June 8, 1967. On this day which lives on in infamy, an unarmed,
clearly marked communications vessel sailing peacefully in the eastern
Mediterranean, was suddenly attacked without warning by Israeli jets
and torpedo boats, leaving 34 U.S. servicemen dead and another
171 wounded and maimed for life. The ship was the USS Liberty.
Its mission was to monitor the fighting going on between Israel and
its Arab neighbors, which were then at war. Details of this vicious,
cold-blooded atrocity by America’s favorite rogue state are recounted
by James Bamford in his no-holds-barred examination of the National
Security Agency, Body of Secrets. Below are several excerpts from
this devastating exposé.
Without warning the Israeli jets struck—swept-wing Dassault Mirage IIICs.
Lieutenant Painter observed that the aircraft had “absolutely no markings,” so that
their identity was unclear. He then attempted to contact the men manning the gun
mounts, but it was too late. “I was trying to contact these two kids,” he recalled,
“and I saw them both; well, I didn’t exactly see them as such. They were blown
apart, but I saw the whole area go up in smoke and scattered metal. And, at about
the same time, the aircraft strafed the bridge area itself. The quartermaster,
Petty Officer Third Class Pollard, was standing right next to me, and he was hit.”
With the sun at their backs in true attack mode, the Mirages raked the ship from
bow to stern with hot, armor-piercing lead. Back and forth they came, cannons
and machine guns blazing. A bomb exploded near the whaleboat aft of the bridge,
and those in the pilothouse and the bridge were thrown from their feet.”
In the communications spaces, radioman James Halman and Joseph Ward had
patched together enough equipment and broken antennas to get a distress call off
to the Sixth Fleet, despite intense jamming by the Israelis. “Any station, this is
Rockstar,” Halman shouted, using the Liberty’s voice call sign. “We are under
attack by unidentified jet aircraft and require immediate assistance.”
“Great, wonderful, she’s burning, she’s burning,” said the Israeli pilot.
After taking out the gun mounts, the Israeli fighter pilots turned their attention to the
antennas, to sever the Liberty’s vocal cords and deafen it so it could not call for help
or pick up any more revealing intercepts. “It was as though they knew their exact
locations,” said Senior Chief Stan White. Lieutenant Commander Dave Lewis, in
charge of the NSA operation on the ship, agreed . . . “It took a lot of planning to get
heat-seeking missiles aboard to take out our entire communications in the first minute
of the attack. If that was a mistake, it was the best-planned mistake that has ever
been perpetrated in the history of mankind.”
Then the planes attacked the bridge in order to blind her, killing instantly the ship’s
executive officer. With the Liberty now deaf, blind and silenced, unable to call for help
and unable to move, the Israeli pilots next proceeded to kill her. Designed to punch
holes in the toughest tanks, the Israeli shells tore through the Liberty’s steel plating like
hot nails through butter, exploding into jagged bits of shrapnel and butchering men deep
in their living quarters.
“Menachem, is he screwing her?” [Israeli] headquarters asked one of the pilots, excitedly.
As the Israelis contined their slaughter, neither they nor the Liberty crew had any idea
that witnesses were present hight above. Until now. According to information, interviews
and documents obtained for Body of Secrets, for nearly thirty-five years NSA has hidden
the fact that one of its planes was overhead at the time of the incident, eavesdropping on
what was going on below. The intercepts from that plane, which answer some of the
key questions about the attack, are among NSA’s deepest secrets.
At 2:24, minutes after the air attack, horror once again washed over the crew. Charles
Rowley, the ship’s photographer, was lying in the ward room being treated for shrapnel
wounds when armor-piercing bullets began penetrating the bulkhead. Through the porthole
he saw three sixty-two-ton motor torpedo boats rapidly approaching in attack formation.
Closing in at about forty knots, each of the French-built boats had a crew of fifteen and
were heavily armed with a 40mm cannon, four 20mm cannons and two torpedoes. Like
a firing squad, they lined up in a row and pointed their guns and torpedo tubes at the
Liberty’s starboard hull. Seeing that the Israeli fighters had destroyed the American flag,
Commander McGonagle ordered the signalman to quickly hoist another—this one the
giant “holiday ensign,” the largest on the ship.
