They Dare to Speak Out
by Paul Findley
Lawrence Hill & Company, Westport, Connecticut, 1985, pp. 165-179
ALTHOUGH Israel's lobby seems able at will to penetrate our nation's strongest defenses in order to gain the secret information it wishes, when the lobby's objective is keeping such information secret, our defenses suddenly become impenetrable.
After seventeen years, James M. Ennes Jr., a retired officer of the U.S. Navy, is still having difficulty prying loose documents which shed light on the worst peacetime disaster in the history of our Navy. In this quest, he has encountered resistance by the Department of Defense, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the book publishing industry, the news media, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The resistance, seemingly coordinated on an international scale, is especially perplexing because Ennes' goal is public awareness of an episode of heroism and tragedy at sea which is without precedent in American history.
As the result of a program of concealment supported by successive governments in both Israel and the United States, hardly anyone remembers the miraculous survival of the USS Liberty after a devastating assault by Israeli forces on June 8, 1967, left 34 sailors dead, 171 injured, and the damaged ship adrift with no power, rudder or means of communication.
The sustained courage of Captain William L. McGonagle and his crew in these desperate circumstances earned the Liberty a place of honor in the annals of the U.S. Navy. [Obituary of McGonagle] But, despite energetic endeavors, including those of Ennes, McGonagle's officer of the deck that day, the entries remain dim and obscure. Ennes's stirring book-length account of the attack, Assault on the Liberty, itself continues to be under heavy assault five years after publication.
The episode and its aftermath were so incredible that Admiral Thomas L. Moorer, who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a month after the attack, observes, "If it was written as fiction, nobody would believe it."
Certain facts are clear. The attack was no accident. The Liberty was assaulted in broad daylight by Israeli forces who knew the ship's identity. The Liberty, an intelligence-gathering ship, had no combat capability and carried only light machine guns for defense. A steady breeze made its U.S. flag easily visible. The assault occurred over a period of nearly two hours-first by air, then torpedo boat. The ferocity of the attacks left no doubt: the Israeli forces wanted the ship and its crew destroyed.
The public, however, was kept in the dark. Even before the American public learned of the attack, U.S. government officials began to promote an account satisfactory to Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee worked through Congressmen to keep the story under control. The President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, ordered and led a cover-up so thorough that sixteen years after he left office, the episode was still largely unknown to the public -- and the men who suffered and died have gone largely unhonored.
The day of the attack began in routine fashion, with the ship first proceeding slowly in an easterly direction in the eastern Mediterranean, later following the contour of the coastline westerly about fifteen miles off the Sinai Peninsula. On the mainland, Israeli forces were winning smashing victories in the third Arab-Israeli war in nineteen years. Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, announcing that the Israelis had taken the entire Sinai and broken the blockade on the Strait of Tiran, declared: "The Egyptians are defeated." On the eastern front the Israelis had overcome Jordanian forces and captured most of the West Bank.
At 6 a.m. an airplane, identified by the Liberty crew as an Israeli Noratlas, circled the ship slowly and departed. This procedure was repeated periodically over an eight-hour period. At 9 a.m. a jet appeared at a distance, then left. At 10 a.m., two rocket-armed jets circled the ship three times. They were close enough for their pilots to be observed through binoculars. The planes were unmarked. An hour later the Israeli Noraltas returned, flying not more than 200 feet directly above the Liberty and clearly marked with the Star of David. The ship's crew members and the pilot waved at each other. This plane returned every few minutes until 1 p.m. By then, the ship had changed course and was proceeding almost due west.At 2:00 p.m. all hell broke loose. Three Mirage fighter planes headed straight for the Liberty, their rockets taking out the forward machine guns and wrecking the ship's antennae. The Mirages were joined by Mystère fighters, which dropped napalm on the bridge and deck and repeatedly strafed the ship. The attack continued for over 20 minutes. In all, the ship sustained 821 holes in her sides and decks. Of these, more than 100 were rocket size.
As the aircraft departed, three torpedo boats took over the attack, firing five torpedoes, one of which tore a 40-foot hole in the hull, killing 25 sailors. The ship was in flames, dead in the water, listing precariously, and taking water. The crew was ordered to prepare to abandon ship. As iife-rafts were lowered into the water, the torpedo boats moved closer and shot them to pieces. One boat concentrated machine-gun fire on rafts still on deck as crew members there tried to extinguish the napalm fires. Petty Officer Charles Rowley declares, "They didn't want anyone to live."
