The True Story of Israel's attack
on an American Intelligence Ship
By James M. Ennes, Jr.
Copyright by James Ennes 1980, 1986, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2005
Imagine all the earthquakes in the world, and all the thunder and
lightnings together in a space of two miles, all going off at once.
--Description by unknown U.S. Army officer of night engagement when
Farragut ran Fort Jackson and St. Philip, April 24, 1862
Searing heat and terrible noise came suddenly from everywhere.
Instinctively I turned sideways, presenting the smallest target to the
heat. Heat came first, and it was heat--not cannon fire--that caused me to
turn away. It was too soon to be aware of rockets or cannon fire.
"We're shooting!" I thought. "Why are we shooting?" The air
filled with hot metal as a geometric pattern of orange flashes opened
holes in the heavy deck plating. An explosion tossed our gunners high
into the air-spinning, broken, like rag dolls.
My first impression--my primitive, protective search for
something safe and familiar that put me emotionally behind the gun--was
wrong. We were not firing at all. We were being pounded with a deadly
barrage of aircraft cannon and rocket fire.
A solid blanket of force threw me against a railing. My arm
held me up while the attacker passed overhead, followed by a loud
swoosh, then silence.
O'Connor spotted bright flashes under the wings of the
French built jet in time to dive down a ladder. He was struck in midair,
severely wounded by rocket fragments before he crashed into the deck
I seemed to be the only one left standing as the jet
disappeared astern of us. Around me, scattered about carelessly, men
squirmed helplessly, like wounded animals--wide-eyed, terrified, not
understanding what had happened.
The second airplane made a smoky trail in the sky ahead. Unable
to move, we watched them make a sweeping 180-degree turn toward Liberty,
ready to resume the attack. My khaki uniform was bright red now from two
dozen rocket fragments buried in my flesh. My left leg, broken above the
knee, hung from my hip like a great beanbag.
The taste of blood was strong in my mouth as I tested my good
leg. Was I badly hurt? Could I help the men floundering here? Could I
help myself. Was it cowardice to leave here?
On one leg, I hopped down the steep ladder, lurched across the
open area and fell heavily on the pilothouse deck just as hell's own
jackhammers pounded our steel plating for the second time. With
incredible noise the aircraft rockets poked eight-inch holes in the
ship; like fire-breathing creatures, they groped blindly for the men
Already the pilothouse was littered with helpless and
frightened men. Blood flowed, puddled and coagulated everywhere. Men
stepped in blood, slipped and fell in it, tracked it about in great
crimson footprints. The chemical attack alarm sounded instead of the
general alarm. Little matter. Men knew we were under attack and went to
their proper places.
Captain McGonagle suddenly appeared in the starboard door of
the pilothouse and ordered: "Right full rudder. All engines ahead flank.
Send a message to CNO: 'Under attack by unidentified jet aircraft,
require immediate assistance.' "
Grateful for an order to execute, confident that only this man
could save them, the crew responded with speed and precision born of
terror. Never have orders been acknowledged and executed more quickly.
These were brave men. These were trained men. But these were also
confused and frightened men inexperienced in combat. An order told them
that something was being done, made them a part of the effort, gave them
something to take the place of the awful fear.
Reacting to habit as much as to duty, and grateful that duty
required his quick exit from this terrible place, Lloyd Painter looked
for his relief so that he could report to his assigned damage control
station below. Finding Lieutenant O'Connor half dead in a limp and
bloody heap at the bottom of a ladder, he demanded: "Are you ready to
"No, I'm not ready to relieve you," O'Connor mimicked weakly
--aware, even now, of the irony. McGonagle interrupted to free Lloyd of
his bridge duty.
I lay next to the chart table, unable to control the blood flow
from my body and wondering how much I could lose before I would become
unconscious. Blood from my chest wound was collecting in a lump in my
side so large that I couldn't lower my arm. My trouser leg revealed a
steady flow of fresh blood from the fracture site. Numerous smaller
wounds oozed slowly. Next to me lay Seaman George Wilson of Chicago, who
had stood part of his lookout watch this morning without binoculars. In
spite of a nearly severed thumb, Wilson used his good arm and my web
belt to fashion a tourniquet for my leg, effectively slowing the worst
bleeding. Someone opened my shirt, ripping off my undershirt for use
somewhere as an emergency bandage. Meanwhile, I wrapped a handkerchief
tightly around Wilson's wrist to control the bleeding from his hand. In
this strange embrace we received the next airplane.
BLAM! Another barrage of rockets hit the ship. Although the
first airplane caused a permanent ringing in my ears and forever robbed
me of high-frequency hearing, the attacks seemed no less noisy. Men
dropped with each new assault. Lieutenant Toth, still carrying my unsent
sighting reports, received a rocket that turned his mortal remains into
smoking rubble. Seaman Salvador Payan remained alive with two jagged
chunks of metal buried deep within his skull. Ensign David Lucas
accepted a rocket fragment in his cerebellum. And still the attacks
In the pilothouse, Quartermaster Floyd Pollard stretched to
swing a heavy steel battle plate over the vulnerable glass porthole. A
rocket, and with it the porthole, exploded in front of him to transform
his face and upper torso into a bloody mess. Painter helped lead him to
relative safety near the quartermaster's log table before leaving the
bridge to report to his battle station.
On the port side, just below the bridge, fire erupted from two
ruptured fifty-five-gallon drums of gasoline. A great flaming river
inundated the area and poured down ladders to the main deck below.
