You can feel for the captain of USNS “Liberty” Commander William McGonagle, after he was wounded in a sneak Israeli air assault on his ship and when asked by his attackers if he required assistance. His response was a terse “Go to hell, you bastard!”
His ship bore the scars of 821 separate machine gun, cannon and rocket hits together with a massive 12 metre hole in the side that had killed 34 men and left 164 injured, including himself. McGonagle remained at his post and later received the Medal of Honor. But why was his ship attacked by the Israelis in the first place?
The six day war between Israel and Egypt had erupted in the summer of 1967. America wanted to know both sides’ military secrets. This intelligence would, it was hoped, would allow the US Navy to better understand the hostilities and relative strength of the opponents.
USNS Liberty was duly positioned off the Israeli coast to perform her primary role of eavesdropping or SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) on military communications. Usually such ships were well out of harm’s way, but not on Thursday the 8th of June 1967.
The USNS Liberty was a 1940s built freighter fitted with latest listening aerials and antennas. Before the start of the Arab-Israeli conflict, she had been positioned off the western coast of Africa, but was soon ordered to a position off the Israeli coast near El Arish. At some point during her repositioning in the Mediterranean, her crew had been bolstered by the addition of National Security Agency (NSA) personnel, plus their specialised code-breaking machines.
On arrival, these machines were switched on and valuable information started to flood into American hands. The data indicated that the Israelis were cleverly intercepting messages of neighbouring countries then altering them to deceive the recipients that Arabs were winning the war in a classic case of disinformation. Israeli planners wanted to defeat each of her neighbours in turn, but without the risk of opening more than one front at a time. What was unknown to the world at this time, was that Israel and America had a secret agreement in place that limited Israel to only a defensive war; not to seek expansion of her borders. To the Israelis the positioning of USNS Liberty off her shores could mean the discovery of their ruse.
Thursday 8 June dawned, like most days in the Mediterranean, bright and sunny. It was the fourth day of the conflict and USNS Liberty was steaming slowly some 16 miles off the Sinai coast at El Arish in an easterly direction. Soon after, she was flown over by an Israeli Air Force jet and her position noted, although she was incorrectly identified as a destroyer. Another aircraft then identified her as a US Navy auxiliary. By mid-morning USNS Liberty had been sighted on numerous occasions and, despite displaying her pennant number, ID Codes and a US flag flying prominently on her bow, the Israelis were becoming ever more jittery about her presence off their coastline.
In Israel, meanwhile, troops were said to have been fired on from the sea (unconfirmed) and Israeli intelligence had received reports that Egyptian warships were en route to create the conditions for a seaborne landing behind Israeli defence lines.
The Israeli Navy ordered three of its French built fast attack craft, Ayah, Daya and Baz to sea to counter this possible threat. They took passage from their base at Ashdod to an area off El Arish. Each of the 62-ton boats was armed with guns and torpedoes and, at 13.48, they came upon the USNS Liberty. The Israelis in subsequent debriefings stated that the USNS Liberty was making 30 knots – when her top speed was only around 19 knots – and also incorrectly identified her as a combat ship.