The year 1967 was the Summer of Love in the United States, but while young people, hippies, peace activists and flower children flocked to Haight-Asbury, San Francisco to revel in counterculture music and pharmaceutical enhancements, the summer of ’67 in the Middle East wasn’t flashing the peace sign.. The Six-Day War, a cataclysmic milestone in the ongoing tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors, exploded on June 5, 1967. After 132 hours of fighting, 20,000 Arabs and 800 Israelis died before the United Nations brokered a ceasefire that took effect on June 10. But Arabs and Israelis weren’t the only ones killed in the war. 34 American servicemen were killed and more than 171 were wounded in an attack on the USS Liberty. The attackers? The Israelis, an American ally. Was it a tragic example of friendly fire, as the Israelis said? Or was it a cover-up?
The USS Liberty was a U.S. Navy ship sailing in the international waters north of Sinai. As the former SS Simmons Victory, the ship had seen service at the end of World War II and during the Korean conflict, and then, in 1964, was reclassified a Technical Research Ship, re-outfitted at the price of forty million dollars and reborn as a state-of-the-art intelligence platform.
The Americans had neglected to inform the Israelis that a United States vessel would be sailing in what was going to become a war zone. Of course, some would argue that the Middle East was always a war zone.
Friction between the State of Israel and its Arab neighbors had never eased after 1948, when the creation of the Jewish homeland by the United Nations was met with an outbreak of war by Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Another war followed in 1956. And now, in 1967, skirmishes between Israel and Syrian-backed Palestinian guerillas had led to attacks across the border of Israel. In April, the two enemies fought an air battle. Under the order of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian military forced the United Nations peacekeeping troops out of the Sinai Peninsula. Nasser banned the Israelis from using the Straits of Tiran for their shipping. Jordan and Egypt signed a defense pact.
The signs of war were all too familiar. The Israelis decided that they needed to strike preemptively. On June 5, 1967, Israeli forces sent two hundred aircraft from Israel, over the Mediterranean, on to Egypt. The Egyptian Air Force was on the ground, unprepared and vulnerable; the Israelis eliminated ninety percent of it. The air forces of Syria, Jordan and Iraq met the same fate and by the end of the first day of the battle, the skies over the Middle East was under the control of the Israeli pilots.
The ground war was not quite the slam dunk that the aerial fight had been, but after initial resistance, the Egyptians retreated, pursued by the Israelis across the Sinai. When Jordan began shelling Jerusalem, the Israelis counterattacked and by June 7, Israeli forces had captured the Old City.
Things were going very well for the Israelis.
But there was concern that Egyptian ships would strike the Israelis on Sinai’s coastal road. Then the Navy learned that an unidentified ship, possibly a destroyer, was sailing close to the coast, seventy miles west of Gaza. The naval observer, upon closer examination, told Israel’s Central Coastal Command (CCC) that it was probably a U.S. supply ship, and neutral, not one of the enemy.
The USS Liberty saw two fighter jets without any markings flying toward them. The lack of markings meant that the Americans couldn’t identify the jets. The Israeli Defense Forces later said that the two jets were hunting for an Egyptian submarine that had been spotted near the coast. On the control table at CCC, the duty officer tagged the ship as green, indicating that it was non-hostile.
But after his shift ended, the green tag was removed because it was thought that the ship had sailed away. The upcoming duty officer, not informed of the unidentified ship, assumed that it was a hostile ship when it was sighted and he ordered an airstrike.
On the afternoon of June 8, the USS Liberty and its 294-man crew found itself under attack. At first the fighter planes came with rockets and internal cannon. Then came more fighters, this time with not only rockets and cannon fire, but napalm as well. Nine crew members died from the air strike. Then three Israeli torpedo boats began a surface attack after the start of the air attack, launching five torpedoes. One torpedo struck the Liberty’s side; the explosion killed twenty-five members of the crew.
Due to the intense communications jamming, the crew of the Liberty had difficulty in reaching the Sixth Fleet to ask for help. Even though the crew of the ship had raised a large American flag to identify itself, the attacks had not stopped. When the fighting was over, thirty-four crew members—naval officers, seamen, two marines and a civilian—were killed and one hundred seventy four were wounded.
The USS Liberty had a twisted keel and a thirty-nine foot by twenty-four foot hole amidships. The crew kept the ship afloat so that the Liberty could leave on its own power but the ship never sailed in a naval operation again. The ship was escorted to Malta by the Sixth Fleet where it received temporary repairs.
Israel said that it had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian ship and apologized for the attack, and paid nearly $13 million in compensation to the families of the killed and the wounded and for damages inflicted on the ship.
But questions remained and from those unanswered questions arose a controversy that remains to this day, more than forty years after the incident. Gary Brummett, who, at the time of the attack, was a twenty-one year old third class petty officer on board the USS Liberty, believes that the American government participated in a cover-up. “I have more trouble with it today than when it happened because I know more of the facts about what was going on. There’s been an egregious wrong done here, there’s been an extreme number of lies told to the American people and the American people do not know the truth about what happened.”
The Israelis believed that the Liberty had been firing on the Israeli forces in the Sinai. The Israelis described the attack on the USS Liberty as friendly fire, claiming that the pilots had not seen any American flags on the ship, although the surviving crew members said there were three visible flags.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman retired Admiral Thomas Moorer, who was chief of naval operations at the time of attack, believed that the Israelis acted deliberately. He wanted Congress to investigate. At a news conference after the incident, the Johnson administration concluded that the attack was a case of mistaken identity, as the Israelis said. But according to Moorer, it was “one of the classic All-American cover-ups.”
Retired Captain Ward Boston, the retired United States Navy lawyer who served as counsel to the Navy Court of Inquiry investigating the attack, asserts that the original findings of the court, which he signed, were changed by the government’s lawyers. He said that Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd told him that he was ordered by President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to reach the conclusion that the attack by Israel on the American ship was a case of mistaken identity.
Conspiracy theorists agree with these accounts, but historians do not. Jay Christol, the author of The Liberty Incident Revealed, describes the incident as “a series of blunders by both the United States and Israel that resulted in a terrible tragedy and nothing more.”
Michael Oren, an American-born Israeli who is both an historian and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, denies that there is any evidence to support the conspiracy theories. “Many thousands of documents related to the Liberty have been declassified and in none of these documents will you find a scintilla of evidence to suggest any of these conspiracy theories are true.”
Friendly fire or cover-up? The truth may never be known. Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts were awarded in abundance and the Liberty’s commanding officer received the Medal of Honor. For its action, the Liberty was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and the Presidential Unit Citation. The latter, signed by LBJ in 1968, was not formally presented to its crew until 1991. President George Herbert Walker Bush, who had served in the Navy during World War II, did not attend the ceremony at the White House.
But the accolades could not resurrect the doomed ship. In 1968, the Liberty had been decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register. In 1973, the Boston Metals Company purchased the Liberty for around one hundred thousand dollars, for scrap.