The Liberty Incident

Letter to Editor of the US Naval Institute Proceedings
(Stewart Harris)

In June 1967, LTJG Stewart M. Harris was the Communications Officer aboard the USS Davis, the first US Navy ship to reach the Liberty after the attack.

June 10, 2003

Mr. Fred Rainbow
Annapolis, MD 21402-5034

Re: Friendless Fire (June 2003 Proceedings)

When I boarded Liberty on the morning of 9 June 1967, I found chaos, confusion, wounded men, a little fire and a lot of smoke. Now, thirty-six years later, the Naval Institute Proceedings has added a great deal of smoke to a fire that should have gone out long ago.

That summer morning in 1967, I was communications officer for ComDesRon 12, SOPA for destroyers Davis and Massey, the first 6th Fleet units to reach Liberty. My assignment was to interview survivors regarding the attack, make a cursory damage assessment, and draft the first reports from the scene to CTG60.1. Knowing that Captain McGonagle had been wounded, I went first to the wardroom, assuming it would be sickbay, or that from there I could be directed to where the captain was. The wardroom was empty, the forward bulkhead riddled with dozens of holes from cannon fire. The morning light shone through holes and a slight smell of cordite hung in the air. I went aft, heading for crew's mess, and alternate sickbay. I found the ship's doctor tending to torn and broken men, their bodies covering most of the tables. Still searching for Captain McGonagle, I was directed back to the bridge. En route I passed the CT spaces where the torpedo had struck. The explosion should have sunk the Liberty. The fact that it hit a major cross member rather than penetrating the hull was all that saved the ship. Inspecting the place of the explosion 18 hours after the event was a trauma. Knowing that the bodies of a dozen or more men were still in the space made reporting on the damage that much more daunting. Viewing the space from above was imprecise, but the hole implied that the ship's side was blown out, probably all the way down to the stem. The ship was in danger of breaking in half, a truly catastrophic failure.

I found Captain McGonagle on the bridge, on his back, with his legs propped up in the air to lessen the blood loss. He had been on the bridge and in that position since the attack, remaining there all night and conning the ship by the stars from flat on his back. He recounted the attack: a section of two unidentified, but probably Israeli aircraft from dead ahead at 1405 local, followed moments later by a section of two more that made attacks from the port beam. McGonagle estimated a total of six strafing runs. Most of the damage was inflicted by the first section, including important personnel losses on the bridge. The majority of McGonagle's line officers were killed or wounded in this attack, including McGonagle himself, although he did not include this as an important matter. The bow on attacks ignited 55 gallon fuel drums stored on the port side, 01 level, just outside radio central. Another fire started in the motor whale boat just aft of the bridge on the starboard side. While there was no doubt the national ensign was flying at the time of the air attacks, McGonagle specifically stated that there was little or no relative wind. He believed the light wind and the twin fires just aft of the bridge to have contributed to the aircraft being unable to identify the ship. At the conclusion of the air attacks, the ship was still able to perform her assigned mission, although the personnel casualties among the ship's company were critical.

The worst was yet to come.

At 1420, three small targets were sighted from the bridge, on the starboard beam at three or four miles and closing. These were the Israeli motor torpedo boats (MTBs) which would inflict the most grievous blow.

At 1426, according to the ship's log, the bridge noticed the steaming ensign had been lost and holiday colors were ordered hoisted. Captain McGonagle said the boats continued to approach, to within 2000 yards and "seemed to be just milling around". Liberty attempted to identify itself by flashing light, but with the smoke and electrical problems, was unable to do so.

At 1427 local, 22 minutes after the first attack by aircraft, a man not assigned topside duties grabbed on the ship's fifty caliber machine guns and began to fire on the MTBs. This was in direct violation of McGonagle's orders and the firing continued in spite of shouts from the bridge to cease fire.

