March 1998 Issue, Pages 26, 88
Even as USS Liberty's Heroic Captain Receives
New Honor, Coverup of Israeli Attack on His Ship Continues
By Paul Findley
For providing heroic leadership under
fire, despite severe personal wounds, Captain William L. McGonagle,
U.S. Navy retired, is the well-deserved recipient of two of the
highest honors our nation can bestow. But on both occasions the
presentation received little public notice, and the U.S. Navy took
care to omit important details of his heroism and the identity of
the attacking military forces.
His heroism is exceptional, partly
because it occurred when the USS Liberty, a virtually-unarmed
intelligence ship that McGonagle commanded, came under deadly, sustained,
deliberate fire from military forces of Israel, a nation with which
the United States had maintained a close, cooperative relationship
since the state came into being in 1948.
The assault occurred on June 8, 1967,
in broad daylight, when the ship's markings and a large American
flag rippling in the breeze clearly identified the Liberty as
American. Israeli fighter planes, in more than 30 sorties, sprayed
the vessel with deadly rocket and machine-gun fire and napalm. A
torpedo from Israeli gunboats ripped huge holes in its hull. When
rubber life-rafts were lowered into the water as a preparation should
the abandon-ship order be given, the torpedo boats shot them to
In the wake of the assault, 34 U.S.
crewmen were dead and 171, including Captain McGonagle, were injured—some
Despite wounds and heavy bleeding,
he stayed on the badly-damaged bridge throughout the assault and
for 17 hours thereafter, inspiring the damage- and fire-control
efforts that miraculously kept the ship afloat.
Obviously more concerned about placating
Israel and its U.S. supporters than helping the Liberty and
its crew, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara prohibited a
nearby U.S. aircraft carrier from sending fighters to defend the
beleaguered ship. The next day President Lyndon B. Johnson accepted
the specious Israeli claim that the assault was a case of mistaken
identity. But then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Admiral Thomas
Moorer, who was soon to be chief of naval operations, several prominent
diplomats and all survivors of the Liberty have declared
For his heroism, Captain McGonagle
a year later received the nation's highest award, the Congressional
Medal of Honor.
The citation that accompanied the medal
gave him a well deserved salute: "[McGonagle] with full knowledge
of the seriousness of his wounds, subordinated his own welfare to
the safety and survival of his command.... Despite continuous exposure
to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised
the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties....He
[later] refused much-needed medical attention until convinced that
the seriously wounded among his crew had been treated...."
The medal was awarded only after
assurances that the Israeli government had no objections.
The citation did not mention that the
deadly assault was carried out by Israeli military forces, and, unbelievably,
the medal was awarded only after U.S. officials received assurances
that the Israeli government had no objections.
with time-honored tradition, the president of the United States
took no personal part in the presentation ceremony. He had it moved
away from the White House—and the news media. While President
Johnson spent the day in the White House, the medal was given to
McGonagle by the Navy secretary in an unpublicized ceremony at the
obscure Washington Navy Yard.
Admiral Thomas Moorer, who had become
chief of naval operations a few months earlier, had protested without
success over the denigrating arrangements, urging that the medal
be presented in the traditional manner. He later said, "The
way they did things, I'm surprised they didn't just hand it to him
under the 14th Street Bridge."
At no point in the ceremony were assaulting
forces identified as Israeli.
Twenty-nine years later, a second
notable honor—this one unprecedented—came to Captain
McGonagle. On Dec. 5, 1997, a new naval building in Chesapeake,
Virginia, was formally dedicated as the Captain William L. McGonagle
Branch Medical/ Dental Clinic. It is believed to be the first time
a U.S. naval building has been named in honor of a living sailor.
Honoring the Entire Crew
The dedication at Chesapeake was impressive
and deeply appreciated by the 20 survivors of the Liberty who
attended. They were touched when McGonagle, suffering from cancer,
pulled himself from a wheelchair and spoke from the podium. He said
the building should be considered an expression of honor to the entire
crew, not just to himself.
a doleful echo of the Medal of Honor ceremony years earlier, Israeli
military forces were not mentioned in the printed program of the
day or by any of the six naval officers who spoke.
James M. Ennes, Jr., who served as
deck officer during the assault and later wrote the best-selling
book, Assault on the Liberty*, learned in conversation before
and after the dedication that many of the people attending already
knew the full story of Israel's perfidy or had learned it from reading
Captain Sharon Peyronel, commanding
officer of the new facility, sought out Ennes and secured his autograph
in her copy that she had read 18 years earlier.
Why the assault on the Liberty?
Earlier in the week, Israel had defeated Egyptian and Jordanian
forces, taking control of the Sinai desert and all of Palestine.
The day after assaulting the American intelligence ship, Israel
invaded Syria and took control of the Golan Heights. All evidence
points to a callous decision by Israel's high command to destroy
the Liberty and its crew in order to keep U.S. officials
from learning Israel's plans and attempting to block the invasion.
Why the silence about Israel? It is
the continuation of a shameful coverup ordered by the Johnson administration
just days after the assault. Crew members were ordered not to answer
questions, and Congress has cooperated in the coverup. The award
to McGonagle was hidden from public view. Even tombstones were affected.
Six of the crewmen who died were buried at Arlington National Cemetery,
with a marker that originally read, "Died in the Eastern Mediterranean."
No mention of the ship, the circumstances, or Israel. The marker
was later improved slightly to read, "Killed USS Liberty."
Still no mention of Israel.
All efforts to secure congressional
hearings have been futile. I recall with sadness an interview I
had with Charles Bennett, a war veteran himself and a highly respected
member of Congress. I had hopes he would agree to have the Seapower
Subcommittee he chaired hold hearings. Many questions remained unanswered,
and, I argued, survivors of the Liberty deserved to have
their stories heard.
The timing seemed perfect. He had announced
that he would not seek re-election, and he therefore need not worry
about the reaction of his pro-Israel constituents or his colleagues
on the committee. He was free, or so it seemed to me, for statesmanlike
Instead, when I tried to make my case,
Bennett was full of fire. He grabbed his ever-present cane and stood
up. "I don't want to do it. All the hearings would do is make
some of my constituents feel bad."
It was a candid reaction, silently
shared by hundreds of others on Capitol Hill and in the executive
branch. Like Bennett, they have been more determined to maintain
good relations with pro-Israel constituencies than to make amends
with unsung naval heroes by according them a day or two of hearings
on the public record.
Although I did not attend the ceremony
at Chesapeake, I am sure the majority of those present, including
all who spoke, considered the event a powerful although silent tribute
to brave men under lethal fire and an equally powerful although
unexpressed rebuke to the State of Israel.
*Available through the AET
Former Congressman Paul Findley
(R-IL) is the author of They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions
Confront Israel's Lobby and Deliberate Deceptions: Facing the
Facts About the U.S.-Israeli Relationship, both of which are available
from the AET