Monday, June 26, 2017

USS Scorpion: On Patrol, 49 Years and Counting

HRNM Photo by Diana Gordon.
By Julius Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Among the many artifacts at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, there are several that are seldom noticed. These artifacts, located in the Cold War Gallery, concern the USS Scorpion (SSN 589), a Skipjack-class nuclear attack submarine that was considered revolutionary in her day. Pieces include a commissioning plaque for the submarine and her Navy Unit Commendation pennant. Also included are two items more personal in nature, a uniform name plate and a set of Scorpion-crested his and hers cigarette lighters. These personal effects were donated by Navy Capt. Mary Etta Nolan, the daughter of Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Walter W. Bishop, Scorpion’s Chief of the Boat (COB). These artifacts seem commonplace and ordinary, but the story of the submarine they are representative of is anything but.

LEFT: At Naval Station Norfolk, Captain Mary Etta Nolan appears at a memorial ceremony held in 2013 honoring the 99 submariners who perished aboard USS Scorpion (SSN 589) in 1967, one of whom was her father (RIGHT), Chief Torpedoman's Mate Walter Bishop. While still a first class petty officer, Bishop was selected in July 1962 as Scorpion’s Chief of the Boat. This uncommon step was taken in recognition of Bishop’s outstanding and superb leadership characteristics. In 1999, Building 560 at Naval Submarine Base New London (SUBASE) was named and dedicated in his honor.  (Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic Facebook page/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum archive.)   
On May 27, 1968, Scorpion was expected to pull into Naval Station Norfolk at the conclusion of a successful Mediterranean deployment. As was customary, families were there to greet them on the pier. Wives, some with children by their sides, waited with anticipation for their loved ones to return home to them. As Capt. Nolan told The Virginian-Pilot in 2008, she and her two brothers were not with their mother on the pier; instead they were at a friend’s house waiting for their father to return. Time went on and families continued to anxiously wait. By that afternoon, though, it became clear that something was amiss. While it was normal for submarines to cross the Atlantic under orders of electronic and communication silence, upon proximity to shore they would transmit messages requesting berthing assignment and tug assistance from their respective superiors, in the case of Scorpion, Commander Submarine Squadron Six (COMSUBRONSIX). At 12:40 pm, COMSUBRONSIX sent a message to Commander Submarine Forces Atlantic (COMSUBLANT) that they had yet to receive any messages from Scorpion and that she was overdue. Mrs. Bishop returned home without her husband and picked up her children, who assumed that their father was hiding in the house waiting to be found, as was their family custom. While their mother maintained her strength, the children had no idea how serious the situation actually was. To them the sub would be found and everything would be ok. To eight-year-old Mary Etta Bishop, the situation was no different than the show Gilligan’s Island.

During builder's trials, USS Scorpion (SSN-589) steams off New London, Connecticut on June 27, 1960. Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, father of the Navy's nuclear program, is standing on her sailplanes with another officer. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)
While the families of the Sailors onboard attempted to cope with the unknown, COMSUBLANT tried to re-establish communications with the submarine. At 3:15 that afternoon, after hours of attempts with no success, COMSUBLANT declared her missing and initiated an exhaustive air, sea, and subsurface search along her prearranged westerly track from 73⁰ West (directly south of New York City) to the Azores. This search proved fruitless and on June 5, 1968, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Moorer declared Scorpion lost with all hands. At the end of October 1968, the oceanographic research ship USNS Mizar (T-AGOR-11) located Scorpion’s shattered hull 9800 feet below the surface and about 460 miles southwest of the Azores.
View of the sunken submarine's sail, probably taken when Scorpion was located by USNS Mizar (T-AGOR-11) in October 1968, on the Atlantic Ocean floor 10,000 feet deep, some 400 miles southwest of the Azores. This image shows the starboard side of the sail, with its after end at top left, and the starboard access door in lower left. Debris is on the ocean bottom nearby. The device in top center is part of the equipment used in locating and photographing the wreckage. The original photograph bears the date January 30, 1969. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)
The loss of the Scorpion and the 99 members of her crew remain one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in the history of the United States Navy. Various theories and conspiracies have emerged concerning her sinking, some more plausible than others, but these are little comfort to the family and friends of those who remain “still on patrol."
Detail of USS Scorpion commissioning plaque in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's Cold War Gallery. (HRNM Photo by Diana Gordon)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hard Lessons from Unforgiving Seas

By Julius J. Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka on June 17, 2017, following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart/Released)
The recent tragedy associated with the loss of Sailors on USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) brings to the attention of the outside world what those in the military have long known: that their profession is a dangerous one that requires eternal vigilance. Though we do not know at this time the reasons behind the collision, it nevertheless relays the fact that the seas are an unforgiving place, even in times of relative calm. As the following stories demonstrate, the routine and mundane can cause complacency to set in, a complacency that, if unchecked, could lead to disaster.

