The Mistaken Identity Claim: USS Liberty v/s El Quseir
K. J. Halliwell  (September 15, 2005 -- Revised January 27, 2015)

The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) says, in its various official reports, that before and throughout the air attack USS Liberty's identity was not known by the fighter jet pilots and their controllers; although, at some point, at least one of the attacking pilots realized the unidentified ship was likely not an enemy (i.e., Egyptian) ship after seeing Latin, as opposed to Arabic, ship identification letters and number on its bow.  At this point, purportedly, the air attack was terminated. 

Upon terminating the air attack, the IDF says a stand-down order was issued to the MTB (motor torpedo boat) Division Commander.  Unfortunately, according to the IDF, this information was not received by the MTB Division Commander.  Thus, the MTBs' captains continued their pursuit of the unidentified ship -- now heavily damaged by the air attack, with fires being extinguished on both sides of her superstructure, and heading northward toward the open sea at an estimated speed between 10 to 15 knots.*

As the fast-moving MTBs rapidly approached the unidentified ship, at a location more than 20 NM (nautical miles) north of the northern Sinai coast and about 30 NM northwest of El Arish, Egypt,* the IDF says its MTB captains realized the ship was not a high-speed combat ship, as originally believed.  Instead, the MTB Division Commander and one of the other MTB captains identified the ship as the relatively low-speed Egyptian cargo ship El Quseir. (It is unclear whether or not the third MTB's captain attempted to identify the ship.)

Purportedly, the MTB Division Commander and one MTB captain viewed pictures of El Quseir in a ship identification document carried on board the MTBs, compared them to at least the forward-half of USS Liberty (as seen through binoculars or naked eye), and simultaneously and independently came to the conclusion that USS Liberty looked so much like El Quseir that they were convinced she was El Quseir, despite the size and other unique differences -- including the ship's large, Latin identification letters "GTR5" on its bow (i.e., the letters that the attack pilots saw) and an American flag flying on her high central mast.

For the most part, it is true that ships of a specific type resemble other ships of the same or similar type.  In this case, both USS Liberty and El Quseir were cargo-type ships.  Both ships had tall masts, and a centrally located superstructure and stack assembly.  In this gross respect, they resembled each other -- as well as hundreds of other cargo-type ships that steamed through Eastern Mediterranean Sea waters of that period.  So, to distinguish ships of a similar type from each other, one must look carefully for unique features and not simply at a ship's gross appearance.

To assist the MTB captains with ship identification, each MTB purportedly contained a ship identification document with fairly detailed drawings and photographic images of known Egyptian vessels.  Below is a composite digital image of actual images of El Quseir purportedly contained in the MTBs' ship identification document.  (The ship's data at the bottom was originally printed in Hebrew language script.)

As you can see, the pictures of El Quseir were fairly large and relatively clear.  The pictures show clearly that El Quseir had many highly visible features:

    • two rows of portholes running along the sides of her hull,
    • two tall and slanted pole-masts (forward and aft),
    • a short and small vertical pole-mast on top of middle superstructure,
    • a small (two-level) superstructure,
    • a slanted stack behind the superstructure, and
    • a vertical (90 degree) bow point.

In all respects, El Quseir appeared like a classic "tramp steamer" -- a relatively common sight in the Mediterranean Sea region before and during 1967.

Other than both El Quseir and USS Liberty having general hull lines of cargo-type ships, the two ships had little in common (as highlighted below).  USS Liberty had:

    • no portholes in her hull,
    • two tall and vertical pole-masts (forward and aft),
    • a tall and large tower-mast on top of forward superstructure,
    • a large (four-level) superstructure,
    • a vertical stack in the middle of the superstructure,
    • slanted (78 degree) bow point,
    • a very large radio antenna reflector dish aft the superstructure,
    • a large radio antenna reflector dish at the forecastle level, and
    • many other type radio antennas visible on her decks and masts.

Additionally, USS Liberty had her US Navy ship identification number "GTR5" painted in large letters on both sides of her bow and stern.  In all respects, USS Liberty appeared very much like a WW2-era Victory Ship converted to some type of communications ship, with clearly visible US Navy markings.

Below is a montage of El Quseir and USS Liberty images that falsely shows both ships as being the same size.  Can you determine which ship is El Quseir and which is USS Liberty? Try covering the top part of the rear-half of each ship, from about the middle of each ship's stack.  Can you still see differences?  If you find it difficult to see any difference, then it is likely that you do not want to see differences; and, perhaps, this was the case with the MTB Division Command and at least one MTB's captain.

In conclusion, one can see that El Quseir and USS Liberty were cargo-type ships that grossly resembled many other ships of their type, including themselves; but upon careful inspection, one can see that they did not appear identical.  It may be understandable that somebody not knowledgeable about various ship types and their configuration might confuse El Quseir with USS Liberty -- at least at first glance.  But this was not the case for the MTB Division Commander and captains.  Supposedly, they were educated and experienced IDF Naval officers with at least common training in ship identification and general knowledge of different ship types.