Lieutenant Commander Armstrong-ever impulsive, ever gutsy, ever committed
to the job at hand-bounded toward the fire. "Hit, em! Slug the sons of
bitches!" he must have been saying as he fought to reach the
quick-release handle that would drop the flaming and still half-full
containers into the sea. A lone rocket suddenly dissolved the bones of
both of his legs.
Meanwhile, heretofore mysterious Contact X came to life with
the first exploding rocket. Quickly poking a periscope above the surface
of the water, American submariners watched wave after wave of jet
airplanes attacking Liberty. Strict orders prevented any action that
might reveal their presence. They could not help us, and they could not
break radio silence to send for help. Frustrated and angry, the
commanding officer activated a periscope camera that recorded Liberty's
trauma on movie film. He could do no more. 1
Dr. Kiepfer, en route to his battle station in the ship's sick
bay, stopped to treat a sailor he found bleeding badly from shrapnel
wounds in a passageway. A nearby door had not yet been closed, and
through the door Kiepfer could see two more wounded men on an exposed
weather deck. Cannon and rocket fire exploded everywhere as the men
tried weakly to crawl to relative safety.
"Go get those men," Kiepfer yelled to a small group of sailors
as he worked to control his patient's bleeding.
"No, sir," "Not me," "I'm not crazy," the frightened men
whimpered as they moved away from the doctor.
No matter. Kiepfer would do the job himself. As soon as he
could leave his patient, Kiepfer moved across the open deck. Ignoring
bullets and rocket fragments, the huge doctor kneeled beside the wounded
men, wrapped one long arm around each man's waist, and carried both men
to safety in one incredible and perilous trip.
Lieutenant George Golden, Liberty's engineer officer, was in
the wardroom with Ensign Lucas when the attack began. A meeting had been
planned for Golden, Scott, Lucas and McGonagle to discuss the drill. The
captain was still on the bridge, so the meeting would be delayed. Scott
was slow to arrive, as today was his twenty-fourth birthday and he was
at the ship's store picking out a Polaroid camera to help celebrate the
Golden was pouring coffee when they heard the first explosion.
"Jesus, they dropped the motor whaleboat!" he cried as he abandoned his
cup and started toward the boat. Then he heard other explosions and knew
even before the alarm sounded that Liberty was under attack.
Reversing his path, he started toward his battle station in the
engine room just in time to see Ensign Scott open the door to his
stateroom and slide his new camera across the floor before racing to his
battle station in Damage Control Central.
A rocket penetrated the engine room to tear Golden from the
engine-room ladder. He plunged through darkness, finally crashing onto a
steel deck, miraculously unhurt. He could see rockets exploding
everywhere, passing just over the heads of his men and threatening vital
equipment. "Get down!" he yelled. "Everybody stay low; on your knees!"
Golden knew that the bridge would want maximum power. Already
Main Engine Control had an all-engines-ahead-flank bell from the bridge
that they could not answer. Flank speed was seventeen knots, but Golden
had taken one boiler off the line just ten minutes earlier so that it
could cool for repairs. Without that boiler the best speed he could
provide was about twelve knots. He immediately put the cooling boiler
back on the line and started to bring it up to pressure.
Even with both boilers on the line, the engines were limited by
a governor to eighteen knots. For years Golden had carried the governor
key in his pocket so that he could find it quickly in just such an
emergency as this. He switched the governor off, permitting the ship to
reach twenty-one knots.
As machine-gun fire and aircraft rockets battered the ship, the
main engine room began to take on the appearance of a fireworks display.
Most lighting was knocked out in the first few minutes, leaving
flashlights and battle lanterns as the only illumination in the room
except for a skylight six decks above. In this relative darkness, men
worked on hands and knees, operating valves, checking gauges, starting
and stopping equipment, bypassing broken pipes; and all the while above
them danced white, yellow, red and green firefly like particles. Some
were small. Some were huge and burst into pieces to shower down upon
them. All entered the room with a tremendous roar as they burst through
the ship's outer skin.
Golden glanced at the scene above him. It reminded him of
meteor showers, except for the noise, or of electric arc welding. Most
of his men were here now, having safely descended the ladders through
the fireworks to reach their battle stations. Boiler Tender Gene Owens
was here and in charge of auxiliary equipment on the deck below Golden.
Machinist Mate Chief Richard J. Brooks was here. Brooks was petty
officer in charge of the engine room, and he was everywhere.
Golden realized suddenly that far above them, directly in
the range of rocket and machine-gun fire, was a hot-water storage tank.
Five thousand gallons of near- boiling water lay in that tank, ready to
pour down upon them if it was ruptured, and it would surely be ruptured.
The drain valve was at the base of the tank, so it would be necessary to
send a man up more than three decks to open the valve.
Golden quickly explained to a young sailor what had to be done
and sent him on his way, but the frightened man collapsed on the deck
grating and refused to move.
Chief Brooks overheard the exchange. "C'mon, you heard the
lieutenant. Move!" he cried, jerking the panic-stricken teenager to his
Terror was written on the young man's face. Tears started to
flow as his face contorted in a grimace of fear.
With a snarl of contempt, Brooks gave him a shove that sent him
sprawling. Then Brooks mounted the ladder leading to the vital drain
valve. Two decks above, perhaps fifteen feet up the ladder, a tremendous
explosion occurred next to Brooks. In a shower of sparks and fire, he
was torn from his place on the ladder and thrown into space to land
heavily upon the steel grating below. Brooks was back on his feet before
anyone could reach him. Back up the same ladder he headed until he found
the valve, opened it and drained the water only moments before the
inevitable rocket hit the storage tank to find it newly empty.
