ISRAEL MAKES UNPROVOKED ATTACK
The following day, June 6, Admiral Martin replied: “Liberty is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation. Request denied.” He promised, however, that in the unlikely event of an inadvertent attack, jet fighters from the Sixth Fleet could be overhead in ten minutes.
During the morning of the attack, early June 8, the ship was overflown by several Israeli Air Force Their exact number and type is disputed; at least one was a Nord Noratlas "flying boxcar" (claimed by the survivors and confirmed by Israel); a photograph shows a C-47 Dakota and other reports speak about Mirage III jet fighters. At least some of those flybys were from a close range. In fact, at 6:00 a.m. Israel confirmed that a Nord Noratlas identified the ship as the USS Liberty, and an additional craft made a separate identification at 9:00AM Many Liberty crewmen gave testimony that one of the aircraft flew so close to Liberty that its propellers rattled the deck plating of the ship, and the pilots waved to the crew of Liberty, and the crewmen waved back. One explanation explored why subsequent pilots did also not identify the Liberty despite close proximity is that that pilot's attention was diverted to locating Egyptian submarines, and his observation was not relayed to other pilots.
At this time, the ship was readying to turn south towards the coast of the Sinai Peninsula from its previous eastern direction. According to author James Bamford, it would then turn east and patrol at 5 knots in international waters, 13 nautical miles off the Sinai Peninsula near El-Arish, just outside Egypt's territorial waters. This course took the Liberty approximately 45 kilometers from its last sighting by IAF pilots by 2 p.m. According to other sources, the Liberty was cruising as fast as 21 to 28 knots, and could have moved 100 kilometers from its last sighting .
At about 2 p.m. the Liberty was attacked by several IAF aircraft, possibly two or three Mirage IIIs, carrying cannon and rockets, followed by Dassault Mysteres carrying napalm. After a series of passes by aircraft, one Israeli pilot Rabin, who wondered why the Liberty had not returned fire, made a close pass and noted that the ship had Western (not Arabic) lettering. Rabin immediately feared that the ship was Soviet, ordered the planes and a three torpedo boat squadron, which had been ordered into the area, to withhold fire pending positive identification of the ship, and sent in two helicopters to search for survivors. These radio communications were permanently recorded by Israel. However, although the order was recorded in the ship's log, the commander of the torpedo boat squadron claimed never to have received it.
About twenty minutes after the aircraft attack, the ship was approached by three torpedo boats bearing Israeli flags and identification signs. Initially, McGonagle, who perceived that the torpedo boats "were approaching the ship in a torpedo launch attitude," ordered a machine gun to engage the boats. After recognizing the Israeli standard and seeing apparent Morse code signalling attempts by one of the boats (but being unable to see what was being sent, due to the smoke of the fire started by the earlier aircraft attack), McGonagle gave the order to cease fire. This order was apparently misunderstood in the confusion, and two heavy machine guns on the USS Liberty opened fire. One gun was fired accidentally due to exploding ammunition Subsequently, the Israeli boats responded with fire and launched at least two torpedoes at Liberty (five according to the 1982 IDF History Department report). One hit Liberty on the starboard side forward of the superstructure, creating a large hole in what had been a former cargo hold converted to the ships research spaces, causing the majority of the casualties in the incident. The torpedo boats approached Liberty and strafed crewmen (including damage control parties and sailors preparing life rafts for launch) on deck.
When the ship was confirmed to have been American, the torpedo boats returned to offer help; it was refused by the American ship. About three hours after the attack, Israel informed the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv about the incident and provided a helicopter to fly a U.S. naval attaché to the ship.
Though Liberty was severely damaged, with a 50-foot hole and a twisted keel, her crew kept her afloat, and she was able to leave the area under her own power. She was escorted to Malta by units of the U.S. 6th Fleet and was there given interim repairs. After these were completed in July 1967, Liberty returned to the United States. She was decommissioned in June 1968 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register. Liberty was transferred to United States Maritime Administration in December 1970 and sold for scrap in 1973.
McGonagle received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. medal, for his actions. It was awarded at the Washington Navy Yard by the Secretary of the Navy. The Medal of Honor is generally presented by the President of the United States.