Apr 7, 2009

Reflections on 2 Men (Part 2)

I arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, in the summer of 1965, excited about getting started on my engineering degree and making the navy my career. Two years later, I had resigned my commission and was going back to school full-time to pursue my engineering degree without the navy's involvement. As I pointed out in my last post, my commanding officer was the reason for my decision to leave the navy. I think I made it obvious how I felt about the man.

Captain Lowe had not helped the navy's position on campus. He was a politically astute man, but seemed to focus his "schmoozing" on people outside of the academic community. He also had at times disregarded university policy to the navy's detriment. On one occasion in 1967, he conducted surveillance on a Midshipman suspected of a drug offense, using Naval Investigative Service personnel and equipment, without advising university officials. The administration of OU found out about this and was outraged. There was a collective sigh of relief when it was announced that a replacement had been named as the new Professor of Naval Science.

The new NROTC commanding officer was to be Captain William Loren McGonagle, USN. The new Captain had superb credentials -- a veteran of service during both World War II and Korea, his most telling accomplishment was that he had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. The word of this spread throughout the campus community and the NROTC rapidly regained its stature on campus.

I spent a lot of time in the naval armory while I was going to school. I got to know Captain McGonagle professionally and socially. We talked about a possible future for me back in the navy, but that was not to work out. I do know that this wonderful and inspiring comrade renewed my faith in the ability of our armed services to attract and promote truly exceptional individuals.

Captain McGonagle made it very clear that he didn't believe it was an accident that his former command, the USS Liberty, was attacked by the Israeli armed forces. He had a carefully-prepared slide presentation that he was always ready to deliver to any service organization that invited him. It was an arresting presentation, with detailed photographs of the aftermath of the attack on the Liberty. He was an imposing figure, standing well over six feet tall and with an athlete's physique. In his dress whites, with the Medal of Honor in evidence, he made a wonderful spokesman for the service and the NROTC.

I stayed in touch with Captain McGonagle for a few years, and then stayed aware of his activities with the USS Liberty alumni organization. I heard with real sadness of his death in 1999.

Permit me to quote part of Captain McGonagle's obituary by Jon Thurber in the Los Angeles Times:
"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." McGonagle, a Kansas native who received a degree from USC and served in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War, recovered from his severe wounds before receiving his Medal of Honor. "

R.I.P., my Captain.

1 comment:

timman said...


As an OU NROTC mid during the Lowe years (1964- 68), your recollections simply confirm my otherwise low opinion of the man. The Trident incident sounds like my junior year though i don't recall LCDR Andrews passing out the assignment. Not sure i would have done it with my time constraints in engineering.

BTW, i was in the metallurgical dept and believe you started there though not sure if that is were you finished.

With the reception you got from Capt Lowe, it is a wonder he did not kill me when i went in to complain that Lt Dave Belton had prepared a negative recommendation for my application for nuclear power even though grade wise, and as an engineer, i had the highest in may class. I believe the negative recommendation went as prepared and insured that i had a 'special' day with Adm Rickover. Actually believed it helped since he was so used to seeing nothing but glowing recommendations which he did not believe. Must have thought it refreshing in an odd way. After four trips into his office and a lot of wrangling as to why i did not study more then 15 hrs a week as he thought was required, i was accepted. (as it turns out the right answer was before me the whole time- "i don't want to study that much and besides i did not need to as i was smarter then the average bear.)

But i surely did later get the 'disloyal' treatment when it was learned that i complained about a fellow mid being married with children (recall, if you were on scholarship you could not get married). It was apparently okay with him under certain circumstances since all but two of my graduating class was married before graduation.

As you have found there is life after engineering, i am now a patent lawyer and have been for 30yrs. it is the best part of engineering, i get to see truly great ideas without having to invest in sweat to produce them!

write if it interests you tks . tim stanley