The Attack on the Spy Ship USS Liberty – When Israel Attacked America

USS Liberty
USS Liberty

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel had established itself as a force to be reckoned with and a state that was here to stay. The hatred between Israel and its neighboring Arab nations kept on mounting in the following years and led to a number of armed conflicts from time to time. One of these, which had a significant impact on the region’s politics was the 1967 Arab-Israeli War or the Six Day War.

The US has been a longtime ally of the state of Israel and even before its creation provided a major platform for Jewish leaders like David Ben-Gurion for advocating their opinions. After the end of WW2, Europe was busy in reconstructing itself out of the ruins, and the US and Russia were the only two superpowers left.

The US, in order to establish its global dominance stationed its military bases all over the country. Obviously, having a military base in every ally’s territory wasn’t feasible, therefore, special emphasis was placed on the development of a comprehensive network of naval vessels. The naval vessels weren’t limited to destroyers, cruisers or aircraft carriers but in fact were composed of state-of-the-art surveillance and spying ships.

One such ship was the USS Liberty, a Belmont class research ship commissioned on the 1st December 1964. In the month of February 1965, the USS Liberty was sent to the West Coast for installation of sensitive equipment, as requested by the NSA. A total of $20 million were spent on the equipment which was designed to intercept foreign communications & other electronic emissions that were of interest to the US’s national defense.

In June, Liberty was deployed somewhere in West Africa where she carried out several operations over the next two years. From there, she entered the Eastern part of Mediterranean Sea when Arab-Israeli tensions had reached unprecedented levels.

USS Liberty
USS Liberty

The USS Liberty had docked in international waters at a certain distance from both Egypt’s and Israel’s territorial waters performing signal intelligence missions. As the war broke out, her safety became a concern to the US Command as the ship wasn’t equipped with any heavy defensive equipment, so its range from both the countries’ territorial waters’ was increased to 100 nautical miles.

While the war raged between Israel and a plethora of Arab countries, the Liberty was transmitting information it had “caught” back to NSA bases for further processing. It is often stated by Israeli media, that IDF Chief of Staff at the time, General Yitzhak Rabin, had informed the American Naval Attache in Tel Aviv that any unidentified ship within Israel’s territorial waters would be regarded as hostile and sunk if necessary.

After the war had broken out, Liberty had repeatedly asked for defensive support from Vice Admiral of the US Sixth Fleet so that an armed escort would be available at all times. However, the request was denied as the Vice Admiral cited that the Liberty was in International waters and the US was not taking sides with either Israel or the Arabs. Just in case, though, the Sixth Fleet could scramble jet fighters if the situation escalated.

On the morning of 8th June, Israeli Air Force jets started flying over the ship at random times & locations. The Nord Noratlas was the main type of aircraft used by the IAF and at many times it felt as if the IAF was harassing the Liberty by flying so close to the ship that its propellers rattled.

The IDF also dispatched 3 torpedo boats on a separate note as they were hunting for Arab submarines in the area. At 1341 hours, these torpedo boats detected an unknown vessel, 14 miles off the coast of Bardawil. Her speed and direction were calculated and relayed back to the Fleet Operations Control Center. The Israelis had a standing order to attack any unknown ship they could find.


At about 1348 hours, at the request of the Chief of Naval Operations, the IAF dispatched 2 Mirage III fighters that were onto USS Liberty by 1400 hours. The formation’s leader tried to identify the ship but failed to do so. His observation of the ship was that of a military ship, “most probably a destroyer” without any flag or markings.

This statement was enough to alert the Command Center for instant action against the unidentified vessel. Within minutes, the Mirages were cleared to attack and without wasting a single second, they burst open their 30mm cannons & rockets on the ship. The crew of the USS Liberty had just finished an attack drill and were in stand-down mode when gunfire started hailing from the sky above. The Americans, without wasting any time manned the 4x .50 caliber machine guns and started firing back at the IAF jets.

But the .50 caliber machine guns were no match for the rockets in use by the Mirages, and within minutes of the attack 8 crewmen had died and 75 were wounded. Captain McGonagle, a distinguished sailor, was wounded but continued to lead his men. The antennas were displaced while the gas drums were all fired up. Chaos loomed on the ship. McGonagle called for support from the Sixth Fleet and stated that the Liberty was being attacked by unidentified jet aircraft.

Jets scrambled from USS America
Jets scrambled from USS America

The Mirages, after emptying their caches, left the area, but this wasn’t the end. Two Dassault Mysteres took their places and these aircraft were armed with napalm bombs. The Mysteres dropped their payloads over the ship and within seconds, much of ship’s structure was set ablaze. There were reports that the ship’s distress signal was repeatedly being blocked by “external means”, a war crime under the Geneva Convention.

The Mysteres were once again ready to give the Liberty all they had but the Israeli Navy ordered the attack to be stopped due to the lack of return fire. They moved closer to identify the ship’s markings, whatever was left of it, and read the words “GTR-5”. The attack was called off immediately as it was inferred the ship was American.

General Yitzhak Rabin sent two Hornet Helicopters to look for survivors within the ship and ordered all operations be ceased. For some reason, one of the torpedo boats didn’t get the message and fired a torpedo that hit the Liberty . Even though the crew had started displaying huge American Flags, it was unclear as to why the hostilities were taking place. Once the distress signal was unblocked, the Sixth Fleet dispatched aircraft carrier USS Saratoga while 8 aircraft were sent down as well.

The Israeli torpedo boats approached the Liberty for assistance, however, Captain McGonagle had manned the .50 Caliber Machine Guns and ordered his men to shoot any approaching entity. Upon seeing the Israeli flag, he ordered his men to stand down but the order was received too late and a short burst was fired. This short burst made the Israelis paranoid once again, and another torpedo was fired upon Liberty.

There was now a 12m wide hole in the ship and 25 more servicemen had been killed. Four more torpedoes were fired as well but they missed the ship.

USS Liberty with USS Little Rock
USS Liberty with USS Little Rock

Confusion still loomed over the identification of the ship and episodes of firing continued until 1530. As soon as it was established that the attack had been on the basis of error, a lengthy apology was issued to the US Naval Attaché. Back in the Washington, President Johnson was shocked when he found out the attack was carried out by the Israelis since he thought the Soviets were behind it. Within 48 hours of the attack, compensation was offered to the victims & their families.

The USS Liberty didn’t sink though and was able to keep afloat all the way to Malta where she received a batch of repairs. The destroyers USS Davis and the USS Massey arrived, providing all kinds of assistance but the fact was that it was too late and whether the attack was intention or unintentional, US sailors had suffered at the hands of their own allies. All in all, 34 crew members were dead while 176 were injured. In the month of May 1968 the Israelis paid a sum of $22.6 million (converted to today’s money) to the families of the dead and $3 million to the wounded.

Captain McGonagle in his cabin after the attacks stopped

Captain McGonagle was awarded the Medal of Honor for the valor he displayed, you can read his story here.

Waqas Ali

Hey there!
I have an undying love for history and spend most of my free time going through history books or articles online. I’m greatly intrigued by the conflicts in the past century as well as those that took place a 1000 years ago!
Have a Great Day.