50 states, 50 heroes: Defending Liberty

Published 7:01 am Saturday, April 18, 2020

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Born Nov. 19, 1925, in Wichita, Kansas, William Loren McGonagle enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and was commissioned an ensign in 1947. During the Korean War, he served aboard the minesweeper USS Kite, participating in minesweeping actions to clear the landing area for U.N. forces at Inchon. After holding various positions, Comm. McGonagle took command of the Belmont-class electronic spy ship USS Liberty in April 1966.

On June 5, 1967, the Six-Day War began between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. On the afternoon of June 8, the Liberty was in international waters in the Eastern Meditterranean Sea, about 12 miles off the coast of Gaza, when it came under attack by Israeli Air Force jets. Firing napalm and rockets, the Israelis jammed the ship’s radio communications. The Americans were eventually able to get in contact with the carrier USS Saratoga, who dispatched fighter jets to the Liberty. But when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara heard of the deployment, he ordered them back without explanation, leaving Liberty on her own.

The ship’s crew fought back, but the ship still suffered heavy damage to the bridge. By the time the jets left two hours later, nine crew members were dead and 60 were wounded, including McGonagle. But despite the severity of his wounds, McGonagle stayed at his post on the damaged bridge and continued to give orders.

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After the first attack, the ship again came under fire, this time from Israeli Navy torpedo boats. As the Israelis fired artillery at the Liberty, McGonagle, bleeding badly from his leg, continuously relayed orders to the crew, inspiring those that were wounded to continue the fight. The Israelis then tried to sink the ship with torpedoes. McGonagle was able to maneuver the ship to make the first torpedo miss. The same occurred with three more torpedoes, all missing their mark thanks to McGonagle’s leadership.

A fifth torpedo, however, found its target, striking the Liberty just below the waterline. Concerned the ship would sink, McGonagle ordered the launching of three lifeboats, all of which were sunk by the Israelis (in violation of international law). Despite the damage to the ship, including a hole that measured 39 feet tall and 24 feet wide, the crew of the Liberty, inspired by their commander, managed to keep her afloat. After failing to sink the Liberty, the Israelis withdrew, leaving 34 dead and 171 wounded.

For 17 hours, McGonagle stayed at his battle station; while in battle and after to make sure the wounded crew members were treated. Only after the ship made contact with a U.S. destroyer did McGonagle allow himself to be relieved and have his wounds treated.

McGonagle was promoted to Captain in October 1967 and given command of the ammunition ship USS Kilauea. On June 11, 1968, Navy Secretary Paul Ingatius presented McGonagle with the Medal of Honor.

After serving as the commanding officer of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at the University of Oklahoma, McGonagle retired from the Navy in 1974. Along with the Medal of Honor, he received the Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal and Presidential Unit Citation, among others.

McGonagle died on March 3, 1999, at the age of 73. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery near other members of the Liberty’s crew.

The attack on the Liberty remains controversial to this day. Israel apologized for the incident, claiming its forces mistook the ship for an Egyptian vessel, and paid the equivalent of $65 million in today’s currency in compensation to the families of victims and survivors. But not all were satisfied with that claim. Retired Navy Lt. Comm. James Ennes, a crewmember of the Liberty, concluded in his 1980 book “Assault on the Liberty” that the attack was to prevent the Americans from knowing of Israel’s impending attack on Syria’s Golan Heights. A Naval Court of Inquiry held after the incident determined the ship was “in international waters, properly marked as to her identity and nationality, and in calm, clear weather when she suffered an unprovoked attack.”

McGonagle never spoke of the incident until 30 years later, when he said he believed the attack was not so much a case of mistaken identity as it was “gross incompetence and aggravated dereliction of duty” on the part of Israel.