Seen from the collier Urduliz, the aircraft carrier Eisenhower (CVN 69) collides with the Spanish vessel after drifting more than 200 yards off course near the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel on the morning of August 29, 1988.  (Armada Espanola)
On August 29th, 1988, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) and her accompanying battle group were returning home to Naval Station Norfolk from a routine and safe six-month deployment. The mood was festive as family and friends waited on the pier. Visitors and members of the news media watched the transit from the carrier’s bridge. The “Ike,” as she is affectionately known, passed over the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and made a course change to meet the tugs that would welcome her back home with the traditional water salute. Since the ship was ahead of schedule, she slowed to 3 knots, from the usual 5, in order to gain some time. The bridge watch team noted the congestion of the port and the ships at anchorage near the channel and continued on. At this moment, things began to go wrong. The distance between the carrier and a Spanish ship at anchor began steadily decreasing. It was noted in the log and was called out by the bridge team, but no one acknowledged and no one reacted; there was a complete loss of situational awareness by the bridge watch team. The carrier continued on its track and only when it was too late attempted to avoid a collision. By then, though, two million dollars’ worth of damage had been done to the ship. 

Although time and the elements have damaged the original glass photographic negative of these wrecked destroyers at Honda Point, California, taken shortly after they went ashore in a fog during the night of 8 September 1923, the severity of the disaster is still clear. USS Delphy (DD 261) is in the foreground, capsized and broken in two. In the middle, also capsized, is USS Young (DD 312). USS Woodbury (DD 309) is faintly visible in the upper right. At left, behind the rocks, is the stern of USS Chauncey (DD 296). (Courtesy of Chief Information Security Specialist Joseph L. Aguillard, USNR, 1979. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Sixty-five years earlier, a similar lack of situational awareness led to the largest peacetime disaster in American naval history: the Honda Point disaster. On the night of September 8, 1923, the 14 ships of Destroyer Squadron Eleven (DESRON 11) were making a high speed transit from San Francisco to San Diego, with an overnight stop in Santa Barbara. The area around Honda Point (Point Pedernales), off the coast of present day Vandenberg Air Force Base and just north of the Santa Barbara Channel, was well known for its rough seas and strong currents, leading to its nickname, “The Devil’s Jaw.” On this fateful night, multiple errors led nine ships into the rocks, which cost the lives of 23 sailors and the loss of seven ships. But what do these two incidents have in common? The answer is a cascade of individually inconsequential failures that, when compounded, created a disastrous scenario.

The first factor that was shared in both instances was speed. While the ships of DESRON 11 were sailing at close to 20 knots, Eisenhower was steaming at around three. Though these speeds may seem vastly different, they both create a situation where maneuvering ability and reaction time are compromised. The high speed of the destroyers shortened the reaction time for the bridge watch team. Likewise, the slow speed of the carrier created a situation just as dangerous. At 3 knots, the carrier was in a situation of “bare steerage way,” which meant that there was only a minimal amount of water flowing over the ship’s rudders to allow the ship to change course. This situation makes it much harder for a ship to maneuver in general, and take evasive action in particular.

The second and third factors that these two situations both shared included the prevailing wind and the current sea state and the failure to account for both of them. The rough seas and strong winds that the ships of DESRON 11 encountered off the California coast hampered their speed through the water. The calculated speed for the destroyers was 21 knots, and this speed was maintained in all calculations needed to navigate the ship. The ship’s actual speed through the water, due to the heavy seas, was around 19 knots. This difference meant that the ships’ plotted location and actual location differed by over three miles. The carrier, on the other hand, had a similar problem combined with the same error. While the ship’s speed was known, as well as wind and currents, the latter were completely ignored when navigating the ship. Due to only going 3 knots, the wind and currents canceled out the water flowing over the rudders and drove the ship out of the channel by 200 yards, right into Zulu anchorage, where the Spanish collier Urduliz lay at anchor.

The fourth similarity these events shared was something ingrained in military personnel: a reluctance to question orders. In both cases, junior personnel noticed the situation unfolding but felt that their opinion would not be welcomed by those in command who had more experience than they did. The higher-ups, though, gave orders based not only on experience, but also on pride. The navigator of DESRON 11 ignored the radio-direction-finding signals coming from stations along the coast because he mistrusted the new technology and was looking for any reason to prove it wrong. According to the official inquiry into the incident, Eisenhower’s commanding officer viewed taking on a harbor pilot, which is not mandatory for military vessels, as a sign of weakness and for those with substandard seamanship skills.

