June 8, 1967 began as a routine day for the Belmont-class technical research ship USS Liberty as it sailed through international waters of the Mediterranean Sea. That afternoon, however, all hell broke loose.
With the Six-Day War between Israel and several Arab nations getting underway only days earlier, tension was running high in the region. When Israeli forces spotted the Liberty, the long-time U.S. ally reportedly believed it to be an enemy ship, a claim much disputed with evidence that suggests the attack was deliberate.
Israel attacked swiftly, sending fighter jets and motor torpedo boats to pummel the unsuspecting American crew.
By the time the carnage ended and the last shots were fired hours later, 34 of Liberty’s crew were dead. Another 171 were injured and the ship was crippled.
Amidst the barrage, Capt. William Loren McGonagle, commander of the Liberty, was badly injured. But despite his wounds, he refused to abandon the badly damaged bridge of the ship, disregarding his own health to maneuver the vessel, coordinate defense measures, control flooding and fire, and see to the medical care of his sailors.
McGonagle was later presented the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
Even “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,” his citation read.
It was only when Liberty finally received assistance from a U.S. destroyer that McGonagle finally relinquished control of the battered bridge. Even then, he resisted treatment until knowing all his sailors had been attended to, his citation said.
Israel apologized for the attack, claiming that it believed the Liberty to be an Egyptian vessel.
Due to the circumstances surrounding the attack and Israel’s subsequent embarrassment, McGonagle’s ceremony was conducted in secret to avoid further humiliation.
The ship’s executive officer, who was killed in the incident, was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. Read more about McGonagle’s actions here.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.