At 3:15 p.m. the last shot was fired, leaving the vessel a combination morgue and hospital. The ship had no engines, no power, no rudder. Fearing further attack, Captain McGonagle, despite severe leg injuries, stayed at the bridge. An Israeli helicopter, its open bay door showing troops in battle gear and a machine gun mounted in an open doorway, passed close to the deck, then left. Other aircraft came and went during the next hour.
Although U.S. air support never arrived, within fifteen minutes of the first attack and more than an hour before the assault ended, fighter planes from the USS Saratoga were in the air ready for a rescue mission under orders "to destroy or drive off any attackers." The carrier was only 30 minutes away, and, with a squadron of fighter planes on deck ready for a routine operation, it was prepared to respond almost instantly.
But the rescue never occurred. Without approval by Washington, the planes could not take aggressive action, even to rescue a U.S. ship confirmed to be under attack. Admiral Donald Fagen, then captain of the America, the second U.S. carrier in the vicinity, later explained: "President Johnson had very strict control. Even though we knew the Liberty was under attack, I couldn't just go and order a rescue." The planes were hardly in the air when the voice of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was heard over Sixth Fleet radios: "Tell the Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately." They were to have no part in destroying or driving off the attackers.
Shortly after 3 p.m., nearly an hour after the Liberty 's plea was first heard, the White House gave momentary approval to a rescue mission and planes from both carriers were launched. At almost precisely the same instant, the Israeli government informed the U.S. naval attaché, in Tel Aviv that its forces had "erroneously attacked a U.S. ship" after mistaking it for an Egyptian vessel, and offered "abject apologies." With apology in hand, Johnson once again ordered U.S. aircraft back to their carriers. When the second launch occurred, there were no Israeli forces to "destroy or drive away." Ahead for the Liberty and its ravaged crew were 15 hours of lonely struggle to keep the wounded alive and the vessel afloat. Not until dawn of the next day would the Liberty see a U.S. plane or ship. The only friendly visit was from a small Soviet warship. Its offer of help was declined, but the Soviets said they would stand by in case need should arise.
The next morning two U.S. destroyers arrived with medical and repair assistance. Soon the wounded were transferred to the carrier hospital by helicopter. The battered ship then proceeded to Malta, where a Navy court of inquiry was to be held. The inquiry itself was destined to be a part of an elaborate program to keep the public from knowing what really had happened.
In fact, the cover-up began almost at the precise moment that the Israeli assault ended. The apology from Israeli officials reached the White House moments after the last gun fired at the Liberty . President Johnson accepted and publicized the condolences of Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, even though information readily available showed the Israeli account to be false. The CIA had learned a day before the attack that the Israelis planned to sink the ship. Congressional comments largely echoed the president's interpretation of the assault, and the nation was caught up in euphoria over Israel's stunning victories over the Arabs. The casualties on the Liberty got scant attention. Smith Hempstone, foreign correspondent for the Washington Star, wrote from Tel Aviv, "In a week since the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty not one single Israeli of the type which this correspondent encounters many times daily-cab drivers, censors, bartenders, soldiers -- has bothered to express sorrow for the deaths of these Americans."
The Pentagon staved off reporters' inquiries with the promise of a "comprehensive statement" once the official inquiry, conducted by Admiral Isaac Kidd, was finished. Kidd gave explicit orders to the crew: "Answer no questions. If somehow you are backed into a corner, then you may say that it was an accident and that Israel has apologized. You may say nothing else." Crew members were assured they could talk freely to reporters once the summary of the court of inquiry was made public. This was later modified; they were then ordered not to provide information beyond the precise words of the published summary.
The court was still taking testimony when a charge that the attack had been deliberate appeared in the U.S. press. An Associated Press story filed from Malta reported that "senior crewmen" on the ship were convinced the Israelis knew the ship was American before they attacked. "We were flying the Stars and Stripes and it's absolutely impossible that they shouldn't know who we were," a crew member said. The Navy disputed the story, saying the U.S. "thoroughly accepted the Israeli apology."
Testimony completed, Admiral Kidd handcuffed himself to a huge box of records and flew to Washington to be examined by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral McDonald, as well as by Congressional leaders before the long-awaited summary statement was issued. When finally released, it was far from comprehensive. It made no attempt to fix blame, focusing almost entirely on the actions of the crew.
