March 1998 Issue, Pages 26, 88

Speaking Out

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 pieces.

In the wake of the assault, 34 U.S. crewmen were dead and 171, including Captain McGonagle, were injured—some critically.

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 it deliberate.

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.

Breaking 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.

In 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 Ennes' book.

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 leadership.

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 Book Club

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 Book Club.