In a few minutes, most of the battle lanterns had been struck
by rocket fragments or disabled by the impact of nearby explosions. The
room was nearly dark. By working on hands and knees, men could remain
below the waterline and thus below most of the rocket and gunfire,
although they were still vulnerable to an occasional wildly aimed rocket
and to the constant shower of hot metal particles from above.
When fresh-air fans sucked choking smoke from the main deck into the
engine rooms, Golden ordered the men to cover their faces with rags and
to try to find air near the deck. When the smoke became intolerable, he
sent a message to the bridge that he would have to evacuate; but just
before Golden was to give the evacuation order, McGonagle ordered a
course change that carried the smoke away from the fans. Fresh air
returned at last to the engine room.
The first airplane had emptied the gun mounts and removed
exposed personnel. The second airplane, through extraordinary luck or
fantastic marksmanship, disabled nearly every radio antenna on the ship,
temporarily preventing our call for help.
Soon the high-performance Mirage fighter bombers that initiated
the attack were joined by smaller swept-wing Dassault Mystyre jets,
carrying dreaded napalm--jellied gasoline. The Mystyres, slower and more
maneuverable than the Mirages, directed rockets and napalm against the
bridge and the few remaining topside targets. In a technique probably
designed for desert warfare but fiendish against a ship at sea, the
Mystyre pilots launched rockets from a distance, then dropped huge
silvery metallic napalm canisters as they passed overhead. The jellied
slop burst into furious flame on impact, coating everything, then surged
through the fresh rocket holes to burn frantically among the men
I watched Captain McGonagle standing alone on the starboard
wing of the bridge as the whole world suddenly caught fire. The deck
below him, stanchions around him, even the overhead above him burned.
The entire superstructure of the ship burst into a wall of flame from
the main deck to the open bridge four levels above. All burned with the
peculiar fury of warfare while Old Shep, seemingly impervious to
man-made flame and looking strangely like Satan himself, stepped calmly
through the fire to order: "Fire, fire, starboard side, oh-three level.
Sound the fire alarm."
Fire fighters came on stage as though waiting in the wings for a
prearranged signal. Streaming through a rear pilothouse door, they
carried axes, crowbars, CO, bottles and hundreds of feet of fire hose.
The sound of CO, bottles and fire-hose sprinklers added to the din as
the smell of steam overtook the smell of nitrates, smoke and blood. Men
screamed, cried, yelled orders and scrambled to duty as the ship
struggled to stay alive.
On the forecastle, Gunner's Mate Alexander N. Thompson fought
his way relentlessly toward the forward gun mount. Only moments before,
Thompson had remarked to me on the bridge: "No sweat, sir. If anything
happens I just want to be in a gun mount." Now he was repeatedly driven
away by exploding rockets. Weakened, with duty waiting in that small gun
tub, he tried again.
His radar disabled, Radarman Charles J. Cocnavitch left his
post to man a nearby gun mount. "Stay back!" Captain McGonagle ordered,
knowing that the gun would be ineffective and that Cocnavitch would die
in a futile attempt to fire. Meanwhile, Lieutenant O'Connor, still lying
near the ladder where he had fallen, was robbed of any latent prejudices
by huge black Signalman Russell David, who braved fire, blast and
bullets to move the limp and barely conscious officer from the bridge to
safety in the now-empty combat information center.
The pilothouse became a hopeless sea of wounded men, swollen
fire hoses and discarded equipment. Men tripped over equipment, stepped
on wounded. In front of the helmsman a football-size glob of napalm
burned angrily, adding to the smoke and confusion. Smaller napalm globs
burned in other parts of the room, refusing to be extinguished.
Again I thought of duty. My duty was on this bridge, amid the
flame and the shrapnel, driving this ship and fighting to protect her.
Already I was weak from loss of blood and from the shock of my wounds. A
sailor tripped over me, stepped on Seaman Wilson, and fell on other
wounded as he dragged a CO, bottle across the room. I decided that duty
did not require that we all lie here and bleed. It may even require that
we get out of the way, if we can, so that others may fight.
Relinquishing Wilson's tourniquet to Wilson, he released mine. Acutely
conscious of my retreat from the heart of battle, I raised an arm toward
some sailors huddled nearby. Seaman Kenneth Ecker pulled me to my feet
and I resumed my one-legged hopping.
I need a place to plug my wounds, I told myself, a place to
find the holes and stop the flow of blood.
I hopped out of the room. Ecker stayed with me, adding to the
guilt I felt for leaving the bridge. Bad enough that I should leave, but
to take the bridge watch with me! "Go back!" I insisted. Ecker stayed.
The ladder leading from the pilothouse was thick with fire hoses.
Somewhere beneath the hoses were solid ladder rungs, but my foot could
find only slippery fire hoses. With one hand on each railing and with my
beanbag catching awkwardly on every obstruction, I hopped clumsily down
the ladder. Once I stood aside to let a man pass in the other direction
with a C02 bottle. He stopped to stare at me with a startled look, his
mouth open. "Hurry!" I said. I reached the level below to find Ecker
still with me. "Go back!" I protested again.
Lightheaded from loss of blood, I searched for a place to
examine my injuries and to treat my wounds. The search became urgent as
I became increasingly dizzy. More airplanes pounded our ship as I
discovered that the captain's cabin offered no refuge. Through his door
I could see a smoke-filled room with gaping holes opening to the flame
outside, and frantic napalm globs eating his carpet.
Around a corner I found the doctor's stateroom. The room was
dark, the air free of smoke. His folding bunk was open from a noontime
nap, his porthole closed with a steel battle plate. Strangely concerned
that I was soiling his sheets with blood, I pulled myself onto his clean
bed. My useless left leg hung over the side in a sitting position.
