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Primary cause of death on some men was penetrating wounds of chest and lungs which made it impossible for them to breathe.
Dr . Richard Kiepfer, testimony before the Liberty court of inquiry
Ensign John Scott strode out of the wardroom with a cup of black coffee in one hand and his new Polaroid in the other when the first explosion rocked the ship. An announcement over the loudspeaker moments earlier had warned sailors to stand clear of the twenty-six-foot motor whaleboat suspended on a davit about ten feet above the starboard deck. Crews had planned a routine test of the whaleboat's engine. When the explosion occurred, Scott thought the maintenance crew had dropped the whaleboat to the deck below. After he heard the secondary explosions, Scott realized that the Liberty was under attack. He threw his coffee to the deck and sprinted to his battle station in Damage Control Central. He paused only long enough to toss his Polaroid camera onto the floor of his stateroom before he jumped down the ladder to the deck below, his arms sliding on the rails. Scott arrived inside his office before the general quarters alarm sounded.
Scott assumed that the Egyptians had shelled the Liberty with artillery from shore. The spy ship had sailed much of the morning within sight of land. But the staccato attacks followed by a brief lull and then resumption of fire meant it had to be fighter planes. One of the first messages from the bridge to damage control over the phones confirmed his suspicion. Rocket and cannon shells pounded the Liberty as the planes tag-teamed the defenseless ship. Even in the damage control office below deck, Scott heard the deafening crash of metal on metal as shells ripped holes in the ship's steel skin and echoed through the passageways. Fragments ricocheted off bulkheads inside compartments and littered the decks below.
Scott's job was to coordinate firefighters, organize stretcher bearers, and assess and respond to damage. He operated this vital function out of an austere office four decks below the bridge. Two phone talkers joined him, using sound-powered phones to relay messages to the bridge and to repair parties strategically stationed around the ship. To help navigate the complex maze of compartments, Scott kept the ship's blueprints spread out under glass on a table in the rear of the room. An inclinometer that measured the Liberty's tilt in the water hung from the ceiling. If the ship were to flood, the inclinometer would gauge the ship's list and whether it might capsize. Crews of up to fifteen sailors manned three other repair lockers near the bow, stern, and engine room. Each locker held axes, firefighting hoses, and stretchers along with pumps used to dewater compartments.
Reports arrived of multiple fires on deck. The gasoline drums used to store fuel for the ship's truck and pumps had ignited on the port side, and the fire threatened to spread. Fighters also had hit the motor whaleboat that dangled above the starboard side. The blast set the fiberglass boat ablaze in its davits. Phone talkers also reported that the attackers had hit the bridge. Scott ordered crews from the forward repair locker topside to fight the fires. Men unrolled canvas-covered hoses and turned a valve, releasing a spray of seawater. The effort proved futile. With each pass of the jets, shrapnel punctured the hoses and sapped the pressure. The hoses were worthless, so the firefighters grabbed axes and shovels from the repair locker and tossed flaming debris and rubber over the side.
The situation worsened. Each time sailors charged onto the deck to rescue the wounded, more were hit by shrapnel. Scott ordered his men to travel through the ship's superstructure, using the safety of the internal passageways. Only go on deck, he instructed, between lulls in the attacks. He also ordered his men to leave the dead and grab only the wounded. A round tore through the bulkhead and hit the valve on a vent pipe directly over Scott's head. He looked up to find that the force had turned the valve upside down. The close hit triggered one of the phone talkers to panic. Scott watched as the man suddenly recited the Lord's Prayer. Scott raced over and grabbed the man by his shirt. He slapped him. "Get it together," Scott ordered. "There's time to pray later, but not now."
Down in the engine room, Chief Petty Officer Richard Brooks heard the bell ring out over the roar of the machinery. The thirty-one-year-old Yonkers, New York, native shot a glance at the engine order telegraph and saw that the skipper had thrown the lever to all ahead flank, signaling the need for full power. With each pass of the fighters, shrapnel ricocheted inside the cavernous engine room and dropped to the grated deck below. "Get me all the steam pressure," the machinist's mate barked into the voice tube to the boilermen. "I don'twant to wait fifteen minutes. I want it all now."
