<< back to  “Our Ally”

Attempted Sinking of the USS Liberty

The USS Liberty was a United States spy ship operated by the Navy. Instead of cannon it bristled with radio antennas. Of the crew of 294 over 100 were radio operators, recording equipment operators, and cryptographers.

The story of Israel’s attempt to sink the USS Liberty is complicated by the fact that Israel was not alone in the villainy. After Israel began the attack, President Johnson’s administration refused to interfere, and afterwards both Israel and the U.S. government tried to cover-up what happened.

The story of Israel’s attack is incomplete without the story of the U.S. government’s complicity. They ended up partners in the crime.

There is no conjecture in the following account. It is based on abundant eye witness testimony. Afterwards we will furnish some conjectures, indicated as such.

The day is June 8, 1967. The Arab-Israel war, later known as the Six-Day War, is in progress. The place is 14 miles off the Egyptian Sinai coast in international waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. government, ever unwilling to mind its own business, has the USS Liberty deployed there, passively monitoring the progress of the war over radio communication channels, with emphasis on finding out if Egypt is colluding with the Soviets.

The day is bright and clear, “visibility infinite.” Hoisted above the Liberty is a new American flag in a 12 knot breeze (about 14 mph). “USS LIBERTY” is painted on the stern; the English letters “GTR-5” on the bow. The ship is several times the size of any Egyptian horse freighter, and has a profile – one feature of which is a huge satellite dish – that easily distinguishes it from such a ship even were size discounted. And it has no cannon, which distinguishes it from a war ship.

One glance and the ship is not Egyptian, another glance – hardly necessary – and it is American. And also incapable of shelling anyone.

Israeli reconnaissance planes fly over the ship. In daylight over a period of several hours they fly over at least eight times. One plane is propeller driven. They come so close that the crewmen of the ship and the pilots of the planes wave to each other. A Liberty radio operator hears the pilots repeatedly radio Israeli headquarters that the ship is American. The last of the planes departs not long after noon.

Suddenly at 1:58 pm three Mirage fighter jets, unmarked, zoom in and immediately begin firing rockets at the ship. The rockets punch eight inch holes through the hull, deck, and any men in their path. Mystere fighter jets (like the Mirages, French made) zoom in and drop napalm (jellied gasoline) bombs that splatter goop that sticks and burns where it lands. The crewmen, many of whom are on deck, are totally unprepared, scores are killed and injured. This goes on for twenty minutes. [1]

The Liberty tries to radio the Sixth Fleet for help, but the attacking aircraft had fired rockets into the base of every antenna. They manage to repair one antenna. [2]  The radio operator then discovers that their radio frequencies are being jammed. Eventually he finds a clear frequency and makes contact. The U.S. aircraft carrier Saratoga responds by launching several fighter aircraft and notifying the White House. The Liberty receives the message that help is on the way.

When the U.S. fighter planes are within minutes of the Liberty, Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis – commanding the Six Fleet carriers – receives an order from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to recall the planes. Admiral Geis calls the White House personally to confirm the insane order. McNamara comes on the line, then President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson confirms that the aircraft are to return, saying that he will not have Israel embarrassed. Admiral Geis – and it is hard to judge him considering the ingrained obedience to a chain of command that makes the military – recalls the aircraft.

Meanwhile the Israeli aircraft fly off as three Israeli torpedo boats make toward the Liberty. Several miles distant they begin firing torpedoes at the ship, five in all. One torpedo hits amidships, drowning about two dozen crewmen. The captain gives the order to abandon ship. The torpedo boats then approach within 100 feet and circle about the ship. With “USS Liberty” on the hull of the ship in full view, not to mention the American flag on the mast, they fire machine guns at anything on deck that moves. They strafe the life rafts on deck and those being lowered into the water by crewmen. The torpedo boat phase of the attack lasts about an hour

Then the Israelis abruptly stop. 34 crewmen of the Liberty are dead or dying (9 from the air attack, 25 from the torpedo attack) and about 170 others are injured, victims of rocket fire, gunshot, fire, and drowning – 70 percent of the crew.

