Why did Israel attack the USS Liberty?
On 8 June 1967, in the midst of the Six-Day War, Israeli fighter jets and gunboats attacked an American ship sailing off the Sinai coast, killing 34 sailors. Matthew Hughes explores both sides of an incendiary incident that Israel said was a terrible mistake
At 7.45am on 5 June 1967, Israeli warplanes hit Egypt’s air force on its home airfields. This was the dramatic start to the Six-Day War in which Israel fought first Egypt then Jordan and Syria. By the end of the conflict, Israel held the Sinai Peninsula, Jerusalem’s old city, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
The destruction of Egypt’s air force left the army of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the desert of the Sinai without air support – doomed. Israel’s warplanes bombed, strafed and napalmed retreating columns of Egyptian soldiers; thousands died in combat and from thirst. Israeli tanks and infantry then spread out into the Sinai and pushed the Egyptians back to the Suez Canal. It was during this push, on 8 June, that a remarkable event occurred: Israeli warplanes and navy motor torpedo gunboats attacked the USS Liberty, a United States spy ship, in international waters off the north coast of the Sinai.
The Liberty was a former cargo vessel of around 7,500 tons, officially classified as an ‘auxiliary technical research ship’ – but it did not look like an ordinary freighter. It was festooned with antennae and signal dishes, and packed with eavesdropping communications equipment. It was very lightly armed, carrying just four .50 calibre Browning machine guns – and totally unprepared for the Israeli attack. American sailors claimed that Israeli air sorties with cannon and napalm were followed by a naval assault with guns and torpedoes on the ship.
The onslaught left 34 American sailors dead and 171 injured. With no US ships nearby to help, the Liberty limped away from the attack – barely afloat, riddled with bullet holes, and set aflame by the napalm strikes. The possibility that this was an Egyptian attack was quickly dispelled: Israel admitted responsibility for the attack, but claimed that it was a tragic error – that it had thought the ship was Egyptian. An attack on a neutral ship in international waters during a conflict might be blamed on the ‘fog of war’ – but this was an attack by one ally (Israel) on another (the US).
Many years later, a former United States Defense Intelligence Agency operative asserted that the Israelis knew that the Liberty was American; before the attack Israeli warplanes had buzzed the Liberty and spoken to the ship’s crew in English. They attacked, he said, for ruthless military reasons. The Israelis were willing to accept the opprobrium and risk because they feared that the eavesdropping facilities on the ship could monitor the progress of Israeli troops, and perhaps be used to help end the war early – before Israel had seized all the territory that it had targeted.
Many similar conspiracy theories have been dismissed by the Israelis and the United States. In his 2002 book The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Israeli Attack on the US Navy Spy Ship, United States navy judge A Jay Cristol concluded that the attack was the result of human error, not a secret plot. The official US line remains that this was a mistake, not a conspiracy. So what happened on the day, and how did each side react?
Black smoke is coming out. Oil is spilling out. She is burning. She is burning
On the morning of 8 June 1967 the USS Liberty was sailing slowly – it was not a fast ship – some 13 miles north of the town of El Arish on the Sinai coast. Sinai was a war zone: Israeli pilots had been in continuous action since 5 June, and were tired and fired up after several days of intense action. At 5.55am, the Israelis had noted the ship, identifying it as a US vessel – not least because it flew a 2.5-metre by 1.5-metre American flag.
An Egyptian ammunition dump then exploded at El Arish. The Israelis mistakenly thought that this might have been caused by shelling by the Egyptian navy, and sent out motor torpedo boats to investigate. These boats claimed that they chased a ship (which could not have been the slow-moving Liberty) but could not catch it, so they called in the air force. Tapes of communications between Israeli air force headquarters and the pilots in the warplanes that first attacked the Liberty highlight the confusion on the day. On being told that the target might be American, one senior Israeli officer remarked ambiguously: “I don’t want to know.”
The drama began at around 1.50pm when a flight of French-supplied Israeli Dassault Mirage jets flew over the Liberty, at which point an Israeli air traffic controller queried whether the ship was American. The Israeli pilots, it was claimed, checked out the ship and reported seeing “a military vessel, battleship grey, with four gun mounts”, its bow pointed west towards Egypt. Liberty sailors later denied any reconnaissance runs by the warplanes.
Between 1.57pm and 1.59pm the Mirages then attacked. Afterwards the warplanes reported to base that they had “hit” the ship “very hard. Black smoke is coming out. Oil is spilling out of her into the water. Yofi [splendid]… Yotze mehaclal [extraordinary]. She is burning. She is burning.”
Shortly afterwards, at 2.03pm, another flight of Israeli warplanes arrived – Dassault Super Mystères, armed with cannons and napalm. At 2.14pm a pilot can be heard on the tapes asking what country the ship comes from; the chief air controller in Tel Aviv, Colonel Shmuel Kislev, replied: “Probably American.” One of the Israeli pilots then exclaimed “What?” To which Kislev again said: “Probably American.”
This exchange did not halt a second air attack during which warplanes fired 30mm cannons and dropped napalm on the American vessel. Then, at about 2.30pm (2.44pm in some reports), Israeli navy motor torpedo boats arrived and attacked the Liberty with torpedoes and gunfire. The commander of the Israeli gunboats had, it was claimed, attempted to identify the silhouette of the Liberty but, rather than establishing that it was an American vessel, instead matched it to the Egyptian supply ship El Quseir.