The fighters first strafed the Liberty from bow to stern, targeting the bridge, machine guns, and antennae. With those destroyed or on fire, the attackers crisscrossed the spy ship to target the engine room, the Liberty's heart. Boilers there converted water to steam that raced through metal veins and arteries, driving the two turbines and the screw. Beyond the propulsion system, generators transformed steam pressure to electricity to power everything from the lights and refrigerators to the ship's radios and spy equipment. If the pilots crippled the engine room, Brooks knew the Liberty would be dead in the water, an easy target for fighters or torpedo boats. The Liberty was particularly vulnerable because it was designed as a cargo ship. Warships such as destroyers had two engine rooms and two boiler rooms to increase survivability in an attack.
Thirteen years in the Navy had taught Brooks that the engine room was one of the most dangerous places on a ship. Pilots knew to aim just beneath a ship's smokestack, but that was only one component of the risk. Superheated steam, often at temperatures as high as 750 degrees, crisscrossed the Liberty's engine room in asbestos-covered pipes. If shrapnel or a round punctured a major line, Brooks knew scalding steam could flood the room and broil the men alive. That had happened too often during World War II. Another risk centered on the deaerating tank, filled with thousands of gallons of superheated water, suspended high above the engine room. If it ruptured, scalding water would rain down on the sailors. The Liberty's two boilers also sat like grenades on the engine room floor. If a rocket or torpedo split open the ship's side beneath the waterline, the rush of cold seawater likely would trigger the hot tanks to explode.
The engine room represented a critical weak spot for the ship. Most of the Liberty's compartments were restricted to a single deck and guarded by watertight hatches. That allowed damage control crews to seal off flooded compartments in an attack. The engine room's towering boilers and uptakes, about as high as a five-story building, made it impossible to compartmentalize the cavernous space. If a torpedo hit the engine room, seawater could flood the rest of the ship in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. The steel frame of the ship's decks and compartments also served as the ship's skeleton. The absence of that frame around the engine room weakened the Liberty's hull. If the engine room were to flood, the combination of the added weight of the water and weak structure likely would cause the ship to break in half.
Golden, the Liberty's chief engineer, charged in from the wardroom moments after the attack began to find that Brooks had ordered crews to light the No. 2 boiler and increase steam pressure. Though Golden served as the department head, Brooks ran the engine room. Golden even griped that Brooks refused to let him do anything. The machinist mate had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Liberty's equipment. With his thick New York accent, he often challenged his men to pick any valve and draw a sketch of it. If he couldn't find the valve, Brooks would stand that sailor's watch. Men pored over the boilers, turbines, and pumps to find obscure and hidden valves, but no one had yet stumped Brooks. That knowledge proved essential now as rounds and shrapnel pinballed inside the compartment, busting lights and tearing the insulation from the steam pipes. Smoke from the stack now poured through the skylight above and soot rained down. Through the chaos, Brooks continued to bark at his men.
Petty Officer Eikleberry slipped on his headphones and tuned the receiver's dials in search of the attackers' radio communication. He felt winded from his sprint from the Liberty's fantail to the research spaces two decks below. Eikleberry had wandered up to the main deck after the general quarters drill for a glimpse of the Egyptian coast, hoping to spot one of the recon flights that had buzzed the ship throughout the morning. He had scanned the golden beaches and seen the dark smoke on the horizon when he heard the first rockets. He had looked up to see a fighter roar down the port side of the Liberty from bow to stern and then bank into the sky. Smoke had billowed up from the ship's bow and bridge. Eikleberry slid down the ladder to the deck below and dashed through a rear-berthing compartment, past the aft repair locker, through the mess deck, and down another ladder to his general quarters station in the bowels of the ship.
