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An Ambushed Crew Salutes Its Captain
Leader of USS Liberty Remembered

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 1999; Page B01

One by one, they approached the grave to leave a single white rose, then stood ramrod straight, gazed off from the top of the cemetery's hill and snapped a crisp salute.

Most of them were portly men, graying old sailors in baseball caps and blue jackets that read "USS Liberty . . . Remember . . . 8 June 1967." Beneath another tombstone at the bottom of the hill lay the remains of shipmates who had died that day.

Yesterday, the faithful survivors brought their long-dead comrades at Arlington National Cemetery the body of their captain -- a reunion of seamen eternally bound by one of the most bloody and bizarre peacetime encounters in U.S. naval history.

Capt. William L. McGonagle won the Medal of Honor for valiantly commanding the USS Liberty when the American spy ship was attacked by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats in the Mediterranean during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Thirty-four U.S. sailors were killed, and 171, including McGonagle, were wounded, among the crew of 300. Thirteen of the dead -- including the remains of six in the mass grave at the bottom of the hill -- were buried at Arlington.

The Israelis later apologized. But Liberty survivors, and some former U.S. officials, believe the attack was deliberate, staged to conceal Israel's pending seizure of the Golan Heights, which occurred shortly thereafter.

McGonagle, who died of lung cancer March 3 at the age of 73 in his Palm Springs, Calif., home, held his silence for years, torn by loyalty to the Navy and love for his crew and his ship. But even he, in recent years, came to conclude the attack was deliberate.

Yesterday, as six gray horses pulled a black caisson bearing a gold box of his cremated remains through flurries of spring blossom petals -- and as four gray Navy F-14 fighters thundered overhead in tribute -- most talk was of "Captain Bill."

"Captain McGonagle was an honorable man," Richard J. Brooks, 63, of Moyock, N.C., who was a 32-year-old master chief machinist's mate in the engine room on the day the Liberty was attacked, said as he stood near the grave yesterday.

"He was a gentleman, one of the best skippers the Navy ever had to command a ship, and most of all a dear friend," said Brooks, who stood wearing a USS Liberty jacket. "I keep my shipmates, my skipper and my ship in my heart every day."

Ernie Gallo, 54, of Dunn Loring, a baker's son from North Philadelphia who was a 22-year-old communications technician, gestured toward McGonagle's grave and then at his buddies: "It started with him. And these guys kept us alive. I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him and these guys."

James Smith, 52, of Virginia Beach, who was a damage control worker that day, said: "I spent 25 years in the Navy. There were two men I'd follow anywhere, and he was one of them."

McGonagle, born a sharecropper's son in Wichita, was a child of the Dust Bowl, who had joined the Navy to get out of poverty and the vegetable fields of Southern California. He had risen through the ranks and had assumed command of the Liberty on April 25, 1966. Originally a freighter built as a World War II "Victory" ship, the Liberty had been pulled from retirement and outfitted with millions of dollars of electronic eavesdropping gear, according to a former ship's officer, James M. Ennes Jr., who has written a book about the attack.

In December 1964, the Liberty was put to work as a spy ship. Three years later, with McGonagle now in command, it was hurried to the eastern Mediterranean, where the Arab-Israeli war had erupted.

Despite the deep concerns of McGonagle and his crew about their proximity to the war, the ship, armed only with a few .50-caliber machine guns, began a slow patrol 12 miles off Gaza.

The Liberty, code-named "Rockstar," had been denied the protection of a destroyer by superiors who said it was "not a reasonable subject for attack," according to Ennes. But about 2 p.m., after being buzzed by Israeli scout planes, the ship suddenly was assailed by Israeli jets firing rockets and dropping napalm.

Liberty sailors were gunned down as they scrambled for cover. The machine gun crews were tossed into the air like dolls. Flaming napalm blanketed parts of the ship. Sailors radioed frantically: "Any station, this is Rockstar. We are under attack."

Then, after several passes by the jets, the torpedo boats arrived. After several misses, one struck home, blasting a 40-foot-wide hole below decks and killing 25 men almost instantly. All the while, McGonagle, his right leg riddled with shrapnel, maintained command, hollering orders -- "Right full rudder! All engines flank!" -- assessing the damage and trying to dodge the torpedoes.

"I saw him on the bridge during the height of the battle," Ennes recalled in an interview. He "was just running through the fire and flying shrapnel and rocket parts, and he just ignored them. He just walked along yelling orders and doing his job."

"He went onto the starboard wing of the bridge just as a napalm bomb hit," said Ennes, who was not present yesterday. "I thought he was gone. And he just walked through the flames like a fireman in an asbestos suit, trying to save his ship."

Yesterday, as people hugged and reminisced, many said a priceless bond was forged that afternoon aboard the ravaged old ship.

"Something really wonderful came out of that attack," said retired petty officer Joseph C. Lentini, now with the EPA in Washington. "We got a family. I don't know a man in the group that won't hug you. I don't know a man that wouldn't lay his life down for me. . . . It works that way with all these characters. . . . That wouldn't have happened otherwise."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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