Changing any one of the factors leading to these preventable events could have altered the course of history. The eternal vigilance demanded of Sailors on watch the world over not only requires a sharp eye in the present. It also requires looking back at these and other events to find clues in the hopes of preventing the next maritime disaster.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: The Enemy Mines Our Coast

By Alan McGahey
Contributing Writer

The late winter and early spring had been good hunting months for Axis submarines in United States coastal waters.  But, as the U-boats' aim became deadlier through the months, so too did the attacks by the United States on the enemy.  As these blows became fiercer, the good fortunes of the submarines steadily declined until during the month of May there was only one attack on merchant shipping in District waters - and that an unsuccessful one. 
The enemy apparently now decided to change his tactics.  It is doubtful in any case that he could have continued indefinitely his torpedo attacks on our eastern shores.  Now he turned to a new and equally deadly weapon - the mine.  
 War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942, p. 259
The Esso tanker SS Robert C. Tuttle, carrying 152,000 barrels of crude oil, is partially submerged and on fire after striking a mine off the coast of Virginia Beach on the afternoon of June 15, 1942.  She was ultimately salvaged. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)   
On June 12, 1942, U-701, commanded by 29 year-old Horst Degen, sailed across the entrance to the Thimble Shoals Channel[1] releasing behind her a string of mines off Cape Henry before slipping quietly away into the ocean depths. There, death waited for the next convoy.  Degen, a seasoned and highly decorated naval officer, oversaw U-701's construction and commissioned her on June 16, 1941. The mine laying operation occurred during his third and last patrol.[2]

The approximate location of where SS Robert C. Tuttle struck a mine and sank on June 15, 1942. (
Three days later as citizens from Virginia Beach were concluding their day of sunbathing and enjoying the beach, the 12 ships and six escort vessels of Convoy KN-109 approached off the coast of Cape Henry. The evening air was shattered at 5:02 p.m. with a massive explosion on the starboard side of an American tanker, SS Robert C. Tuttle. Her engines stopped, her forward compartments filled quickly, and at 5:14 p.m., she slipped beneath the waves, bow down.[3] The second assistant engineer was blown overboard to his death, but the other 46 crewmembers were rescued. [4] At 5:33 p.m. another ship, SS Esso Augusta, struck a second mine. The explosion caused great damage at the stern but she remained afloat. [5] Esso Augusta was extremely lucky and suffered no causalities in the explosion.[6]
USS Bainbridge (DD 246), seen here in 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)  
The reaction by the U.S. Navy was swift. Within 15 minutes, Navy patrol aircraft and a patrol blimp where overhead circling the area, suspecting that a U-boat had torpedoed the ships. The Coast Guard cutter Dione desperately searched for the U-boat but could not detect anything due to the noise of the ships’ propellers and the shallow water. Dione still raced out to sea several miles hoping to catch the U-boat before it could escape, dropping eight depth charges. During this time, the convoy escort USS Bainbridge (DD 246) reported a "mushy" sonar contact and proceeded to drop a pattern of eight depth charges of her own, which destroyed one of the mines.[7]
By this time, curious crowds, including many who had driven out from nearby Norfolk on hearing of the explosions, jammed the board walk and ocean front at Virginia Beach to watch with binoculars and field glasses the war tragedy being enacted offshore in the gathering darkness.  This was the first real taste of war for those who had been warned to expect it in the strategic Hampton Roads area, and the habitual gaiety of the resort was noticeably quieted by the realization of how close to shore the enemy had struck.
War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942, p. 265

The Royal Navy had assigned an armored trawler, HMS Kingston Ceylonite (FY 214), to the escort of Convoy KN-109.  Ceylonite was escorting the cargo ship SS Delisle while the minesweeper Warbler (ARS-11) was towing it. A massive explosion ripped through the Ceylonite followed by a second.  Most likely, the magazine exploded, sending her to the bottom in three minutes.  More than half of the 32-man crew died instantly. Several of the survivors required medical treatment at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, Portsmouth, Virginia and at Marine Hospital, Norfolk, Virginia.[8] Three of the British sailors, whose bodies washed ashore days later, rest at peace in Oak Grove Baptist Cemetery at Creeds, Virginia.[9]
Capsized and sinking off the Chesapeake Capes, SS Santore disappears beneath the waves after striking a German mine on June 17, 1942.  (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
On June 16, the Navy launched minesweeping operations from the US Coast Guard base at Yorktown. They were to sweep three areas, but unfortunately one area remained upswept and one area received two sweepings. On June 17, the “all clear” came and the ore carrier SS Santore left port to join with a new convoy. At 7:45 she hit the U-701’s remaining mine. Her port side was ripped away by a massive explosion and within three minutes she capsized and went down, taking three of her 47-member crew with her.[10]