Ecker, still nearby, wanting to help but afraid to touch the leg,
finally laid it gingerly alongside the other. I thought of the tissue
being abused and wondered how close the sharp bone ends were to the
What happens if I cut the artery ? I wondered. Maybe I have
already. A thousand questions begged for answers: Did we get our message
off? Will they never stop shooting? When will our jets arrive? And who
is shooting at us, anyway?
We still had no idea who was attacking. Although the Arab
countries largely blamed the United States for their problems and
falsely charged that American carrier-based aircraft had assisted
Israel, we knew that the Arab air forces were crippled and probably
unable to launch an attack like this one. And to increase the confusion,
a ship's officer thought he saw a MIG- 1 5 over Liberty and quickly
spread a false report among the crew that we were being attacked by the
Soviet Union. Probably no one suspected Israeli forces.
I took a few still-painful breaths to clear my head before tending
my wounds. Ecker hovered nearby, forcing my conscience to remind me that
I should be on the bridge; worse, that an able-bodied man was away from
his battle station to help me.
With each movement I could feel the tear of sharp bone end
against muscle. I was only abstractly aware of pain; instead, I was
conscious of fear, of duty abandoned on the bridge, and of an urgent
knowledge that, no matter what else might happen, I would almost surely
die if I didn't soon stem the flow of blood, particularly from the leg
I reached for Dr. Kiepfer's sheets to make a more effective
tourniquet when suddenly four deadly rockets opened eight-inch holes to
tear through the steel bulkhead into the room. Blast, fire, metal passed
over my head and continued through an opposite wall. Ecker, standing in
the open doorway, was startled but unhurt; several thumb-size holes at
forehead level verified the utility of his battle helmet as he raced
away to answer a call for firefighters.
My bare chest glowed with a hundred tiny fires as burning
rocket fragments and napalm-coated particles fell on me like angry
wasps. Desperately I brushed them away. As the tiny flames died, the hot
metal continued to sear my chest. The room filled with smoke as the
carpeting near me and the bedding around me burned with more small
Through the fresh rocket holes I could see a tremendous fire
raging on deck outside and I could hear the crackle of flames. The motor
whaleboat burned furiously from a direct napalm hit while other fires
engulfed the weather decks and bulkheads nearby. Directly above me on
the next deck, I realized, were a gun mount and a radio antenna. Both
were obvious targets. I would have to leave this place.
My leg pinned me to the bunk. It blocked my movement, weighed
me down, prevented my escape from the additional rockets that were sure
to come. I considered and quickly dismissed sliding under the mattress
for protection. With the last of my strength I used my good leg to evict
the useless broken limb from the bunk. Would this open the artery? I had
to take the chance as the sharp bone ends again sliced through muscle.
With great effort I forced myself up,rolled out onto my good right leg,
and hopped away once more toward what I hoped would be safer ground,
closing the door behind me.
The door, closed by habit, shielded me from a new blast and
probably saved my life as a rocket penetrated the room from above,
blasting through the heavy deck plating and air ducts in the overhead
to explode with such force that the heavy metal door was torn from its
frame. I fell to the deck outside.
On the bridge, the helmsman fell wounded as another assault
sent rocket fragments through steel and flesh. Almost before he fell,
his post was taken by Quartermaster Francis Brown. The Quartermaster of
the watch is the senior enlisted man on duty and is responsible for the
performance of the men. Friendly, hard-working, cooperative, Brown was a
popular member of the bridge team. I was always pleased when Brown was
on duty with me. He never needed to be told what to do. When Brown was
on watch, if a helmsman was slow to respond to an order or if a man had
trouble with bridge equipment, he spotted and corrected the problem
without being told. Now, typically, he saw his duty at the unattended
The gyro compass no longer worked. It was disabled by three
rockets that rode in tandem through the gyro room, passing harmlessly
between a group of sailors, smashing the equipment and leaving a
three-foot hole in a steel door on the way out. The magnetic
compass, meanwhile, spun uselessly, like a child's toy.
Gunner Thompson finally reached Mount 51 to find the gun
partially blocked by the body of Fireman David Skolak. Skolak had been
assigned to Repair Two, but after Seaman Payan was wounded, leaving the
gun unmanned, Skolak left his repair party to take Payan's place. He was
quickly dismembered by a direct rocket hit. Very weak now, Thompson
forced himself toward Mount 52, some forty feet away on the ship's port
side. With luck he would be able to fire at the next attacking jet.
Long before our arrival in the area, most secret documents had
been placed in large weighted bags, ready to be thrown overboard if
necessary to keep them from an enemy. This was a precautionary measure,
frequently taken by ships operating in dangerous areas. Now, defenseless
and under attack, everything classified but not actually in use was to
be destroyed. The bags proved useless, as they were too large and heavy
to carry, and the water wasn't deep enough for safe disposal, anyway.
The ship's incinerator couldn't be used, as it was on the 03 level
within easy range of the airplanes. As a last resort, Lieutenant
Pierce, the ship's communication officer, ordered his men to destroy
everything as best they could by hand. Acrid smoke soon filled the room
as he and Joe Lentini dropped code lists, a handful at a time, into a
flaming wastepaper basket; nearby, Richard Keene and Duane Marggraf
attacked delicate crypto equipment with wire cutters and a sledge
In the TRSSComm room, equipment finally in full operation,
operators had just begun to talk with their counterparts at Cheltenham,
Maryland, when rockets suddenly undid all their work to disable the
system forever. A shower of sparks cascaded from high-voltage wires
overhead, bathing the men and equipment below in melted copper and
filling the room with the smell of ozone. Operators at Cheltenham did
not learn until much later why Liberty stopped talking in mid-sentence.