Senior research officers hovered over Eikleberry and other communications technicians as rounds blasted the side of the ship and ricocheted inside the compartment. If Eikleberry or another operator could intercept the pilot's radio communications, the men could identify the attacker's nationality based on whether the pilots spoke Arabic, Hebrew, or Russian. Eikleberry fingered the black dials on his receiver. The young operator, who had joined the Navy two months before his eighteenth birthday, couldn'tbelieve the ship was under attack. This wasn'tsupposed to happen. Only the night before, Eikleberry had worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. Chief Petty Officer Melvin Smith had plopped down beside him in the middle of the night. Eikleberry asked his supervisor if he thought the men might get a ribbon for the mission. "No," Smith told him. "Nobody is supposed to know we're even here."
The attacks came in waves, about every minute. Far belowdecks in the radio room, the clash of rockets and cannons echoed. The repeated pings sounded to Eikleberry like marbles hurled against glass. The Navy had trained Eikleberry to work under extreme pressure. During his twenty-two weeks at communications school in Pensacola, his Marine instructor had screamed at him and the others to disrupt their concentration as the recruits hustled to copy code. Other instructors made recruits suddenly swap positions, flashed the lights, and threw metal trash cans down classroom aisles to simulate combat conditions. If the students stumbled, instructors ordered them to sprint to the base's main gate and ask the guard his name. The burly Marine often ordered the winded recruits to lean forward and smell the typewriters. "That's not ink," he barked at them, "but puke from the previous washout."
Eikleberry ignored the attack and tuned the dials on his receiver. He had to find the attackers' communications. The Liberty's survival depended on it. Each time Eikleberry locked on to a frequency it dissolved into static as the pilots targeted the spy ship's forty-five antennae. Other operators perched at nearby receivers hollered out the same. Frustration soared. The men were trained to work under fire, but an equipment failure would paralyze them. Another petty officer directed Eikleberry to the antenna switchboard. There he could route antennae to specific receivers by plugging the cables into jacks, similar to a telephone switchboard. Other operators yelled positions and Eikleberry scrambled to find antennae. With each pass of the fighters, the Liberty lost more antennae. Eikleberry's options dwindled and the effort soon proved hopeless.
Dave Lewis, the head of the Liberty's intelligence operation, ordered his men to destroy classified materials. If the attackers chose to seize the Liberty rather than sink it, the racks of crypto equipment, key cards, and manuals would not only reveal the ship's mission, but also expose America's intelligence capabilities. The loss of the equipment and the key cards would jeopardize American missions worldwide. Technicians had installed identical gear in the bowels of ships and planes that prowled the coasts of Vietnam, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. Even more than the equipment, Lewis worried about the coded key cards, which functioned like an ignition key for the crypto equipment. Without the punched cards, operators could not decipher incoming messages or encrypt outgoing ones. Men gathered the cards and torched them in wastebaskets. Smoke flooded the spaces.
Bryce Lockwood, who had been at his bunk in the rear of ship when the attack started, grabbed ditching bags. The canvas satchels, each with a drawstring at the top and a weight in the bottom, were designed so sailors could toss classified materials over the ship's rail. The bags would plummet to the sea floor, hopefully to a depth that made recovery impossible. With the ship's incinerator located behind the smoldering bridge too dangerous a spot to reach as the fighters strafed the deck the men loaded the bags. Lockwood darted into the voice transcription room and began to fill a bag with tapes of intercepted Egyptian communications. Lockwood filled one bag, set it aside, and grabbed another. He loaded the second bag, then a third. Lockwood and others soon discovered a problem: the loaded satchels were too heavy to haul up two decks to the rails. Likewise, the bulky bags would not fit through the narrow hatches now partially sealed.
Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Carpenter, a twenty-five-year-old Michigan native, yanked on the drawers to Lloyd Painter's desk but found them locked. Carpenter scanned the compartment, but didn't see Painter. The men had been ordered to destroy everything and Carpenter interpreted that to mean even the papers sealed inside Painter's desk. The petty officer grabbed a sledgehammer. With a single upward swing, he knocked the metal top loose and disabled the lock, allowing him to fish out the documents. The crash of the sledgehammer on the desk reverberated through the compartment. Many of the sailors flinched and then turned to spot the source of the racket. Carpenter realized that his drastic action demonstrated to the others even more than the rockets that the attack was real. The pace of destruction increased. Two other sailors grabbed sledgehammers and wire cutters and began to destroy the crypto equipment. "No Arab is going to get this stuff," one of the men shouted. "Give me something else to break."
Even far below deck in the research spaces, the men could not escape the attack. Petty Officer 3rd Class Terry McFarland spotted "flickers of light" in his peripheral vision that he later learned were tracer rounds that had punched through the ship's hull. McFarland lowered his headphones and heard what sounded like a chain dragging back and forth beneath the ship, a sound he speculated was bullets fired at a downward angle that ricocheted along the hull. Petty Officer 1st Class Joe Lentini felt a rush of warm air blow past his left leg. The communications technician looked down and found his jeans split open and what resembled a five-inch surgical incision across his thigh. Petty Officer 1st Class Reginald "Red" Addington, who had been on the flying bridge at the start of the attack, now appeared in the research spaces. Shrapnel had broken his left foot and bloodied his knee and thigh as Addington announced the obvious. "Somebody's up there shootin' at us."
A few of the men panicked. Dave Lewis found one first-class petty officer paralyzed in a corner crying. The man had urinated on himself. Another young sailor dropped to the floor facedown, sobbing in front of Lockwood, who shot a glance at one of the other Marines stationed below deck. The Marine grinned at Lockwood, but he could tell it was a pained look. The men recognized the fear the kid experienced. Rather than kick the young sailor and yell at him to get up his first instinct Lockwood stepped over him and continued to work. Petty Officer 2nd Class Ronnie Campbell, a father of a three-year-old son with a daughter on the way, announced to his colleagues that he planned to write a letter to his wife. As men filled ditching bags, torched key cards, and smashed crypto equipment, Campbell plopped down in front of his typewriter. "Dear Eileen," he typed in a letter he would never finish. "You won't believe what's happening to us."
Dr. Richard Kiepfer arrived in the Liberty's sick bay about the same time as the first of the injured. The towering lieutenant moments earlier had enjoyed a cup of coffee in the wardroom with the chief engineer. He had stepped into the passageway to chat with one of the stewards when he heard a jet buzz the ship, followed seconds later by the first explosion. The doctor thought one of the Liberty's pressurized steam lines might have ruptured in the engine room. Someone in the wardroom even suggested the deck crew might have dropped the motor whaleboat onto the deck. The officers, who had waited for the skipper to join them for his postdrill meeting, peered out the portholes. Smoke billowed from the deck as more explosions followed. The doctor didn't wait. He darted onto the deck, where he spotted a fighter zoom from the starboard bow to the port-side stern. The jet unleashed its arsenal of rockets just as Kiepfer jumped through the hatch into the sick bay.
Located on the main deck near the rear of the ship, the Liberty's infirmary was designed to handle only routine medical care. The ship's two corpsmen administered vaccines and passed out aspirin to ease backaches and Maalox to calm upset stomachs. A small examination room with a surgical table, sterilization equipment, and a pharmacy allowed the doctor, in a pinch, to perform minor procedures that required only local anesthetic and sutures. A case of appendicitis on a previous cruise had forced Kiepfer's predecessor to evacuate a sailor to a hospital in Senegal. The infirmary's main ward could accommodate only four sailors out of a crew of nearly three hundred. An adjoining room housed the ship's two-bed isolation unit, designed to quarantine contagious sailors. The doctor's office, where he reviewed medical charts and wrote letters to his cancer-stricken mother back home in New York, sat to the rear of the exam room.
