Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 19, 1982, Page 7

Book Review

Assault on the Liberty

By James M. Ennes, Jr. Random House New York, 1979. 299 pp. $13.95

Purchase here 

Reviewed by George Smalley

On June 1, 1967 Captain William McGonagle of the USS Liberty received orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make the ship's "best speed" to the Mediterranean coastal waters off the Gaza Strip. Equipped with highly technical "listening" devices, the ship's mission was to gather intelligence data while patrolling a predescribed dogleg pattern parallel to the coast near the volatile Egypt-Israel border. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon on June 8, three days after the Arab-Israeli war had broken out, Israeli jets and gunboats attacked the lightly armed Liberty, leaving 34 crewmen dead and 171 wounded.

Two days later the government of Israel formally expressed its deep regret over what it termed a "tragic accident," saying that the Liberty had been mistaken for an Egyptian supply ship. But after reading Assault on the Liberty—written by Lieutenant James Ennes, a first-hand observer on the ship's highest deck during the initial stages of attackthe Israeli explanation of mistaken identity strains belief beyond reason.

Reconnoitered First

June 8 was a clear day and the Liberty was flying a new oversize "holiday" flag which flew unfurled all morning in eight knots or more of wind. Preceding the attack the ship was systematically reconnoitered for seven hours by 10 jets and flying boxcars, the fifth of which flew approximately two-hundred feet above the water and was easily identified by crewmen to be Israeli. In light of these overflights it seems dubious that the Liberty could have been mistaken for the Egyptian supply ship el Quseir, which was half the Liberty's size, much older, and lacked the hull markings and array of elaborate antenna. Also it was in port, in Egypt, on June 8.

Ennes' book proceeds in chronological fashion, describing the chain of commands and botched radio transmissions that led the ship to patrol the Gaza coast at a distance of 13 miles, 87 fewer than it was supposed to; the relentless one and one-half hours of attack; and the subsequent cover-up by the U.S. and Israeli governments and the U.S. court of inquiry. It is a very readable account, particularly of the assault itself, although occasionally Ennes gets carried away with his own flights of prose and burdens the reader with extraneous detail.

The assault is described by Ennes as planned and coordinated, with aircraft and gunboats approaching from the same direction at intervals designed "to deal a fatal one-two body blow." The jets attacked in waves, with the first Mirage fighter bomber firing in staccato fashion some two to three dozen rockets which caused rapid sequence explosions. The second Mirage jet, according to one crewman, "put a rocket at the base of every transmitting antenna on the ship," temporarily interrupting radio communication before it was permanently incapacitated later. The Mirages were followed by more maneuverable Dassault Mystere jets which dropped canisters of napalm, setting fire to four levels of the ship's superstructure. Soon thereafter three motor torpedo boats approached the ship in attack formation. The first torpedo fired at the Liberty missed its mark, but the second one blew a forty-foot hole in the ship's starboard side, killing twenty-five men instantly. The order was given to prepare to abandon ship, but few were able to carry out this order because of continued machine gun fire from the gunboats at both men onboard the Liberty and at the liferafts that were being lowered into the water. Sometimes inactive some two hundred yards away, the gunboats appeared to Ennes to be waiting for the intelligence ship to sink.

Superficial Inquiry

Ennes dismisses the subsequent naval inquiry as not much more than a farce, as it suppressed information and failed to resolve contradictory testimony between Captain McGonagle and crewmen and between the official Israeli version of events and that told by Ennes and others. He writes: "Men who testified told me later that they felt deeply frustrated by the court's apparent lack of interest in details of the attack, its duration, intensity, the extent of preattack surveillance and the like. Most of the ship's officers, once they realized the shallowness of the questioning, dismissed the inquiry as 'whitewash.’"

The author concludes that the attack was predetermined and deliberate and reasons on that premise in the epilogue, when he discusses why Israel attacked. He speculates that it intentionally incapacitated the Liberty so that the ship could not gather evidence by listening in on planning discussions of Israeli military commanders, showing that Israel would be acting as the aggressor when it attacked the Syrian Golan Heights on June 9 (Israel's line, at the time, was that Egypt had attacked Israel first, and Israel wanted to make the same claim with regard to Syria). The invasion of Golan was originally planned for June 8 but was postponed until the following day, less than 24 hours after the Liberty had been attacked. By that time, the Liberty's "listening" capacity had been destroyed.

George Smalley is Staff Reporter for this newsletter.