American lives. By the end of 1967, 8400 Americans would be dead, the death toll would double in 1968. Public opinion was starting to turn against the war just as President Johnson was beginning what was expected to be a tough re-election fight in 1968. To prop up his sagging campaign, a distraction was needed to divert public attention from that obscene war.
The Six-Day War between Israel on one side, Egypt, Syria and Jordan on the other was an unexpected opportunity to do just that and give the U.S. the opportunity to beat its chest and give full-throated support to its “best friend” Israel. Whatever the reason, whether as some historians insist it was an American-Israeli “false flag” operation to sink the Liberty, blame Egypt and thus provide the rationale for the U.S.to enter the war on Israel’s side or the other prevailing view that the Liberty’s giant intelligence capacity had caught Israel in the midst of committing a war crime by murdering captured Egyptian troops. Whatever propelled the attack on the Liberty both the U.S. and Israel were invested in covering up an operation gone wrong. Shortly after the bombs and torpedoes had stopped falling, the Israelis contacted the White House with the excuse du jour – apologies for a “grievous error.” An error that left 821 separate holes on the shell and superstructure of the ship and a forty-foot torpedo hole in the ship’s side. A raft of information, intercepted radio communications, memos, and most important survivor statements contradict this fairy tale. Much to the chagrin of both Israeli and American officials, the Liberty did not sink and eyewitnesses to the attack lived to tell their stories and tell them they did. Even the skipper, Captain McGonagle, after years of silent acquiescence to the U.S-inspired cover-up finally broke ranks in 1997, thirty years after the attack and two years before his death (why do these guys get “religion” before they depart their office or their life, Ike is a good example).
Picture the scene — the thirty-year anniversary of the attack, Captain McGonagle, in full dress uniform wearing his Medal of Honor (highest award bestowed by the U.S.A. on a member of the military), speaking at Arlington National Cemetery to survivors and family members of those who didn’t make it.
“I think it’s about time that the state of Israel and the United States government provide the crew members of the Liberty and the rest of the American people the facts of what happened, and why . . . the Liberty was attacked, For many years I have wanted to believe that the attack on the Liberty was pure error [but] it appears to me that it . . . was not a pure case of mistaken identity. It was, on the other hand, gross incompetence and aggravated dereliction of duty on the part of many officers and men of the state of Israel.”
To nobody’s surprise, his remarks did not appear in any major U.S. newspaper. Nor was there any official response from the governments of the U.S. or Israel.
In Part 1 of this two-part series, Suspicious Angels will explore the attack, the possible reasons for it and the culpability of the Johnson administration for the lives lost. In Part 2 we will concentrate on the cover-up and why it was deemed necessary.
If, as Justice Brandeis opined, sunlight is the best disinfectant, it’s time to expose the deaths of thirty-four innocent men and the failure of the U.S. government to extract retribution to as much sunlight as there was on that day of infamy fifty-two years ago. Much of what you will read comes from the remembrances of the surviving crew, administration and military officials who dealt with the fall-out from the attack and others who were participants in the cover-up. Of particular note is the role of the U.S. President Lyndon Johnson before, during, and after the attack. Is it possible that one man’s overwhelming ambition to remain “king of the world” (his description) led him to commit a war crime against his own people?
In the aftermath of the attack, the U.S. government pulled out all the stops to absolve Israel of blame. Admiral Thomas Moorer, highest ranking Naval officer to publicly accuse Israel of a deliberate attempt to sink the Liberty and its crew, told a reporter in 1983 — “I’ve never seen a President… stand up to Israel…if the American people understood what a grip these people have on our government, they would rise up in arms.” George Ball, undersecretary of state in the Johnson administration, an early opponent of the Vietnam War and what is less well known one of the earliest critics of the U.S. policy of supporting Israel’s bellicose behavior in the Middle East added his condemnation — “The Johnson administration tried vigorously to downplay the whole matter. Although it silenced the crew, casualties to the sailors and damage to the ship could not possibly be concealed… The United States complained pro forma to Israel, which reacted by blaming the victims… …It seemed clear to the Israelis that as American leaders did not have the courage to punish them for the blatant murder of American citizens, they would let them get away with anything.”
How little has changed in a half century
Events were to prove Admiral Moorer and George Ball prescient on which way the wind would blow. In Israel, the conclusion of three courts of inquiry absolved the IDF (Israel Defense Force) of any responsibility— “The Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was a grievous error, largely attributable to the fact that it occurred in the midst of the confusion of a full-scale war in 1967… three official Israeli investigations have all conclusively established the attack was a tragic error.” It goes without saying that no Israeli was ever charged or court martialed for this “tragic error.” In the end, Israel claimed that Liberty had been mistaken for an aging, rusty Egyptian horse transport ship, the El Quseir, half the size of the Liberty which had been out of commission for years and was in fact waiting to be demolished.
