Jan 7

Dispelling a USS Liberty Theory

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 12:01 AM

By

The USS Amberjack, as seen in her Cold War guise without her original deck guns. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

The role of the diesel electric submarine USS Amberjack (SS-522) during the June 1967 Six-Day War–and specifically at the time of the Israeli attack on the spy ship USS Liberty (AGTR-5) on 8 June–has elicited considerable interest from many quarters. There have been controversial interpretations of events associated with the Amberjack’s movements, but what actually happened is significant because, in some cases, theoretical misrepresentations of events have stained the honor of a U.S. submarine.

In 1967, U.S. national strategic interests drove the approach by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his key cabinet members and national security advisers to the growing Middle East crisis that culminating in the 1967 war. The United States had zero national interest or motivation to be directly or indirectly involved in a war against Egypt or to be drawn into a conflict by either direct overt actions of Israel’s government or covert and clandestine activities of Israel’s Mossad and those who controlled its operations. The United States did not wish to see Israel create any situation with the Soviet Union that would destabilize relations to such a degree that conflict between the two superpowers would be possible.

The Soviet Union, whose only proxy state in the Middle East was Syria, was looking to gain access to Egyptian ports and to create a pro-Soviet entente with Egypt via arms sales and trade. In 1967, the United States was extremely mindful that Israel, by direct aggression, could create a scenario in which it would draw the United States into a conflict that it could neither completely control nor predict the outcome.

President Johnson did have pro-Israeli leanings and his Texas support base had historically included pro-Israeli Jews. However, this backdrop did not influence or control the primary strategic concerns that his two key cabinet members—Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—together with CIA Director Richard Helms and National Security Advisor Walt Rostow, brought to bear on the President’s thinking and decision making. He privately and personally may support Israel’s goals to gain greater security by extending by military force its boundaries, but this never went further, and certainly not to point of publicly telling the Israeli government that the United States would support any unprovoked aggressive acts by Israel against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The key point remains that the Johnson administration had zero wish or intent to be drawn into a conflict with Egypt or Syria.

On 5 June, Israel’s preemptive strikes led to the immediate destruction of all significant Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian air power. There was zero need for the United States to enter the conflict, but Washington was deeply concerned about Soviet reactions if Israeli incursions extended into Syria, a key Soviet ally.

Where did the U.S. Sixth Fleet Submarine Force—specifically the movement and operations of the Amberjack—fit into this evolving situation? Coauthor Larry Taylor was the leading sonar technician (sonar technician first class) cleared to top secret on board the Amberjack during the Six-Day War. He was responsible for all the special acoustic collection on board together with the communications technicians responsible for classified signals intelligence and electronic intelligence collection. They worked as a team and were separate from most of the crew, reporting to the commanding officer, Commander Augustine Hubel.

The Amberjack had departed its home port of Charleston, South Carolina, for special operations in the Mediterranean on 23 April 1967. The Tench-class diesel-electric boat had been launched in the Boston Navy Yard in 1944 and commissioned in March 1946. She displaced 1,595 tons surfaced and 2,467 tons submerged and had a top surface speed of 20.25 knots and submerged speed of 8.75 knots. With a crew of 10 officers and 71 enlisted men, plus special sea riders, the Amberjack was well armed with ten torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, and 28 torpedoes. The sub carried Mark 37 torpedoes, primarily for homing in on surface ship propellers, and Mark 16s, which were used to complete such an attack.

Over the decades since the Six-Day War and the 8 June attack on the Liberty by Israeli air and naval forces, various unsubstantiated and highly inaccurate statements have been made regarding the Amberjack’s movements. Some have even stated that the submarine fired the torpedo that hit the Liberty, causing the deaths of many of her sailors. In addition, other sources have suggested the outrageous notion that the 303 Committee back in Washington, which reviewed and authorized U.S. clandestine operations, masterminded the Liberty attack in order to pin the strike on Egypt and allow the United States to attack that country. So, let us examine the Amberjack’s actual movements and operations.