Almost immediately, the boats opened up with a barrage of cannon fire. One armor-piercing
bullet slammed through the ship’s chart house and into the pilothouse, coming to rest finally
in the neck of a young helmsman, killing him instantly. Three other crewmen were slaughtered
in this latest shower of steel.
“Stand by for torpedo attack, starboard side,” McGonagle shouted frantically into the
announcing system. The Israelis were ready for the kill. At 2:37 p.m., the safety plug was
pulled from a 19-inch German-made torpedo on Motor Torpedo Boat 203. Seconds later
it sped from its launcher and took direct aim at the Liberty’s NSA spaces. Four other
torpedoes—more than enough to sink the largest aircraft carrier—were also launched. Had
all or most of them hit their mark, the Liberty’s remaining life would have been measured
in minutes. Through a miracle, only one struck home. But that hit was devastating.
To prevent anyone from escaping the badly wounded ship, the Israelies even destroyed
the few surviving life rafts that were put into the water following the call to abandon ship.
“I watched with horror as the floating life rafts were riddled with holes,” said Lieutenant
Lloyd painter, in charge of the evacuation. “No survivors were planned for this day!”
Earlier that day, the Israelis had massacred civilians and prisoners in the [northern Sinai]
desert; now they were prepared to ensure that no American survived the sinking of the
Liberty. Another witness to the lifeboat attacks was pipefitter Phillip F. Tourney. “As soon
as the lifeboats hit the water they were sunk. They would shoot at us for target practice . . .
They wanted to kill and maim and murder anyone they could.”
Black smoke was still escaping through the more than 800 holes in the Liberty’s hull, and
the effort to hush up the incident had already begun. Within hours of the attack, Israel
asked President Johnson to quietly bury the incident. “Embassy Tel Aviv,” said a highly
secret, very-limited-distribution message to the State Department, “urged de-emphasis
on publicity since proximity of vessel to scene of conflict was fuel for Arab suspicions that
U.S. was aiding Israel.” Shortly thereafter, a total news ban was ordered by the Pentagon.
No one in the field was allowed to say anything about the attack. All information was to
come only from a few senior Washington offcials.
At 11:29 a.m. (5:29 p.m. Liberty), [President] Johnson took the unusual step of ordering
the JCS to recall the [American fighters being sent to the aid of the stricken vessel] while
the Liberty still lay smoldering, sinking, fearful of another attack, without aid, and with its
decks covered with the dead, the dying and the wounded. Onboard the flagship of the
Sixth Fleet, Rear Admiral Lawrence R. Geis, who commanded the carrier force in the
Mediterranean, was angry and puzzled at the recall and protested it to Secretary of
Defense Robert S. McNamara.
Admiral Geis was shocked by what he heard next. According to information obtained
for Body of Secrets, “President Lyndon Johnson came on with a comment that he didn’t
care if the ship sunk, he would not embarrass his [Israeli] allies.”
The hole in the Liberty’s twenty-tree-year-old skin was nearly wide enough to drive a bus
through; the ship had a heavy list to starboard . . . thirty-two of its crew were dead (two
others would later die) and two-thirds of the rest wounded; its executive officer was dead,
and its commander officer was badly hurt. Despite all this, the Liberty was heroically
brought back to life and slowly made her way toward safer waters.
Once the Liberty pulled into Malta on June 14, the effort to bury the incident continued
at full speed ahead. A total news blackout was imposed. Crew members were threatened
with courts-martial and jail time if they ever breathed a word of the episode to anyone—
including family members and even fellow crew members. “If you ever repeat this to anyone
else ever again, you will be put in prison and forgotten about,” Larry Weaver said he
“Tob shebbe goyim harog.” (“Kill the best of the Gentiles.”)
REMEMBER THE LIBERTY!