The censored summary did not reveal that the ship had been under close aerial surveillance by Israel for hours before the attack and that during the preceding 24 hours Israel had repeatedly warned U.S. autborities to move the Liberty. It contained nothing to dispute the notion of mistaken identity. The Navy reported erroneously that the attack lasted only 6 minutes instead of 70 minutes and asserted falsely that all firing stopped when the torpedo boats came close enough to identify the U.S. flag. The Navy made no mention of napalm or of life-rafts being shot up. It even suppressed records of the strong breeze which made the ship's U.S. flag plainly visible.
The report did make one painful revelation: Before the attack the Joint Chiefs of Staff had ordered the Liberty to move further from the coast, but the message "was misrouted, delayed and not received until after the attack."
Several newspapers criticized the Pentagon's summary. The New York Times said it "leaves a good many questions unanswered." The Washington Star used the word "cover-up," called the summary an "affront" and demanded a deeper and wider probe. Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, after a closed briefing by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, called the episode "very embarrassing." The Star concluded: "Whatever the meaning of this, embarrassment is no excuse for disingenuousness."
In early July, the Associated Press quoted Micha Limor, identified as an Israeli reservist who had served on one of the torpedo boats, as saying that Israeli sailors noticed three numbers as they circled the Liberty but insisted the numbers meant nothing to them.
Lieutenant James M. Ennes, Jr., a cypher officer recovering in a hospital from shrapnel wounds, was incredulous when he read the Limor story. He had been officer of the deck. He knew the ship's name appeared in large letters on the stern and the hull number on the bow. He knew also that a breeze made the Stars and Stripes easily visible during the day. He had ordered a new 5-by-8 foot flag displayed early on the day of the attack. By the time the torpedo boats arrived, the original flag had been shot down but an even larger 7-by-13 foot flag was mounted in plain view from a yardarm. He knew that the attackers, whether by air or surface, could not avoid knowing it was a U.S. ship. Above all else, he knew that Liberty's intercept operators had heard the Israeli reconnaissance pilots correctly reporting to Israeli headquarters that the ship was American.
Disturbed by the Limor story and the exchange of public messages concerning the assault, Ennes determined to unravel the story. During the four months he was bedridden at Portsmouth, United Kingdom, he collected information from his shipmates. Later, while stationed in Germany, he recorded the recollections of other crew members. Transferred to Washington, D.C., he secured government reports under the Freedom of Information Act and also obtained the full Court of Inquiry report, which was finally, after nine years, declassified in 1976 from being top secret.
The result was Ennes's book, Assault on the Liberty, published in 1980, two years after he retired from the Navy. Ennes discovered "shallowness" in the court's questioning, its failure to "follow up on evidence that the attack was planned in advance" -- including evidence that radio interceptions from two stations heard an Israeli pilot identify the ship as American. He said the court, ignoring the ship's log, which recorded a steady breeze blowing and confirming testimony from crewmen, concluded erroneously that attackers may not have been able to identify the flag's nationality, because the flag, according to the court, "hung limp at the mast on a windless day."Concerning Israeli motives for the attack, Ennes wrote that Israeli officials may have decided to destroy the ship because they feared its sensitive listening devices would detect Israeli plans to invade Syria's Golan Heights. (Israel invaded Syria the day after the Liberty attack, despite Israel's earlier acceptance of a ceasefire with its Arab foes.)
Ennes learned that crewmen sensed a cover-up even while the court was taking testimony at Malta. He identified George Golden, the Liberty's engineering officer and acting commanding officer, as the source of the Associated Press story charging that the attack was deliberate. Golden, who is Jewish, was so outraged at the prohibition against talking with reporters that he ignored it -- risking his future career in the Navy to rescue a vestige of his country's honor.
The American embassy at Tel Aviv relayed to Washington the only fully detailed Israeli account of the attack-the Israeli court of inquiry report known as "Israeli Preliminary Inquiry 1/67." The embassy message also contained the recommendation that, at the request of the Israeli government, it not be released to the American people. Ennes believes this is probably because both governments knew the mistaken identity excuse was too transparent to believe.
Another request for secrecy was delivered by hand to Eugene Rostow, undersecretary of state for political affairs. It paralleled the message from the embassy at Tel Aviv imploring the Department of State to keep the Israeli court of inquiry secret because "the circumstances of the attack [if the version outlined in the file is to be believed] strip the Israeli Navy naked." Although Ennes saw that message in an official file in 1977, by 1984 it had vanished from all known official files. Ennes believes Israeli officials decided to make the Israeli Navy the scapegoat in the controversy. With the blame piled on its Navy, the orphan service that has the least clout in Israel's military hierarchy, Israel then asked the U.S. to keep the humiliation quiet. United States officials agreed not to release the text of the Israeli report.
[see Part II]