After having acquired a special fit welded to her bow and additional hydrophones fitted her superstructure, the Amberjack sailed to Rota, Spain. The Liberty also had stopped there, to take on board additional Navy and National Security Agency special communications personnel, en route to the eastern Mediterranean to eavesdrop on the developing Middle East crisis and what would escalate into the Six-Day War. The Liberty was a state-of-the-art collection platform with the ability to deliver key intercepts to the President’s desk in no more than 10 minutes.

After a port visit in Naples, the Amberjack proceeded to her collection station off the Egyptian coast. Sonar Technician First Class Taylor originally had thought that the boat’s secret orders would take them into the Black Sea to monitor the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. He felt underwhelmed when orders took them off the Egyptian coast, being aware that his knowledge of the Egyptian Navy was not in the same league as his knowledge of the Soviet Fifth Operational Squadron. Taylor still recalls that all the highly classified information and recordings for which he was responsible had “Top Secret Not Automatically downgraded” markings. This was different from his normal procedure to annotate his tapes “Top Secret, Automatically downgraded after 25 years.”

On or about 5 June, Taylor and his special collection team estimated that they may have detected the Israeli submarine Tanin proceeding in Egyptian territorial waters. The Tanin was a former Royal Navy S-class submarine launched in 1945 as HMS Springer that had been transferred to the Israeli Navy in 1958. Taylor and his team were listening in international waters at periscope depth. The contact was submerged and snorkeling (running her diesel engines to recharge her batteries), with the boat’s snorkel mast above the surface.

The Amberjack’s conning officer sighted smoke coming from the exhaust of the Tanin’s diesels. The mysterious sub shut down her engines, lowered the snorkel mast, and transitioned to running on her batteries. Once on batteries, Taylor and his team lost the contact on passive sonar. Later evidence suggested that the Amberjack’s contact was sound and that the Tanin may have been executing a clandestine operation to launch Israeli commandos into Alexandria Harbor.

The Amberjack’s primary sonar was an AN/BQR-2B. Using this system, the special sonar team also detected two likely destroyers, with classification based on sound and propeller turn-count. They also heard what seemed like various explosions. These could not have been from the Liberty on 8 June because the Amberjack was nowhere in the vicinity of the spy ship. The submarine had no recordings of the Israeli Air Force’s attack on the Liberty. Captain Hubel much later swore an affidavit that stated in paragraph 4: “on June 8, 1967 USS Amberjack (SS522) was not within 100 miles of the USS Liberty or its approximate position 31-23N, 33-25 E.”1

The shattered USS Liberty limps toward the port of Valletta, Malta, after she was attacked by Israeli air and naval forces on 8 June 1967. The Amberjack was far from the spy ship when the attack occurred. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

The Liberty attack has been controversial since its tragic occurrence. Readers are encouraged to consult the Library of Congress website USSLibertyDocumentCenter.Org, where you can find copious, reports and documents, including declassified redacted CIA and NSA reports.2 This site provides authoritative evidence of what happened on 8 June 1967 together with highly reliable background information on the Six-Day War and the lead up to the attack on the Liberty. Included are reports by former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Moorer, plus coauthor Anthony Wells’ 1976–77 interviews with former Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

The record shows the nature of the deliberate attack on the Liberty, how and why it happened, and that Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister had no knowledge of the attack until after the event. The notion that the USS Amberjack was in any way involved in the attack on the USS Liberty, or even in the immediate vicinity of the attack, is totally inaccurate.

Until the powers in Washington received confirmation from Israel that it had attacked the Liberty, there was confusion for several critical hours, with a not unreasonable initial assumption that the perpetrator was Egypt. Secretary McNamara’s Sixth Fleet aircraft recall was made because he was worried that Cairo may be inadvertently attacked. Confusion reigned in Washington, and as a result the Liberty was not supported early or adequately enough. As a result, Robert McNamara earned the permanent opprobrium of the U.S. Navy for his countermanding of direct support to the stricken spy ship, which was under fire with heavy casualties.

The Amberjack was not in the vicinity of the Liberty on 8 June 1967 and therefore was not in a position render assistance to the stricken ship or to report the attack to U.S. naval commanders in the Mediterranean or to government leaders in Washington.

  1. A. Jay Cristol, The Liberty Incident Revealed (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 219.
  2. USSLibertyDocumentCenter.org, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

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