The Liberty's corpsmen had already arrived. The doctor dispatched the junior corpsman to the wardroom that served as the forward casualty collection station as the first injured sailors streamed into sick bay. The fighters continued to strafe the Liberty, though the outer bulkheads muffled the blasts. Kiepfer learned of the attack's violence from the severity of the shrapnel injuries he saw. Many of the bloodied men, who were working on deck when the attack started, arrived on stretchers and in the arms of friends. Kiepfer and Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Van Cleave began treatment. The doctor and the corpsman lifted the first sailor to the surgical table. Shrapnel had lodged in the seaman's chest and collapsed his lung. Blood and air filled the chest cavity and made it even more difficult for the sailor to breathe.
The men inserted an intravenous line in the sailor's arm and administered morphine to ease his pain and a dextrose and saline solution to fight shock. The doctor swabbed the sailor's chest with an alcohol rub to sterilize it. Kiepfer made an incision between his fifth and sixth rib. He carefully sliced through the sailor's skin, the subcutaneous fat and muscle, and then broke through the pleura, the thin tissue that lines the chest cavity. The doctor slid a clear plastic tube into the sailor's chest. He sutured the skin around it to keep air out and secure the tube. The doctor and the corpsman covered the wound with a sterile dressing. To remove the fluid and air trapped inside the sailor's chest, Kiepfer attached a foot-powered suction pump. He worked the suction pump and watched the air and blood drain from the tube. The ten-minute procedure improved the sailor's breathing.
The bridge summoned the doctor. Kiepfer passed through the crew's mess deck, where many of the wounded lay stretched out on tables. The doctor climbed the ladder to the deck above. Injured men flooded the wardroom and chief petty officers' lounge. When he reached the bridge moments later, Kiepfer discovered that the skipper was the only man still on his feet. McGonagle clutched the Liberty's helm. The rest of the skipper's men had either been killed or injured. The doctor peered outside the bridge and spotted the navigator's remains on a deck below. There was little the doctor could do. He kneeled alongside injured men crouched in the rear of the bridge to inspect wounds and administer morphine. He promised to send stretcher bearers up to evacuate the men as soon as possible.
The doctor hopped down the ladder to the wardroom. Only a half hour had passed since he had sipped coffee and chatted with one of the stewards. The passageway that led to the wardroom circled the engine room's uptakes and created a loop. Injured men sat shoulder to shoulder around the full circumference. Kiepfer had worked nonstop since the attack began. He had treated the injured in sick bay followed by the men on the bridge. But only as he stared at the dozens of bloodied sailors that crowded the passageway did he realize the massive scope of the Liberty's casualties. Shrapnel wounds, chest injuries, and broken bones: these injuries were far more severe than the Liberty was equipped to handle. Kiepfer was particularly overwhelmed considering he had only completed two years of a four-year surgical residency. He realized that his best course of action was to stabilize the injured and hope help arrived soon. The doctor maneuvered around the wounded past the wardroom to the chief petty officers' lounge.
Kiepfer found Petty Officer 3rd Class Sam Schulman, the Liberty's junior corpsman, crouched over the ship's injured postal clerk at the lounge entrance. Petty Officer 2nd Class John Spicher had been hit by shrapnel in the chest and face as he fought a fire on deck. Men had dragged the thirty-year-old inside as he begged to know how bad his injuries looked. When Spicher, the father of an eighteen-month-old, wasn't passing out letters, he had earned extra cash stitching insignia on uniforms with his wife's sewing machine. Blood now soaked his uniform and face. The sailors around him would later recall Spicher's labored breathing. Schulman gave him morphine and then sliced open his throat to help him breathe. An injured sailor with his arm in a sling operated a foot-powered suction pump to remove the fluids from Spicher's chest. Kiepfer asked if Schulman needed help, but the corpsman declined. Spicher became unconscious. Schulman performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was no use. Spicher died.
The doctor returned to the sick bay. The injured filled the beds, including the two in the isolation room. Other wounded sailors crowded the floor. Kiepfer sutured a patient's wounds on the table just as a round tore through the ceiling and struck the surgical light. The explosion threw the doctor against the bulkhead and glass rained down on the patient. The surgical light absorbed much of the blast and the table protected his legs, but scalding shrapnel lacerated Kiepfer's exposed midsection. The skin on his abdomen burned from the shrapnel and he felt flashes of pain elsewhere in his body. Propped up against the bulkhead, the doctor could see that some shrapnel and glass also had hit the sailor on the table, but fortunately the light had shielded him from much of the blast. The doctor pushed himself off the bulkhead and returned to the table despite his pain. He dressed the patient's wounds with sterile bandages and finished his sutures.
Kiepfer stepped into his office to treat his own wounds. He had no gurney or bed so he stretched out on the metal deck. The doctor opened his shirt and surveyed the lacerations that crisscrossed his abdomen. The wounds were superficial no organs or vital arteries had been hit but that knowledge did little to ease his pain. Like any other patient, he felt the onset of shock. Kiepfer knew that the Liberty had no other doctor; care of the wounded fell to him and the two corpsmen. He had no choice but to push ahead. The doctor tore open several abdominal pads and pressed them against his stomach. He slipped on his life jacket and cinched it around him to hold the pads in place. Kiepfer emptied two ampoules of morphine into an insulin syringe and injected himself, careful to strike a balance between dulling his pain and passing out. He climbed to his feet and returned to work.
Petty Officer 2nd Class James Halman hustled to seal the four porthole covers along the port-side bulkhead of the Liberty's radio room after the first rockets and cannons exploded. Another blast shook the ship, followed seconds later by the general quarters alarm. Smoke billowed from the bow and bridge and Halman heard sailors race through the narrow passageways armed only with battle helmets and life jackets. Halman and the other radiomen closed the last of the portholes as the skipper came on the loudspeaker and ordered operators to broadcast a distress call over the high-command network. The Navy's high-frequency radio network, monitored by every ship in the Sixth Fleet, served as the fastest way to call for help. Halman didn'thesitate. The twenty-two-year-old leapt to his station and grabbed the microphone. He squeezed the transmit button. "Any station this net," Halman called out at 1:58 p.m. "This is Rockstar."
Like scores of other sailors, Halman felt stunned by the surprise attack. Only moments earlier, he had wandered out on the deck to see the dark smoke on the horizon. Rather than spark concern, the proximity to the war zone had excited Halman and added a touch of adventure in the Liberty's otherwise mundane routine. Unlike the spooks down below who listened to the tank commanders on the battlefield, Halman and the other radiomen managed the ship's radio network out of an office just above the main deck. The sailors hunted usable frequencies, established ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, and monitored distress networks. Though not part of the job description, the radiomen also reviewed the Associated Press and United Press International wires and printed copies of the latest headlines that when mimeographed served as the Liberty's daily newspaper.
Halman repeated his distress call as the fighters circled back and hit the Liberty again. The radiomen struggled to concentrate as shells pounded the ship and knocked out the antennae. Smoke flooded the radio room from a gasoline fire that burned outside on the deck. Napalm dropped from bombers on later attack runs blistered the paint on the interior bulkheads. The radiomen soon dropped to the deck and crawled beneath the desks to seek protection from the shrapnel and find air less saturated with smoke. Halman pulled the microphone under the desk with him so he could continue to broadcast the Liberty's distress signal. He pressed the transmit button again and yelled into the microphone. "Any station this net, this is Rockstar," Halman called out. "We are under attack. Be advised we are under attack."
