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USS Liberty

‘In Awesome Peril’

Heroism in Defense of the USS Liberty

On June 8, 1967, the spy ship USS Liberty withstood an unparalleled assault by Israeli torpedo boats and planes off the coast of Egypt. Despite official and public abandonment, the courageous crew deserves recognition on this 40th anniversary of the costliest hostile U.S. ship action since World War II.

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Richard K. Kolb
VFW Magazine
June/July, 2007

The Main Battle Dressing Station
The Main Battle Dressing Station was described as a “bloody scene reminiscent of theAmerican Civil War.” Torpedo explosions and aircraft machine guns took a terrible toll on theLiberty’s crew, killing 34 and wounding 172. (Click image to enlarge.)

“They [the Bureau of NavalPersonnel] sent a message back, and they said,‘Wounded in what action?,’” recalled Ensign Pat O’Malley. “‘Killed in whataction?’ They say it wasn’t ‘action,’ it was‘an accident.’”

O’Malley was incredulous because hisship had just been subjected to intenseincendiary, machine-gun and rocket fireby jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedoboats of what turned out to be an ally.

Congressional Medal of Honor
Congressional Medal of Honor (Click image to enlarge.)

Even today, 40 years later, this reactionremains typical when a Liberty veteranrelates the ordeal he experienced in theeastern Mediterranean Sea that summerday. Despite the fact that this ship sustained the highest per capita casualties—70% equating to 206 Purple Hearts—inhostile action of any American ship sinceWorld War II.

Medal citations related to the surfacebattle are replete with references to hostile fire. At least a half dozen use thephrases “rocket and machine gun fire,”“strafing fire” and “attacking torpedoboat.” Yet how many Americans—eventhose older than 55—are aware of whattheir sailors underwent during the Six-Day War of June 1967?

A highly sophisticated intelligence-gathering vessel, the Liberty was in thearea to ascertain if Russians or Egyptians were piloting six Cairo-based Sovietbombers flying missions against Israel.

Virtually all magazine accounts ofthis action focus on why Israel wouldhave intentionally attacked an Americancraft, as well as on the Johnson Administration’ s cover-up. Suffice it to saythat crewmen have no doubt the attack was deliberate. Unfortunately, the heroism of the crew is far too often lostamidst this controversy.

So for a change, the story of the gallantry of the sailors aboard will be told.Only then can the battle the Libertywaged find its rightful place in the annalsof U.S. naval combat. Instead of being swept under the historical rug, their actions should be celebrated along with those of other valorous ships’ crews throughout history.

The bridge area of the USS Liberty looked like something out of a WWII naval battle. Thesignal intelligence (“technical research”) ship was pockmarked with 821 shell holes.
The bridge area of the USS Liberty looked like something out of a WWII naval battle. Thesignal intelligence (“technical research”) ship was pockmarked with 821 shell holes. (Click image to enlarge.)

The official attempt to deny what happened that June 8 knew no bounds. Yet the evidence was clear to see: The Liberty sustained 821 shell holes. All forms of recognition, however,were stalled and/or concealed. Hostile fire pay was denied the crew; when it was finally granted, only the wounded were deemed worthy.

The prestigious Presidential Unit Citation was not presented to the men; they didn’t know anything about the award until years later. And it did not even identify the attackers, making only vague references to “foreign” aircraft and boats. Though the citation used phrases like “heroic achievement,” “extraordinary heroism” and “excep- tional courage.”

Likewise, the ship captain’s Medal of Honor citation failed to delineate those responsible. The Navy secretary, not the President as usual, presented the actual medal at the Washington Navy Yard, instead of in the White House.

Harrowing Ordeal

At 2:03 p.m. on June 8, two Israeli Mirage fighters attacked the ship, killing nine sailors. Mystere aircraft trailed, dropping napalm on the deck. Torpedo boats followed close behind, launching their lethal projectiles at 2:34 p.m.

By all measures, the 72 minutes of combat experienced by the Liberty was intense. In his book Assault on the Liberty, James M.Ennes, off-going officer of the deck at the time, provides ample graphic descriptions. “The air filled with hot metal as a geometric pattern of orange flashes opened holes in the heavy deck plating, ”he wrote of the initial volleys. “An explosion tossed our gunners high into the air—spinning, broken, like rag dolls.”

He continued: “With incredible noise the aircraft rockets poked eight-inch holes in the ship; like fire-breathing creatures, they groped blindly for the men inside. Already the pilothouse was littered with helpless and frightened men.”

Below deck, an Israeli torpedo—one of five fired—explosion flooded the Research Operations Department, instantly killing 25 cryptologists. Some died while burning code lists and destroying a crypto machine—performing their duty to the very last. The bulkhead had disintegrated before the crew’s eyes.

A total of 172 sailors were wounded in the Israeli attack of June 8, 1967. Three were soseverely hit that they were not expected to survive.
A total of 172 sailors were wounded in the Israeli attack of June 8, 1967. Three were soseverely hit that they were not expected to survive. (Click image to enlarge.)

“With a great crunch,” Ennes wrote, “flesh and steel were compressed into a distant corner as the blast hurled men and equipment the width ofthe ship.”After a futile search for the living,a Marine conceded,“No one is alive down there.”

Meanwhile, on the deck, sailors had furiously attempted to fight off the merciless machine gun fire. Gunner’s Mate Alexander Neil Thompson manned one of the four unprotected .50-caliber machine gun mounts over the bodies of dead shipmates.

His posthumous Silver Star citation reads: “Courageously and single-handedly operated machine gun 51 and continued to fire on the aircraft in the defense of his ship and shipmates until he was fatally wounded by a rocket blast. His aggressiveness and coolness under fire was exceptional inspirational leadership in an hour ofawesome peril.”

