Book Review: Assault on the Liberty (1979)

The true story of the Israeli attack on an American intelligence ship
By James M. Ennes, Jr. (Fourth edition, Raintree, 2013)
Reviewed by Brian R. Wright

This is the second full book[1] I’ve read since coming into the fray of justice for the USS Liberty—justice (and recognition) for its victims and justice (and retribution) for its perpetrators—only recently. [I became aware in March or April of this year, 2017, that the 50th anniversary of the deliberate, unprovoked attack on the ship by the Israeli armed forces on June 8, 1967 was coming right up. I kicked myself for never adequately paying attention to the reality of this horrific war crime against American servicemen and resolved to catch up and pitch in to the cause.]

I’ve gotten to the point of having actually made a presentation to my local Oakland County, Michi-gan, Campaign for Liberty group. Video here courtesy John Irvine productions. [The online pdf of the presentation from which you may derive many useful links for further research is located here.] Further, from June 8-10, 2017, I attended the 50th anniversary event in Norfolk, Virginia, meeting several of the survivors and other supporters. I am working on a followup presentation to the C4L group, on that event, to which I shall provide links, when finished.

Assault is the first and, arguably, the most authoritative of the books on what happened that fateful day. The Liberty was an intelligence gathering ship, with a crew of 294 total, of which a major portion was devoted to secret or at least confidential intelligence work, mainly communications. Ennes was higher-level officer on the intelligence side, who had important line responsibilities for ship personnel and navigation. He was seriously injured during the initial strafing of the Liberty, and drew most of his information from extensive interviews with officers and crew, also from research with official agencies, libraries, and other public sources.

Ennes mainly, too, has the distinction of ‘breaking the ice’ on the strictly enforced policy by the Navy and the government of holding all crew to silence about the incident. They were threatened by admirals with court martial, imprisonment, or, by implication, assassination, should any of them speak a single word to a single soul about what they had witnessed. Crew members were intentionally redistributed such that no two would have the same assignments; the Naval Court of Inquiry performed a wholly fraudulent investigation that had the sole purpose of exonerating Israel from a major war crime against our military forces of epic proportions; awards and citations were delivered at remote locations, never noting that Israel had anything to do with the attack, and recipients again firmly directed to not speak of the incident for which they were recognized.

So when Ennes’s book came out, the angry men of the Liberty, who had been for so long outrageously disrespected and demeaned by high-traitorous federal officials, breathed a sigh of relief… and started talking, some of them, anyway, as well. It’s taken decades to reach a critical mass of popular will to obtain justice for victims and perpetrators of the Liberty. You can thank James Ennes for starting the ball rolling, nearly 40 years ago.

Description

Assault is perhaps less journalistically polished than James Scott’s book, Attack, but equally well-written. The passages dealing with the here and now attacks are even more graphic, gutwrenching, and authentic—author Ennes actually being there—also carrying a high degree of passion from his own personal anguish. [Author Ennes, now in his mid 80s, did not attend the 50th anniversary gathering of Liberty veterans in Norfolk. I suspect that now dealing as an older man with the “two-dozen rocket fragments that turned his uniform bright red and severed his left leg bone above the knee” could be partly to blame.]

I particularly like the gentle manner in which he leads us into the High Crime at Sea, giving us the average sailor’s day-to-day routine and some of their perspectives on being sent from the west coast of Africa, then to Spain, and on through the straits of Gibraltar on a mission that no one was really comfortable with: “What’s with all this talk of imminent war between Israel and the Arabs? Why are we going in, just a few miles into international waters, on our own, with no protection at all—the Sixth Fleet 500 miles away?! Who’s organizing this HLMFU (High-Level Military Foul Up)?”

[As it turns out, Ennes reports, many messages were sent from higher ups to the Liberty to get the F outta there and stay at least 100 miles away from the Sinai-Israel coastline. But these messages were universally (intentionally?) routed to Timbuktu in a Keystone Kops sequence of their own.]