A code-room Teletype operator on Liberty's third deck pounded
desperately on a keyboard, trying to send the ship's cry for help.
Getting no answer, he tried other equipment until someone finally
noticed that a vital coding device had been removed for emergency
destruction, disabling the machine. The operator tried again. Still
nothing. Vividly aware of the nearness of death, the man was speechless
with terror. His voice came in senseless gasps and his body shook; he
wet his pants in fear, but he remained at his post and continued to
hammer his message into the keyboard. Still no answer. In the rush to
reinsert the coding device, the wrong device had been used. "Forget the
code," cried Lieutenant Commander Lewis when he saw the problem. "Go out
in plain language!"
Still the message failed to leave the ship. No one knew that
all our antennas had been shot down.
From where I fell outside the doctor's stateroom I could hear
the flames, the loud hiss of CO, bottles, the rush of water from fire
hoses and the sharp crunch as water became steam against hot steel.
Smoke was everywhere.
A young sailor plummeted hysterically down a ladder, crying,
"Mr. O'Connor is dead! He's in combat and he's dead!" then disappeared
on his grim mission, informing everyone of the death of my roommate and
long-time friend. I thought of Jim's wife, Sandy, pregnant; his infant
son; their pet schnauzer. Who will tell Sandy? My wife, Terry, will
console her, help her. Maybe they'll console each other.
A sailor arrived with a pipe-frame-and-chicken-wire stretcher.
Judging my rank from the khaki uniform, Seaman Frank Mclnturff assured
me as he laid the stretcher at my side, "Don't worry, Chief, you'll be
all right." Then, startled when he noticed my lieutenant's bars, he
apologized grandly for the oversight. We both laughed as I assured him,
"That's okay. You can call me Chief."
I saw no point in moving from where I was. Surely there was no
time to treat wounded. If there was time, certainly there were enough men
near death to keep the medical staff more than busy. Mclnturff insisted
that the wardroom was in operation as an emergency battle dressing
station and that I should go there. He and his partner rolled me onto
the stretcher, my leg twisting grotesquely in the process. Then he tied
me in place with heavy web belting and hoisted the stretcher. The first
obstacle was not far away. The ladder leading down to the 01 deck
inclined at a steep angle. I will fall through the straps and down the
ladder, I thought. With my stretcher in a near vertical position, we
started down. My arms ached as I held the pipe frame to keep from
slipping; chicken wire tore my fingers; as I slid deeper toward the foot
of the stretcher I could feel the broken bone ends grinding together.
Suddenly all such concern was forgotten as another rocket assault
battered the ship. The now-familiar, ear-shattering, mind-destroying
sound of rockets bursting through steel raced the length of the ship.
I braced for the plunge down the ladder as holes opened in the
steel plating around us. Then, except for the flames, the machinery and
the fi relighting equipment, silence.
Following each rocket assault, the silence seemed unearthly; slowly we
would become aware of the other sounds, but the immediate sensation was
relief and a strange silence. In silence we found ourselves still alive,
still standing on our ladder and still breathing deeply. The next ladder
was no less steep, but passed easily without the rocket accompaniment.
We arrived next at the door of the wardroom, our destination,
where we were greg,-ted by more rockets, entering the room through an
opposite wall. White smoke hung in the air. A fire burned under the
empty dinner table.
"Where should we go?" Mclnturff asked. Nothing could be seen of
the battle dressing station that was supposed to operate here. Clearly,
the wardroom could not be used.
"Just put me down here," I told him. My stretcher was eased to
the ground at the open door as the two men returned to the bridge to
retrieve more wounded. "Move me away from the door!" I cried as more
rocket fragments hurtled through the open door and over my stretcher to
spend themselves on the nearby bulkhead. I was quickly moved; the door
was closed. The narrow passageway soon filled with wounded, frightened
men. A battle dressing station, I learned, had been set up in the chief
petty officers' lounge around the corner and was already filled with
wounded. Dr. Kiepfer was operating the main battle dressing station in
the enlisted mess hall one deck below while this auxiliary station was
being operated by a lone senior corpsman, Thomas Lee VanCleave.
If we can hold out for a few more minutes, I thought, Admiral
Martin's jet fighters will be overhead. This hope quickly passed as a
sailor kneeled at my side to inform me that all our antennas had been
shot away. "They put a rocket at the base of every transmitting antenna
on the ship," he said, "but there is one that I think I can repair. Do
you think I could go out there and try to fix it so we could get our
message off. " I assured him that he would be doing us all a great
service, but asked him to be careful.
Soon the radio room pieced together enough serviceable
equipment to send a message that would alert the Navy to our
predicament. An emergency connection patched the one operable
transmitter to the hastily repaired antenna. But as Radiomen James
Halman and Joseph Ward tried to establish voice contact with Sixth Fleet
forces, they found the frequencies blocked by a buzz-sawlike sound that
stopped only for the few seconds before each new barrage of rockets
struck the ship. Apparently, the attacking jets were jamming our radios,
but could not operate the jamming equipment while rockets were airborne.
If we were to ask for help, we had to do it during the brief periods
that the buzzing sound stopped. Using Liberty's voice radio call sign,
Halman cried, "Any station, this is Rockstar. We are under attack by
unidentified jet aircraft and require immediate assistance!"'
Operators in USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier operating with
Vice Admiral Martin's forces near Crete, heard Liberty's call and
responded, but could not understand the message because of the jamming.
"Rockstar, this is Schematic," said the Saratoga operator. "Say
again. You are garbled."
After several transmissions Saratoga acknowledged receipt of
the message. The Navy uses a system of authentication codes to verify
the identity of stations and to protect against sham messages.
"Authenticate Whiskey Sierra," demanded Saratoga.
"Authentication is Oscar Quebec," Halman answered promptly, after
consulting a list at his elbow.
"Roger, Rockstar," said Saratoga at 1209*Z. "Authentication is
correct. I roger your message. I am standing by for further traffic."
Saratoga relayed Liberty's call for help to Admiral McCain in
London for action and, inexplicably, only for information to Vice
Admiral Martin and to Rear Admiral Geis (who commanded the Sixth Fleet
Several minutes later, having heard nothing from
COMSIXTHFLT, the Liberty operator renewed his call for help.
"Schematic, this is Rockstar. We are still under attack by
unidentified jet aircraft and require immediate assistance."
"Roger, Rockstar," said Saratoga. "We are forwarding your
message." Then Saratoga added, quite unnecessarily and almost as an
afterthought, "Authenticate Oscar Delta."
The authentication list now lay in ashes a few feet away.
Someone had destroyed it along with the unneeded classified material.
Frustrated and angry, the operator held the button open on his
microphone as he begged, "Listen to the goddamned rockets, you son of a
"Roger, Rockstar, we'll accept that," came the reply.'
Operators in the Sixth Fleet flagship Little Rock and in the
carrier America, meanwhile, had long since received Liberty's message.
America's Captain Donald Engen' was talking with NBC newsman Robert
Goralski when the message was brought to the bridge. "This is
confidential, Mr. Goralski!" Engen snapped. And Goralski respected the
Aircraft-carrier sailors know that certain airplanes are always
spotted near the catapults where they are kept fueled, armed and ready
to fly. They are maintained by special crews, they are flown by
carefully selected pilots, and they are kept under special guard at all
times. These are the "ready" aircraft. To visitors, they are almost
indistinguishable from other aircraft, but they are very special
aircraft indeed, and their use is an ominous sign of trouble. They carry
No one in government has acknowledged that ready aircraft were
sent toward Liberty, and no messages or logs have been unearthed to
prove that nuclear-armed aircraft were launched; moreover, there is no
indication that release of nuclear weapons was authorized under any
circumstances,on that ready aircraft, which normally carry nuclear
weapons, were launched toward Liberty, and that the Pentagon reacted to
the launch with anger bordering on hysteria.Widely separated sources
have described the launch and subsequent recall of those aircraft in
detail, and the circumstances are compelling.
According to a chief petty officer aboard USS America, the
pilots were given their orders over a private intercom system as they
sat in their cockpits. A United States ship was under attack, they were
told, and they were given the ship's position. Their mission was to
protect the ship. Under no circumstances were they to approach the
Two nuclear-armed F-4 Phantom jets left America's catapults and
headed almost straight up, afterburners roaring. Then two more became
airborne to rendezvous with the first two, and together the four
powerful jets turned toward Liberty, making a noise like thunder. All
this activity blended so completely into the shipboard routine that few
of the newsmen suspected that anything was awry; those who asked were
told that this was a routine training flight.
"Help is on the way!"'
This short message was received by a Liberty radioman and
quickly passed to nearly every man aboard. Messengers ran through the
ship, calling, "They're coming! Help is coming!" Litter carriers and
telephone talkers passed the word along. I remembered Philip's warning
of the night before: "We probably wouldn't even last long enough for our
jets to make the trip."
Meanwhile, Navy radio operators at the Naval Communications
Station in Morocco worked to establish communications for the emergency.
Lieutenant James Rogers and the station commander, Captain Lowel Darby,
came immediately to the radio room, where Petty Officer Julian "Tony"
Hart quickly set up several circuits, including voice circuits with the
aircraft carriers and COMSIXTHFLT, and established a Teletype circuit
with CINCUSNAVEUR in London. When the men tuned to the high-command
voice network, they could hear USS Liberty, her operators still pleading
for help, and in the background the exploding rockets.
A Flash precedence Teletype message from COMSIXTHFLT coursed
quickly through the Morocco communication relay station, destined for
the Pentagon, State Department and the White House:
USS LIBERTY REPORTS UNDER ATTACK BY UNIDENTIFIED JET AIRCRAFT. HAVE
LAUNCHED STRIKE AIRCRAFT TO DEFEND SHIP. It seemed only seconds later
that a new voice radio circuit was patched into the room that was now
becoming a nerve center for Liberty communications. This was a
high-command Pentagon circuit manned by a Navy warrant officer, but once
contact was established the voice on the circuit changed. Every man in
the room recognized the new voice as that of the Secretary of Defense,
Robert S. McNamara, and he spoke with authority: "Tell Sixth Fleet to
get those aircraft back immediately," he barked, "and give me a status
A few minutes later the Chief of Naval operations himself came
on the air. The circuit was patched through to the Sixth Fleet flagship,
and Admiral David L. McDonald bellowed: "You get those fucking airplanes
back on deck, and you get them back now!"
"Jesus, he talks just like a sailor," said one of the sailors
listening on a monitor speaker at Morocco.
Soon four frustrated F-4 Phantom fighter pilots returned from
what might have been a history-making mission. They might have saved the
ship, or they might have initiated the ultimate holocaust; their return,
like their departure, blended smoothly into the ship's routine and
raised no questions from the reporters who watched.
Another Flash message moved through the Morocco Teletype relay
station: HAVE RECOVERED STRIKE AIRCRAFT. LIBERTY STATUS UNKNOWN. At
about the same time, Hart relayed the same message to the Pentagon by
voice radio. Liberty was silent now. No one at Morocco knew whether the
ship was afloat or not, but they knew that if she still needed help she
would have a long wait.'
Mclnturff returned to the bridge to find Lieutenant Commander
Philip Armstrong, wounded but coherent and strong, sprawled on the floor
of the chart house. His trousers had been removed to reveal grave damage
to both legs just below the level of his boxer shorts. Two broken legs
kept him off his feet, but he remained in control.
"No more stretchers, Commander," Mclnturff advised, still
winded from his journey with me. "We'll have to take you down in this
"No, get a stretcher!" Phillip insisted.
"No more stretchers," McInturff repeated as he laid the blanket
next to Philip, ready to roll him onto it.
"I'm not going anywhere in any goddamned blanket. Go get a
"But sir, I . . ."
"Go! I know there are enough stretchers on this ship!"
Certain that every stretcher had a man in it, usually a man too
badly injured to be moved, Mclnturff raced through the ship, frantically
searching for the required stretcher. He opened a door to the main deck,
remembering that he had once seen some stretchers stowed near a
life-raft rack. A cluster of rockets crashed to deck around him with a
deafening roar, showering the area with sparks. Shaken but not slowed,
Mclnturff knew only that he must find that stretcher and get it back to
the XO in the chart house. Finally, precious platform in hand, he
struggled back toward the sick and impatient executive officer. Up
ladders, around corners, tripping over discarded CO, bottles and the
near-solid mass of fire hoses covering the last ladder to the bridge, he
arrived again in the pilothouse to find Philip Armstrong waiting not too
patiently on the deck of the chart house. Although the battle still
raged outside, one-sided as it was, although the ship was still being
hammered every few seconds with aircraft rockets, Philip was not
involved and he was furious about it. He wanted desperately to be on the
bridge. He wanted to fight. If he could do nothing more, he would throw
rocks and shake his fist at the pilots as they hurtled past. But Philip
was rooted to two beanbags and could only lie there and rage. Someone
gave him a cigarette and he turned it into a red cinder almost in one
long drag. He asked for another.
He didn't complain as he was lifted, rudely, painfully, onto
the chicken-wire bed. He muttered something as the two sailors lifted
the stretcher and started away with him, but Mclnturff didn't understand
as all voices were drowned out by explodingrockets. Mclnturff dreaded
another trip down that treacherous ladder. He was afraid he would slip
on the fire hoses, dropping the XO and blocking the ladder. He was
exhausted. His heart pounded loudly in his chest, complaining of the
exertion until he thought it must rebel; but he had no time to think,
certainly not to rest. With Philip and his stretcher nearly on end,
Philip's fingers clawing the pipe frame to keep from abusing the
fractures, they made the left turn at the bottom of the steep ladder,
passed through the narrow door, and found themselves in a passageway
next to the captain's open cabin door.
"Put me down!" Philip ordered.
"Put me down!"
"Get me a life jacket!" Philip demanded loudly.
"But, sir, they're still shooting and-" "Goddamn it, get me a
life jacket!" Philip insisted. "I'm not moving from here until I have a
An unusually heavy barrage hit the ship. Mclnturff pushed the
XO's stretcher to relative safety against a bulkhead, and ducked into
the burning, smoke-filled captain's cabin. Quickly driven out by the
arrival of still more rockets, he heard Philip demand, more firmly:
"Damn it! I told you to get a life jacket!"
"Jeezus! There's shit comin' in everywhere, Commander!" he
pleaded as an explosion tore open a nearby door, but Philip still
insisted upon having a life jacket.
Disbelieving, Mclnturff obediently left Philip in the care of
his partner while he made another desperate trip through the ship,
searching wildly for the required life jacket. Finally, he located a
discarded jacket in the CPO lounge emergency battle dressing station and
forced himself back to where he had left the XO.
Gone! He was gone. During the insane search for a life jacket,
someone had taken the XO below. Certain that his heart would burst,
Mclnturff struggled back up the ladder, back to the carnage in the
pilothouse, to retrieve more wounded.
Most of the wounded had been removed from the bridge. It was
possible once again to walk across the pilothouse. Quartermaster Brown
stood at the helm. Captain McGonagle, suffer ing from shrapnel in his
right leg and weakened by loss of blood, remained in firm control of his
ship as he directed damage control and firelighting efforts. Ensign
David Lucas, the ship's deck division officer, had been "captured" by
the captain to serve as his assistant on the bridge. Now Lucas wondered
if he would ever see the baby girl born to his wife a few hours after
Liberty sailed from Norfolk. He quickly pushed such thoughts from his
mind; three motor torpedo boats were sighted approaching the ship at
high speed in an attack formation.
McGonagle dispatched Seaman Apprentice Dale Larkins to take the
torpedo boats under fire from the forecastle. Larkins was an apprentice
not because he was new to the sea, but because, for reasons of his own,
he had refused to take the examination for advancement. He was a large
man and a tough fighter. He had already been driven first from Mount 54,
then from Mount 53. Now he charged down the ladder and across the open
deck to take the boats under fire from Mount 51.
Captain McGonagle, looking through the smoke of the motor
whaleboat fire, saw a flashing light on the center boat. He called for
the gunners to hold their fire while he attempted to communicate with
the boats using a hand-held Aldis lamp. The tiny signaling device was
useless. It could not penetrate the smoke surrounding the bridge.
