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Remember The Liberty

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Israeli’s bombing was no accident

By Doug Thompson

Thirty-four U.S. sailors were killed when the U.S.S. Liberty was bombed, strafed and torpedoed off the coast of Egypt 32 years ago this month. 

Now we learn the U.S. government never believed the attack was an accident.

That’s not the biggest news that’s supposed to be in “The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship,” by James Scott. I was reading a short article on the book at the “Spytalk” blog at blogs.cqpolitics.com/spytalk/. Scott, whose father was a crewman on the Liberty, says in his book that Israeli air control twice told pilots attacking the ship that the vessel was probably American.

The controversy over whether the attack by Israeli forces was a terrible accident or deliberate has stewed for years. It will continue to boil because the U.S. government, in what can only be described as an act of moral cowardice, refused to get to the bottom of things. Records from Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration cited in the book and declassified more than 30 years after the incident show that Johnson didn’t want any more foreign policy problems while mired in Vietnam.

People who believe the attack was a accident ask the question: What motive could Israel possibly have to deliberately attack a U.S. Navy ship?

That’s a good question. The answer the other side gives is pretty simple. The Liberty was a spy ship that listened in on radio communications. The U.S. government was pressing for a cease-fire in the Six-Day War but Israel hadn’t taken the Golan Heights yet. Israel didn’t want the U.S. to listen in on the attack preparations. That’s the theory, anyway. Apparently, the fact that the Liberty had no Hebrew translators aboard made no difference.

My own bias is that I have a hard time believing that a slow old freighter bristling with a bunch of strange radio antennas can be mistaken for just about anything else. I know more than most about how pilots are notorious for very bad ship identification. For instance, there’s a story that a U.S. Navy pilot who was considered an expert on the subject reported a loose cargo barge as a Japanese carrier task force in the panicky days after Pearl Harbor. So let’s suppose my bias is wrong and the Israelis — on a clear day, 25 miles from the Egyptian coast — didn’t recognize the ship or see its American flag or assumed that the American flag was a trick. Yeah, I know the leader of the first strike of Israeli aircraft insists there was no flag. Every sailor on the Liberty insists there was. The whole issue of whether there was a flag flying begs the question, “Why not?”

So if this was a case of mistaken identity, then why didn’t the Israelis finish sinking the thing?

What we’re talking about here is a World War II mass-produced Victory ship merchantman crammed with radio gear and having more junk added to it than the Osborne house in Little Rock at Christmas. It’s an acknowledged miracle that the one modern torpedo that hit the ship didn’t sink it.

So let’s repeat: If the Israelis were sure enough that the ship was Egyptian, bomb it and then have patrol boats fire a torpedo into it, why not finish the job?

William McGonagle, captain of the Liberty, was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor for keeping his station despite severe wounds until he knew his ship was out of danger and every other wounded member of his crew received treatment first. 

Two things are unusual about his medal. 

It was the only time in modern times that the recipient of the nation’s highest award for gallantry was not presented by the president at the White House. McGonagle received the medal in a ceremony that had no prior public announcement at the Washington Navy Yard from the Secretary of the Navy, a position that wasn’t even in the cabinet any more.

 The other unusual thing is that the award is presented for valor “while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” McGonagle deserved honor, but the attack where he earned it was never acknowledged to be more than a blunder by a friend of ours.

Truth is precious. It should have been seized quickly. Instead, the Liberty incident remains an open wound for more than three decades, thanks to a “see no evil” attitude.

Seeing no evil when 34 men died and another 170 were wounded is quite a feat.

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