The U.S.S. Saratoga was steaming approximately five hundred miles west of the Liberty at the time fighters strafed the spy ship. The 76,000-ton aircraft carrier could carry as many as ninety aircraft and a crew of approximately five thousand sailors. It performed maneuvers south of Crete with the majority of the Sixth Fleet. The aircraft carrier U.S.S. America sailed nearby along with the cruiser U.S.S. Little Rock, which carried Vice Admiral William Martin, the commander of the Sixth Fleet. Halman's distress call crackled over the airwaves. The Saratoga's radio operators, likely stunned by the emergency message over the high-command network, struggled to decipher Halman's distress call. Two minutes after Halman made his first call, the carrier responded. "Rockstar, this is Schematic," answered the carrier's operator. "You are garbled. Say again."
As shells rocked the Liberty and smoke poured into the radio room, Halman fingered the transmit button and repeated his distress call. "I say again. We are under attack," Halman shouted. "We are under attack."
The Saratoga's message came back the same. "You are still garbled," the operator replied. "Say again."
"Schematic, this is Rockstar. We are under attack. We are under attack," Halman yelled. "Any station this net, this is Rockstar. We are under attack. Do you read me?"
Six minutes into the assault, the Liberty's radiomen switched transmitters but still could not get a clear message out. Chief Petty Officer Wayne Smith darted down to the transmitter room on the main deck near the rear of the ship. There Smith discovered that the frequency dial was one kilocycle off. He adjusted it and the radio operators tried again. Problems persisted. Each time the planes strafed the ship, the radiomen found the frequency interrupted by a sound like feedback. The noise over the receivers was so loud that one of the men would later tell the Navy's investigating board that the sailors concluded the transmitters had malfunctioned. The men switched frequencies only to find the same feedback noise on all of them. Halman and the other radiomen concluded the attackers had jammed the Liberty's communications. Only between attacks could the operators receive signals.
The radio log shows that at 2:08 p.m. ten minutes into the assault Halman called for help again. The fighters by now had strafed the Liberty multiple times. Fires raged on deck and wounded sailors flooded the sick bay, wardroom, and mess deck. The chaotic and frightful reality aboard the ship reflected in Halman's desperate call for help. "Schematic, this is Rockstar," the radio operator called out. "We are under attack. We are under attack. We are under attack."
"Roger," the carrier's operator finally replied.
"Schematic, this is Rockstar," Halman radioed one minute later. "We are under attack and need immediate assistance."
"Roger," the carrier's operator answered. The Saratoga's radioman asked the Liberty for an authentication code, a secret variable letter combination that ships use to verify the identity of others. Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Ward crouched next to Halman and fed him the authentication code from a book. The carrier's radioman responded five minutes later. "Authentication is correct," the operator replied. "I am standing by for further traffic."
Ensign Dave Lucas leaned over to grab his battle helmet and life jacket out of the starboard gear locker just outside the bridge when he felt a round zing past his head. He dropped to the deck as another explosion rocked the spy ship. Lucas crawled the last few feet into the bridge, his battle helmet still clutched in one hand. He pulled himself up and surveyed the wrecked command hub. He choked on the smoke and broken glass from the shattered portholes crunched beneath his feet. Blood made portions of the deck slippery. Lieutenant Jim O'Connor had dragged himself into the Combat Information Center just behind the bridge. Lucas spied Lieutenant Jim Ennes, Jr., stretched out in the back of the bridge, his left leg broken. Petty Officer 3rd Class Francis Brown, one of the ship's quartermasters, had taken control of the helm. In the center of the room, McGonagle barked orders at the phone talkers.
Lucas buckled his battle helmet just as another fighter strafed the bridge. He dropped to the deck for a second time. Shrapnel dug into his arms, back, and fingers. He grabbed his handkerchief and cinched it around the pinkie finger on his right hand. The gunnery officer's battle station was on the flying bridge above, but Lucas knew he wouldn't survive up there with the fighter attacks. Instead he hopped down the ladder to help with the injured in the wardroom. Below he witnessed several men carry the executive officer on a stretcher down the passageway. The normally gregarious Armstrong lay silent and the color had drained from his face. Lucas recognized the signs of shock. Ennes now lay on the deck outside the wardroom, his shattered leg now swollen. Inside the wardroom, Lucas found one of the ship's corpsmen busy with another half dozen casualties.
