During the Six-Day War, Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty in international waters off Egypt’s Gaza Strip. The intelligence ship, well-marked as an American warship, and only lightly armed, was attacked first by Israeli aircraft that dropped napalm and fired salvos of rockets at the ship.
The Liberty attempted to radio for assistance, but the Israeli aircraft blocked their transmissions. Eventually, the ship was able to make contact with the U.S. carrier Saratoga, and 12 fighter jets and four tanker planes were dispatched to defend the Liberty. When word of their deployment reached Washington, however, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered them recalled to the carrier, and they never reached the Liberty, leaving it defenseless against the Israeli attack. The reason for the recall has never been made public, despite dozens of FOIA requests by journalists and family members of the deceased.
Back in the Mediterranean, the initial air raid against the Liberty was over. Nine of the 294 crewmembers were dead, and 60 were wounded. Suddenly, the ship was attacked by Israeli torpedo boats, which launched torpedoes and fired their deck guns 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, breaching the hull. Heavily damaged and taking on water, the ship launched three lifeboats to evacuate the crew, but these were riddled with machine gun fire – a violation of international law – killing the Sailors aboard. 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. In the attack’s aftermath, the Liberty managed to limp to a safe port and offload the wounded to receive medical care.
Israel later apologized for the attack and offered $6.9 million in compensation, claiming that it had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian ship. However, dozens of Liberty survivors, and former U.S. officials, believe 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 Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic command of the Liberty during and after the attack.
This dark day in history was quickly washed out of the news cycle, and has received little attention over the years, with Washington and Jerusalem preferring to forget the “incident” entirely. Since these Sailors never received justice, at least do them the honor of remembering their sacrifice. Never forget.