Tuesday, January 22, 2008
USS Liberty (AGTR-5)
Figure 1: USS Liberty (AGTR-5) underway in Chesapeake Bay, 29 July 1967, upon her return from the Mediterranean Sea. She had been attacked and seriously damaged by Israeli air and surface forces while operating off the Sinai Peninsula on 8 June 1967, during the "Six-Day War", and was subsequently repaired at Malta. Official U.S. Navy Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 2: USS Liberty receives assistance from units of the Sixth Fleet, after she was attacked and seriously damaged by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula on 8 June 1967. An SH-3 helicopter is near her bow. Official U.S. Navy Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 3: USS Liberty at Valletta, Malta, after arriving there for repair of damages received when she was attacked by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula on 8 June 1967. She arrived at Malta on 14 June. Note torpedo hole in her side, forward of the superstructure. Photographed by PH1 J.J. Kelly, USN. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 4: USS Liberty arrives at Valletta, Malta, for repair of damages received when she was attacked by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula on 8 June 1967. Photo is dated 16 June. However, she arrived at Malta on 14 June. Note torpedo hole in her side, forward of the superstructure and numerous rocket and gunfire impacts on the hull and superstructure. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 5: Captain William Loren McGonagle, USN. Portrait photograph, dated 4 October 1967. Captain McGonagle has inscribed this photograph: "To The Navy Memorial Museum, W.L. McGonagle, Captain, U.S. Navy, 12 June 1968". Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 6: Commander William L. McGonagle, USN, Commanding Officer, USS Liberty (AGTR-5), in his cabin on board the ship, 11 June 1967. Note damage received when Israeli forces attacked the Liberty off the Sinai Peninsula on 8 June. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.
The 7,725-ton USS Liberty was originally built as the civilian cargo ship SS Simmons Victory at the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, Portland, Oregon, in 1945. She was delivered to the US Maritime Commission on 4 May 1945. The Simmons Victory was 455 feet long, 60 feet wide, and had a top speed of 16 knots and a crew of 358 officers and men. She functioned as a commercial cargo ship from the closing months of World War II to 1958, when she was placed in the National Defense Reserve Fleet. The US Navy then purchased the ship in February 1963. Renamed the USS Liberty and classified AG-168 in June 1963, she was reclassified AGTR-5 in April 1964 and was commissioned in December 1964. In February 1965, the Liberty was sent from the west coast to Norfolk, Virginia, where she was converted into a ship designed for gathering intelligence off the coasts of other nations. Her primary mission was to collect and process foreign communications and other electronic emissions that would be of use to the US Government.
In June 1965, the Liberty was sent on her first mission off the west coast of Africa. In October she was sent back to Norfolk and operated out of that naval base until 4 January 1966, when she was sent back to the coast of Africa. In April 1966, the Liberty got a new captain, Commander William L. McGonagle.
William Loren McGonagle was born in Wichita, Kansas, on 19 November 1925, but attended school in California. He joined the ROTC while in college and was commissioned an Ensign upon graduation from the University of Southern California in June 1947. He served on the destroyer Frank Knox and the minesweeper Partridge from 1947 to 1950 and went on to serve on board the minesweeper Kite during the Korean War. The Kite earned a Presidential Unit Citation for her extensive minesweeping achievements during the war. From 1951 to 1966, he successfully performed various duties both on land and at sea, including being assigned as commander of the fleet tug Mataco from 1957 to 1958 and as commander of the salvage ship Reclaimer from 1961 to 1963. In April of 1966, he boarded his new command, the USS Liberty.
From April 1966 to the end of May 1967, McGonagle and his men successfully completed a number of communications and electronic monitoring missions. On 2 June 1967 the Liberty left Rota, Spain, and on 8 June she was steaming approximately 13 miles off the coast of El Arish, located on the northern Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula. It was the fourth day of the brief 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the Liberty was monitoring both Egyptian and Israeli communications while in international waters off Sinai. At 1403 local time, the Liberty was attacked by Israeli jet fighters. A bomb hit the ship on its port side amidships and then two more Israeli fighters made strafing runs against the Liberty, hitting her with cannon fire, rockets, and fragmentation bombs. Three major fires burned throughout the ship and at 1424 three motor torpedo boats, all of them flying the Israeli flag, joined in on the attack, even though the Liberty was clearly marked as an American naval vessel. A total of three torpedoes were fired at the ship and one of them hit on the starboard side, tearing a 39-foot-wide hole in her hull.
