On 40th Anniversary of Israeli Attack on US Ship, Survivors Still Push for Investigation.
Forty-two of the surviving crew members of the USS Liberty, a Belmont class technical research ship that was attacked by Israeli forces on June 8, 1967, gathered this past weekend in McLean to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the attack.
The incident, which left 34 men dead and 173 wounded, occurred on the backdrop of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors: Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Both Israel and the United States assert that the attack on the vessel was a mistake, after multiple investigations by both sides concluded that the ship had been mistaken for an Egyptian vessel. However, the crew members insist there was never a proper analysis to come to that conclusion.
An investigation of the attack was compiled in the 1967 Navy Court of Inquiry report. According to Ernie Gallo, a communications technician aboard the ship, investigators did not interview any of the wounded crew members. Also, there was not enough time allotted to work out mistakes in the report, Gallo insists. He finally alleges that information was removed from the final version of the report when it was sent to the White House, such as the fact that Israeli planes flew over the ship that morning.
The USS Liberty was an intelligence-gathering ship whose mission was to seek out Russians aiding Egyptian bombers during the war. The morning of the attack, the fourth day of the Six-Day War, 12 Israeli reconnaissance planes flew low over the ship, Gallo said. They flew so low, “you could see the pilot and wave to them,” he said. “They waved back in a very friendly manner.”
There was a sure sense of security aboard the Liberty. That afternoon, off-duty crew members were sunbathing on deck. Admiral William Martin even insisted that having an escort carrier was unnecessary. “‘No one would dare attack an American ship… in international waters,’” Gallo recalled Martin saying. “How wrong he was.”
At around 2 p.m., the Liberty was attacked.
“This horrific sound reverberated throughout the ship,” Gallo said. Richard Sturman, a radio man aboard the ship, was opening the door to the central radio room when he heard an explosion. The wall before him began to blacken and then blister.
“If you turn around and you don’t know what’s going on, I don’t care what kind of training you’ve had, you’re scared, you’re really, really scared,” Sturman said.
The captain called everyone to general quarters, their assigned positions. “We didn’t know what was going on, only that we were under attack,” Sturman said.
Gallo, who was protected by the communications room housed below deck, suffered no injuries.
Israeli jets had dropped two napalm bombs, which set the outside of the ship ablaze. The crew members had put out the fire with extinguishers when three Israeli torpedo boats began firing with machine guns “at anything and anybody that moved on the ship,” Gallo said.
Five torpedoes were fired at the Liberty, one of them hitting the ship and killing 25 men. “Everyone in the room was flying in the air. It was tremendous; you couldn’t imagine the sound of that torpedo hitting the ship,” said Gallo. The ship then began to rock left and right before settling — the crew had been afraid that it was going to capsize.
When the captain, William McGonagle, realized that the ship was not going to sink, he commanded the crew not to abandon ship. As the torpedo boats continued to fire with machine guns, crew members were forced to steer the ship by manually pushing the rudder, after the helm was damaged in the attack. “The goal was to keep the ship and keep it moving,” Gallo said.
The ship had been trying to call for help, but their radio had been jammed by the Israeli forces, said Sturman. They eventually got a broken antenna working just enough to get through to aid. American planes that answered the calls were called back by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, as well as President Lyndon Johnson, says Gallo basing his claims off of testimonies. While the fighting ended in the afternoon, the crew did not receive assistance until early the next morning.
The USS Liberty suffered the most damage and received the most honors of any ship since WWII, including 36 silver and bronze stars. Capt. McGonagle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The crew members had their first reunion in 1982. Beforehand, they had been given a gag order not to talk about the attack. However, with the publication of “Attack on the Liberty,” by James Ennes, Jr., they became more inclined to organize and discuss what happened.
“These guys are family,” said Gallo. “We go back 40 years.”
At the reunion, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R – Neb.) had planned on speaking, but cancelled last minute due to a funeral. Today, despite the survivors’ attempts to bring forth the controversy of the attack, Congress has refused to conduct new investigations.
“Give us the investigation, and we’ll live with the results … then those 34 guys can rest in peace,” Gallo said.