One can only conjecture why the Israelis halted their attack. Probably they think, along with the Liberty’s crewmen, that U.S. fighter planes will arrive shortly.

The torpedo boats do not leave the area. For about an hour they just sit there and watch the ship, again with “USS Liberty” and the American flag in full view. Then in an apparent about-face they signal to the Liberty: “Do you need help?” According to bridge Lieutenant James Ennes, Captain William McGonagle’s reply is “a rude one.” The boats eventually depart.

Liberty puts out the fires and though riddled with holes and without motive power, remains afloat. At 3 p.m. the sixth fleet launches a U.S. rescue mission a second time, only to be recalled a second time. Still the Liberty does not sink.

Finally, dawn the next day, fifteen hours later, U.S. help arrives. The Liberty eventually makes rendezvous with a U.S. destroyer. The crippled boat is ordered to Malta, a distant group of islands south of Sicily, instead of the much closer port in Crete.

Then the cover-up begins.

At the behest of the Secretary of Defense and the White House almost everyone involved is ordered not to discuss the incident with anyone, and the Liberty crewmen are transferred to stations far apart from one another, no two at the same place.

Israel’s reaction follows the dictum: If you can’t be good, you can at least be stupid. They claim the attack was the result of a string of innocent errors. The testimony of the Liberty crewmen, and the ship’s log, can be discounted. Israel does not do such things, why would it, America is our ally, etc. The Israelis claim that they mistook the USS Liberty for an Egyptian horse carrier.

Suppose, for a moment, in defiance of the facts we take the Israelis at their word. There is only one way such a mistake could have been made. Instead of their deliberately attacking an American ship we have them totally disregarding the possibility the ship they would attack might be an American ship. By their own admission they didn’t honestly care if it was American. They didn’t sincerely try to identify it.

But of course they did identify it.

As the years went by the former Liberty crew began to speak out publicly. The most articulate was Lt. James Ennes, in his book  Assault on the Liberty.  The big brass began to speak out as well. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer summed up the Liberty incident concisely:

“It’s ridiculous to say this was an accident. There was good weather, she was flying the U.S. flag[,] and the planes and torpedo boats attacked over a long period of time.” [3]

As for the cover-up, one of the military lawyers in the Court of Inquiry, Captain Ward Boston, recently came forward. The following is from his sworn written declaration. He refers to the late Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, who was the president of the Court of Inquiry. When he says “attempts to rewrite history” he refers to Jay Cristol’s recent (2002) pro-Israeli book The Liberty Incident. I have combined some of the paragraphs:

“For more than 30 years, I have remained silent on the topic of USS Liberty. I am a military man and when orders come in from the Secretary of Defense and President of the United States, I follow them. However, recent attempts to rewrite history compel me to share the truth.

“In June of 1967, while serving as a Captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps, Department of the Navy, I was assigned as senior legal counsel for the Navy’s Court of Inquiry into the ... attack on USS Liberty, which had occurred on June 8th.”
“The evidence was clear. Both Admiral Kidd and I believed with certainty that this attack ... was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew. ... It was our shared belief, based on the documentary evidence and testimony we received first hand, that the Israeli attack was planned and deliberate, and could not possibly have been an accident. I am certain that the Israeli pilots that undertook the attack, as well as their superiors, who had ordered the attack, were well aware that the ship was American.”
“I am outraged at the efforts of the apologists for Israel in this country to claim that this attack was a case of ‘mistaken identity.’ In particular, the recent publication of Jay Cristol’s book, The Liberty Incident, twists the facts and misrepresents the views of those of us who investigated the attack. It is Cristol’s ... attempt to whitewash the facts that has pushed me to speak out.

