Richard Pearson Washington Post
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  at his home in Palm
Springs, Calif. He had lung
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
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
Israel apologized to the United States
and paid more than $12 million in
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright 1999 The Washington Post