On June 8, 1967, on the fourth day of Israel’s attack on neighboring Arab countries, an American intelligence ship called the USS Liberty with 294 men aboard incurred an all-out assault by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats.
The unprovoked air and sea attack would last 75 minutes. After the smoke cleared, the severely damaged USS Liberty emerged with 34 dead crewmen and 171 wounded. The ship would miraculously remain afloat despite taking over 821 rocket, cannon and machine-gun holes.
The story of the USS Liberty is a tragic one. It is a tragedy not only for the events that befell the brave crew of the USS Liberty that fateful day but also because of the controversy that has surrounded this incident for nearly 34 years.
The attack was met immediately with denial and covered up by Israel and the United States. The Israelis called it a “tragic case of misidentification,” claiming they mistook the USS Liberty for an out-of-service Egyptian horse carrier called El Quseir. The American government accepted the Israeli excuse saying it was an accident, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Survivors and many former top US officials like Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State Admiral Thomas Moorer said it was a carefully orchestrated and deliberate attack by Israel against an American ship. Yet, the United States has denied the USS Liberty a congressional investigation. The ship remains the only major maritime incident in US history that has not received a public investigation by the US Congress.
“They fear the Israeli and Jewish reactions. Also, I think that there is so much pro-Israel propaganda that many American Jews really believe that the attack was a tragic accident and that any attention to this story comes from anti-Semites. That claim alone is enough to stifle discussion,” says Ennes who was officer-of-the-deck on the bridge the day of the attack.
In his book, Assault on the Liberty, Ennes explained that before the attack he witnessed more than 6 hours of surveillance by Israeli aircraft that circled the USS Liberty thirteen times; sometimes close enough that they “exchanged friendly waves.” The USS Liberty was on a peaceful mission in the area, a safe distance from the fighting, in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea. The ship was clearly identified by Israel as a US intelligence ship and officers even heard Israelis recognize the ship as American on their radio frequencies. The ship also had an American flag hoisted high above it.
The remaining survivors of the USS Liberty continue to courageously tell their story amidst claims that the survivors are liars, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israeli. To this day, Israel insists the incident was an “innocent mistake”. However, there is evidence gathered by intelligence analysts and others that supports the charge that Israel deliberately attacked the intelligence ship to prevent it from monitoring Israeli plans to invade the Golan Heights the following day.
“Thirty four of our shipmates were killed and their killers still give a false account of what happened. Israel did apologize and paid damages, but they continue to lie. We just want them to stop lying,” says Ennes. “Our 34 dead shipmates are entitled to the truth being in the historical record.”
Joe Meadors was a signalman on the bridge of the USS Liberty that day. When the ship’s regular size American flag was shot down, Meadors and another crewman immediately replaced it with an even larger American flag. But the attack continued. Meadors remembers when he first discovered the identity of their attackers.
“I didn’t know the attackers were Israeli until I saw the Israeli flag flying from one of the torpedo boats that I saw from a distance of about 100 yards as it sailed slowly up our port left side,” says Meadors.
Many questions remain unanswered. During the attack, the White House blocked air rescue for over 90 minutes until Navy jet aircraft were ordered in at which time the Israelis ceased their attack and withdrew. The US Sixth Fleet was less than 300 miles away during the attack but did not come to the aid of the USS Liberty, despite guarantees that air support would be provided within ten minutes if help were needed. It would take more than 16 hours before the first American forces reached the USS Liberty.
“The question of why it took more than 16 hours for the Sixth Fleet to come to our assistance is one that we have been trying to get answered for many years,” says Meadors.
Because the attack was never investigated, Meadors says it is premature to say whose decision it was to attack the ship. But there is evidence pointing to who ordered the attack. “We do have a CIA document that was prepared as a result of receiving information from an informant in the Israeli War Room who tells us that Moshe Dayan personally ordered the attack,” says Meadors.
Though the United States has released thousands of documents on the USS Liberty, Ennes says they have still not released all. “They claim that some documents we seek cannot be identified. In other cases the government claims that release of certain documents would ’embarrass an ally’.”
Yet the survivors have forged on, determined to show that truth will ultimately stand the test of time. With the establishment of the USS Liberty Veterans Association in 1982 and a website created as a memorial to the USS Liberty, they have publicized the true story of the USS Liberty in hopes of keeping it alive in the public conscience. The surviving crewman say they will never get closure until they receive a congressional investigation and acknowledgement from Israel that the attack was in fact deliberate.
“All we want is the truth to be told after a complete and comprehensive public Congressional investigation that routinely follows an incident of this kind. Nothing more and certainly nothing less,” says Meadors.