Editor’s Note: I’m late publishing this. Sorry, I have been in a funk for the last two weeks.
On the eighth of June, 2017, it will be 50 years to the day that the state of Israel-in a blatant act of war-attempted to sink the American intelligence-gathering ship, the USS Liberty.
The Liberty was floating in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in international waters, 13 miles off the Sinai Peninsula, near Gaza.
Equipped with more than 40 antennas capable of receiving every kind of radio transmission, the ship was considered “an electromagnetic audio-surveillance vacuum-cleaner.”
It was the third day of the Six-Day War, and the Liberty’s mission was to monitor Egyptian and other Arab state radio transmissions in an effort to aide its “ally,” Israel, in the conflict.
Survivors of the assault, as well as high-ranking military investigators, have, from the beginning and for five decades, believed that the Israeli attack on the Liberty was not a case of misidentifying the Liberty as an Egyptian horse-cavalry transport ship, as Tel Aviv has always asserted. Rather, it was a carefully planned ploy to kill every crew member on board the Liberty, sink the ship, and blame the outrage on the Egyptians, thus embroiling the United States in a hot war against Israel’s enemies. (Sound familiar?).
The unpredictable, completely unprovoked, and utterly savage assault began at 1:56 p.m when Israeli fighter pilots in two French-manufactured Mirage III and two Super Mystere warplanes flew out of the clouds, bombarding the Liberty and her unsuspecting crew with heat-seeking rockets and 30mm cannon fire. They then dropped napalm onto the vessel’s deck, frying hapless servicemen alive while relentlessly strafing survivors.
When the aircraft finally withdrew, three 62-ton Israeli torpedo boats emerged and encircled the Liberty, riddling her with machine-gun fire. The boats then launched six torpedoes, one of which blasted a 40-foot hole through the starboard side of her hull, killing 25 of the 34 killed. (The Israeli government would later officially honor that torpedo boat’s crew for the action).
The torpedo boats, moreover, made a point of machine-gunning the floating life-rafts, rendering them useless, as the men frantically prepared to abandon ship.
The intent was starkly clear: kill all survivors.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense, Robert H. McNamara were alerted to the still-ongoing carnage, and told that F-4 Phantoms from the USS America and the USS Saratoga were on the way to help the Liberty, they reportedly responded within minutes, ordering the aircraft back to their carriers “immediately!”
“President Johnson is not going to go to war or embarrass an American ally over a few sailors,” McNamara told Sixth Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Lawrence Geiss.
Then the president himself took the telephone receiver and yelled “I want that goddamned ship on the ocean floor!”
The Israeli military massacred 34 American sailors and marines that afternoon and wounded 174 more (many of whom were disfigured for life) out of the total 294-man crew on board. The attack lasted two hours and left the battered Liberty damaged beyond repair. Amazingly, however, she did not sink, and managed to hobble to a dry port in Malta.
To add insult, humiliation, and injustice to the physical and psychological injury the survivors were trying to recover from, treasonous military and government officials threatened the men with prison, “or worse,” if they ever mentioned the incident.
As William Triplett wrote in a 2003 Washington Report On Middle East Affairs article:
“What cannot be debated, though, is that almost immediately following the assault the U.S. government acted as if it had something to hide. The Liberty’s survivors were quickly transferred to disparate and distant assignments and were threatened with jail if they ever discussed the attack with anyone, including family members. They were watched and monitored. Meanwhile, the government and the upper echelons of the Navy portrayed the attack and its aftermath as a non-event.”
Liberty survivor Bryce Lockwood once made a poignant point: The torpedo that killed his shipmates, wrecked his ship and damaged his health was made in the USA.
It has been fifty years. For the sake of the survivors of the attack, for the sake of the victims and their families, maybe it’s about time that the United States Congress hold an investigation about the incident. Maybe it’s time that the press do their long-ignored job and report the facts about the assault. And maybe it’s time we as Americans reconsider who are our friends and allies and who are not.