Several men gathered in a passageway to fight a fire on the port side near the gasoline drums. Lucas joined them. The fire had spread from the drums and consumed four life rafts on deck. The men unrolled a fire hose and cranked the valve, unleashing a stream of salt water. Others kicked burned debris and fuel overboard. Each time the fighters passed, the men ducked back inside the passageway. The explosions echoed inside the metal superstructure and rounds whistled through the corridor where the sailors crouched. Injured men littered the decks. Many of them had been chipping paint on deck or were in the forward spaces when the attackers first shelled the ship. The repair party soon ran out of stretchers so Lucas and the men grabbed several blankets from nearby staterooms and hauled the injured below. Lucas returned to the bridge, climbing the ladder inside the superstructure.
In the brief time he had left the bridge he estimated it to be no more than fifteen minutes the fighters had continued to pound the command hub. Unbeknownst to the men on the Liberty, a pair of French-made Super Mystère fighter-bombers armed with napalm had replaced the Mirage fighters that had run out of ammunition. A napalm canister had struck the ship and the jellied gasoline fire had flooded the bridge with smoke. McGonagle, nearly alone on the bridge when the canister hit, would later recall one of his most vivid memories of the attack was "firefly-like pieces of napalm flying around inside the pilot house." Lucas found the radar and gyrocompass inoperable. The magnetic compass spun wildly and much of the radio equipment was fried. No one had written in the quartermaster's notebook a chronology of events used to create the deck log since 1:55 p.m., minutes before the attack. The final entry in the blood-splattered log noted only that O'Malley had assumed the ship's conn. Lucas took control of the log.
The young officer and father of a five-week-old daughter (whom he had never met) stood in a bridge that was now nearly empty. The relentless attacks had killed or injured the navigator, executive officer, and the helmsman along with the off-going officer and junior officer of the deck. Francis Brown, one of the ship's quartermasters, had assumed the helm to guide the battered ship. Lucas spotted a lone phone talker stretched out on the deck in the chart room in the rear of the bridge, relaying the skipper's orders to damage control. McGonagle paced the center bridge, clutching in one hand a camera that he used to photograph the fighters. Blood soaked the skipper's right pant leg from a shrapnel wound in his upper thigh and he had burns on his right forearm. Lucas sensed McGonagle's relief that another officer had joined him on the bridge.
The fighters disappeared in the sky and an eerie calm settled over the battered Liberty. Was the attack over, Lucas wondered, or would the fighters rearm and return. Who were the attackers? The young officer, like many others, assumed the Egyptians had strafed the Liberty. Lucas stepped onto the starboard wing of the bridge. Firefighters pushed charred debris overboard on the deck below. The men had extinguished some of the fires and had others under control. Stretcher bearers and volunteers rescued the wounded and hauled them down to the wardroom and mess deck on mattresses and wrapped in blankets. On the deck lay several dead bodies that no one had time yet to recover. The young officer looked at his feet and realized that he stood on the American flag that minutes earlier had flown from the mast above. The fighters had shot it down.
The Liberty's problems magnified. Just before the fighter attack Ensign Patrick O'Malley had spotted three unidentified blips on the green radar screen, zooming toward the spy ship. O'Malley had summoned Lloyd Painter, who had identified the blips as surface vessels and alerted the skipper. In the chaos of the attack that followed, no one had had time to investigate the earlier radar report. Men had fought fires, rescued the injured, and stoked the boilers as the unidentified vessels closed the distance. McGonagle now scanned the horizon with his binoculars. Fifteen miles off the starboard side, he spotted three torpedo boats in attack formation aimed right at the Liberty. Copyright © 2009 by James M. Scott