Kapitanleutnant Degen enjoyed a short-lived victory on June 16, firing two torpedoes at a freighter, but missing. He later found a small armed trawler, USS YP-389, but decided not to waste a torpedo. He surfaced, engaged, and sunk the vessel with his 88mm deck gun. This was extremely risky, exposing his boat to aerial attack. Ten days later, U-701 torpedoed a Norwegian freighter, MV Tamesis, but she did not sink. The next day, U-701 attacked the tanker British Freedom but suddenly came under attack from the gunboat USS St. Augustine (PG 54), which dropped five depth charges, delivering damage to the U-boat’s conning tower gauges, electric motors and air circulators.

On June 28, U-701 surfaced for fresh air.  While on the surface, Degen spotted the SS William Rockefeller’s smoke on the horizon and submerged to hunt the prey. U-701 launched one torpedo that ignited the 136,000 barrels of “C” fuel oil aboard. However, before firing a second torpedo a Coast Guard Grumman J2F-5 Duck flew overhead, dropping four depth charges, followed by seven more from USCG Cutter CGC-470. U-701 remained undamaged, launching a second torpedo 12 hours later, sending Rockefeller to the bottom. The increased patrols by air and sea frustrated Degen’s efforts. On July 7, he surfaced at 3p.m. only to be spotted by an Army A-29 Hudson, which dropped three depth charges as U-701 tried to submerge. The first missed but the next two struck U-701 aft of the conning tower, cracking the pressure hull. The U-701 quickly started taking on water.  Degen gave the order to abandon ship.  He and 17 of his 46-member crew made it to the surface and climbed into life rafts dropped by the A-29.  After drifting for two days, Degen and six others were spotted by a patrolling ship and were rescued by the Coast Guard.  Afterward, the prisoners were taken to Naval Operating Base Norfolk, and then to Portsmouth Naval Hospital for treatment.

On July 9, 1942, Coast Guard Hall PH-2 seaplane comes to a rest near a life raft bearing survivors from U-701, which had been sunk by an Army aircraft two days before.  A Navy patrol blimp flies overhead. (Wikimedia Commons)
Concerning the rescue, Degan stated, "...we have escaped the "reaper" to whom we have already given our hand." 
War Record of the Fifth Naval District, 1942, p. 431
Four of the seven survivors of U-701 reach the wing of an awaiting Coast Guard seaplane on July 9, 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)

               [1] Mark St. John Erickson, “German U-Boat Mine Blasts Brought Battle of the Atlantic to Hampton Roads,” Daily Press, June 16, 2014, accessed May 10, 2017,

                [2] GuĂ°mundur Helgason, “Horst Degen,” U-Boat.Net, 2017, accessed May 10, 2017,

                [3] Robert H. Freeman, The War Offshore, 1942 (Ventnor, NJ: Shellback Press, 1991), 337-50.

                [4] James R. Powell and Alan B. Flanders, Wolf at the Door: The World War II Antisubmarine Battle for Hampton Roads (Richmond, Va.: Brandylane Publishers, 2004), 19.

                [5] The War Offshore, 337-50.

                [6] GuĂ°mundur Helgason, “Esso Augusta,” U-Boat.Net, 2017, accessed May 10, 2017,

                [7] Edward Offley, The Burning Shore: How Hitler's U-Boats Brought World War Ii to America (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 187-89.

                [8] Wolf at the Door, 19-20.

                [9] Pete Vankevich, “Royal Navy commander remembers WWII fallen at British Cemetery memorial Service,” Ocracoke Observer, May 20, 2016, accessed May 20, 2017,

                [10] Donald G. Shomette, Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders, and Maritime Disasters Along the Delmarva Coast, 1632-2004 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 278.

                [11] Paul M. Hudy, “Wreck of U-701,” NC-WreckDiving, 2015, accessed May 20, 2017,

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Fifty-Year Wound

By Captain Alexander G. Monroe, USN (Ret)
HRNM Docent & Contributing Writer

William L.McGonagle (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
On June 11, 1968, in Leutze Park at the Washington Navy Yard, Secretary of the Navy Paul R. Ignatius and Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, chief of naval operations, awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Captain William L. McGonagle, commanding officer of USS Liberty (AGTR 5), for performance above and beyond the call of duty on June 8, 1967, when that ill-fated ship was attacked without warning by air and surface craft of the Israel Defense Forces.(1) The travail of that ship and her crew resulted from actions that have never, in the view of many of those who were on board, been truthfully explained by the attackers. However, the medal and many others earned as the result of that confrontation on the high seas are talismans of brave and selfless acts by a host of officers and enlisted personnel of the U.S. Navy.

