USS LIBERTY - FRIENDLY FIRE RESULTING FROM A TRAGIC SERIES OF ERRORS
The USS Liberty was sent to the eastern Med to eavesdrop on an escalating situation: Egyptian president Nasser and his Syrian ally were not only sabre-rattling, but had ordered UN peacekeepers to leave and had advanced troops into a buffer zone and onto Israel's border. By the time the ship arrived, war was already underway.
In an era of instant satellite communications, it's hard to comprehend that the US Navy could have trouble reaching one of its own ships. However, for stealth purposes, the Liberty relied upon a system that bounced signals off the moon (meaning there were lengthy stretches when no communication was possible). A total of 5 messages were supposed to be sent ordering the Liberty to withdraw 100 miles. A couple failed to be sent and those which were sent were not received. The US did have "steam valves" (secure phones) at the time - but they were all deployed in Viet Nam. Absent confirmation that the Liberty had received the orders, a Major at the JCS wanted to send the Liberty a plain radio transmission but this request was denied by the Deputy Chief of Staff at CINCUSNAVEUR/MJH.
Indeed, prior to the attack, Israel inquired with the US and was told that it had no ship within a hundred miles of where the Liberty was. People who find it hard to believe that Israel failed to identify an American vessel should ponder that the US Navy itself had no idea where its own ship was.
Independently, the Liberty's Captain (McGonagle) wanted to move the ship out of harms way (beyond the horizon), but the NSA operations officer advised him that this would reduce the ships eavesdropping (spying) ability by 80%. Unaware of the ship's mission, and cut off from his commanding officers, he was unable to correlate the importance of the mission with the safety of the ship and he opted to stay put.
At 6am on 8 June 1967, an Israeli naval reconnaissance plane spotted the vessel and correctly identified it (using a copy of "Jane's Fighting Ships", a complete catalog of ships). However, the Liberty spotted the plane first and in order to fool it, temporarily changed direction.
At the time, the Israeli Navy was a small organization of only about 5,000 people. In the 1956 war it had managed to capture an Egyptian destroyer, but in 1967 - while the Israeli Air Force was getting all the credit - all it had managed to do was almost bomb itself (yup, friendly fire). The Israeli Navy, headquartered in Haifa, wasn't yet part of Central Command (in Tel Aviv) and there was no secure communications between the two. When the ship was spotted at 6am, it was placed on a board - a physical board! By noon, the intelligence officer was off duty and the ship (the information being out-of-date) was removed from the board. No one who knew there had been an American ship present in the area was still on duty by the afternoon.
Early in the afternoon (as the Liberty itself witnessed), there was fighting in El Arish (the northwestern tip of the Sinai peninsula). The Israeli army could see a warship on the horizon and assumed that this was the source of attack - as it had been the day before. So the Israeli army called in the air force for support. The air force alerted the Navy which dispatched 3 Motor Torpedo Boats to investigate. When they picked up the Liberty on radar, they saw that it was headed toward Port Said (in Egypt) at a speed of 28-30 knots (this was a calculation error. The Liberty was doing about 5 knots). Realizing that the MTBs could not acquire the target before it got away (and that such a speed definitely identified it as a warship), the Israeli Navy reluctantly called in the Air Force for help.
Why reluctantly? Because there's competition between the branches and the Navy was running 3rd fiddle to the Air Force (which had already destroyed its Egyptian counterpart. The Army had liberated the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. But the Navy had so far only succeeded in crashing 2 of its ships). If they thought they could have handled the situation themselves, the Navy would have done so (especially since the day before, due to radar echoes, the Navy had called the IAF for support and almost ended up having its own ships bombed).
The IAF scrambled a couple Mirage planes with the authority to fire on any warships other than the 3 MTBs heading that way. Thus began the first strafing run. Then two Mystere planes arrived from the Sinai where they had been fighting tanks. They dropped napalm on the ship and fired 30mm guns. The IAF was attempting to get a plane with iron bombs out there to sink the ship (lest the Navy get the job done), but started getting concerned that there was no anti-aircraft fire. As they came around to attack from the side, in an attempt to target the boilers and disable the ship, the pilot identified the ship as "CTR-5". Actually, it was "GTR-5". But the pilot saw "C" - as in "CCCP", and thus the IAF concluded that it had attacked a Soviet spy ship.
The Israeli Navy, off in Haifa, was still in the dark and steaming toward the Liberty even as the IAF was gloomy because they feared that now the Russians had an excuse to enter the war. The MTBs signaled the ship to identify itself (as Liberty's Captain McGonagle testified) and then the commander of the MTB (a veteran of a 1956 battle with an Egyptian destroyer) thought he saw signals reminiscent of an Egyptian ploy back then. Without Jane's (the Israeli Navy couldn't afford to put a copy on each ship) and merely a copy of an Israeli issued booklet listing only Arab vessels, the MTBs mis-identify the Liberty as the El Quesir. The Navy reported that it was engaging an Egyptian ship (to a sigh of relief at IAF/Army command center).
Then the Navy says that it sees a red flag through the smoke. The gloom returns to the war room - it's Russian. Finally, the Navy makes a definitive and correct identification. The Israeli AF breathes a sad sigh of relief. Ironically, back in Washington, the same thing happens in reverse. Reports come in that a US Navy ship was attacked and torpedoed. The top brass is meeting to discuss this with President Johnson on the way to join them. Was it the Egyptians - or the Russians? It was a painful relief when the President walked in and announced that he had received word from Israel that it had mistakenly attacked the ship.