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June 7, 2011

Remember the Liberty!

Roy Meachum

The profuse apologetics for Israel’s performance in 1967’s Six Day War seek to derail attention from the sometimes brutal occupation of the West Bank; it’s lasted 44 years.


No one bothers to deny the Jewish state staged a preemptive strike against what Prime Minister Golda Meier and Gen. Moshe Dayan considered the possibility of an all-out attack by their Arab neighbors, led by Egyptian strong-man Gamal Abdel Nasser, backed by the Soviet Union. Israeli forces launched incursions the morning of June 5 and, by the time they finished six days later, they demolished their neighbors’ fighting capabilities.


Shortly after the firing ceased I went to Rome to cover the Vatican consistory for new cardinals, including Washington Archbishop Patrick Aloysius O’Boyle. Afterwards I was asked by CBS News to go into Egypt; Nasser had kicked out American and other Western correspondents in retaliation for the Six Day War. I didn’t get to Cairo that time – despite assurances from the U.N. Egyptian press officials that my Washington reporting had earned me a visa. It didn’t happen.


Their consul general in the embassy located in the Parioli district instead lectured me, still standing on my feet, on how “everyone knew” Israel did not have the air strength to destroy Egypt’s armed forces airports, not in one fell swoop. I was told the armadas of jets originated in Libya, from the U.S. Air Forces’ Wheelus base. Being in Rome, I was not made aware of what happened to the U.S.S. Liberty, a former freighter fully equipped by America’s National Security Agency.


The Liberty’s mission was to hang out in international waters keeping sophisticated electronic ears on the radio signals of all combatants. Cmdr. William McGonagle and his 296 crew, military and civilian technicians, were assigned to the Eastern Mediterranean because of the high tensions and rumors. Basically, Washington wanted to know what was going on. King Hussein kept his Jordan out the combat at first. Syria’s Golan Heights and the Sinai were lambasted. Later Gen. Abu Ghazahla was his Washington embassy military attaché; at the time of the Israeli attack he served as commandant of Cairo’s artillery academy. His cadets were shipped to the Sinai to rendezvous with guns and other equipment that they never found.


For three days Commander McGonagle’s crew listened, recorded and retransmitted the war zone communications; they heard Israel’s manufactured picture of great Arab victories that drew reluctant Hussein into the fighting on the prospects of victory. What happened the fourth day was described by Toronto Sun foreign correspondent Eric Margolis:

At 0800 hrs, 8 June, 1967, eight Israeli recon flights flew over 'Liberty,' which was flying a large American flag. At 1400 hrs, waves of low-flying Israeli Mystere and Mirage-III fighter-bombers repeatedly attacked the American vessel with rockets, napalm, and cannon. The air attacks lasted 20 minutes, concentrating on the ship's electronic antennas and dishes. The 'Liberty' was left afire, listing sharply. Eight of her crew lay dead, a hundred seriously wounded, including the captain, Commander William McGonagle.

“At 1424 hrs, three Israeli torpedo boats attacked, raking the burning 'Liberty' with 20mm and 40mm shells. At 1431hrs an Israeli torpedo hit the 'Liberty' midship, precisely where the signals intelligence systems were located. Twenty-five more Americans died.

“Israeli gunboats circled the wounded 'Liberty,' firing at crewmen trying to fight the fires. At 1515, the crew were ordered to abandon ship. The Israeli warships closed and poured machine gun fire into the crowded life rafts, sinking two. As American sailors were being massacred in cold blood, a rescue mission by US Sixth Fleet carrier aircraft was mysteriously aborted on orders from the White House.

“An hour after the attack, Israeli warships and planes returned. Commander McGonagle gave the order: 'Prepare to repel borders.' But the Israelis, probably fearful of intervention by the US Sixth Fleet, departed. 'Liberty' was left shattered but still defiant, her flag flying.

“The Israeli attacks killed 34 US seamen and wounded 171 out of a crew of 297, the worst loss of American naval personnel from hostile action since World War II.”

The incident was publicly deep-sixed, which is why I never knew in Rome. With the prospects of a presidential election the following year, Lyndon Johnson listened to advisors, Undersecretary of State Walt Rostow and National Security Advisor Gene Rostow, and accepted the explanation that Israel mistook the U.S. Navy ship for an aged, almost decrepit Egyptian freighter.U.S. Navy patrolling aircraft filmed the incident from above, confirming the Liberty flew an oversized Stars and Stripes all during the Israeli attack.


November, five months later, British U.N. Ambassador Lord Caradon pushed through the world body the Resolution 242, citing the post-World War I international agreement that nations that started wars should never enjoy the fruits of their aggressions. Yet Israel still occupies Syria’s Golan Heights and the West Bank.


This column was prompted by an utterly wrong Frederick News-Post Sunday Letter to the Editor attacking the president for proposing Middle East peace that would never be settled until the conqueror negotiate in terms of the 1967 borders. The proposal was rejected by the Israeli government and endorsed by the U.S. political establishment, both Democrats and Republicans.


Good grief! The Italians say: Miseria cordia! Same thing!


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