The Humble Origins of a Spy Ship

SS Simmons Victory in New York, 1947. (World Ship Society via
Liberty began her life as SS Simmons Victory, a Victory-class cargo ship built during the Second World War by the Oregon Shipbuilding Company of Portland, Oregon and named for Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Completed about two months after being laid down, she was delivered to the War Shipping Administration on May 4th, 1945, and performed strategic lift operations under charter to the Pacific Far East Line, to include delivering ammunition from Port Chicago, California to Leyte for the impending invasion of Japan. Japan’s surrender in August obviated the necessity for this operation, and she returned the ammunition to Port Chicago. During the Korean War, she carried out similar duties.  Simmons Victory was withdrawn from service in 1958 and placed in the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Olympia, Washington.

Acquired by the Navy in February 1963, Simmons Valley was converted to a “miscellaneous auxiliary ship,” and commissioned as USS Liberty on December 30, 1964, at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.  She steamed to Norfolk in early 1965 for installation of equipment that would enable her crew to conduct communications surveillance and processing operations for the National Security Agency.  Liberty was assigned to Service Squadron Eight, and following shakedown at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay began deployment to the west coast of Africa to participate in the Navy’s program of research and development in communications. 

USS Liberty (AGTR 5) at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, Virginia, in October 1966. USS Waldron (DD 699) is tied up astern of Liberty. (Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia. Ted Stone Collection. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
Liberty’s operations, and those of other technical research ships such as USS Banner (AGER 1), USS Pueblo (AGER 2), and USS Palm Beach (AGER 3), have retained a somewhat murky, mysterious character, though the role of the National Security Agency as an eavesdropping organization has more recently become publically known. The ships chosen for these missions were older, nondescript cargo vessels of uncertain pedigree that could be easily converted and equipped with costly electronic communications surveillance equipment. Publicly available information shows that, prior to her fateful voyage to the vicinity of the Sinai Peninsula, Liberty made three deployments to the West Coast of Africa between the Canary Islands and the Cape of Good Hope as “a floating research and development ship.”(2)

Into Harm's Way

Liberty’s third deployment was interrupted by orders received during the morning watch on May 24th, 1967 at Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where the ship’s crew was enjoying a liberty port. The ship was ordered to proceed over 3,000 miles at best speed to Rota, Spain. There, she was to take on additional personnel and equipment for sensitive assignments in connection with worsening tensions between the United Arab Republic (present-day Egypt) and the State of Israel. Following an eight-day voyage, Liberty entered Rota, took on stores, equipment, additional linguists and technical personnel, and departed for the Eastern Mediterranean on June 2, 1967. 

Officers and enlisted personnel on board the ship and those in supervisory positions expressed misgivings about the impending mission.  Perhaps it was best expressed by Chief Petty Officer Raymond Linn, who was to retire at the end of June after 30 years’ service. He opined that it was foolhardy to send an unarmed ship, a spy ship, into such a potential maelstrom. Chief Linn proved all too prescient, as he would become one of 34 crewmen who would die in the attack. Others at higher levels expressed uncertainty, and Cdr. McGonagle made a request for a destroyer type escort.  The request was denied for, among other reasons, the ship had every right to be where she was and was clearly identifiable as a United States Ship. Finally, it was assumed that the ship could withdraw from danger if need be.

The intensity of hostilities during what would become known the Six Day War was such that those higher up in the chain of command modified operational orders, not simply for USS Liberty, but for all Sixth Fleet ships. In summary, new orders stipulated that areas might be modified based on “the local situation” and that the Sixth Fleet Commander was to be advised by flash message of “any threatening actions to you or diversions from schedule necessitated by external threat.” These messages, and those restricting a closest point of approach to 20 (and later, 100) miles from the hostile coast, did not reach Liberty

Prior to reaching the operating area, Cdr. McGonagle had met with Lt. Cmdr. Dave Lewis, Liberty’s Research Department director, to confirm that it was absolutely necessary to be as close to the Gaza Strip as set forward in orders to execute the mission.  McGonagle had also instituted a “modified” weapons condition three steaming watch that placed ammunition and extra personnel at the forward .50 caliber gun mounts.

A painting of USS Liberty, Oil on Silk; Artist Unknown; C. 1967. (Gift of Ms. Cindy McGonagle,  Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Liberty arrived off the city of El Arish, about 30 miles west of the Gaza Strip on the northern coast of the Sinai Peninsula, just after midnight on June 8th, 1967.  There, a tale of bravery, perseverance and sacrifice, unique in the annals of the U.S. Navy, would play out.  By late morning she had been overflown by multiple aircraft, both ungainly “flying boxcar” Noratlas 2501 types, and fighter bombers.  One of the boxcars reportedly had Star of David markings. It was, in the words of one of the officers of the deck, Ens. John Scott, a beautiful day, and the American flag was clearly visible. All crewmembers later queried agreed that the flag was clearly visible prior to and during the attack. Some members of the crew even sunbathed on deck before a General Quarters drill was held at 1300 that afternoon.

