Note: I published this piece a long time ago. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this event – which is tomorrow – I am reposting this one and another Liberty post from days gone by.
I have finished reading James Scott’s gripping book: The Attack on the USS Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship. I have posted some quotes from the book of passages that for one reason or another I find particularly meaningful.
(You can get the book here.)
“Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
(From a Navy Hymn and with which James Scott begins his book.)
1. McGonagle also couldn’t let go. He refused to throw out notes that detailed with clinical precision how each of his men died: “Blast injury to the brain,” “Multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds,” “Basal skull fracture.” He also clung to copies of the letters he wrote to the wives and parents of the dead, letters he wept over as he composed them in a hotel room in Malta days after the attack.
Over the years, many of President Lyndon Johnson’s former advisors-including the directors of the CIA, NSA, and State Department-acknowledged what many in the intelligence community secretly believed for years: the attack was no accident. But McGonagle would not live long enough to learn some of the darker secrets, including how senior American officials had contemplated sinking his ship at sea to block reporters from photographing the damage and sparking public outrage against Israel. (page 5)
2. Painter pressed the phone to his ear. Twice he tried to raise the gunners, but failed. His frustration mounted. The jets bore down on the ship. On the third try, Painter reached them. “Gun mounts 51 and 52.” Painter watched as the fighters dropped out of the sky before he could complete his sentence. He had no time to warn the men-kids really, he would later say. The guntubs vanished in a cloud of smoke and metal, the sailors blown apart with such force that friends could identify one only by his St. Christopher necklace. The explosion happened so fast that Painter would later tell the investigating board that he couldn’t determine whether the fighters hit the starboard or the port gun first. He now stared at the charred machine guns, the phone still clutched in his hands. (pages 46-47)
3. An injured sailor on a table in the mess deck below turned to Seaman George Wilson and told him he was scared. The sailor asked Wilson, injured and stretched out on a table beside him, to pray for them. “Praise be God,” Wilson began as sailors on nearby tables joined him. “All are his servants, and all abide by his bidding!” (page 70)
4. More than two dozen lawmakers in the Senate and House–many from states with large Jewish populations, such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut–took the floor the day of the attack to applaud Israel for its stunning war effort. Others rallied for emergency economic aid, urged America to reinforce its commitment to the Jewish state, and argued that Israel should be allowed to keep the territories it captured in recent days. One senator even inserted Abba Eban’s June 6 speech before the U.N. Security Council into the Congressional Record. But the laudatory speeches came even as American sailors aboard the Liberty struggled to put out fires, stop bleeding, and prevent the ship from sinking.(pages 103-104)
5. That residual hostility soon dissipated when at 3:20 P.M. one of the rally organizers climbed on a platform and announced that Egypt had accepted a cease-fire. The crowd roared. Thousands sang “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. The sudden emotional outpouring even moved reporters covering the event. “We were all Jews in the park,” observed columnist Mary McGrory of the Evening Star. “Instant Israelization is occurring all over.” (page 107)
6. Kiepfer sank in defeat. There was nothing he could do to save Blanchard from bleeding to death. The doctor pressed packs over the open ends of Blanchards major blood vessels to slow the bleeding, then he and his assistant stitched up the incision. The men gave him a final dose of anesthetic to ease his suffering. Blanchard’s blood pressure dropped. The men gathered around to watch as the twenty-year-old sailor stared at the lights above. His breathing grew labored. At approximately 3 A.M. he died.
Kiepfer pulled off his surgical gloves and ordered the corpsman to retrieve a body bag and haul Blanchard’s remains to the ship’s refrigerator. The doctor collapsed on the red vinyl couch in the corner of the wardroom. Thirteen hours had passed since the attack. He wondered where the helicopters and the extra doctors were. Why had no one arrived to help? How had he, an inexperienced doctor who had never completed a surgical residency, been left alone to tackle such an operation? (page 118)
7. Other sailors voiced the disbelief many felt about Israel’s explanation that the attack had been a tragic accident. Sitting at the rectangular table in hte wordroom where thirty-six hours earlier he had held down Seamn Gary Blanchard during surgery, Scott detailed his views in a five-page letter to his parents. “I don’t see how they made a mistake,” hte officer wrote. “It was too well planned & coordinated. They knew exactly where to hit us and they did.” (pages 149-150)
8. “It was no help if you had a lot of people getting angry at the Israelis,” recalled Katzenback. “If the Israelis screw up the relations, then the Jewish groups are going to bail out the Israelis. It ends up with you having a more difficult situation than you would have otherwise.” (page 166)
9. The embassy turned to Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, a close friend of Johnson’s, and Washington lawyer David Ginsburg–referred to in Israeli documents as “Ilan” and “Harari” respectively–for advice and to help pressure the president. (page 196)
10. “Authorized to sink her?” asked one of the controllers.
“You can sink her.” Kislev ordered, asking a minute later for a report on the pilot’s progress in the attack. “Is he screwing her?”
“He’s going down on her with napalm all the time, replied another controller.
. . . Another [pilot] quipped that to sink the Liberty before the torpedo boats arrived would be a “mitzvah.” “Oil is spilling out into the water,” one pilot excalimed. “Great! Wonderful! She’s burning! She’s burning!” (page 216)
11. Soon after her husband’s burial in Arlington, Weetie Armstrong wrote a letter to the crew. “Your lost your XO and I lost my husband but we were fortunate to have been a part of his life. I know all of you prayed and did what you could for him in his last hours and for this I thank you. I don’t understand why God chose to take Philip but I accept God’s will. This was His plan for Philip. My children and I are fine. Of course our future looks a bit dim but God will give us the strength to take life a day at a time,” she wrote. “I’m not going to make any definite plans until I have some time to think. In any case please feel free to call on me and my children when you are home again. May God bless and keep all of you safe. My prayers are with you.” (pages 247-248)
12. Ignatious turned to McGonagle afterward. The secretary of the Navy, against a backdrop of whirring cameras, placed the Medal of Honor around the skipper’s neck. The five-pointed gold star, suspended from a blue ribbon, rested just beneath McGonagle’s chin. The son of a sharecropper-turned-janitor, the man who had guided his ship to safety by the North Star, lowered his head and wept. (page 281)