Fifty-four years ago on this day, June 8, 1967, Israel attacked the USS Liberty.
Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty in international waters off Egypt’s Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War. The intelligence ship, well-marked as an American vessel and only lightly armed, was attacked by Israeli aircraft.
The Liberty attempted to radio for assistance, but the Israeli aircraft blocked the transmissions. Finally, the ship made contact with the US carrier Saratoga. At least 12 fighter jets and four tanker planes were dispatched to defend the Liberty. However, US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara recalled them to the carrier when word of their deployment reached Washington and they never reached the Liberty. The reason for the recall remains unclear till date.
Back in the Mediterranean, the initial air raid against the Liberty was over. Nine of the 294 crew members were killed and 60 wounded. Suddenly, the ship was attacked by Israeli torpedo boats, which launched torpedoes and fired artillery at the ship. Under the command of its wounded captain, William L. McGonagle, the Liberty managed to avert four torpedoes, but one struck the ship at the waterline. Heavily damaged, the ship launched three lifeboats, but these were also attacked in violation of the international law.
Failing to sink the Liberty, which displaced 10,000 tons, the Israelis finally desisted. In all, 34 Americans were killed and 171 were wounded in the two-hour attack. Later, the Liberty managed to limp to a safe port.
Consequently, Israel apologized for the attack and offered $6.9 million in compensation, saying that it had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian ship. However, Liberty survivors, and some former US officials, were of the view that the attack was deliberate, staged to conceal Israel’s pending seizure of Syria’s Golan Heights, which occurred the next day.
The ship’s listening devices would likely have overheard Israeli military communications planning this controversial operation. Captain McGonagle was later awarded the Medal of Honour for his heroic command of the Liberty during and after the attack.