When the Israeli gunboats approached, a US sailor fired a machine gun at them; at the same time, a shipboard explosion on Liberty set off ammunition, giving the impression of a gun battle. The Israeli navy, marginal to the unfolding war and believing that this was an Egyptian ship, wanted to prove its military worth; it fired five torpedoes at the Liberty, one of which found its mark, killing United States intelligence officers on the ship. The gunboats raked the ship and riddled its attached life rafts, too.
According to the official Israeli story, military commanders tried to stop the navy gunboats from firing, and only after this naval attack was the Liberty finally identified as a United States vessel. However, the commander of the motor torpedo boats claimed that he never received any order to stay away. At some stage the Israeli pilots saw Latin lettering on the side of the ship (the Egyptian El Quseir would have had Arabic markings), after which ground control told the pilots to “leave her”.
Apologies and explanations
The news of what had just happened terrified senior Israeli officers. Israel was fortunate that the Liberty was the ship of an ally, not a Soviet vessel. Israel quickly paid US$12m compensation, while the Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol and foreign minister Abba Eban apologised profusely. Even so, Americans began to think that the strike had been planned, and that the Israelis were being disingenuous – that the attack was premeditated murder.
To resolve this, the Israelis launched three internal inquiries, the last of which was chaired by a military jurist, Colonel Yeshayahu Yerushalmi. The investigations admitted culpability in miscalculating the Liberty’s speed, mistaking it for an Egyptian ship, and erroneously reporting a naval barrage at El Arish. They also noted the pilots’ fatigue, multiple communication breakdowns, and the navy’s overeagerness to attack. All three reports concluded that the event had been an innocent mistake.
Shells blew apart one sailor, who could be identified only by his necklace
Before reveille had sounded at 6am on 8 June, sailors on the Liberty saw Israeli warplanes flying close to their ship. The officer on deck for the morning watch, James Ennes, reckoned that Israelis planes flew over eight times, passing as close as 60 metres above the ship. The presence of the friendly Israeli made the sailors feel secure, and many sunbathed on the deck.
Washington sent the ship orders to move away from the war zone – but the instructions arrived too late, and the Liberty was still steaming slowly off the Sinai when all hell broke loose. The ship’s lookouts saw Israeli Mirage jets approaching, but instead of flying over they dropped down, levelled off and let loose with their cannons and rockets, blowing out portholes and riddling the ship with bullet holes. Cannon shells blew apart one sailor, who could be identified only by his St Christopher necklace. Israel jammed Liberty’s SOS signals to the nearby US Sixth Fleet; officers on board were convinced that the Israelis also targeted the ship’s signals equipment.
At 1.59pm the first attack ended. But the ship was soon hit with a second strike: napalm canisters were dropped, and fuel on board exploded in the heat. The Liberty’s captain, William McGonagle, spotted Israeli motor torpedo boats approaching and screamed a warning into the ship’s public-address system that a torpedo attack was imminent. One sailor below deck remarked afterwards: “When we received word that a torpedo was going to hit us starboard side and stand by to abandon ship, I personally knew I would never see my friends in Louisiana again or drink another cold beer. At 20, these are important events. I blew my life vest up… and awaited what I thought would be somewhat like a crawfish boil.”
Of the five Israeli torpedoes fired, one hit the ship, lifting it bodily out of the water. Before the strike, one of the sailors had run up an even bigger American flag on the deck. After the Israelis had left the area of the attack, other US ships and helicopters came to the Liberty’s aid. The stricken vessel ended up in a dry dock on Malta with a massive torpedo gash and 821 bullet holes – much of that damage inflicted by US-supplied munitions sent to Israel before the war.
Aftermath of the attack
Though the Sixth Fleet readied warplanes after the attack, none was sent to retaliate. Instead Washington accepted Israel’s apology, and the conclusion of its inquiries – that the incident was a mistake made in the middle of a war.
Some senior American officials did not concur. “This makes no goddamned sense at all,” said Eugene Rostow of the State Department. The attack, wrote secretary of state Dean Rusk, was “quite literally incomprehensible… an act of military recklessness reflecting wanton disregard for human life”. There was anger, too, at Israeli suggestions that the Liberty had been too close to the Sinai, and that no Israeli was ever punished.
An inquiry conducted on Malta recorded that the flag on Liberty might not have been flying for lack of wind, and that the attack appeared to be a case of mistaken identity. More reviews – including by the CIA – failed to answer the question of why the lightly armed Liberty was sent so deep into a war zone.
The absence of answers spawned many conspiracy theories, epitomised in Jim Taylor’s book Pearl Harbor II: The True Story of the Sneak Attack by Israel on the USS Liberty. That Israel was usually so efficient in its actions in war made the error of attacking the ship very odd. That said, Israeli forces were used to fighting less well-equipped Arab armies where they could get away with mistakes. Israeli soldiers also had poor fire discipline, and one of the Israeli sailors later admitted that he and his comrades were “inexperienced and probably a little trigger-happy – and it was a war zone”. Some veterans of the US administration persisted in believing the Israelis knew what they were doing, and that pro-Israeli elements in the United States colluded to draw the US into the war – an absurd claim.
Other bizarre ideas included the theory that the Liberty was reporting on Israel’s alleged execution of Egyptian prisoners or on interceptions of messages between Cairo and Amman, or that the Israeli minister of defence wanted it destroyed to conceal his preparations for a war against Syria. Assistant secretary of state Lucius Battle believed the attack was due to US monitoring of Israeli signals “and other things that were going on that they didn’t want us to know about… they had been engaged in some pretty outlandish stuff in the course of the war. I don’t think they wanted us to know the detail of that.”
As a footnote, Captain McGonagle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for bravery, for his actions on 8 June 1967.
Matthew Hughes is professor of military history at Brunel University London