Assault provides a convincing case that becomes the ‘official story’ of the Liberty crew, you can think of it as the common denominator story, because Ennes is very careful not to engage in speculation, or, when doing so, he tells you so. His version also jibes with the findings of the Moorer commission, an independently convened investigatory panel made up of Admiral Thomas Moorer, former Joint Chiefs Chairman, and several other retired generals and admirals of immense stature and credibility. That base story is as follows:

On June 8, 1967, starting at 1400 hours local time, Israel brutally assaulted an American naval vessel, the USS Liberty, in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea. The attack was preceded by more than six hours of intense, low-level surveillance by Israeli photo-recon aircraft, which buzzed the intelligence ship 13 times, sometimes flying as low as 200 feet overhead. The attack—lasting more than two hours, killing 34 Americans and wounding 172—was initiated by high-performance jet aircraft, followed by slower and more maneuverable jets dropping napalm, then finally turned over to motor torpedo boats (MTBs), which blasted a 40-foot hole in the ship’s side.

[Two large American ship’s flags were flying, one after the other, visible and unfurled on the clear, sunny day; the ship’s bow insignia, AGTR-5, was also unmistakable as denoting a US Navy craft. The attacking planes were unmarked; in seconds they used heat-seeking missiles to take out the tuners for all communications antennae and jammed Liberty frequencies. One antenna had not been connected during the initial strafing runs; a heroic radioman, braving a hail of projectiles on deck, ran a coaxial cable to the antenna from a transmitter, enabling a distress call to the Sixth Fleet at 1409 hrs.]

Damage from the aircraft was extensive, consisting of 821 rocket and cannon holes, and penetrations by thousands of high-caliber machine gun rounds. When the Liberty stubbornly remained afloat, the MTBs machine-gunned her life rafts (also shooting down stretcher bearers and other rescue workers). To finish the job and kill survivors, two Israeli army helicopters with commandos bearing automatic weapons approached the deck of the Liberty.  At this point, being aware that Sixth Fleet jets were en route, the Israeli ministry of defense withdrew its attacking forces… and Israel issued an apology.

Details of the attack were suppressed by both governments. Israel claimed that it had mistaken the Liberty for a WWI Egyptian horse transporter a fraction of the Liberty’s size and weight. A Navy court of inquiry was hastily convened and directed to cobble together a formal report in 10 days, its purpose obviously to whitewash and cover up the act of aggression. Liberty officer and crew testimony concerning the bolded items in the previous three paragraphs was excluded or ignored, and the COI report accepted Israel’s position in toto. No Israeli military or government official was found to be culpable, indeed, ultimately none was even questioned. The US government imposed a blackout and classified most infor-mation about the incident. Eventually, all US mainstream media toed the line.

Assault is a great book by a great and courageous man who has devoted his life to truth and justice. Toward the end, Ennes provides a poignant treatment of the presentation of the Congressional Medal of Honor to the USS Liberty’s heroic Captain William McGonagle:

“Why was the presentation to be made by the Secretary of the Navy, and why in the Navy Yard? Medals of Honor are ordinarily [always—bw] presented in the White House by the President with great fanfare and elaborate ceremony. McGonagle’s medal should have been awarded with no less pomp.

“A naval officer concerned with medals and awards told me the story: ‘The government is pretty jumpy about Israel,’ he said. ‘The State Department even asked the Israeli ambassador if his government had any objection to McGonagle getting the medal [italics mine—bw]…. But to avoid any possible offense [cont-inued the naval officer], McGonagle’s citation does not mention Israel at all, and the award ceremony kept the lowest possible profile.’

“Medal of Honor winners and their guests are traditionally treated by the United States to a luxurious dinner at a first-class restaurant. Captain and Mrs. McGonagle were put up at the  Shoreham Hotel, and it was decided to have the award dinner at the hotel restaurant. In keeping with the spirit of the affair, however, someone failed to notify the restaurant.” [At least the government didn’t set up folding chairs in the parking lot and pass out buckets of Kentucky Fried and bottles of Boone’s Farm.]

Thank you, Mr. Ennes. The whole travesty of our government’s and Israel’s crimes on the USS Liberty—and soiling of the honor of our valiant warriors—needs to be made right, and needs to be made right this year. You have given us a clear path to make it happen.

[Coffee Coaster Review link]

[1] The first book I read was from James Scott, The Attack on the Liberty (2009), which I reviewed here. The next in my research will be the recently published book by crewman/ survivor Phillip F. Tourney: Erasing the Liberty (2016). I have watched several of the DVD documentaries, most of which are on YouTube, but which I encourage you to purchase via the Liberty Veterans Association (https://usslibertyveterans.org/store.html). Here is my review of the two earlier documentaries: Losing the Liberty (2002) and Dead in the Water (2002).

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