The Liberty was originally a cargo ship called the SS Simmons Victory that was used at the end of WWII by the War Shipping Administration to deliver ammunition for the invasion of Japan. After the war, the Simmons spent years bouncing around from the National Defense Reserve Fleet and various commercial charters. In 1963 the United States Navy took possession of the Simmons, and on June 8th of that year, it was renamed the USS Liberty. Initially the ship was given the hull number AG-168, but it was later reclassified as a Technical Research Ship and given the new hull number AGTR-5. The ship was officially commissioned in December of 1964 at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
In 1965, the Liberty was sent to Norfolk to be equipped with some various communications equipment to prepare it before being deployed on a mission off the coast of Africa in June. A couple years later, in June of 1967, the Liberty was sent to the Eastern Mediterranean to perform signal intelligence collection. The Six-Day War had started in early June between Israel and other Arab states, and the USS Liberty was passing through international waters North of Sinai Peninsula. The crew did not have much worries about the conflict, as the United States was not directly involved and their vessel was clearly marked.
Around 2pm on June 8th, two Mirage III fighter jets flown by Israeli Air Force pilots dove down towards the USS Liberty and began strafing the ship with 30-mm cannons and rocket fire. The attack left 8 Americans dead and over 70 more wounded, in addition to the damage done to the ship. The commander of the ship, Captain William L. McGonagle, was wounded, but he was still able to call out for urgent help from the US Sixth Fleet. The radio transmissions were blocked and prolonged any thought of a rescue attempt.
When the two Mirage fighters had expended their ammunition, they left the area and were replaced by two Dassault Super Mystères armed with napalm bombs. The two planes dropped the napalm bombs on the deck of the ship and strafed the ship with cannon fire. They began to circle around to drop more napalm, when the Israeli chief air controller radioed them to hold fire. The Liberty had not returned fire throughout the entire encounter, and he was worried it may be a friendly ship. One of the planes made a close fly-by and saw the GTR-5 marking, hinting to them that the ship was American.
The two Mystères eventually left the ship and a short while later, a group of Israeli torpedo boats closed in on the Liberty. As the boats got close, Captain McGonagle ordered one of the gun positions to open fire. Just after issuing this order, the Captain thought he saw one of the ships flying an Israeli flag, and he quickly ordered the men to hold their fire. The crewman at gun mount 51 did not immediately get the message, and he let out a short burst, blanketing the center Israeli vessel. With these shots fired, the torpedo boats responded by launching an all-out attack, firing cannons and several torpedoes. Captain McGonagle skillfully avoided all but one of the torpedoes, which blasted a hole near the waterline on the ship. Over 20 men were killed in the explosion from the torpedo impact and the ship began taking on water. When men began attempting to evacuate the ship, there were claims that the Israeli ships even killed sailors as they tried to launch life rafts and evacuate the ship.
After the attack, the men managed to limp the ship back to port. Of the 294 men aboard the Liberty, there were 34 Americans killed and over 170 wounded. The ship was damaged beyond repair and was eventually scrapped in 1973. Both the government of the United States and Israel came to the conclusion that the attack was caused by Israel mistakenly identifying the US ship as an Egyptian destroyer. The Israeli government issued an apology and paid a little over $6 million to compensate the families of the dead and wounded and another $6 million for damage to the ship. The way the story is written above is how it was reported, but there are many individuals and survivors that believe the attack was planned and had a motive behind it. There are some men that claim Israeli reconnaissance planes had flown over hours before the attack, some even close enough that they waved at the Americans as they flew by. Many veterans of the Liberty have made these claims and ask for the government to acknowledge the truth, but as of now they have stuck to the original story.
If you are interested in reading more about this incident, I encourage you to do a quick search online as there is quite a bit of info out there!
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5 thoughts on “The History of the USS Liberty”
Dumber than a mud fence to think she was a destroyer. :p
I was close to re-enlistment and wanted submarine duty. My 1st set of orders were for the Liberty then order to the Pueblo finally I got orders for submarine duty.
The Commanding Officer of the USS Liberty Capt. McGonagle (then LCDR) was my NROTC Naval History Professor at the University of Idaho – 1958/59. Bernard F. Rash, LCDR, USNR (hd)
The cover up was just as horrific as the attack itself. Served aboard the USS JAMESTOWN AGTR 3 Oct.68-69 off the coast of Nam.
I served in ’70, with a MM1c who was on the Liberty that day. He said that they broke out the Sunday Flag and hoisted it! That was the largest flag aboard. They knew….
The Captain refused treatment for his wounds until the crew were treated. He was awarded the MOH sort of secretly!