About one hour later, a savage air attack began and in the words of then-Lieutenant George Golden, Liberty’s chief engineer, “all hell broke loose.” Repeated strafing by Mirage III fighters and Mystere fighter-bombers left the bridge in shambles, with the navigator dead, the executive officer mortally wounded, and the officer of the deck and the commanding officer severely wounded. The ship’s bridge area was in flames from burning napalm, and the superstructure was repeatedly penetrated by rocket fire.  Years later, Golden recounted that three flags, including a large "holiday ensign," were raised and shot away.(3)  A shipyard survey later tabulated 821 holes made in Liberty’s hull, deck, and superstructure.
Cdr. William McGonagle is seen here in his cabin aboard USS Liberty on June 11, 1967, three days after an Israeli attack crippled his ship. A hole from one of the hundreds of rounds that penetrated the ship can be seen just to McGonagle's left.  (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
During the initial attack, the forward .50 caliber machine gun positions were destroyed and the crews killed. Communications antennae were destroyed, and the ship was quickly rendered defenseless and mute. The air assault was followed by a surface engagement in which three Israeli torpedo boats rapidly closed in and launched torpedoes, one of which made a 40-foot gash, starboard side amidships, flooding the Research Department spaces and killing all inside. 

Amid the massive, sudden destruction, the well-trained crew responded with instinctive professionalism and consummate bravery. Lt. Richard Kiepfer, the ship’s doctor, rescued those wounded from exposed decks at great risk to himself.  Helmsman Francis Brown remained at his post, despite heavy shelling, until he was killed by a projectile that struck him from behind. Executive Officer (XO) Phillip Armstrong was fatally injured by strafing as he jettisoned 50-gallon gasoline drums from the bridge. Everywhere crewmen performed gallantly, to include those initially temporarily overcome by fear. Dr. Kiepfer, though wounded himself, operated in a vain attempt to save Gary Blanchard, a young seaman from Kansas.

During the initial attack, radiomen were able to send a distress message which was received on board the carrier Saratoga (CVA 60) using jury rigged equipment, but the signal was jammed intermittently. Rescue ships and aircraft did not reach the ship during the long and perilous night. Cdr. McGonagle, fortified by black coffee and assisted by relays of underway officers of the deck, remained on the bridge guiding the ship at night by observing Polaris, for the gyrocompass had been rendered useless. Ens. John Scott, Damage Control Assistant, personally surveyed the ship, monitored damage reports from his subordinates and supervised shoring of the bulkheads of the research space to prevent its collapse.
USS Liberty (AGTR 5) receives assistance from units for the Sixth Fleet after she was attacked by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula on June 8, 1967.  An Sh-3 helicopter hovers near her bow. (U.S. Navy photograph via Wikimedia Commons
USS Davis (DD 937), flagship for Commander, Destroyer Squadron Twelve (COMDESRONTWELVE), received message traffic suggesting that the Liberty had been attacked, and the ship responded to emergency orders of Commander Sixth Fleet that she proceeded at top speed, in company with USS Massey (DD 778), to the stricken ship some 500 miles away. At first light on June 9, the destroyers found, according to Lt. (later Rear Admiral) Paul Tobin, a powerless ship covered with marks of battle damage, scorch marks, and a ten degree starboard list. "The reality of the situation struck home as we climbed aboard and looked at the faces of the men," wrote Lt. Hubert Strachwitz of the Davis in a letter to his wife. “No Hollywood makeup man nor actor could ever produce those faces," he went on.  "There were sunken eyes, bristly, dirty faces dark bloodstains, ripped clothes covered with oil and charcoal. There were no hysterics, no crying, no cursing—just tired bodies trying to do necessary jobs."(4)

The major evolutions required were providing medical care for the wounded, removing the dead, restoring power and stability to the ship, so that the ship could reach a safe port. Capt. Harold Leahy, COMDESRON TWELVE, came aboard and climbed to the shattered bridge where the commodore gently offered to take command of the Liberty. After consulting with Dr. Kiepfer and Dr. Peter Flynn, a general surgeon airlifted to Massey from USS America (CVA 66), he chose not to with the understanding that the captain lay below to rest. Kiepfer opined then as he did later to the board of inquiry, that Capt. McGonagle was a key ingredient—a rock upon which the rest of the men supported themselves—in the survival of the Liberty. In so doing, he had earned the right to bring her safely into port. Lt. Tobin and Lt. Cmdr. William Pettyjohn, COMDESRONTWELVE chief of staff, came on board to give temporary assistance to the engineering force and assume the duties of executive officer.
Cdr. McGonagle points out damage inflicted on Liberty's superstructure during the Israeli attack off the Sinai Peninsula on June 8, 1967. The photograph was taken on June 16, two days after arriving at Valletta, Malta, for repairs. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)

