A former officer of the Navy eaves-dropping ship Liberty says the Israelis deliberately tried to sink the vessel and kill all hands during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
James M. Ennes Jr., a lieutenant on the American ship who watched much of the attack from the bridge, theorizes that the Israelis were trying to prevent the Liberty from informing the U.S. government that Israel was planning to invade Syria and thus could be considered the aggressor.
Thirty-four American sailors were killed in the attack and 171 wounded, including Ennes.
Ennes, now retired from the Navy, accuses the U.S. and Israeli governments and Navy leaders of trying to keep the facts of the attacks secret. He relies on his recollections, those of shipmates and government documents to rebut the Israeli claim that the action was a case of mistaken identity.
His recently published 299-page book, Assault on the Liberty, includes this raw informational report, not a conclusion, from CIA files:
Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan, the report says "personally ordered the attack on the ship . . .One of his generals adamantly opposed the action and said, "This is pure murder.'"
Spokesman Aviezer Pazner at the Israeli Embassy said yesterday that the report was "baseless." He said the Israeli attack "was an unfortunate accident, like so many times happens in the heat of battle."
Pazner said Israeli pilots reported the Liberty was not flying the American flag. "It was identified as an Egyptian ship and attacked as an Egyptian ship." The same kind of mistaken identification caused Israeli aircraft to attack Israeli tanks during the 1967 war, he added.
Ennes stood watches on the bridge as well as performed secret code work on the Liberty. He reported for duty early on June 8, the day of the attack.
One of the first things he did was order the sooty American flag the Liberty was flying replaced by a new one. The signalman protested because he wanted to save the oversized holiday flag for a special occasion.
"We must fly the new flag, I said, explaining that we were operating in a dangerous area and could afford to show only our clearest, brightest colors."
The new flag was raised and remained visible all that clear day of the attack, Ennes says. Israeli reconnaissance planes flew over the ship at low level six times, Ennes writes, and could not have missed the flag.
Besides that, he states, two armed jets flying over the Liberty at 10 a.m. on June 8 radioed to shore that the ship was flying the American flag as it stood off the Gaza Strip listening in on the Arab-Israeli War.
After all that reconnaissance, the Israelis launched a devastating air attack against the Liberty at 2 p.m., raking the ship with gunfire, rockets and napalm.
Torpedo boats raced in next, firing torpedoes into the blazing ship and shooting guns along the waterline in an apparent attempt to disable the boilers.
"Lurking lazily a few hundred yards away," Ennes writes, "patiently waiting for Liberty to sink, the men on the torpedo boats watched the orange life rafts drop into the water" as the Liberty prepared to abandon ship.
One of the torpedo boats "moved closer to the Liberty. When within good machine gun range, she opened fire on the empty life rafts, deflating two and cutting the line on the third, which floated away like a child's balloon on the surface of the water."
Petty Officer Thomas Smith, Ennes continues in his account, "cursed helplessly as a torpedo boat stopped to take the raft aboard. Then the boats added speed, taking the raft with them and turned toward their base at Ashdod, 65 miles away.
"As the torpedo boats faded in the distance, helicopters could be seen approaching the ship. 'Stand by to repel boarders!' barked the announcing system . . . A sailor broke away from his station and ran screaming through the ship. 'They've come to finish us off.'"
But the clearly marked Israeli helicopters, Ennes writes, suddenly left without landing on the ship. The Israeli command had apparently called them back to the base. The Liberty crew fought to keep the ship afloat and, in an effort that won her skipper, Cmdr. William L. McGonagle, the Medical of Honor, made it back to port in Malta.
The Liberty had the equipment for eavesdropping on Israeli battlefield communications, including the preparations to invade Syria which would be reported to Washington. "So," writes Ennes, "by remarkable coincidence, if not by design -- Gen. [David] Elazar was forced to delay the invasion until Liberty was dispatched. Instead of attacking Syria, Israel's air, sea and shore coordination forces worked together to attack a United States ship."