I thought, ‘We’re all going to die,’ ” says former naval officer James M. Ennes Jr. “Some of the men were so terrified they called out for their mamas. I thought that only happened in the movies. They wept and prayed and fell down—and then went out in front of the guns and gave their lives.” The rain of death that fell on Ennes and the rest of the crew of the U.S.S. Liberty on June 8, 1967 was friendly fire: At the height of the Six-Day War, Israeli planes and gunboats attacked and nearly sank the American intelligence ship some 15 miles off the coast of Egypt. Thirty-four Americans were killed, 171 were wounded. The Israeli government apologized, claiming that their pilots had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian freighter. There the matter pretty much rested until six weeks ago when Ennes, now 46, published a book titled Assault on the Liberty (Random House).
In it the author angrily charges, “The attack was too neat, too precise, to be accidental.” He claims it was part of a calculated effort to keep the U.S. in the dark about Israel’s imminent invasion of Syria. The Liberty had sophisticated equipment capable of monitoring Tel Aviv’s orders to its troops on the Syrian border. “The Israelis knew if we found out,” Ennes says, “there would be tremendous pressure on them from the White House, because of President Johnson’s effort to cool down the war.”
The Israelis made repeated reconnaissance flights before attacking, Ennes says. “We were flying a large American flag and our numbers were visible.” The attack lasted one hour and a quarter, involved up to a dozen aircraft and three torpedo boats and ended with the machine-gunning of three life rafts. Israeli planes also jammed the Liberty’s radio calls for help. “It’s almost impossible to jam somebody without knowing who they are,” says Ennes, who was a code and. communications specialist.
Ennes suspects that Israeli commanders, including then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, expected the Liberty to be sunk with all hands—and thus no witnesses. But the ship managed to send a message to the Sixth Fleet, 300 miles away. Only when U.S. planes were on the way, Ennes claims, did the Israelis acknowledge their “mistake.”
Ennes, who suffered a crushed leg, and the other crew members had a new shock in store when rescue ships reached the Liberty. Senior officers from the Navy and the Department of Defense warned, “Don’t answer any questions, and don’t talk to the press.” Ennes argues that the Johnson administration, eager to mend fences with Israel, endorsed the Navy’s desire to forget the incident. “The cover-up consisted of not investigating fully, not asking questions,” he says. “There’s always a concern when intelligence is involved. The attitude is: ‘My God, don’t say anything about anything.’ ”
In particular Ennes accuses Capt. William McGonagle, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism aboard the Liberty, of minimizing the attack to the Navy court of inquiry.
To this day the Navy stands by the court’s unusually ambivalent report. “The U.S.S. Liberty was in international waters, properly marked as to her identity and nationality and in calm, clear weather when she suffered an unprovoked attack,” it says. Yet: “The court had insufficient information before it to make a judgment on the reason for the decision to attack.” The Israelis are firm. “There is no truth to the report that it was an attack,” says Aviezer Pazner, of the Israeli embassy in Washington. “The bombing was a mistake we deeply regret, and indemnities were paid to the families of the people killed” (more than $3 million to them and nearly $3.5 million to the injured crewmen).
To research the book during his year-long recuperation, Ennes interviewed dozens of the Liberty’s 259 survivors and later obtained declassified government documents through the Freedom of Information Act. To get around mandatory review of the manuscript by the Navy, he waited until after his retirement in July 1978 to sign with a publisher. Still, he says he betrayed no secrets in his book—”There are some things I’m not free to talk about. I’m still under a strict security oath.” Now living in the Seattle area with his wife and three children, Ennes is pleased with his second career as a writer—the book is selling briskly—but even more gratified by the reaction of shipmates from the Liberty. “They thought it was pretty good,” he allows modestly, “and that it was about time.”