BY DUANE ALLEN VACHON, P.H.D. McGonagle was born November 19, 1925 in Wichita, Kansas. After attending secondary school and college in California, he enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and for the next three years participated in a Navy training program at the University of Southern California. In June 1947 he accepted a commission into the Navy as an ensign He was assigned to the destroyer USS Frank Knox and after that was posted to the minesweeper USS Partridge from 1947-1950. During the Korean War he served on the minesweeper USS Kiteduring the extensive operations that earned him and the other members of the crew a Presidential Unit Citation. From 1951 to 1966, he was assigned to various positions ashore and afloat, including commands of the fleet tug USS Mataco from 1957–1958 and the salvage ship USS Reclaimer from 1961-1963
The Israeli government claimed the ship was an Egyptian vessel and attacked it with jets, helicopters and motor torpedo boats.
McGonagle was severely wounded during the first air attack but remained in command throughout the night and the seventeen hour attack. Although the bridge had sustained heavy damage he stayed and directed the defense of the ship, refusing to leave his post for needed medical attention. As the Israeli fighters continued their attack he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Eventually a United States destroyer arrived to assist and he permitted himself to be removed from the bridge and relinquished command of the Liberty.
The combined air and sea attack killed 34 crew members including naval officers, seamen, two Marines, and a civilian, wounded 171, and severely damaged the ship. Although the ship had a 39 ft (12 m) wide by 24 ft (7.3 m) high hole and a twisted keel from a torpedo impact, the crew kept the ship afloat, and were able to leave the area under their own power. When the damage to the ship was assessed 821 rocket, shell, and machine-gun holes were found in the ship’s hull.
Medal of Honor
The Medal of Honor was presented to him at the Washington Navy Yard by the Secretary of the Navy, rather than at the White House by the President. After being promoted to captain in October 1967 and recovering from his wounds he was given command of the new ammunition ship USS Kilauea. His last command was as the Commanding officer of the NROTC Unit at the University of Oklahoma. He retired from active duty in 1974.
Medal of Honor citation
His Medal of Honor citation (which fails to mention Israel) reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer, USS Liberty (AGTR-5) in the Eastern Mediterranean on 8–9 June 1967. Sailing in international waters, the Liberty was attacked without warning by 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, Captain (then Commander) 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. Captain McGonagle’s extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of theLiberty’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 the loss of blood, Captain McGonagle remained at his battle station and continued to conn his ship for more than seventeen hours. It was only after rendezvous with a United States 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. Captain 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 United States Naval Service.
//Lyndon B. Johnson// President
When Navy Capt. William L. McGonagle received his Medal of Honor, it was not bestowed on him by the president, as is customary, or even presented at the White House. McGonagle, who died last week at 73, was given his award in the relative seclusion of a shipyard near Washington by the Navy secretary. For all of McGonagle’s heroism, he was still part of an incident that the U.S. and Israeli governments would rather forget.
He was the captain of the Liberty, a lightly armed World War II-era freighter converted to a technical resource ship. The Liberty was on duty in the eastern Mediterranean on June 8, 1967, Day 4 of what would soon be known as the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, when it was attacked by Israeli planes and torpedo boats.
Although staffed by U.S. Navy personnel, the Liberty was actually an intelligence-gathering ship, a listening post for the National Security Agency, the U.S. intelligence branch responsible for communications intercepts and code-breaking. Below decks, 100 crew members were using sensitive radio equipment to monitor traffic in the region.
As the afternoon of June 8 approached, off-duty members of the Liberty crew spent their time on deck sunbathing and waving to Israeli planes as they passed overhead. Crew members recalled that some of the pilots even waved back.
But just before 2 p.m., two Israeli Mirage fighters came back, and this time the pilots opened fire on the Liberty, spraying the vessel with rockets, machine gun fire and napalm. Israeli gunboats soon arrived and took over the attack, launching torpedoes, one of which ripped a 40-foot hole in the hull. Of the 294-man crew, 34 were killed and 171 wounded.
McGonagle was on the bridge when the attack started. He was severely burned when one of the planes dropped napalm on the bridge, and his legs were so badly torn by shrapnel that a makeshift tourniquet could not staunch the flow.
“If I left . . . with those wounds, I’d never have been able to get back to the bridge,” he told a reporter later.
The Liberty sent SOS signals to the 6th Fleet. The carrier Saratoga finally responded, acknowledging receipt of the call for help. Twelve fighter planes were dispatched to the Liberty’s rescue, but those planes were quickly recalled on orders from Washington.
Then suddenly the attack was over. The Israeli gunboats offered help to the ship they had just tried to sink. The American response was, at a minimum, rude.
Through it all, McGonagle continued to oversee the firefighting and flood control efforts on the stricken ship.
He said that his crew inspired him to stay.
“I would lay down on the deck, and put my leg on the captain’s chair to stem the loss of blood,” he said.
He stayed at his post through the night, often stretching flat on the deck and navigating by the North Star. It took 17 hours for U.S. help to arrive.
By midafternoon of the day of the attack, Israeli officials had informed Washington of the incident. In the ensuing furor, Israeli officials expanded their explanation, saying that the fighter pilots thought the Liberty was an Egyptian freighter.
President Johnson accepted the explanation and an apology, but several high-ranking members of his administration and the military were not satisfied with the Israeli story.
“My position is that the Israeli military is highly professional and to suggest that they couldn’t identify the ship is . . . ridiculous,” Adm. Thomas Moorer, who was chief of naval operations at the time McGonagle received his Medal of Honor, told the Washington Post.
Other than a brief public statement after the incident, McGonagle refused to discuss the matter. He was, in the words of one of his crew members, “a good Navy captain.”
But in 1997, on the 30th anniversary of the attack, McGonagle spoke up.
In a speech at a reunion of Liberty crew members and their families at Arlington National Cemetery, he called for a full accounting from Israel and the United States.
“I think it’s about time that the state of Israel and the United States government provide the crew members of the Liberty and the rest of the American people the facts of what happened, and why . . . the Liberty was attacked,” McGonagle said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“For many years I have wanted to believe that the attack on the Liberty was pure error,” the captain said.
But, he said, “it appears to me that it . . . was not a pure case of mistaken identity. It was, on the other hand, gross incompetence and aggravated dereliction of duty on the part of many officers and men of the state of Israel.”
There was no official response to his remarks.
Another member of the crew, James Ennes, now a retired Navy lieutenant commander, found a separate explanation for the attack.
In his 1980 book, “Assault on the Liberty,” Ennes concluded that the Israeli attack was an attempt to prevent the Americans from learning of a planned Israeli invasion of the Golan Heights. The invasion came a day after the attack on the Liberty amid indications that Israel had earlier postponed the action.
Ennes said the ship’s mission was not to spy on the Israelis, but rather to intercept communications confirming Soviet pilots were flying Egypt’s air force fleet of Soviet-built Tu-95 bombers.
A U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry determined that the Liberty was “in international waters, properly marked as to her identity and nationality, and in calm, clear weather when she suffered an unprovoked attack.”
On March 3, 1999 he died in Palm Springs, California and, following services at the Post Chapel at Fort Myer, Virginia, he was buried with full military honors on April 9, 1999 at Arlington National Cemetery with members of his USS Liberty crew in attendance. His grave can be found in section 34, lot 208 map grid U/V 11 near the common gravesite of six other members of the USS Liberty crew. McGonagle is survived by two daughters, Cindy McGonagle of Portland, Ore., and Sandra McGonagle of Austin.
The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.
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