The next pressing task was to restore power and stability to the ship. Lt. Tobin and Lt. Cmdr. Pettyjohn, together with the Liberty’s crew, augmented by engineering and damage control rates, began the daunting task. Later, Tobin observed that it was good to work with the crew, for they had detailed knowledge of the layout of the darkened ship and its equipment.  He also recalled that they were infused with new energy by their newly arrived comrades.

By careful study of data at hand, such as the liquid loading diagram, it was determined that the list could be corrected, and the transfer of remaining fuel to port tanks was successful. Concurrently, the propulsion plant was surveyed and electric power was gradually restored after a diesel generator was started and wiring repaired. The ship was determined to be as seaworthy as possible and it was shown that, although there was much freestanding water throughout the ship, there was sufficient righting arm to enable it to recover from rolls in heavy weather.  It was thought that the keel was intact.(6)
At Valletta, Malta, after arriving there for repair of damages received when she was attacked by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula on June 8, 1967. She arrived at Malta on June 14, 1967. Note torpedo hole in her side, forward of the superstructure. Photographed by Photographer's Mate1st Class J.J. Kelly, USN. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
After critical systems were restored and Liberty no longer seemed in danger of sinking, the decision was made to raise steam and make the transit to Malta, 1,000 miles away.  Lt. Cmdr. Pettyjohn, acting as temporary XO, established regular steaming watches and a regular underway routine. As time elapsed, the ship’s operating systems, such as her gyroscopic compass and fire and flushing water, were restored. The restoration of lighting and ventilation had earlier brought about an improvement in morale and wellbeing. Liberty was accompanied by the ocean going tug USS Papago (ATF 160) whose crew recovered bodies that had drifted though the torpedo hole as well as classified materials. Except for one unnerving night, when the ship encountered heavy weather 150 miles from Malta, the transit was uneventful. Forward bulkheads in the vicinity of the flooded spaces warped and panted. The contents of the adjacent compartments were removed and jettisoned and additional shoring placed. The weather moderated, and on June 14, with Cdr. McGonagle on the bridge at the conn, the ship entered Grand Harbor, Valetta, Malta, with Fort Ricasoli on the port beam.

USS Liberty arrives at Valletta, Malta, after arriving on June 14, 1967, for repair of damages received when she was attacked by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula six days before. Photographed by Photographer's Mate1st Class J.J. Kelly, USN. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
Liberty spent the mid-summer of 1967 dry docked in Malta, where the remains of those who died in the Research Department spaces were removed, and a board of inquiry under Rear Admiral Isaac S. Kidd, Jr., was convened.  A new permanent XO, Lt. Cmdr. Donald L. Burson, formerly the operations officer in USS Aucilla (AO 56), a Norfolk-based fleet oiler, arrived to replace Lt. Cmdr. Philip Armstrong, who had been killed in the attack.(7)  It was a period for recollection of the ordeal, decompression and relaxation, as well as poignant tasks such as writing to the survivors of those lost, undertaken in an instinctively kind, gentle way by the skipper, assisted by Ens. Patrick O’Malley. The chief engineer, Lt. George Golden, remembered that when he and the skipper went to a party, the captain expressed some reluctance to leave, and when he did return to his room, “wept.”(8)  Liberty left Valetta in company with Papago and arrived at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek on July 29, 1967.

William McGonagle, as noted, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on June 11, 1968, after his promotion to captain. The newspaper account of the ceremony noted that after Navy Secretary Ignatius placed the award around his neck, McGonagle “wept.”(9)  Three days later, he travelled to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, where Liberty was moored, pending a decision about her future. He conferred various awards, such as silver stars and the bronze star, to surviving crew members for heroism under fire. Others had already left the command. The magnitude of the crew’s bravery is evinced by the sheer number of personal awards given after Liberty’s return: one medal of honor, two navy crosses, 11 silver stars, nine navy commendation medals, and 204 purple hearts among a crew of 294.(10)

Liberty’s final act occurred on June 28, 1968, when she was decommissioned. Under clear skies, Lt. Cmdr. Burson, who had relieved Capt. McGonagle, gave brief remarks and Capt. Charles J. Beers, commander of the Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility, read the inactivation orders, the colors were lowered, and the 83 remaining crew members left the ship. (11)