In America, events were on the same trajectory. Despite finding that “the Liberty was in international waters, properly marked as to her identity and nationality, and in calm, clear weather when she suffered an unprovoked attack,” the Court’s final conclusion — a case of “mistaken identity.” To put a gloss of authenticity on this forgone-conclusion, an official Naval Court of Inquiry was hastily assembled by none other than Admiral John McCain, Jr, who was Commander-in-Chief of Naval Operations in Europe. That’s right, that John McCain, father to the late Senator John McCain. The McCain family fingerprints then and now are all over the cover-up. A corrupt Court of Inquiry in 1967 overseen by daddy to fifty years later, a ruthless and ultimately successful attempt by his son, the late Senator McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, to thwart efforts to reopen an investigation into Israel’s complicity in the worst naval disaster in American history.
What was the Liberty and what was she doing? A lightly armed World War II-era freighter converted into an intelligence-gathering ship, the Liberty was posted to the eastern Mediterranean to keep abreast of developments in the Six-Day War. The attack began in a benign fashion at 6:00 A.M. when Liberty crew members observed thirteen clearly marked Israeli airplanes overflying their ship with some dropping as low as 1,000 feet. “I was actually able to wave to the co-pilot… He waved back and actually smiled at me.” (Liberty crewmember Larry Weaver at 10:30 A.M.)
By noon, Israeli aircraft had been surveilling the American ship for six hours. To believe that a ship flying an American flag with identification markings clearly visible on her stern could have been mistaken by a seasoned Israeli air force as anything other than what it was is inconceivable. Here’s Admiral Moorer responding to Israel’s laughable excuse of “mistaken identity” — “My position is that the Israeli military is highly professional and to suggest that they couldn’t identify the ship is . . . ridiculous.” Still not convinced? In 2004, thirty-five years after the attack, Captain Ward Boston, senior Counsel to the Court of Inquiry, who had yielded to pressure from the Johnson White House and the Defense Department’s Secretary Robert McNamara to exonerate Israel and declare the attack a regrettable, but excusable blunder finally came clean.
Both Admiral Kidd [presiding over the Court] and I believed… that this attack which killed 34 Americans sailors and injured 174 others was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew…I recall Admiral Kidd repeatedly referring to the Israeli forces responsible for the attack as ‘murderous bastards.’ It was our shared belief, based on documentary evidence and testimony…that the Israeli attack …could not possibly have been an accident.”
It is worth noting that while Admiral Kidd may have spilled the beans to his senior counsel, his bravery did not extend to making the survivors and victims’ families whole by an early disclosure of the damning facts. Better late than never, the admission by Captain Boston exposed the lengths to which the U.S. government was (and still is) willing to go to support even the most fantastical Israeli claim.
Another authoritative source, former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, the late Dwight Porter, testified to a conversation between an Israeli pilot and the Israel Air Force war room, picked up by an NSA (National Security Administration) aircraft and inadvertently cabled to CIA offices around the world:
Israeli pilot to IDF war room: “This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack? Bottom of Form
IDF war room to Israeli pilot: “Yes, follow orders.”
Israeli pilot to IDF war room: “But sir, it’s an American ship – I can see the flag!”
IDF war room to Israeli pilot: “Never mind; hit it.”
That’s exactly what they did. At 2:00, as many as twelve unmarked Israeli jets attacked the Liberty killing 9 and wounding 60. One of the attacking Israeli pilots reported to base “Great, wonderful, she’s burning, she’s burning.”
Despite Israel’s obvious desire to prevent a distress call from reaching the Sixth Fleet, one message did get through. The America and the Saratoga, two Naval aircraft carriers in the Sixth Fleet responded fifty minutes after the attack began— “Sending aircraft to cover you…Surface units on the way” and dispatched twelve fighter planes. What happened next will blow your mind. Read the following and weep for a country that put its misbegotten friendship with Israel above the lives of American seamen.
Shortly after the aircraft took off on their rescue mission, Admiral Geis, commander of the ship America with the authority to dispatch the rescue aircraft took a phone call from Defense Secretary McNamara who ordered “Get those planes back on deck. President Johnson is not going to go to war or embarrass an American ally over a few sailors.”
