On June 8, 1967, Israeli leaders learned they could deliberately attack a U.S. Navy ship and try to send it, together with its entire crew, to the bottom of the Mediterranean – with impunity. Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, a state-of-the-art intelligence collection platform sailing in international waters off the Sinai, killing 34 of the 294 crew members and wounding more than 170.
No AccidentHere, for example, is the text of an intercepted Israeli conversation, just one of many pieces of hard, unambiguous evidence that the Israeli attack was not a mistake:
Israeli pilot to ground control: “This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?”
Ground control: “Yes, follow orders.” …
Israeli pilot: “But, sir, it’s an American ship – I can see the flag!”
Ground control: “Never mind; hit it!”
The Israelis would have been able to glory in reporting “mission accomplished, ship sunk, all crew killed” save for the bravery and surefootedness of then-23 year-old Navy seaman Terry Halbardier, whose actions spelled the difference between the murder of 34 of the crew and the intended massacre of all 294.
Halbardier skated across the Liberty’s slippery deck while it was being strafed in order to connect a communications cable and enable the Liberty to send out an SOS. The Israelis intercepted that message and, out of fear of how the U.S. Sixth Fleet would respond, immediately broke off the attack, returned to their bases, and sent an “oops” message to Washington confessing to their unfortunate “mistake.”
As things turned out, the Israelis didn’t need to be so concerned. When President Johnson learned that the USS America and USS Saratoga had launched warplanes to do battle with the forces attacking the Liberty, he told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to call Sixth Fleet commander Rear Admiral Lawrence Geiss and tell him to order the warplanes to return immediately to their carriers.
According to J.Q. “Tony” Hart, a chief petty officer who monitored these conversations from a U.S. Navy communications relay station in Morocco, Geiss shot back that one of his ships was under attack. Tellingly, McNamara responded: “President Johnson is not going to go to war or embarrass an American ally over a few sailors.