It was 50 years ago today that a U.S. Navy spy ship, the USS Liberty, was deliberately attacked by air and sea by Israel in an attempt to sink her.
On June 8, 1967, four days into the Six Day War, the Liberty was patrolling 17 nautical miles off the Israeli Sinai coast, listening in on war communications. Crewmen had watched as throughout the day Israeli fighter aircraft flew out to Liberty’s position, made a circle and returned to their bases in Israel – no fewer than eight times, according to a report of war crimes filed by Liberty veterans.
At about 2 p.m. the ship’s radar picked up three surface contacts heading in Liberty’s direction at high speed. Within minutes, high-speed Israeli aircraft appeared – two French-made Mirage III fighter aircraft and two French-made Super Mystere fighter bombers – that fired rockets and their internal cannons at the ship, killing a number of crewmen on the deck. The jets made several passes firing rockets and cannons and dropping napalm.
The attacks focused on the command bridge, communications antennas and the four .50 caliber machine guns installed for repelling borders.
In addition to firing on the vessel, the fighters employed communications jamming measures that prevented the Liberty’s crew from communicating the Sixth Fleet to obtain assistance.
After the aircraft completed their attacks, three Israeli torpedo boats arrived (the three surface contacts spotted earlier) and launched five torpedoes. One of the torpedoes found its mark opposite the ship’s research spaces. The torpedo blew a 39-foot by 24-foot hole in the ship’s side. The explosion and compartment flooding killed 25, bringing the total killed in the attack to 34.
Following the torpedo attack, the torpedo boats made several passes up and down the length of the Liberty on both the port and starboard sides raking the sip with cannon and machine gun fire. They fired on firemen attempting to put out the onboard blazes and on inflated life rafts put over the side after the captain prepared to give the order to abandon ship.
Crewmen operating while under fire were finally able to piece together enough communications equipment to get a message to the Sixth Fleet. When the message got through and rules of engagement authorizing the American planes to engage and destroy the attacking craft were transmitted, the Israeli torpedo boats broke off their attack and radioed the Liberty asking if it required assistance.
Israeli attack helicopters, carrying troops in battle gear, arrived soon after and circled over the vessel. The Liberty’s captain, expecting the Israelis to try and capture the ship, gave the order to prepare to repel borders. But after making a couple passes the helicopters left the scene.
The cover-up of the incident began almost immediately. The American Embassy in Tel Aviv was notified that Israeli forces had “mistakenly” attacked a U.S. ship and an apology was issued. Israel claimed its pilots an boat captains did not recognize the Liberty as an American ship and that the Liberty was not flying an American flag – a claim disputed by Liberty survivors who said the flag flew until it was shot down and was then replaced with the “holiday colors,” a flag that measured 13 feet long.
Intercepted transcripts reveal that pilots knew the ship was American and questioned their order, only to be told to go ahead with the attack. One intelligence analyst working at the Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha recalls seeing the transcripts of Israeli communications intercepted before and during the attack.
“The ground control station stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it,” Steve Forslund told the Chicago Tribune in an article on the 40th anniversary of the attack:
“The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by the American flag.
“The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors.”
Forslund said he clearly recalled “the obvious frustration of the controller over the inability of the pilots to sink the target quickly and completely.”
“He kept insisting the mission had to sink the target, and was frustrated with the pilots’ responses that it didn’t sink.”
Nor, Forslund said, was he the only member of his unit to have read the transcripts. “Everybody saw these,” said Forslund, now retired after 26 years in the military.
Forslund’s recollections are supported by those of two other Air Force intelligence specialists, working in widely separate locations, who say they also saw the transcripts of the attacking Israeli pilots’ communications.
Many of these transcripts have since disappeared and some to seem to have been “invented” to replace them.
As the Liberty limped under escort to port in Malta, the Navy convened a formal Court of Inquiry. But the court’s scope was narrow and it was given only a week to complete its work. The Navy, most said, seemed to want to ask as few questions as possible.
Testimony was overlooked and/or ignored, and the short time frame prohibited questioning all the surviving witnesses.
Survivors of the Liberty insist that it’s long past time for the cover-up to end and the truth be told.
“Someday the truth of this will come out,” Dennis Eikleberry, a NSA technician aboard the Liberty told the Tribune. “Someday it will, but we’ll all be gone.”
One thing they should have learned by now is the U.S. government – particularly the NSA – never tells the truth.