Seaman Dale D. Larkins also received the Silver Star for solely manning Mount 51 and firing on the attacking torpedo boats until ordered to stop. Fireman David Skolak and Lt.Stephen Toth were awarded posthumous Silver Stars, both fatally wounded while performing their duties without regard for their own personal safety.

Skolak was even a candidate for the Medal ofHonor for attempting to evacuate wounded sailors under heavy fire. Unfortunately, there were not enough witnesses.

The Navy Cross went to Lt. Cmdr. Philip Armstrong, as well as Petty Officer Francis Brown, both of whom died at their posts.Armstrong was trying to jettison the gasoline drums on the bridge and organize a party ofmen to extinguish the blazing lifeboats, all the while being fired upon. Brown was acting as helmsman, standing fast to maintain the ordered course until torpedo boat strafing-fire cut him down.

Others performed extraordinary lifesaving measures. Dr. (Lt.) Richard F.Kiepfer administered first aid—includinga major surgical operation—throughoutthe ship despite enemy fire. Ensign DavidG. Lucas assisted in controlling the shipthough he was already wounded.

Capt. William L. McGonagle, a KoreanWar veteran, received the Medal ofHonor one year after the attack, on June11, 1968. Constantly exposed to fire, hekept control of the Liberty and cared forcasualties. Weakened by the loss of blood,the commander nonetheless remained athis battle station for 17 exhausting hours.

Severely wounded, he steadfastlyrefused any treatment. To the bitter end,McGonagle declined medical attentionuntil convinced that all his crew had beentended to first. None of the sailors onboard would have expected “Old Shep”to be commended with anything less thanthe nation’s highest honor for bravery—for his “extraordinary valor” and “courageous fighting spirit.”

In an ironic twist of historical fate, itwas a Russian guided-missile destroyerthat first arrived to offer assistance tothe Liberty. Though declined, the Sovietship stood by until U.S. warships madeit to the scene of the action in international waters 13 nautical miles off theSinai Peninsula near El Arish.

What the crewmen of the USSAmerica, Davis and Massey witnessedwas appalling. The torpedo had hit thestarboard side of the superstructure,leaving a gaping 40-foot hole. Even thelife rafts had been fired upon and, symbolically, the U.S. flag was shot down.

Ennes described the Main BattleDressing Station as “a bloody scene thatseemed somehow reminiscent of theAmerican Civil War.” Three men wereso badly mangled that they could not beidentified; three others were swept awayinto the sea. All six found a commongrave in Arlington National Cemetery.

The treatment meted out to USSLiberty survivors by their country foryears after the Israeli assault constitutesa mark of shame. Denied respect andreal recognition, they were never accorded their proper place in U.S. Navyhistory. Eventually awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, crewmembers stillnever saw their action join the pantheon of heroic sea engagements.

Only relatively recently has the recognition Liberty vets so richly deserve cometheir way. (For the efforts of Liberty vetsto erect memorials to their shipmates,seethe June 2005 issue of VFW.)

Instead of being shunned, the recordof that ship should go down in theNavy’s proud past as the vessel thatengaged in the most intense surfacecombat since WWII.

A Superlative Naval Action

The Liberty had a complement of 294men, including a 94-man National Security Agency contingent. Of the crew, 34were KIA (25 of them cryptologists) and172 were WIA (three so severely that theywere not expected to live.) Two of the 34dead were Marines (the three Marinesaboard were Russian and Arabic linguists) and one a civilian. That calculatesto 70% casualties. Eighty-eight of themen were not physically wounded.

How does that compare with otherU.S. ship casualties due to hostile actionsince WWII? Let’s take a look.The frigate Stark, hit by an Iraqi aircraft missile on May 17, 1987, in thePersian Gulf, had a crew of 221. With 37KIA and 21 WIA, that left the ship witha startling 26% casualty rate.

During the entire Vietnam War, theNavy’s greatest single ship loss was that ofthe USS Westchester County. The landingship,tank,anchored in the My Tho River,counted 18 sailors KIA (five U.S. soldiersalso were killed) on Nov. 1, 1968, due totwo mines planted by VC frogmen.Another 22 crewmen were WIA. Withtotal Navy losses at 40, the “Wesco”had a30% casualty rate among its 132-mancrew.

For the Korean War, it was the destroyer Walke that sustained the Navy’s severest single loss. On June 12, 1951, either amine or a torpedo claimed the lives of 26sailors and wounded 40 others in the Seaof Japan. With a crew of 300, thatamounted to a casualty rate of 22%.

Four months after the end of WWII,on Dec. 29, 1945, the minesweeper Minivet hit a Japanese mine in the TsushimaStraits between Japan and Korea. Thecrew of 91 counted 31 KIA—34% of allsailors aboard. Ten also were WIA, for atotal casualty rate of 45%.

Several better-known land operationsalso suffered fewer KIAs. Neither theDominican Republic (1965-66), KohTang Island off Cambodia (1975),Grenada (1983), Panama (1989) norSomalia (1993) equaled the number ofKIA of the Liberty.

Moreover, the Liberty crew certainlyqualifies as one of the most highly decorated for a single ship action. With oneMedal of Honor, two Navy Crosses and36 Silver or Bronze Stars for little over aone-hour action, few crews have been socourageous.

As Vice Adm. William I. Martin, commander of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, said in July 1967, “Icommend to every man who sails in theSixth Fleet the fact that the USS Libertyhas become a legend in her own times.”

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Additional Resources

Booklets, Flyers, & More on the USS Liberty

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Findings of the Independent Commission of Inquiry

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Book – Assault on the Liberty

Book – Body of Secrets : Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency

Documentary – Dead in the Water


USS Liberty Memorial Website

Honor Liberty Veterans

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