“I know from personal conversations I had with Admiral Kidd that President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered him to conclude that the attack was a case of ‘mistaken identity’ despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“Admiral Kidd told me, after returning from Washington, D.C. that he had been ordered to sit down with two civilians from either the White House or the Defense Department, and rewrite portions of the court’s findings. Admiral Kidd also told me that he had been ordered to ‘put the lid’ on everything having to do with the attack on USS Liberty. We were never to speak of it and we were to caution everyone else involved that they could never speak of it again.

“I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of that statement as I know that the Court of Inquiry transcript that has been released to the public is not the same one that I certified and sent off to Washington.”
He describes a phone call from Jay Cristol in 1990 requesting an interview. He refers him to Admiral Kidd (ret.), still alive at the time.
“Shortly after my conversation with Cristol, I received a telephone call from Admiral Kidd, inquiring about Cristol and what he was up to. ...

“At no time did I ever hear Admiral Kidd speak of Cristol other than in highly disparaging terms. I find Cristol’s claims of a ‘close friendship’ with Admiral Kidd to be utterly incredible. I also find it impossible to believe the statements he attributes to Admiral Kidd, concerning the attack on USS Liberty.” [4]

You can read more about Israel’s attack on the USS Liberty, and the subsequent cover-up, in the references below. [5]  Israel’s defenders reply to this literature with a snowstorm of details, making much of tiny flaws while ignoring the essential points. And by lying, as above.

Why did the Israelis do it? Obviously the intent of their sneak attack was to silence the Liberty and sink it leaving no survivors, but why? Here we enter the realm of conjecture. Admiral Moorer describes one possible reason – and while reading keep in mind this is the same Israel capable of the Lavon terrorist attack:

“I am confident that Israel knew the Liberty could intercept radio messages from all parties ... to the ongoing [Arab-Israel, or Six-day] war, then in its fourth day, and that Israel was preparing to seize the Golan Heights from Syria  [while pretending, as they later did, that Syria had attacked them – ARI Watch] ...

“And I believe Moshe Dayan [commander of Israeli forces] concluded that he could prevent Washington from becoming aware of what Israel was up to by destroying the primary source [means] of acquiring that information[,] the USS Liberty.” [6] 
And as in the Lavon affair let the Arabs take the rap, which would make the U.S. see the Arabs as its enemy as well as Israel’s and drag the U.S. into the war.

Another conjecture, based on newly revealed details of the war, is the following by Lt. Ennes. Bracketed text within his quotes (single quote-marks) is his:

“... the Israeli Army ... executed as many as 1,000 Arab prisoners during the 1967 war.

“Historian Gabby Bron wrote in the Yediot Ahronot [newspaper] in Israel that he witnessed Israeli troops executing Egyptian prisoners on the morning of June 8, 1967, in the Sinai town of El Arish.

“Bron reported that he saw about 150 Egyptian POWs [prisoners of war] being held at the El Arish airport where they were sitting on the ground, ... crowded together with their hands held on the back of their necks. [‘]Every few minutes,[’] Bron writes, [‘]Israeli soldiers would escort an Egyptian POW from the group to a hearing conducted by two men in Israeli army uniforms. Then the man would be taken away, given a spade, and forced to dig his own grave.[’]

“ ‘I watched as [one] man dug a hole for about 15 minutes,’ Bron wrote. ‘Afterwards, the [Israeli military] policeman told him to throw the shovel away, and then one of them leveled an Uzi at him and shot two short bursts ... .’

“Bron says he witnessed about ten such executions ... . Then an Israeli Colonel threatened him with a revolver, forcing him to leave the area.
“How would [senior Israeli officers] have reacted to the knowledge that USS Liberty was nearby and might have heard incriminating radio traffic?” [7]

Whatever the reason for the attack, [8]  there is no question that the Israelis deliberately tried to sink the USS Liberty with all hands, and that they knew what they were doing.

ARI says:  “Israel is our ally in the Middle East.”

This is our ally?

1  Some have noted the accuracy of the rocket bombs during the first phase of the attack and conjecture that the Israeli gunners used the photographs taken by the earlier reconnaissance planes.

