By Tom Piatak
On this Veterans Day, in a special way, I honor the men who served on the USS Liberty. Here is the very impressive list of medals they received, including one Medal of Honor, two posthumous Navy Crosses, over a dozen Silver Stars, nearly two dozen Bronze Stars, and 208 Purple Hearts.
In other words, the Liberty’s crew was one of the most decorated in U.S. Navy history.
In any disagreement about what happened that day between these men and the nation that attacked these men, killed 34, and intended to kill the rest, I side with the men who earned the medals by defending an American ship in international waters from an unprovoked attack, not with the nation that launched the unprovoked attack.
You will not find the identity of that nation by reading any of the many moving citations accompanying the medals awarded to the Liberty’s crew. For reasons of politics and cowardice, the attacking nation is identified in none of those citations.
Here is the Medal of Honor citation for Capt. William McGonagle:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sailing in international waters, the Liberty was attacked without warning by a jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats which inflicted many casualties among the crew and caused extreme damage to the ship. Although severely wounded during the first air attack, Capt. McGonagle remained at his battle station on the badly damaged bridge and, with full knowledge of the seriousness of his wounds, subordinated his own welfare to the safety and survival of his command. Steadfastly refusing any treatment which would take him away from his post, he calmly continued to exercise firm command of his ship.
Despite continuous exposure to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Capt. McGonagle’s extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of the Liberty’s crew, many of them seriously wounded, to heroic efforts to overcome the battle damage and keep the ship afloat. Subsequent to the attack, although in great pain and weak from loss of blood, Capt. McGonagle remained at his battle station and continued to command his ship for more than 17 hours. It was only after rendezvous with a U.S. destroyer that he relinquished personal control of the Liberty and permitted himself to be removed from the bridge.
Even then, he refused much needed medical attention until convinced that the seriously wounded among his crew had been treated. Capt. McGonagle’s superb professionalism, courageous fighting spirit, and valiant leadership saved his ship and many lives. His actions sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Here is the Silver Star citation for the ship’s doctor, identified by the three veterans in the podcast mentioned below as someone else who deserved the Medal of Honor.
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Lieutenant (MC) Richard Francis Kiepfer (NSN: 0-710107/2105), United States Naval Reserve, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as Medical Officer in connection with the unprovoked armed attack on U.S.S. LIBERTY (AGTR-5) in the Eastern Mediterranean, on 8 June 1967.
During the early afternoon hours, U.S.S. LIBERTY, while engaged in peaceful operations in international waters, was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and three motor torpedo boats. The LIBERTY was subjected to intense incendiary, machine gun, and rocket fire and was placed in extreme jeopardy by a torpedo hit below the waterline on the starboard side in the vicinity of the Research compartment. Severe structural damage and extensive personal casualties were incurred.
Lieutenant Kiepfer, serving as Medical Officer, was in the sick bay during the initial phases of the air attack. With complete disregard for his own personal safety, he exposed himself to overwhelmingly accurate rocket and machine gun fire by going to different stations and compartments to administer first aid after sick bay became untenable and evacuated following a rocket hit. He treated men for pain, shock, and took emergency measures to control hemorrhage and later performed a chest operation. After the torpedo hit, he organized personnel for removing the wounded in case of an order to abandon ship. He again went to different General Quarters stations to administer first aid and made trips through some of the damaged areas to the medical storeroom for needed supplies. He organized teams of men to wash wounds and instructed less seriously wounded personnel in preparation of antibiotics for injection. He conducted a major surgical operation, giving the anesthesia (spinal) himself, with a Hospital Corpsman as his assistant and a seaman and fireman as circulating assistants. Although wounded himself, Lieutenant Kiepfer treated patients in excess of thirty hours without relief or rest.
His aggressiveness and coolness under fire was exceptional in an hour of awesome peril, thereby saving many lives and easing the pain and suffering of many others. His initiative and courageous actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
The attacking nation claimed that the attack was a tragic case of mistaken identity. Not only has that claim never been accepted by the vast majority of the survivors, it has also been rejected by many prominent American admirals, generals, diplomats, and intelligence analysts.
That claim is also hard to square with the way the attacking nation remembers the event. The attacking nation’s naval museum displays a lifeboat captured from the Liberty and the steering wheel from one of the three motor torpedo boats that attacked the Liberty after the ship had already been badly damaged by two separate air attacks.
If the attacking nation had mistakenly killed 34 of its own sailors and nearly sank one of its own ships after launching two separate air attacks, would there be anything in the naval museum honoring the men who had made such a deadly error? Wouldn’t they have been investigated, discharged, or maybe even prosecuted for negligent homicide or manslaughter instead?
(The other two lifeboats were sunk by the attacking nation, which is a war crime, one of several war crimes committed by the attacking nation that day.)
If you don’t know the story of the Liberty, this podcast by former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink is an excellent place to start: