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The True Story of Israel's attack
on an American Intelligence Ship

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

Chapter Six


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 below.

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 inside.

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 relieve me?"

"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 continued.

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 occasion.

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 feet.

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 inside.'

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 artery.

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 wound.

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 fires.

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 helm.

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 hammer.

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 carrier force).

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 bitch!"

"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 warning.

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 nuclear weapons.

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 beach.

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 report."

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 blanket."

"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 stretcher!"

"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!"

"Sir, I-"

"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 life jacket."

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 the helm.

A torpedo was spotted. It passed astern, missing the ship by barely seventy-five feet.



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 were taken.

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 entire time.

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.

Where to order Jim's book.

Hear this chapter read by Dick Estelle, as heard on National Public Radio.

Copyright (c) 1979, 1980, 1986, 1995 by James M. Ennes, Jr.