Larkins, who had not heard McGonagle's "hold fire" order,
suddenly released a wild and ineffective burst of machine-gun fire and
was quickly silenced by the captain. Immediately, the gun mount astern
of the bridge opened fire, blanketing the center boat. McGonagle called
for that gunner, too, to cease fire, but he could not be heard above the
roar of the gun and the loud crackle of flaming napalm. Although less
than twenty feet apart, McGonagle was separated from the gun by a wall
of flame. Lucas ran through the pilothouse and around a catwalk, trying
to reach the gun. Finally, when he could see over a skylight and into
the gun tub, he found no gunner. The gun mount was burning with napalm,
causing the ammunition to cook off by itself. The mount was empty.
Heavy machine-gun fire from the boats saturated the bridge. A
single hardened steel, armor-piercing bullet penetrated the chart house,
skimmed under the Loran receiver, destroyed an office paper punch
machine, and passed through an open door into the pilothouse with just
enough remaining force to bury half its length in the back of the neck
of brave young helmsman Quartermaster Francis Brown, who died instantly.
Ensign Lucas, seeing Brown fall and not knowing what had hit
him or from which direction it had come, stepped up to take his place at
A torpedo was spotted. It passed astern, missing the ship by
barely seventy-five feet.
--END OF CHAPTER SIX--
1. This story first came to me from an enlisted crew member of the
submarine, who blurted it out impulsively in the cafeteria at Portsmouth
Naval Hospital a few weeks after the attack. The report seemed to
explain the marks I had seen on the chart in the coordination center, as
well as reports of periscope sightings that circulated in the ship on
the day of the attack. Since the attack, three persons in positions to
know have confirmed the story that a submarine operated near Liberty,
although no credible person has confirmed the report that photographs
2. The jet aircraft that initiated the attack were Dassault Mirage Ill
single-seat long-range 1,460mph (Mach 2.2) fighter bombers similar to
those seen during the morning. Mirages carry 30mm cannon in the fuselage
and thirty-six rockets under the wings. The follow-up jet attack was
conducted by Dassault MD-452 Mystyre IV-A single-seat 695mph (Mach 0.9
1) jet interceptors. Mystyres typically carry two 30mm cannon,
fifty-five rockets, and napalm canisters. None of the attacking aircraft
was identified as to either type or nationality until much later, when
comparison was made with standard warplane photographs.
3. See Appendix B. Liberty appealed for help commencing 1158Z (1358
ship's time) and continuing for more than two hours, remaining silent
only when the ship was without electrical power. At 140*OZ, two hours
after the commencement of the attack, Liberty Radioman Joe Ward
transmitted: "Flash, flash, flash. I pass in the blind. We are under
attack by aircraft and high-speed surface craft. I say again, Flash,
flash, flash. We are under attack by aircraft and high-speed surface
craft." At 1405Z (1605 ship's time) Ward came on the air again to say,
"Request immediate assistance. Torpedo hit starboard side." These times
are important, as Liberty was under fire untit 1315Z, was confronted by
hostile forces until 1432Z, and was in urgent need of assistance the
4. Saratogau misidentified the ship as USNS Liberty. USNS ships are
civilian- manned and operate under contract with the Navy, USS ships are
manned by American sailors and are commissioned by the United States.
5. Rear Admiral Lawrence Raymond Geis: naval aviator; born 1916; U.S.
Naval Academy, class of 1939 promoted to rear admiral July 1, 1965 was
commanding officer, USS Forrestal (CVA 59) 1962-63 would be assigned to
duty in September 1968 as Chief of Naval Information. The Office of
Naval Information has long played a leading role in the cover-up of the
USS Liberty story.
6. Saratoga's repeated demand for authentication, coupled with errors
and possible delay in forwarding Liberty's messages, contributed to
confusion at CINCUSNAVEUR headquarters. Liberty's first appeal for help,
received by Saratoga at 1209Z, was forwarded at Immediate precedence to
CINCUSNAVEUR headquarters. Immediate precedence, however, is entirely
inadequate as a speed-of-handling indicator for enemy contact reports;
more than 30 percent of the messages glutting the communication system
are Immediate precedence or higher. Liberty's second appeal was
appropriately forwarded at the much faster Flash precedence, overtaking
the initial report to arrive at CINCUSNAVEUR at 1247Z with the damning
notation that it was not authenticated. Thus the first Teletype report
of Liberty's attack arrived in London with the misleading caveat that
the transmission could be a hoax. The earlier report, arriving eight
minutes later, failed to mention that Liberty's initial transmission was
authenticated. Not until 1438Z, as the attack ended and Israel
apologized, did CINCUSNAVEUR learn from Saratoga (USS Saratoga message
081358Z June 1967) that the initial report was indeed authenticated.
7. Captain Donald Davenport Engen: naval aviator; born 1924; first
commissioned 1943; University of California at Los Angeles, class of
1948; holds nation's second-highest award for bravery, the Navy Cross.
Would be promoted to rear admiral in 1970 and to vice admiral in 1977.
8. COMSIXTHFLT message 081305Z June 1967 (Appendix C, page 236)
promises: SENDING AIRCRAFT T0 COVER YOU. This message, released on the
flagship about fifty-five minutes after Liberty's first call for help,
was not the first such message. Liberty crewmen, including the writer,
recall reports of help on the way at about 122OZ while the ship was
still under air attack.
9. Months later Hart was visited by an agent of the Naval Investigative
Service--armed with notebook and tape recorder--who sought to "debrief'
him on the events of June 8; that is, to record for the record
everything that Hart could recall of the attack and the communications
surrounding it. Hart refused to discuss the attack and the man went
away. Hart never heard from him again.