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 Posted Tuesday, March 9, 1999

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 March 8, 1999; Page B05

Letters to the Editor

[Paul Findley's 1985 book, They Dare to Speak Out, contains a chapter on the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty]

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William McGonagle Dies, Captain of USS Liberty


By Richard Pearson Washington Post Staff Writer

WILLIAM L. McGonagle, 73, a retired Navy captain who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, for his conduct in commanding the ill-fated intelligence ship USS Liberty in 1967 when Israel unleashed a deadly attack on the vessel, died March 3 [1999] at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He had lung cancer.

In one of the most controversial events in U.S. military history, the lightly armed Liberty was attacked by Israeli planes, three torpedo boats and helicopters and was bombed with napalm, torpedoed and shelled on June 8, 1967, while sailing in international waters in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Of the 294 men aboard the Liberty, 34 were killed and 171, including Capt. McGonagle, were wounded. Though the captain managed to dodge four of five torpedoes, one struck, smashing a 40-foot hole in the ship's side.

A total of 821 rocket and machine-gun holes were later counted in Liberty's hull. Capt. McGonagle had shrapnel wounds in his leg.

The attack, which occurred during the Six-Day War between Israel and Arab states, was blamed by the Israelis on a mistaken identification. They maintained they thought the Liberty was an Egyptian ship.

Israel apologized to the United States and paid more than $12 million in compensation.

The events, shrouded in tragedy and conflict, have never been resolved. Many of those aboard the Liberty, as well as many senior U.S. officials, have taken issue with the Israeli version of events. Some have accused both the U.S. and Israeli governments of concealing vital information about the incident.

Capt. McGonagle, years after the attack, demanded that the two governments release all details of the attack.

During a 1997 reunion of Liberty survivors in Washington, the Associated Press quoted him as saying: "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 30 years ago today.

"For many years I have wanted to believe that the attack on the Liberty was pure error," Capt. McGonagle said.

But "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," he said.

In 1967, the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was a converted cargo ship technically classed as an "auxiliary general technical research" ship. It was an electronics intelligence-gathering craft, armed with four .50-caliber machine guns.

On June 8, the ship was near Sinai, positioned to monitor electronic traffic taking place over most of the war zone.

At 2 p.m. that day, Israeli forces began an attack on the Liberty that was to last more than two hours.

First, high-performance jets struck the ship; then came other jets carrying napalm. The attack was continued by motor-torpedo boats that fired five torpedoes. Finally, the ship was attacked by helicopters that machine-gunned the ship's life rafts.

James M. Ennes Jr., a deck officer aboard the Liberty during the attack, later wrote the best-selling "Assault on the Liberty" that told of the attack and some reasons he and others thought the Israelis attacked the ship.

The book and other publications told how the Liberty had flown a large, brand-new American flag, how it carried Navy markings, and how in appearance it was unlike any Egyptian ship.

The book and later press reports tell of Israeli pilots calling to their base to say that the Liberty was obviously a U.S. ship and being ordered to continue their attack.

Some have speculated that Israel, preparing to launch an attack on the Golan Heights, did not want Americans monitoring their military communications.

After the attack, Liberty crewmen were kept away from reporters, and the incident was minimized. But the ship received a Presidential Unit Citation.

Members of the crew received a Navy Cross, several Silver Stars and 205 Purple Hearts (34 posthumously). And in 1968, Capt. McGonagle received the Medal of Honor.

The award citation pointed out that "although severely wounded during the first air attack, Capt. McGonagle remained at his battle station on the badly damaged bridge. . . . Steadfastly refusing any treatment which would take him away from his post, he calmly continued to exercise firm command of his ship."

The citation goes on to say that "subsequent to the attack, although in great pain and weak from the loss of blood, Capt. McGonagle remained at his battle station for more than 17 hours.

It was only after rendezvous with a U.S. destroyer that he relinquished personal control of the Liberty and permitted himself to be removed from the bridge. Even then, he refused much-needed medical attention until convinced that the seriously wounded among his crew had been treated."

Capt. McGonagle, who was born in Wichita, entered the Navy in California. He served in World War II and the Korean War and received degrees from the University of Southern California and the University of Idaho.

He served in the Navy nearly 30 years before retiring after the Liberty incident.

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