The Forgotten Sneak Attack

Last week, on the 75th anniversary of the December 7, 1941 sneak attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i, I witnessed endless remembrances and memorial ceremonies.  On the History Channel FDR’s “a date that shall live in infamy” speech was played and replayed relentlessly.  Documentary footage and interviews with those few living survivors were ubiquitous, and the local paper came weighted with a special insert—including a thick wad of advertising—memorializing the event.

But as the 50th anniversary of June 8, 1967 approaches, another sneak attack on the US military by enemy aircraft and naval vessels goes largely unremembered.  On that day the USS Liberty was attacked without warning, leaving thirty-four men dead and another one hundred seventy-one injured.  Those responsible for this heinous crime have never been held accountable.  Survivors of the USS Liberty have waged a 50-year war for recognition of their courage and endurance under fire that has been deliberately ignored by US media, US lawmakers and the US military.

A spy ship operated by the NSA, the Liberty‘s sole purpose on June 8, 1967 was to gather signal intelligence on a conflict later called the Six Day War.  She was operating just 15 miles off Sinai, in international waters, but should never have been so close inshore.  Her controllers back in the US had determined such a location to be unduly hazardous and that she should steam 100 miles farther out to sea, but their communications with the state-of-the-art surveillance vessel—for foolish bureaucratic reasons—failed to get through.

Days earlier, on May 31, 1967, Marine Sergeant Bryce Lockwood was rousted from sleep and informed that orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff had directed him to Rota, Spain, where he was to join the crew of the Liberty.  Lockwood was an intelligence specialist and a Russian interpreter.  These new orders were a surprise.  He had no seabag so he packed a suitcase, and the following morning he reported aboard ship.

Lockwood had some notion why he’d been enlisted for this specific task: the United Arab Republic—fronted by Egypt—was backed by the Soviet Union.  Three Russian Tu-95 spy planes were operating out of Alexandria.  Ostensibly operating under the aupices of the Egyptian military, these aircraft were solely under Soviet control and flown by Russian pilots.  Lockwood’s job was to catch them—through intercepted communications—speaking Russian in flight.  Lockwood’s contention that Liberty‘s primary purpose was to determine Soviet intentions during the conflict is borne out by instructions given the eavesdroppers: any intercepts in Hebrew were to be ignored.

When I asked Lockwood about life aboard Liberty he told me it was great: because of all the electronic equipment the ship was air conditioned and comfortable.  That same electronic equipment hugely extended above deck, where a forest of antennae combed the sky for signal intelligence.  There was even a big disk antenna on the aft deck that could bounce signals off the moon clear back to home base in Cheltenham, Maryland.  A former World War II cargo ship, the Liberty had a top speed of 18 knots and by all accounts handled rough sea conditions well.

On the morning of June 8, 1967 the USS Liberty was patrolling off Sinai.  Earlier Captain McGonagle had ordered the ship’s 50 caliber machine gun mounts to manned and ready at all times and repeatedly reminded his crew that they were in a war zone.  According to CMT (Cryptological Technician (Maintenance)) Ernie Gallo: “We’d darken the ship at night and two gunners were kept in the forward gun mounts 24/7 in flak jackets and helmets”.

That morning the weather was clear and sunny with a light breeze and a gentle swell.  The Arab town of El Arish was plainly visible from deck.  Lieutenant James Ennes had the con.  Lt. Ennes used the prayer tower of the El Arish mosque as a reference point by which to navigate.  Early in the day an Israeli bomber was seen flying over Sinai, on a course parallel to the ship.  Later a bulky twin-engined cargo plane (a French-built Noratlas) plainly marked with the Israeli Star of David flew over Liberty, evidently to ascertain the vessel’s identity.

When Lt. Ennes first took command of the bridge that morning he saw that Liberty‘s flag had fouled on some lines and was streaked and dirty.  He ordered it replaced.  The only flag left in the locker was a “holiday” flag—an extra large banner reserved for special occasions.  This unusually large flag was visible at a great distance and those aboard Liberty felt reassured that the Israelis piloting the plane would not mistake her identity.  Lt. Commander David Lewis reported to me that: “When we saw that they were looking after us we all relaxed.”

