Built for World War II, the USS Liberty helped transport goods as a cargo ship. Following the war, it served a new purpose as an auxiliary ship to support the National Security Agency. While they built it for tough situations, one incident led to it ultimate demise.

Ready for a war

Tensions between Israel and its neighboring countries exploded during the ’60s. On June 5, 1967, Israel launched attacks on Egypt, which kicked off the Six-Day War. While this was going on, the United States was watching it all unfold. Prior to the attacks, they already sent the USS Liberty on a mission in Egypt. When the attacks began, they tried telling the ship to move several miles from the area. Unfortunately, they never got the message because of bad frequency. Liberty Captain William L. McGonagle wanted some assistance on their journey. They asked for a destroyer to join them as a backup. To their surprise, Vice Admiral William I. Martin shut down the request. “Liberty is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation. Request denied,” he said.

Wrong place, wrong time

On June 7, 1967, the war was heavily underway, and the Pentagon was concerned for the USS Liberty. They asked the ship to withdraw from the region, but that request didn’t go through the radio. The ship was unknowingly sailing into disaster. The next day, Israel mistook USS Liberty for an Egyptian ship. After some careful planning, they opened fire on USS Liberty. McGonagle was surprised with the attacks from both sea and air. In retaliation, he attempted to fire back until he noticed an Israeli flag on battleships. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to convince them of their errors. The ships’ torpedoes tore a 40-foot hole through USS Liberty and killed 25 people on board. Upon discovering who they attacked, Israel tried to help out the USS Liberty. Their helping hand was turned away by McGonagle. While they severely damaged the boat, the remaining crew helped push it back home.

When the dust settles

President Lyndon B. Johnson was appalled by what transpired that day. Israeli ambassador Avraham Harman was grilled for the reckless encounter. “Accordingly, there is every reason to believe that the U.S.S. Liberty was or should have been identified, or at least her nationality determined, prior to the attack. In these circumstances, the later military attack by Israeli aircraft on the U.S.S. Liberty is quite literally incomprehensible. As a minimum, the attack must be condemned as an act of military irresponsibility reflecting a reckless disregard for human life,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk said in a statement. The incident led to seven different investigations, including one in 1981. The remaining parts of USS Liberty were sold as scrap metal.

A year after the attack, McGonagle earned the Medal of Honor for his actions. “Steadfastly refusing any treatment which would take him away from his post, he calmly continued to exercise firm command of his ship. Despite continuous exposure to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Captain McGonagle’s extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of the Liberty’s crew, many of them seriously wounded, to heroic efforts to overcome the battle damage and keep the ship afloat,” his citation stated.

Over the years, there have been some minor developments in the story. Many newly-released quotes have stated Israel intentionally attacked U.S.S. Liberty. As expected, folks present during the event have denied this revelation. Over 50 years since the incident, it’s still a touchy subject in certain circles.