The Liberty was in dire straits. The ship was frantically radioing US Sixth Fleet Naval Headquarters for assistance and it was sending messages in plain English stating that she was an unarmed American naval vessel. Commander McGonagle was severely wounded in the attack, but he refused to leave the bridge and remained at the conn, trying to steer the ship away from shallow water. Because both the ship’s gyrocompass and magnetic compass were knocked out, Commander McGonagle steered the ship using its wake and the azimuth of the afternoon sun as reference points. Commander McGonagle steadfastly refused any medical treatment that would take him away from his post. He continued to exercise command of his ship and, despite continuous exposure to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed her defense, supervised the attempts to stop the flooding and fires on board the Liberty, and saw to the care of his wounded men. Commander McGonagle's extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of the Liberty's crew, many of them seriously wounded, to overcome the battle damage and keep the ship afloat.
But help was on the way. The Sixth Fleet immediately scrambled aircraft from the carrier USS America and US warships were quickly ordered to steam towards the Liberty. The attacks from the Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats also ceased, evidently after they received the frantic radio messages from the stricken naval vessel. Israel later claimed that the attack was an accident, maintaining that its air and naval forces had mistaken the Liberty for a much smaller Egyptian Navy ship. The Liberty, though severely damaged, remained afloat and was able to leave the area under her own power. She eventually rendezvoused with elements of the Sixth Fleet and was escorted to Malta for repairs by the USS America (CVA-66), USS Little Rock (CLG-4), USS Davis (DD-937), and the USS Papago (ATF-160). Captain McGonagle remained at his battle station for more than seventeen hours. It was only after the rendezvous with the warships from the Sixth Fleet that he relinquished personal control of the Liberty and permitted himself to be removed from the bridge. A total of 34 men were killed during the attack and 170 others were wounded.
The Liberty made it to Valletta, Malta, on 14 June and underwent preliminary repairs that would enable her to sail back to the United States. The Liberty left Malta accompanied by the Papago on 16 July and arrived in Norfolk on 29 July. The Liberty was decommissioned in June 1968 and was eventually sold for scrapping in December 1970.
The USS Liberty was given the Presidential Unit Citation and Commander McGonagle was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving his severely damaged ship. He remained on the bridge for 17 hours despite his serious wounds and he guided his ship to safety until help arrived. He was promoted to the rank of Captain in October 1967 and went on to command the new ammunition ship USS Kilauea. He led the NROTC Unit at the University of Oklahoma for several years and retired from the Navy in 1974. Captain William L. McGonagle died in Palm Springs, California, on 3 March 1999.
Many comparisons have been made between the attack on the Liberty and the subsequent attack on the USS Pueblo (AGER-2), which took place seven months after the assault on the Liberty. Such comparisons are unfair simply because the circumstances were so different between the two cases. The Liberty was much larger than the Pueblo and it could sustain much more damage than the Pueblo could. Furthermore, US Naval aircraft and warships were immediately sent to aid the Liberty and all attacks by Israeli forces ceased once they discovered they were attacking a friendly naval vessel. The North Koreans were determined to either sink or capture the Pueblo and no US Naval warships were nearby to provide immediate assistance to the Pueblo. True, American aircraft could have been sent to help the Pueblo, but by the time they would have gotten there the ship was already in North Korean hands. The real question (which has never been answered by the US Navy) is why did the United States send a small, unarmed ship like the Pueblo into hostile waters with no adequate naval or air support after an attack had already taken place on the Liberty?
The attacks on the Liberty and the Pueblo were different in many ways, but the US Navy did make important judgments regarding both incidents. Commander McGonagle received the Medal of Honor for refusing to surrender his unarmed ship by steaming away from danger, even if it meant going down with his ship. Commander Bucher was almost court-martialed for surrendering his unarmed ship to hostile forces.
Posted by Remo at 9:14 AM