USS Liberty and the Six Day War

On this day in 1967, the largely unarmed American Navy technical research ship, USS Liberty, is robustly attacked by Israeli Air Force jet fighter aircraft and Israeli Navy motor torpedo boats during the Six-Day War. The combined air and sea attack killed 34 of her crew (naval officers, seamen, two marines, and one civilian), wounded 171 and severely damaged the ship, forcing her to limp into port in Malta with the dead and wounded aboard.

Liberty was clearly marked and flying the colors in international waters of the Sinai Peninsula, about 25.5 nmi north of the Egyptian city of Arish, and her radio transmissions identifying her and desperately calling for help were initially blocked by the Israelis.

Israel apologized for the attack within 48 hours, and offered $6.9 million in compensation, claiming it had mistaken the plainly-marked Liberty for an Egyptian ship. However, Liberty survivors, and several former US officials, strongly believe the attack was deliberate, staged to conceal Israel’s pending seizure of Syria’s Golan Heights, planned for the next day. The ship’s listening devices would likely have overheard Israeli military communications referencing this controversial operation.

Both the Israeli and US governments conducted inquiries and issued reports that concluded the attack was a mistake due to Israeli confusion about the ship’s identity. Numerous others, including survivors of the attack, have rejected these conclusions and maintain that the attack was deliberate.

A June 10 communication to Israeli Ambassador Avraham Harman by Secretary of State Dean Rusk asserted, among other items: “At the time of the attack, the USS Liberty was flying the American flag and its identification was clearly indicated in large white letters and numerals on its hull . . . Experience demonstrates that both the flag and the identification number of the vessel were readily visible from the air . . . her nationality determined, by Israeli aircraft approximately one hour before the attack . . . The subsequent attack by the torpedo boats, substantially after the vessel was or should have been identified by Israeli military forces, manifests the same reckless disregard for human life.”

Noted Middle East scholar Dr. George Lenczowski has written, “It was significant that, in contrast to his secretary of state, President Johnson fully accepted the Israeli version of the tragic incident.” He notes that Johnson himself only included one small paragraph about the Liberty in his autobiography, in which he accepted the Israeli explanation of “error,” but also minimized the whole affair and distorted the actual number of dead and wounded, by lowering them from 34 to 10 and 171 to 100, respectively. Lenczowski further states, “It seems Johnson was more interested in avoiding a possible confrontation with the Soviet Union . . . than in restraining Israel.”

Liberty’s skipper Capt. William McGonagle was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic command of the Liberty during and after the attack. Other Liberty sailors received decorations for their actions during and after the attack, but most of the award citations omitted mention of Israel as the perpetrator. In 2009, however, a Silver Star awarded to crewmen ET Terry Halbardier, who braved machine-gun and cannon fire to repair a damaged antenna that restored the ship’s communications, named Israel as the attacker in citation language.