Demise of Surface Intelligence Collection

The decommissioning occurred about five months after the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER 2) while conducting a similar intelligence gathering mission off the North Korean coast. The crew was interned under brutal conditions for nearly a year. Two such episodes so close together impaired the prestige and standing of the United States and exposed brave crews to death and extended torture. The court of inquiry on the Pueblo incident, in contrast to the Liberty board of inquiry conducted by Rear Adm. Kidd, conducted lengthy deliberations and uncovered defects in program execution, such as lack of a plan to assist the ship in the case of unanticipated emergency. The most telling flaw was the assumption that ships engaged in such sensitive operations in international waters were immune from interference. The abrupt collapse of that assumption led Navy Secretary John Chafee to set aside the recommended court martial for the Pueblo’s commanding officer and punishments for those higher in the chain of command. The AGTR and AGER programs were eliminated, and Lt. Cmdr. Burson went from being the last commanding officer of USS Liberty to also being the last commanding officer of USS Palm Beach (AGER 3), which was stricken from the Navy Register on December 1, 1969

For Many, a Catastrophe without Closure

The end of the Liberty’s short career as a “spy ship” and the denouement of much of the Navy’s surface intelligence gathering activities came about two years after the attack. In its wake, uncertainty and residual bitterness remained among former Liberty crewmembers, including Capt. McGonagle, those who conducted the investigation, and former high-ranking government officials such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk. The attack was savage and repeated against key defensive and ship control/communications spaces and facilities. Liberty was much larger than the SS Quseir, the Egyptian livestock carrier for which the Israeli government concluded she had been mistaken. The question remains, why would such assets have been used against a livestock ship? The best summation of the attack was perhaps made by retired Rear Adm. Paul Tobin, who played a key role in steaming the ship to Malta.  He pointed out that the Israeli attack was made against a ship that was in international waters, was freshly painted, had large, clearly painted hull beading and was adorned with sophisticated antennae. To Tobin, it was unbelievable that unsupervised pilots made repeated attacks on a defenseless ship.(12)  It must be the governing evaluation until and unless the government of the State of Israel makes a truthful disclosure of the facts, as Capt. McGonagle requested in an excellent oral history conducted by former Naval History and Heritage Command historian Tim Frank, two years before McGonagle’s death in 1999.
A privately-produced button in the collection of the Naval History
and Heritage Command. (Courtesy of Richard K. Smith, 1978)

The attack on the ship and her brave crew and its residuals may have one overriding meaning. It is, as a Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editorial page writer opined in July, 1967, that “the arrival here today of the USS Liberty is a sobering reminder to this Navy community that no ship that clears this port is assured of returning with her hull intact and all her crewmen alive and uninjured….”(13)


  1. “Liberty Skipper Gets Medal of Honor,” New York Times, June 12, 1968, 4.
  2. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Liberty III (AGTR 5), 1964-1970 
  3. Descriptions of the attack and its aftermath were in part taken from a tape recording of an oral presentation by Lt. Cmdr. George Golden, USN (Ret.) to an audience at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. The tape was found and the contents abstracted by the author.
  4. James Scott, Attack on the Liberty (Simon and Schuster, 2009), 127.
  5. The order and priority of tasks that had to be accomplished are set forward in a thorough professional note written by then-Cdr. Paul Tobin, USN. This note was contained in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in December, 1978. Rear. Adm. Tobin shared further details with the author in a telephone interview on April 6, 2017.
  6. Telephone interview with Rear Adm. Paul Tobin by the author, April 6, 2017. 
  7. In an e-mail to the author Cdr. Burson noted that his tour was a “learning experience.”
  8. See Note 3.
  9. See Note 1. 
  10. “Retiring ‘Liberty,’ But Mostly Her Men, Honored,” Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, June 15, 1968, 7.
  11. "'Liberty' Flag Lowered," Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, June 29, 1968, 13. 
  12. The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Spy Ship, Book Review by Rear Adm. Paul Tobin, USN (Ret), U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 2002. 
  13. “Welcome Liberty,” editorial, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, July 29, 1967, 8.

About the author: Captain Alexander "Sandy" Monroe, a retired surface warfare officer, is the author of official histories on U.S. Atlantic Command counternarcotic operational assistance to civilian law enforcement agencies and the treatment of Haitian asylum seekers at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was also dispatched to the Arabian Gulf on assignment for the director of naval history during Operation Earnest Will.

Editor's note: This and every HRNM blog post by a contributing writer reflects the opinions and core beliefs of the writer and should not be construed as representing the official policies or opinions of the museum, the Department of the Navy, or the United States Government.