Midmorning a blast was heard from direction of El Arish and a large cloud of smoke frothed above the little town.  Captain McGonagle ordered a gas drill, fearing the smoke onshore might be poison gas.  According to James Bamford in Book of Secrets (First Anchor Books Edition, 2002), sinister events were unfolding in the Arab settlement:

As the Liberty sat within eyeshot of El Arish, eavesdropping on surrounding communications, Israeli soldiers turned the town into a slaughterhouse, systematically butchering their prisoners.  In the shadow of the El Arish mosque, they lined up about sixty unarmed Egyptian prisoners, hands tied behind their backs, and then opened fire with machine guns until the pale desert sand turned red.  Then they forced other prisoners to bury the victims in mass graves.  (Book of Secrets at pp. 201-202)

It would later emerge that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, not satisfied with seizing Sinai and the West Bank, now sought to capture the Golan Heights.  He needed additional men for the assault and could only find them on Sinai, but the men stationed there were burdened with Egyptian POWs—hence the dreadful instruction to commit mass murder.

The clumsy-looking Israeli Noratlas reappeared at about eleven and orbited Liberty several times.  Crewmen were sunbathing on deck.  They waved to the aircraft’s crewmen, who waved back.  At noon Captain McGonagle drilled the men at General Quarters and at 12:20 pm they stepped down.

Following the drill Sgt. Lockwood visited the small stores shop and bought some tee-shirts before retiring to his bunk, where he stamped his name on his newly purchased underwear.  On deck Lt. Ennes was told the ship’s radar had identified three aircraft approachng Liberty at high speed.  They came out of the sun.

The attack was totally unexpected.  Rocket and cannon fire from the lead aircraft killed most of the crewmen on deck and left Lt. Ennes badly injured.  The second aircraft very nearly destroyed every last antenna on the intelligence gathering ship.  Belowdecks, Sgt. Lockwood said it was like being inside a steel drum that someone was beating with a sledge hammer.  The whole ship rang with the sound of metal striking metal.  Before the alarm went off Sgt. Lockwood was already en route to his battle station.

Liberty‘s crew did not initially recognize the national origin of the attacking warplanes.  In Book of Secrets Bamford reports that markings on the wings and fuselages of the warplanes had been crudely painted over.  When I questioned Lt. Lloyd Painter—who was on deck with Lt. Ennes during the attack—he confirmed this to be true.  In the event, the aircraft were Israeli Mirage III fighter-bombers armed with rockets and 30 mm cannon that fired armor-piercing shells.

A rocket strike destroyed the two forward 50 caliber mounts and killed the gunners.  Further strikes destroyed the ship’s whaleboat and ruptured gasoline tanks located on deck that spilled a river of flame over the ship’s side and into the sea.  In his account of the attack, Assault on the Liberty (Ballantine Books, 1979, Ivy Books, 1987) Lt. Ennes describes a chaotic scene topside: “Blood flowed, puddled and coagulated everywhere.  Men stepped in blood, slipped and fell in it, tracked it about in great crimson footprints” (p 71).

Sgt. Lockwood’s battle station was the processing and reporting office, well below decks, where the ship’s electronic eavesdroppers sifted data for the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the NSA.  Here he received an order he’d expected but had been seriously dreading: all intelligence material was to be gathered up and placed in ditch bags—large weighted canvas bags that would then be tossed overboard, destroying thousands of manhours of difficult intelligence work.  Hundreds of pounds of data including reels of magnetic tape had to be ditched.

Topside Lt. Ennes watched as slower, smaller Mystere jets joined the Mirage III’s that had first attacked.  The Mysteres carried napalm.  In Assault on the Liberty he reports: “In a technique probably designed for desert warfare but fiendish against a ship at sea, the Mystere pilots launched rockets from a distance, then dropped huge silvery metallic napalm canisters as they passed overhead.  The jellied slop burst into furious flame on impact, coating everything, then surged through the fresh rocket holes to burn frantically among the men inside.”  (p. 78)

Badly injured and stretched out on the deck of the pilothouse, Ennes observed Captain McGonagle silhouetted against a wall of flame as the ship’s commander ordered out Liberty‘s fire suppression team.  Meantime, Liberty’s radiomen frantically tried to raise the Sixth Fleet but discovered that the attacking Israelis were jamming their radio communications, including their distress frequencies—which is a violation of international law.  But the jamming ceased whenever the attacking jets prepared to fire rockets—evidently it messed up their guidance systems.  It was then discovered that among the wilderness of antennae festooning Liberty‘s upper deck one slender still-functioning antenna remained—but its connection had been severed.  A radioman named Terry Halbardier set out with a spool of coaxial cable intent on reconnecting it.  He succeeded, but returned to the radio room bloodied from shrapnel.  Four decades later Halbardier was belatedly awarded the Silver Star.  His citation reads as follows:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Electronics Technician Third Class James Terry Halbardier, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving on board the U.S.S. LIBERTY (AGTR-5), on 8 June 1967. The U.S.S. LIBERTY was attacked by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on the fourth day of the SIX DAY WAR. Petty Officer Halbardier, without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, fearlessly and repeatedly exposed himself to overwhelming rocket and machinegun fire to repair a damaged antenna in an open deck area during heavy aerial attacks. Aware that all of the ship’s transmitting antennas had been destroyed and that communication with higher authority depended upon antenna repair, Petty Officer Halbardier risked his life to run connecting coaxial cable across open decks from the antenna to the main transmitter room. His efforts allowed the ship to establish communications with distant elements of the SIXTH Fleet and call for assistance. Despite being wounded, Petty Officer Halbardier ignored his injuries until the antenna had been repaired and the call for help had been received and acknowledged. His courageous actions were critical in alerting distant Navy commanders to the ship’s need for assistance and were instrumental in saving the ship and hundreds of lives. Petty Officer Halbardier’s outstanding display of decisive leadership, unrelenting perseverance, and loyal devotion to duty reflected great credit upon him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

The USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier, received Liberty‘s frantic pleas and transmitted an acknowledgment.  Word spread through the ship that help was on its way.  By this time napalm had scorched and blackened the entire front of the vessel as the Israeli warplanes pressed their attack—then unexpectedly bore away from the stricken surveillance ship.  Three Israeli torpedo boats now approached Liberty in attack formation.

In Al Jazeera’s 2014 special When Israel Attacked America, recorded messages from the base controller directing the warplanes that attacked Liberty were played.  In them we hear the controller tell the jets to lay off, saying: “Let’s leave something for the Navy to do.”

Belowdecks Sgt. Lockwood finished the miserable task of filling ditch bags and sat down at a plotting table to finish a cup of coffee when over the PA system the bridge announced: “Brace yourselves!  Torpedo attack, starboard side!”

Ronnie Campbell, a good friend of Lockwood’s, fed a sheet of paper into a typewriter and began writing a letter to his wife: “Dear Eileen, you won’t believe what’s happening to us.”  (In Assault on the Liberty, Ennes offers a slightly different version wherein Campbell types Dear Elizabeth, You won’t believe where we are.  (p. 99))

Sgt. Lockwood stepped into a passageway for a word with Lt. Commander David Lewis, who was in overall command of the intelligence people aboard ship and who now sought to organize a work party to get the ditching bags overboard, when in Lockwood’s words: “There was a blinding flash of light and a terribly loud noise.”  Lockwood took the blast face on, and his glasses spared his eyesight.  Lt. Commander Lewis wasn’t so lucky.  Positioned perpendicular to the strike, white hot paint fragments flew through the gap between Lewis’s glasses and his eyes, leaving him blind.  It also blew both his ear drums.  (His eyesight would later be restored in the hospital aboard the aircraft carrier USS America and he has also regained some of his hearing.)

The torpedo strike killed twenty-five men outright and punched a forty-foot hole in Liberty‘s starboard side.  (Of five torpedos fired at Liberty, only one actually hit.)  Sgt. Lockwood was knocked to the deck.  He feared his life was over.  Then he felt something cold—sea water was gushing in through a split in a nearby bulkhead.  He struggled to his feet and heard someone behind him moan.  A sailor named Joe Lentini had been badly injured by a rocket blast and now lay pinned behind a section of the bulkhead split by the torpedo strike.  There was no light in the passageway save that filtering in through the gaping torpedo hole.  Adding to the misery of those trapped belowdecks, fuel bunkers had ruptured and heavy stinking fuel oil swam through the lower passageways.

Water continued to pour in, threatening to drown the trapped sailor.  Lockwood managed to free Lentini and moments later the entire passageway was flooded, leaving about eighteen inches of airspace below a deckhead crowded with pipes and conduits.  Liberty had lost her engines, had lost her “way” and thus her stability, and now slipped into the trough of the waves where she rolled at the mercy of the swell.  Lockwood spied an unconscious sailor drifting toward the torpedo hole.  He asked was Lentini okay and when he received a response in the affirmative, went after the unconscious sailor—who was about to be pulled out to sea.

Topside, burning napalm cooked off ammunition at the 50 caliber mounts.  Ennes writes: “Captain McGonagle was almost alone on the bridge when the torpedo struck.  His navigator was dead, the executive officer dying; the officer of the deck and the junior officer of the deck were both badly wounded and out of the action; the helmsman was wounded; the quartermaster dead; lookouts, messengers, signalmen, all were dead or wounded, all below, all away from the holocaust on the bridge.” (Assault on the Liberty at p. 104)

The three torpedo boats now circled Liberty, firing armor-piercing bullets at her waterline.  She listed heavily to starboard but in the estimation of Ensign John Scott, the vessel’s Damage Control Officer, the surveillance vessel was in no immediate danger of sinking—but she couldn’t handle another torpedo strike.

