When Navy Capt. William L. McGonagle received his Medal of Honor, it was not bestowed on him by the president, as is customary, or even presented at the White House. McGonagle, who died last week at 73, was given his award in the relative seclusion of a shipyard near Washington by the Navy secretary. For all of McGonagle’s heroism, he was still part of an incident that the U.S. and Israeli governments would rather forget.
He was the captain of the Liberty.
A lightly armed World War II-era freighter converted to a technical resource ship, the Liberty was on duty in the eastern Mediterranean on June 8, 1967, Day 4 of what would soon be known as the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, when it was attacked by Israeli planes and torpedo boats.
Although staffed by U.S. Navy personnel, the Liberty was actually an intelligence-gathering ship, a listening post for the National Security Agency, the U.S. intelligence branch responsible for communications intercepts and code-breaking. Below decks, 100 crew members were using sensitive radio equipment to monitor traffic in the region.
As the afternoon of June 8 approached, off-duty members of the Liberty crew spent their time on deck sunbathing and waving to Israeli planes as they passed overhead. Crew members recalled that some of the pilots even waved back.
But just before 2 p.m., two Israeli Mirage fighters came back, and this time the pilots opened fire on the Liberty, spraying the vessel with rockets, machine gun fire and napalm. Israeli gunboats soon arrived and took over the attack, launching torpedoes, one of which ripped a 40-foot hole in the hull.
Of the 294-man crew, 34 were killed and 171 wounded.
McGonagle was on the bridge when the attack started. He was severely burned when one of the planes dropped napalm on the bridge, and his legs were so badly torn by shrapnel that a makeshift tourniquet could not staunch the flow.
“If I left . . . with those wounds, I’d never have been able to get back to the bridge,” he told a reporter later.
The Liberty sent SOS signals to the 6th Fleet. The carrier Saratoga finally responded, acknowledging receipt of the call for help. Twelve fighter planes were dispatched to the Liberty’s rescue, but those planes were quickly recalled on orders from Washington.
Then suddenly the attack was over. The Israeli gunboats offered help to the ship they had just tried to sink. The American response was, at a minimum, rude.
Through it all, McGonagle continued to oversee the firefighting and flood control efforts on the stricken ship.
He said that his crew inspired him to stay.
“I would lay down on the deck, and put my leg on the captain’s chair to stem the loss of blood,” he said.
He stayed at his post through the night, often stretching flat on the deck and navigating by the North Star. It took 17 hours for U.S. help to arrive.
By midafternoon of the day of the attack, Israeli officials had informed Washington of the incident. In the ensuing furor, Israeli officials expanded their explanation, saying that the fighter pilots thought the Liberty was an Egyptian freighter.
President Johnson accepted the explanation and an apology, but several high-ranking members of his administration and the military were not satisfied with the Israeli story.
“My position is that the Israeli military is highly professional and to suggest that they couldn’t identify the ship is . . . ridiculous,” Adm. Thomas Moorer, who was chief of naval operations at the time McGonagle received his Medal of Honor, told the Washington Post.
Other than a brief public statement after the incident, McGonagle refused to discuss the matter. He was, in the words of one of his crew members, “a good Navy captain.”
But in 1997, on the 30th anniversary of the attack, McGonagle spoke up.
In a speech at a reunion of Liberty crew members and their families at Arlington National Cemetery, he called for a full accounting from Israel and the United States.
“I think it’s about time that the state of Israel and the United States government provide the crew members of the Liberty and the rest of the American people the facts of what happened, and why . . . the Liberty was attacked,” McGonagle said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“For many years I have wanted to believe that the attack on the Liberty was pure error,” the captain said.
But, he said, “it appears to me that it . . . was not a pure case of mistaken identity. It was, on the other hand, gross incompetence and aggravated dereliction of duty on the part of many officers and men of the state of Israel.”
There was no official response to his remarks.
Another member of the crew, James Ennes, now a retired Navy lieutenant commander, found a separate explanation for the attack.
In his 1980 book, “Assault on the Liberty,” Ennes concluded that the Israeli attack was an attempt to prevent the Americans from learning of a planned Israeli invasion of the Golan Heights. The invasion came a day after the attack on the Liberty amid indications that Israel had earlier postponed the action.
Ennes said the ship’s mission was not to spy on the Israelis, but rather to intercept communications confirming Soviet pilots were flying Egypt’s air force fleet of Soviet-built Tu-95 bombers.
A U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry determined that the Liberty was “in international waters, properly marked as to her identity and nationality, and in calm, clear weather when she suffered an unprovoked attack.”
McGonagle, a Kansas native who received a degree from USC and served in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War, recovered from his severe wounds before receiving his Medal of Honor.
He was promoted from commander to captain and served several tours of duty before retiring in the mid-1970s to the Palm Springs area, where he died last week of lung cancer.
McGonagle is survived by two daughters, Cindy McGonagle of Portland, Ore., and Sandra McGonagle of Austin.
Memorial services were being planned for Arlington National Cemetery and during the Liberty reunion in June at Virginia Beach, Va.