While patrolling in international waters in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was suddenly attacked without warning by air and naval forces of the state of Israel. During the ensuing battle, out of a crew of 294 officers and men (including three civilians), the ship suffered 34 killed in action and 173 wounded. The ship itself, a Forty Million ($40,000,000) Dollar ship converted as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform, was so badly damaged that it never sailed on an operational mission again and was sold in 1970 for $101,666.66 as scrap.
That morning the ship was over flown by several Israeli recognizance aircraft, one passing so low that the pilot and the ships crew waved at each other. The ships ensign (an over sized American Flag) was flying from the ships mast and remained there throughout the following engagement. At 1400 hours, while approximately 17 nautical miles off the northern Sinai coast and about 25 nautical miles northwest of El Arish, the USS Liberty’s crew observed three surface radar contacts closing with their position at high speed. A few moments later, the bridge radar crew observed high speed aircraft on the same heading. Within a few short moments, and without any warning, Israeli fighter aircraft launched a rocket attack on USS Liberty. The aircraft made repeated firing passes, attacking USS Liberty with rockets and cannon fire. After the first flight of fighter aircraft had exhausted their ordnance, subsequent flights of Israeli fighter aircraft continued to prosecute the attack with rockets, cannon fire, and napalm.
During the air attack, USS Liberty’s crew had difficulty contacting their fleet command (Sixth Fleet) to request assistance due to intense communications jamming. They were eventually able to get through and request assistance. A flight of fighters was launched to provide air cover. Within minutes, the White House contacted the fleet commander and recalled this flight, without explanation.
The initial targets on the ship were the command bridge, communications antennas, and the only armament, four .50 caliber machine guns, placed on the ship to repel boarders.
After the Israeli fighter aircraft completed their attacks, three Israeli torpedo boats arrived and began a surface attack about 35 minutes after the start of the air attack. The torpedo boats launched five torpedoes, one of which struck the side of USS Liberty, opposite the ship’s research spaces. Twenty-five Americans, in addition to the nine who had been killed in the earlier air attacks, were killed because of this explosion.
Within hours of this attack, the Israeli government filed an official apology with the U.S. State Department saying that the incident was a tragic accident and that the ship had been misidentified as an Egyptian coastal freighter (the incident occurred right after the start of the 1967 Israeli/Egyptian War). Israel later paid a little over three million dollars to the families of the sailors who lost their lives and another 3 million dollars to the wounded crewmen. They also paid the U.S. government 6 million dollars for the damages sustained by the ship. The ship's Commanding Officer, wounded in the air attack, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and many members of the crew received medals and Purple Hearts for their part in the action. They were then transferred and ordered not to discuss details of the attack with anyone on pain of imprisonment. At least 2 of them have subsequently left the military and written books about the attack but report having great difficulty getting the books published or widely distributed.
Congress refused to investigate the incident and an investigation started by the Navy Department was canceled by order of the President (Lyndon Johnson), again without explanation. Nevertheless, the CIA issued a report on it the following year. The CIA reported that they had intercepted communications between the Israeli forces attacking the USS Liberty and their command center. Both the flight leader and the torpedo boat commander told their command centers that the ship was flying the American Flag from its mast and had American identification markings clearly painted on the hull. They both, at separate times, broke off their attacks only to be ordered to re-engage.
Why did the Israeli Defense Forces attack the ship in international waters and continue to attack even after they were informed by their own officers that is was an American ship, part of the naval forces of their closest ally? I do not know. The Israeli Forces are far too professional to blame this on gross incompetence or accept the misidentification explanation. I have read a dozen separate theories. One prominent theory was that the Israelis were attempting to sink the ship in hope of blaming it on the Egyptians and thereby bring the United States into the war on their side. The theory that sounds most plausible to me was that the Israeli government was purposefully trying to keep the United States from knowing the details and the extent of their operations against Egypt in the Sinai in an attempt to delay any US intervention. Whatever the reason, it remains a stain on the honor of everyone involved except for the gallant crew who did their duty and defended their ship so valiantly.
Live Long and Prosper....