Whatever had caused the MTBs to hesitate and "mill around" was resolved by the fire from Liberty. The MTBs formed a line abreast and charged in, deck guns firing and loosed a torpedo barrage. By 1435, it was all over. Liberty sustained more hits from the MTBs' machine guns, but the most important hit, the one that almost sank her, was the single torpedo hit in the starboard side. This ended the attack, according to Captain McGonagle.

Of the 293 souls aboard Liberty, more than 200 received Purple Hearts, thirty four of them posthumously.

This horrible but rather straightforward story has now grown into a cottage industry of claims and counterclaims, books, TV, and even a proposed movie deal. The Liberty Veterans Association (LVA) was formed in 1982 to stimulate interest in the attack and advance the claim that the attack was deliberate. While specifically disavowing any anti-Semitic interest, the LVA has become a haven for hangers-on with just such designs. The Liberty listserve was one of the first places readers could learn that 4000 Jews had not gone to work at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Among the claims advanced on the listserve prior to its demise under the weight of anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic screeds were these:

A periscope was seen alongside Liberty during the attack. It was reported that this sub was close enough not only to hear the attack, but to take pictures through its periscope. The sub was identified as USS Amberjack. When the sub was identified, both the captain and the chief of the boat stated that the report was not true and that the sub was nowhere near Liberty. The sub was in fact several hundred miles away, laying off Alexandria, watching the comings and goings of Soviet traffic.

One of the repeated claims is that everybody in the Sixth Fleet should be court marshaled for failing to come to the aid of Liberty while she was under attack. At a minimum, so LVA members claimed, this was cowardice in the face of the enemy. The attack began at 1405, Liberty got out its first message to USS Saratoga at 1420, and the attack was over at 1435. Saratoga rebroadcast the message to the fleet at 1436. These facts do not enter into the calculus of the LVA. The timeline itself casts a different light on claims that the aircraft from Sixth Fleet carriers were recalled by the White House. The impossibility of the communications link is beside the point because the fleet was not alerted until after the torpedo attack. Only the carriers' prop driven A-1s had the range to reach Liberty. They were more than 500 miles away. At 200 knots, it would have been hours before the A-1s reached Liberty. The rejoinder from the LVA advocates? Time and distance don't matter.

Such has been the level of discussion with the LVA group, one of Mr. Walsh's repeated reference sources.

The publication of Mr. Walsh's article is little more than the comparison of two books, one more than 20 years old, albeit recently revised. And the inclusions of "references" such as "Ennes, email 3 March 2003" and "Ennes, email 9 March 2003" should have sent your editors to General Quarters. Most of the remaining references rely on first one book and then the other. In truth, the first footnote in Mr. Walsh's article explains the point of view for the entire piece:

"Background on the attack is largely from James Ennes, Jr. Assault on the Liberty."

The author has stated his most important reference, and it betrays him in the first paragraph when he includes "rockets" in the ordnance used against Liberty, a small thing, but indicative of what is to follow in the article. According to contemporary (1967) reports in Aviation Week, the first section of attacking Mirages could not be configured to carry rockets. The second section of Israeli jets, Super Mysters, carried cannon and napalm bombs. Although one fragment of napalm was found aboard after the attack, it is all but impossible to assign any of the ensuing fires to that weapon. My personal inspection revealed multiple fragment holes and damage consistent with exploding cannon shells, but no "point" impacts associated with rocket hits.

Mr. Walsh states, "Although Liberty crew members insist the attack lasted about an hour and a quarter, Judge Cristol's book asserts that the Israeli jets and MTBs finished their grisly business in only 22 to 25 minutes." The longer attack scenario is a favorite of the LVA. "Hours and hours of attack," they often claim. Perhaps Judge Cristol asserts the shorter period of time because that is what Captain McGonagle told the Chief of Naval Operations in Liberty DTG 0817175Z June 67:

"1. At time 081205Z . . ship attacked by unidentified jet fighters believed to be Israeli . . ." and later in the same paragraph, "Approx 081227Z took torp boat under fire with 50 cal mach guns. . . torp boats launched torp and strafing attack . . . approx 1 min later ship sustained torp hit stbd side."