2  The hard part was stringing a coax cable from the radio room to an antenna on deck, an amazing feat performed by James Halbardier (“Terry”), Electronics Technician 3rd Class.  The Military.com article of May 29, 2009 announcing his belated medal has disappeared, however see
“Liberty Hero, Silver Star Recipient, Dies”
by Bryant Jordan, Military.com  August 20, 2014

3  Quoted in “USS Liberty: Eyewitness Account”
by James M. Ennes, Jr., Aug. 13, 2001.

See also
“New revelations in attack on American spy ship”
by John Crewdson, Chicago Tribune Oct. 2, 2007.

4  Declaration of Ward Boston, Jr., Captain, JAGC, USN (Ret.), Counsel to the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry’s investigation into the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, January 9, 2004. This can be found at  ussliberty.org . He first gave sworn testimony a few months earlier. See:
“New Charges vs. Israel in ’67 Ship Attack”
UPI, Oct. 24, 2003.
“Findings of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty”
October 22, 2003

5  The references below flesh out the above bare-bones description of the USS Liberty incident. Keep in mind as you read different accounts that details have come to light over a long period of time and you will find immaterial discrepancies.

Assault on the Liberty
by James M. Ennes, Jr. (Random House 1980, Reintree Press 2002)  Reviewed at:
where you can see Israel’s defenders in action. For example, though the ship sustained 800 hits, as evidenced by as many holes, there was no  “ ‘extended’ attack.”

Attack on the Liberty
by James Scott  reviewed at

“New revelations in attack on American spy ship”
by John Crewdson,   Chicago Tribune

A comprehensive website:
USS Liberty Memorial

This chapter from Paul Findley’s They Dare to Speak Out describes the damage-control reaction to Mr. Ennes’ book:
“The Assault On  Assault

“Dead in the Water”
BBC documentary by Peter Hounam funded by Richard Thompson

“Sacrificing Liberty”
Thorough four hour documentary produced by TruHistory

“Remember the Liberty”
by John E. Borne

The Zionist Connection
by Alfred Lilienthal
Chapter 17 (of the 2nd edition):  “The Attack on Liberty

Body of Secrets
by James Bamford
Chapter 6:  “Blood”
Perhaps Mr. Bamford makes too much of transcripts of Israeli helicopter radio transmissions that the NSA had recently declassified. Israel dispatched the helicopters after the Israeli jets and torpedo boats had ceased their attack. By that time the Liberty was a wreck, with over 800 holes in her hull, all the antennas broken, and extensive torpedo damage. Mr. Bamford thinks it important that the Israeli pilots – who evidently, along with their controllers, were not in on the deception and had been told the ship was Egyptian – reported seeing the American flag, the last the Liberty had run up. Mr. Bamford’s point is that afterwards the Israeli story was that there had been no flag yet here is proof they had seen it, at least at the end.
It’s true this shows that the Israeli testimony is inconsistent regarding an important point (though with the loophole, for those who only believe Israelis, that no flag had been there before), but the testimony of the surviving Liberty crewmen shows that the flag had been flying and clearly visible all along, and that the Israelis had positively identified the ship as American before attacking. The Liberty crew’s testimony is more than sufficient.

For an account of the latest research, and what probably motivated President Johnson, see
“Remembering the Liberty
by Ron Unz, part of his American Pravda series, written in the form a personal quest for information.

Live links to these references and more can be found under “Attempted sinking of the USS Liberty” on this website’s  Links  page.

6  “Memorandum: Attack on the USS Liberty June 8, 1967”
by Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, June 8, 1997. On the  ussliberty.org  website.

7  “USS Liberty: Did Israel Commit One War Crime to Hide Another?”
by James M. Ennes, Jr.
I added some quotation marks, bracketed, which seem to be missing in the original.
Washington Post Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1996

8  A police detective is not obliged to find the motive in order to prove that someone committed a crime. Israel’s motive is an interesting question, but the answer or no answer does not affect what happened.