Belowdecks Lockwood struggled with the unconscious sailor.  The passageway was dark and filled with smoke and the ship kept rolling.  Lockwood tried to get the sailor to a ladderway leading topside but slipped and dropped him and again the ship rolled and again the sailor was in danger of being swept out to sea.  Lockwood, a deeply religious man who would later become an ordained minister, used a bad word.  He said: “Dammit.”

Lockwood retrieved the unconscious sailor and started back up the ladderway where the force of the torpedo blast had bent the railing, leaving a space some 16 inches wide to negotiate.  Again Lockwood dropped the sailor and again Lockwood retrieved him.  This time he made it past the bent railing and reached the hatch, only to find it sealed shut.  Lockwood lost his temper.  He struggled to keep the unconscious sailor’s head above water and started pounding on the hatch.  After a time a sailor heard his frantic blows and pulled the hatch open and both Lockwood and the man he carried emerged on deck.  Lockwood then turned to go back down.  The Sergeant has little memory of what happened next, but evidently he found yet another unconscious sailor and once again hauled the injured man up to the relative safety of the deck.  Then the hatch was closed and sealed.

Sgt. Lockwood genuinely believed Liberty was being attacked by Egyptians and figured once the ship was taken he’d likely spend years in an Egyptian POW camp, so he made his way to his locker and pulled out his extra pair of glasses and a copy of the New Testament.  Back on deck he was instructed to go to the radio room, which was on the port side of the ship and thus sheltered from the withering machine gun fire of the torpedo boats, which now lay off Liberty‘s starboard side.

Sailors, aware of Liberty‘s communication with the Sixth Fleet, loudly wondered when help would arrive.  Meantime, the order “Prepare to Abandon Ship” went out.  Lockwood recalls seeing sailors haul three life rafts through the radio room and a short time later heard diesel engines revving, followed by a burst of machine gun fire.  One of the sailors returned to the radio room and reported to the injured men housed there that the torpedo boats had strafed the life rafts as they floated next to the ship.  Interviewed for the Al Jazeera special When Israel Attacked America, Lt. Lloyd Painter stated: “I saw a motor torpedo boat—plainly Israeli—machine gunning our life rafts.”  In Assault on the Liberty Ennes writes:

Lurking lazily a few hundred yards away, patiently waiting for Liberty to sink, the men on the torpedo boats watched the orange rafts drop into the water.  [Petty Officer Thomas] Smith saw someone move on the center boat as her engine growled and her stern settled lower in the water.  The boat moved closer to Liberty.  When within good machine-gun range she opened fire on the empty life rafts, deflating two and cutting the line to the third, which floated away like a child’s balloon on the surface of the water.

Smith cursed helplessly as the torpedo boat stopped to take the raft aboard.  Then the boats added speed, taking the raft with them, and turned toward their base at Ashdod, sixty-five miles away. (p. 115)

Then came two Israeli assault helicopters packed with Israeli soldiers brandishing machine guns and hand grenades.  These aircraft were clearly marked with the Star of David.  Captain McGonagle gave the order to repel boarders.  According to Sgt. Lockwood, the soldiers on the two helicopters had one sole purpose—to go through the ship from stem to stern and kill every man still living.  But the helicopters made no attempt to land or to offload their deadly cargo and after a while they simply flew off.

Some time later a lone helicopter approached the stricken surveillance ship.  This one carried Commander Ernest Castle, the US Naval Attache at Tel Aviv.  He dropped a brown paper bag to the deck containing his card, on the back of which was written: Have you any casualties?  The bag landed next to the severed leg of a fallen sailor.  When Castle’s card was brought to the bridge, Captain McGonagle studied it a moment and raised his middle finger at the Naval Attache hovering overhead, who would subsequently report to the US Embassy that Liberty had suffered a single casualty.

The attack—that had lasted nearly two hours—finally ended and those still alive were out of danger, but help from the Sixth Fleet would not arrive for another sixteen hours.  Thirty-four men died that day aboard Liberty and another one hundred seventy-one were injured.  The life raft taken by the Israeli torpedo boat and the wheel of the torpedo boat that succeeded in hitting Liberty are on display at Israel’s National Maritime Museum in Haifa.  In Israel, those who participated in the attack are celebrated as national heroes.

Liberty veterans have a website at www.usslibertyveterans.org

Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com