TRAGEDY, COLOSSAL communications blunders and a classic government cover-up, abetted by the U.S. Navy, are the main ingredients of this excellent book by James M. Ennes Jr. A cryptographic specialist, Lieutenant Ennes was one of 287 men aboard the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, when Israeli air and naval forces attacked and inflicted tremendous damage on the ship. Thirty-four Americans were killed: Ennes was one of the 171 others who were wounded.

Thank God the entire crew was not killed. Had they been, the Liberty incident might be forever forgotten, like the unarmed Navy surveillance aircraft shot down by North Korea in April 1969.

I believe that, if the lessons of the Liberty had been known to planners and commanders involved with the USS Pueblo, the sorry tragedy of that ship would never have happened as it did. The "Pueblo Incident," in which I was a principal player, bore many striking resemblances to the story of the Liberty. The two ships had almost identical electronic surveillance missions, although Liberty's displacement was more than 12 times that of Pueblo and she was crewed by more than three times the personnel. The similarities are a terrible confusion in command and control, a lack of response to desperate calls for assistance during attack and a cover-up for incompetency at the top. But Liberty was pounded many times more heavily than Pueblo was, with far more devastating results.

The Liberty tragedy began deep in the maze of the intelligence community in Washinigton when in 1967 Israeli-Egyptian relations began to deteriorate. Washington "experts," sensing an opportunity to reap huge amounts of electronic intelligence, ordered Liberty from more prosaic operations along the African continent to the waters contiguous to Israel and Egypt. The ship arrived just after hostilities erupted.

Liberty's captain, Commander William L. McGonagle, realized the great danger inherent in operating in a war zone and requested close support from the commander of the Sixth Fleet. As was later to be the case with Pueblo, close support was denied. McGonagle was promised, however, as I was on the Pueblo, that help would be instantaneous in the event of trouble. Carrier air support was only 10 minutes away.

Later, seven minutes after the first devastating rocket attack from Israeli jets, Liberty's call for help was acknowledged by the carrier USS Saratoga. Incredibly, not one Saratoga aircraft ever arrived to help the stricken ship. Nor for that matter did any U.S. military assistance arrived during the hour and 20 minutes of continuous air and torpedo boat attacks.

This debacle is partially explained by the author. The Naval Court of Inquiry that looked into the affair abysmally failed to fix any blame for the terrible failure to aid compatriots undergoing foreign attack. Not only was blame not fixed, the facts were covered up.

How it is possible to maintain high morale in the Navy in the face of such inglorious performance by senior officers and government officials is beyond imagination. The Liberty incident clearly demonstrates once again that America's defense communication capabilities and performance are inept beyond the public's wildest dreams.

Ennes contends that the Israeli attack was deliberate, not an accident, as the Israeli government has said it was. He cites plausible and logical evidence. He recalls that Israeli aircraft made numerous low-level photographic and reconnaissance flights directly over Liberty in the eight hours immediately preceding the attack. He states unequivocally that Liberty's American flag was standing out in an eight-knot wind during the reconnaissance; this precludes any chance of misidentification. He contends that Israeli attackers used napalm against Liberty with devastating effect, and that Israeli motor torpedo boats repeatedly machine-gunned Liberty sailors fighting the napalm fires on deck and later strafed her life rafts in the water. Our government, including President Johnson, negligently and with thorough dishonesty, allowed these events to occur, and then covered them up in order not to embarrass an ally.

Why would an ally attack one of our ships? Ennes suggests a possible explanation. The week before the Liberty incident, President Johnson had warned the Israeli government that the United States would not support them in any action in which they were the aggressor. Israel contended that the actions it undertook in subsequent days against Egypt and Jordan were defensive. On the day of the attack on the Liberty, the Israelis had planned a strike into Syria. But, only hours before it was was to begin, the Liberty moved into position to monitor and record it. Since Israel had no desire to appear to be the aggressor, Ennes suggests that Israel decided to put the Liberty out of action in order to conceal from the United States and the rest of the world its real intentions towards Syria. The fact that Israel did strike Syria the day after the Liberty incident gives credibility to Ennes' theory.

The book, which reads like a thriller, should be requiried for all government employes. The writing is first-class. The relationships and conflicts of important shipboard personalities add suspense and human drama to the story.

Those personalities include Commander McGonagle, a ramrod-straight, courageous captain, affectionately called "Shep" or "Magoo" by his officers and men. McGonagle remained on the bridge, though seriously wounded and bleeding heavily throughout the Israeli attacks. His survival can only be called miraculous. His great courage and uncommon tenacity undoubtedly saved his ship. He was ultimately awarded the Medal of Honor, but not at the White House as is normal. Our government did not wish to draw attention to the incident.

McGonagle was well served by an equally courageous executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Philip McC. Armstrong, a Naval Academy graduate who was killed in the attack. He ran the ship and was idolized by the crew. But Armstrong's personal conduct must have grated heavily upon the captain. He played fast and loose with regulations, often drinking heavily, even at sea, and the crew often followed his lead. In my 27 1/2 years of service, enlisted and commissioned, I knew of only one officer who routinely drank aboard ship, and he was later court-martialed. To have had the drinking that prevailed on the Liberty is incredible, although there is nothing to suggest that it played a role on the day of the attack. Even more incredible is McGonagle's claim that he was unaware of any of it.

Another fine characterization in the book is of Lieutenant George H. Golden, the ship's engineer, who was magnificently innovative and heroic throughout the attack. There were many others described in the book whose performance was of the highest order.

Americans can take great pride in the officers and men of the USS Liberty, but they should deplore the bumbling politicians, bureaucrats and military brass who failed those men and then covered up. The entire matter and the 34 dead Americans cry out for justice, regardless of who gets tarnished. But don't hold your breath.