Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sunday Ship History: USS Liberty (AGTR-5)

It began as a Victory ship, more or less an "improved" version of the Liberty ships:
They were an enhancement of the previous Liberty ship design that were produced in much greater numbers, in particular they had a higher speed of 15 to 17 knots (28 to 31 km/h) compared to 11 knots (20 km/h) and longer range. The higher speed was particularly important because it made them less easy prey to U-boats, and was achieved by using improved engines over the Liberty's triple expansion reciprocating steam engine — Lenz type reciprocating steam engines, steam turbines or diesel engines with a power output between 6000 and 8500 horsepower (4.5 and 6 MW). It also had electrically powered auxiliary equipment rather than steam powered. They were oil fired, although some Canadian vessels were completed with both bunkers and oil tanks so that they could use coal or oil.

They were also strengthened hulls compared to Liberty ships since a few of the latter had suffered fractured hulls. To improve the hull flexibility (to reduce stresses), the frames were 36 inches (914 mm) apart as opposed to 30 inches (762 mm). Victory ships were slightly larger than Liberty ships, at 455 feet (139 m) long and 62 feet (19 m) wide with 25 feet (7.6 m) draft. With a fine raked bow and a 'cruiser' stern, to help achieve the higher speed, they had a quite different appearance to Liberty ships.
After successful service in WWII, many of these ships found other work. Some were laid up in the reserve fleet and called on later:
In the 1960s two Victory ships were reactivated and converted to technical research ships by the U.S. Navy with the hull type AGTR. SS Iran Victory became the USS Belmont (AGTR-4) and SS Simmons Victory became the USS Liberty (AGTR-5). The Liberty was attacked and severely damaged by Israeli forces in June 1967 and subsequently decommissioned and stricken from the Naval Register. The Belmont was decommissioned and stricken in 1970.
This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the attack on USS Liberty (AGTR-5). Official history:
USS Liberty, a 7725-ton Belmont class technical research ship, was built in 1945 as the civilian cargo ship Simmons Victory. She operated in commercial trade until 1958, when she was laid up in the National Defense Reserve Fleet. Simmons Victory was acquired by the Navy in February 1963 for conversion. Renamed Liberty and classified AG-168 in June 1963, she was reclassified AGTR-5 in April 1964 and commissioned in December 1964. In February 1965, she steamed from the west coast to Norfolk, Virginia, where she was further outfitted to suit her for a mission of collecting and processing foreign communications and other electronic emissions of possible National defense interest.

In June 1965, Liberty began her first deployment, to waters off the west coast of Africa. She carried out several more operations during the next two years, and went to the Mediterranean in 1967. During the "Six-Day War" between Israel and several Arab nations, she was sent to collect electronic intelligence in the eastern Mediterranean. On the afternoon of 8 June 1967, while in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula, Liberty, though clearly marked as a U.S. Navy ship, was struck by Israeli aircraft. After suffering damage and many personnel casualties from gunfire, rockets and bombs, she was further attacked by three Israeli Navy motor torpedo boats. One torpedo hit her on the starboard side, forward of the superstructure, opening a large hole in her hull. In all, thirty-four men were killed in the attacks and nearly 170 wounded. Israel subsequently apologized for the incident, explaining that its air and naval forces had mistaken the Liberty for a much smaller Egyptian Navy ship.

Though severely damaged, Liberty's crew kept her afloat, and she was able to leave the area under her own power. She was escorted to Malta by units of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and was there given interim repairs. After these were completed in July 1967, Liberty returned to the United States. She was decommissioned in June 1968 and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register two years later. USS Liberty was sold for scrapping in December 1970.
But that barely tells the tale. This gives a better idea:
The President of the United States
in the name of The Congress
takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor


Rank and organization: Captain (then Comdr.) U.S. Navy, U.S.S. Liberty (AGTR-5). Place and date: International waters, Eastern Mediterranean, 8-9 June 1967. Entered service at: Thermal, Calif. Born: 19 November 1925, Wichita, Kans.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sailing in international waters, the Liberty was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats which inflicted many casualties among the crew and caused extreme damage to the ship. Although severely wounded during the first air attack, Capt. McGonagle remained at his battle station on the badly damaged bridge and, with full knowledge of the seriousness of his wounds, subordinated his own welfare to the safety and survival of his command. Steadfastly refusing any treatment which would take him away from his post, he calmly continued to exercise firm command of his ship. Despite continuous exposure to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Capt. McGonagle's extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of the Liberty's crew, many of them seriously wounded, to heroic efforts to overcome the battle damage and keep the ship afloat. Subsequent to the attack, although in great pain and weak from the loss of blood, Captain McGonagle remained at his battle station and continued to command his ship 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's superb professionalism, courageous fighting spirit, and valiant leadership saved his ship and many lives. His actions sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Various members of the crew have a website that sets out the "true" story of the attack and provides a list of the 34 U.S. sailors who were killed in the attack as does Arlington Cemetary:
William B. Allenbaugh
Philip McC. Armstrong, Jr.*
Gary R. Blanchard
Allen M. Blue*
Francis Brown
Ronnie J. Campbell*
Jerry L. Converse
Robert B. Eisenberg
Jerry L. Goss*
Curtis A. Graves*
Lawrence P. Hayden*
Warren E. Hersey
Alan Higgins*
Carl L. Hoar
Richard W. Keene, Jr.
James L. Lenau
Raymond E. Linn*
James M. Lupton*
Duane R. Marggraf
David W. Marlborough*
Anthony P. Mendle
Carl C. Nygren*
James C. Pierce*
Jack L. Raper*
Edward E. Rehmeyer, III
David Skolak
John C. Smith, Jr.
Melvin D. Smith
John C. Spicher*
Alexander N. Thompson, Jr.
Thomas R. Thornton
Philippe C. Tiedtke
Stephen S. Toth
Frederick J. Walton
Of these, LCDR Armstrong received the Navy Cross for heroism:
Lieutenant Commander Armstrong was on the bridge when the first strafing attack occurred. A large fire erupted in the vicinity of two 55 gallon gasoline drums stored near the bridge and there was a grave danger that the drums might explode and cause a wide-spread uncontrollable conflagration. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, he fearlessly exposed himself to overwhelmingly accurate rocket and machine gun fire while proceeding to jettison the gasoline drums and organize a party of men to extinguish the blazing lifeboats. At this time he received multiple injuries which proved to be fatal . . . . "
National Security Agency Liberty website here - I recommend the last item- U.S.Cryptologic History Report, "Attack on a SIGINT Collector, the U.S.S. Liberty", dated 1981 (originally released in 1999)(pdf), especially pdf Chapter 4, pages 33-44 (numbered pages 25-36).

Sites alleging Liberty coverup here, here and here.

BBC show on Liberty: See also this.

The Anti-Defamation League USS Liberty site to counter the conspiracy theories.

However it came about, the attack was met by the Liberty crew in the finest traditions of the U.S. Navy.

UPDATE: As noted in the NSA report, the Israelis asserted that there was some confusion concerning the identity of the ship they were attacking. The report contains (at pdf pages 48 & 49, numbered pages 40 & 41) the following Which can be slightly enlarged by clicking on them) :

UPDATE2: An interesting source.

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