Puzzled and confused Admiral Geis tried again “But the Liberty is still under attack and needs help.” To which McNamara thundered “Get those goddamn aircraft back on deck.” Convinced he was right and McNamara wrong, Geis said he wouldn’t turn them around unless the Commander-in-Chief himself told him to. That was when the President came on the line. “Mr. President, they’re killing Americans.” Johnson: ”I don’t care how many Americans are being killed. I don’t want to embarrass one of our allies. I want that Goddamn ship going to the bottom. No help. Recall the wings.” Admiral Geis: “Aye, aye sir”
As with much of the Navy brass, who unquestioningly followed orders (ignoring the lessons of Nuremberg) and participated in the cover-up, Admiral Geis in retirement claimed he would regret for the rest of his life his cowardice in not standing up to President Johnson and refusing an illegal and unjust order. Despite Admiral Geis’ professed contrition, he continued to support the administration’s version of the attack during his lifetime and asked his friend, Lieutenant Commander David Lewis to report what he had been ordered to do only after he died. Shame on Commander Lewis for keeping that promise.
On the subject of honorable men acting dishonorably, why didn’t even one of these high-ranking military men forced to compromise the navy’s code of conduct and probably their personal morality by an arrogant, power-mad president, blow the whistle on what might have been an impeachable offense? The road not taken is the one that troubled the conscience of many of these men for the rest of their lives.
When it comes to officials acting badly, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is the poster child. Unlike the “fog of war” defense he mounted for the dreadful price 58,000 young Americans paid for his involvement in the Vietnam War, he took refuge in the “amnesia defense” for this outrage — “[I have] absolutely no recollection of what I did that day, [except that] I have a memory that I didn’t know at the time what was going on.”
As it turned out, most of the Johnson administration’s senior staff years later when it couldn’t hurt their careers told the truth. Secretary of State Dean Rusk minced no words “The Liberty was flying an American flag…my judgment was that somewhere along the line some fairly senior Israeli official gave the go-ahead for these attacks.” His successor Clark Clifford was quoted in the minutes of a National Security Council staff meeting stating that it was “inconceivable” that the attack had been a case of mistaken identity and former CIA director Richard Helms agreed “they (Israelis) intended to attack this ship and no excuse can be found for saying that this was just a mistake…” (although Helms always refused to say whether President Johnson was part of the plot)
Have our leaders learned anything in fifty-two years? Judge for yourself. Ripped from the headlines on March 4, 2019: “UN [Human Rights Commission] Finds Israel Intentionally Shot Children, Journalists and the Disabled During Gaza Protests.” The U.S. Response? Silence. But that’s to be expected since the U.S. withdrew from the Commission on June 20, 2018. Can you guess why? According to Nikki Haley, the right-wing nut Trump appointed as UN ambassador, their “chronic bias” against Israel as evidenced by the Commission’s finding that Israel had used excessive force against Palestinian protestors in Gaza resulting in several deaths. How did the rest of the world react? This statement from the European Union is representative of the sentiments of most of the world’s countries— “U.S. withdrawal risks undermining the role of the U.S. as a champion and supporter of democracy on the world stage. (Apparently, the EU didn’t get the memo). Israel on the other hand was in raptures praising Washington’s “courageous” move.
To go from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous, how about Nancy Pelosi and other democratic poohbahs announcing they will bring a resolution condemning anti-Semitism to a house vote on March 6, a thinly-veiled rebuke to the comments of one Congresswoman, who happens to be a Muslim, questioning the U.S. relationship with Israel by decrying “the political influence in this country that says it’s okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country [Israel].”
If you aren’t already up to your hip boots in hypocrisy, here’s another example that might rock you—the Senate, in a 77-23 vote, passed a bill allowing local governments to withhold lucrative contracts to companies that back the BDS (boycott, divest sanction) movement against Israel.
It’s beginning to look a lot like nothing has changed since Democratic Senator and life-long Israeli cheerleader Jacob Javits declared shortly after the attack — “Thank heavens the ship was attacked by the Israelis because we know it was a mistake.” The Liberty as a cautionary tale has little currency among the hare-brained democrats considered America’s more enlightened politicos.
Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they do. In 1991, members of the USS Liberty Veterans Association were invited to visit the White House during their annual convention. Does that mean that someone in high places is finally getting the message? Perish the thought. To no one’s surprise, the visit was scheduled at the same time President George H.W. Bush was reviewing a parade of returning Gulf war veterans. Kudos for Gulf War veterans but for the Liberty survivors a wave of the presidential hand as his car left the White House for the parade route. Since then no President has had the courage to issue another invitation.
“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand-fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
The 34 crew members of the USS Liberty killed by the State of Israel on June 8, 1967. We should never forget their sacrifice.
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