What would your reaction be if our oldest ally, Great Britain, attacked a lightly armed US military vessel with overwhelming force: a stunning array of jet fighters, bombs, missiles, machine gun fire and torpedoes? And further, once the ship was nearly sinking, attacked lifeboats in the water, spraying them with a hail of deadly fire from attack boats and strafing runs by jets?
What would your reaction be to a final butcher's bill of 34 US sailors dead and 171 grievously wounded? Would Americans of an earlier era have filled the coffers of Great Britain with treasure as a reward for such a perfidious act?
What would your reaction be if you were told that such an attack was not carried out by Great Britain, but by our staunchest ally Israel, supposedly the only democracy in the Middle East?
Sadly, this is not fiction. Rather than being the plot line of a Tom Clancy techno thriller it is a very real piece of horrific military history from the 1967 Middle East war.
On June 8th of 1967, the U.S.S. Liberty was patrolling a few miles off the Sinai peninsula. It was tasked with gathering information regarding Soviet troops and technology in use by Egypt, at that time a client state of the U.S.S.R. This was not a furtive mission, carried out by some stealth-cloaked intruder. The Liberty, commanded by Captain William Loren McGonagle, was clearly in international waters and clearly marked as a US flag ship, prominently flying Old Glory from its mast.
This was the fourth day of the "Six Day War", when Israel had decidedly won the conflict and was engaged in driving its enemies from Israeli borders and occupying Arab territory as spoils of war. At this point, Israel had virtually no air opposition and had never faced any significant naval forces. They were in total control of the Sinai peninsula.
Ominously, Israeli military jet fighters circled closer and closer to the Liberty. Close enough that the crew on deck could see the Star of David markings on the jets and exchange waves with the Israeli pilots. Liberty radio operators intercepted transmissions from the circling warplanes where the identity of the US ship was discussed, confirmed and radioed back to military controllers in Tel Aviv.
At 1400, the Israelis struck! A simultaneous attack by a flight of fighter jets streaking from Tel Aviv and torpedo boats racing from over the horizon plunged the Liberty into a withering barrage of rockets, cannon fire, machine gun fire and torpedoes. Stunned and defenseless, the Liberty's only hope was support from the Sixth Fleet, located in the Mediterranean, 30 minutes away by jet. But the Israeli Mirage jet fighters had apparently successfully disabled the Liberty's radios.
Midway through the attack, heroic Liberty sailors managed to establish emergency communications with Sixth Fleet flagship, U.S.S. America. The America launched F4 Phantoms to race to the Liberty's defense, but amazingly, Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara ordered the rescue canceled. The American fighter jets were ordered to land and the Liberty and its men were left to die off the Sinai peninsula.
Miraculously, Captain McGonagle and his crew were able to recover our wounded sailors from the warm and bloody waters of the Sinai and somehow during a period when the Israeli attack paused, move the stricken Liberty back towards the protective arms of the Sixth Fleet. Captain McGonagle later received the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during this dastardly and cowardly attack.
The questions remain:
1. Why did the Israelis attack? Why did a putative ally of the United States perpetrate such a horrendous attack on a lightly armed US intelligence ship that posed no threat?
2. Why did Viet Nam war criminal, Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara order the rescue canceled?
3. Why did the Johnson administration cover the attack up? As to why the Israelis attacked, shocking new allegations have emerged.
James Bamford, an investigative journalist and a former producer with ABC News, in his book Body of Secrets, claims that the Israelis were attempting to cover up a war crime - the massacre over 400 Egyptian P.O.W.'s at the Sinai town of El Arish. Israel may well have thought the Liberty had gained Sigint (signal intelligence) proving Israeli military forces guilty of this bloody deed. Sadly, given Israeli military doctrine and practices against the Palestinians, these allegations are only too easy to believe.
Questions two and three probably have the same answer. The so-called "Amen Corner", the powerful Israeli lobby that wields enormous power to this day in the halls of Congress and the Executive Branch and notably in the American print and broadcast media.
Unfortunately, the story of the U.S.S. Liberty has never been widely disseminated. Had such an attack been perpetrated by any other country, especially a country widely regarded as a respected ally, it would have resulted in the gravest of consequences -- perhaps even war. Given this past atrocity and the current Israeli policy against stone-throwing Palestinian children, it's amazing that we still give billions of dollars in foreign aid to Israel yearly and make ourselves targets for the rising tides of Islamic nationalists worldwide.
Jeff Elkins is a freelance consultant and writer living in North Central Florida. His personal website is located at http://www.elkins.org