Maybe that is why Judge Cristol "asserts" such a thing.

As to whether or not the Israelis identified Liberty during the late morning when Mr. Ennes was on the bridge, Mr. Walsh advances two conversations Mr. Ennes, as OOD, had with CT Chief Smith (subsequently killed in the torpedo attack) and with unidentified "Liberty's radio operators" who told Ennes they had heard the attackers make a positive identification of Liberty in the clear. Mr. Walsh's support for this claim is two emails of Mr. Ennes. Mr. Ennes says it is so and Mr. Walsh reports it as so.

The jamming stories are particularly interesting. The claim every Liberty frequency was jammed proves the attack was deliberate and well planned. Considering the state of the art, especially for airborne jammers, this would have been quite a feat. When I spoke to Captain McGonagle the morning of 9 June 1967, he made no mention of jamming. No other fleet units reported it. We now know an EC-121 was in the area and filed no reports of jamming. When ship's company was able to get the transmitter on the right frequency (see the testimony of Chief Wayne Smith, RMC on 14 June 1967) they were able to get out almost immediately. Some jamming.

Most of the complaints about difficulties in radio central could more easily be explained by the burning 55 gallon drums just on the other side of the bulkhead. Survivors report the bulkhead "too hot to touch." Several cable runs connecting the radio shack with ship's transmitters and receivers passed through the bulkhead just at the point of the blaze and were very badly burned by fire. Some cable runs and antennas were shot up. Reports of "buzz saw" noises were probably dead shorts to the deck or adjacent cables. Getting out under these conditions would involve a lot of switching between antennas and equipment before a solution could be found. And, of course, it helps to be on the right frequency.

The misidentification of Liberty by her attackers, both aircraft and MTBs, continues to mystify, especially among the ranks of those who have never been to sea. Start with the given that the United States had stated at the UN that there were no US ships within 300 miles of Israel. Then, take the photo that accompanies the USNI article and set it up at a distance of three or four feet. Imagine yourself coming across the water at that target, trying to aim your guns and avoid any of hers, assuming she has some, and then tell me about the flags flying. All the flags. Tough test.

And the MTBs were a mile from the Liberty. They had been told that there was an Egyptian shp in the area. The one in front of them was burning from IAF attacks. And then the ship fires on them. If it wasn't American - and everyone knew there were no American ships within 300 miles - what else could it be than some old Egyptian transport? All those funny antennas on deck? Just makes it more clear that it is a military target.

In the midst of all this, Cristol is not without fault. Jets attacking at 600 knots is a little silly. And I heard the Judge "debate" Ennes and Joe Meadors of KPFK, an interview Mr. Walsh includes among his "references". Cristol did not take these two seriously enough. Of course, some of their claims are hard to take seriously, but Judge Cristol underestimated their dedication to the cause. Cristol participated in only the first fifteen minutes of the broadcast, leaving Ennes and Meadors alone to exchange softballs for the final fifteen minutes. As an aside, anyone in the Los Angeles area should make an effort to listen to KPFK. They certainly put forth an "alternate" view of the universe.

There exists the possibility information will become available that will shed new light on the events thirty six years ago. Questions remain that will forever preclude a complete exoneration of Israel. The record of events is incomplete in some key places. In other places, logs conflict and fading memories remember things that may or may not have happened. An analytical investigation of events on 8 June 1967 could still provide useful information.

Your publication of Mr. Walsh's article, however, with all its inaccuracies, biases and questionable sourcing does not sustain the intellectual level of debate within the magazine I have come to expect over the last 27 years. But the use of the USNI to further the blind ambitions of this small group of revisionist historians is an even greater disappointment.


Stewart M. Harris
USN 1964-69