Attack Photos Prove NCOI Testimony and Finding Wrong for Ship's Heading During Attack
K. J. Halliwell  (March 21, 2005 -- Revised August 27, 2010)

USS Liberty's track/heading throughout the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) attack has never been known with certainty.  In Mr. Ennes' book, Assault on the Liberty, on page 62, he states that he heard Captain McGonagle order, "Right full rudder, all engines ahead flank...", at the beginning of the air attack.  The book's appendix presents a map showing Liberty wobbling its way northward thereafter.  In Mr. Cristol's book, The Liberty Incident, he speculates that the ship likely headed north during the MTB (motor torpedo boat) attack, and shows her tracking accordingly.

Meanwhile, the NCOI (Navy Court of Inquiry) record indicates, apparently based on Captain McGonagle's testimony and reconstructed course plot charts (see below), that the ship stayed substantially on its pre-attack heading of 283 degrees (i.e., West by Northwest) until after the torpedo attack.  This contradicts Ensign Lucas' NCOI testimony, as he described the MTB attack (emphasis added):  "... We had been attempting to get away from the area as fast as possible, on an approximate course of 000 [North].  The Captain asked what the current heading was. ..."

(Click on image for enlarged view; use browser back-button to return.)

Fortunately, we have photographic images taken during the combined air and sea attack that can help us determine the ship's true heading, at various points during both the air and sea attack, and allow us to approximate the ship's overall track.  Of course, a few images will not remove all doubt about the ship's heading throughout the attack; but they provide direct evidence instead of hearsay and memory to build a plausible theory upon.

(Additionally, these photographic images provide us with a wealth of tangential information including: approximate time of day, post torpedo blast list angle, and general visibility conditions.)

The first image -- cutout from a larger image -- and its analysis is below.

Clearly, the above photographic image was taken during the air attack.  It appears that the microwave antenna reflector was damaged by rockets or high-explosive cannon shells, in a previous strafing run. (The full photograph of the microwave reflector shows several rocket-sized holes in the reflector dish.  Also, these holes are can be seen in a post-attack front view image of the reflector dish.) 

As you can see, the analysis shows the ship was heading northward at the time of the photograph.  So, clearly, the ship did not stay on its 283-degree course during the attack -- not even close.

(Additionally, notice the crystal clear sky and the appearance of unlimited visibility.)

A second photographic image taken during the air attack and its analysis is below.

To help understand the above image's analysis, refer to the diagram below.

(Click on image for enlarged view; use browser back-button to return.)

As the above analysis shows, the ship headed Northeast at some point during the Mystere jet fighter attack phase.  This too validates claims that the ship made a right turn -- and a bit beyond -- soon after the air attack began.

(Additionally, the crystal-clear sky in the analysis image shows there was no significant smoke, at higher levels, from the port side or other fires that obscured the attacking pilot's vision of Liberty's radar mast, flag and other unique distinguishing features -- both large and small.)

The next two photographic images were taken during the MTB attack.  The first of these two is shown below.

Likely, the above image was taken shortly after the torpedo blast.  The ship is listing severely -- perhaps enhanced by an apparent turn to port -- and the sun's angle above the horizon suggests the time was about 14:40 (local time) -- near the reported time of the torpedo blast.  The sun's illumination on the port side indicates the ship was heading northward.

(Additionally, notice the smoke and its relatively low density.  Even in this out-of-focus image, it is relatively easy to see details of objects on the aft part of the ship and the distant horizon, slightly above the horizontal reference line.  Imagine the level of detail you could see if the image was well-focused and optimally exposed; it would have been similar to the level of detail seen by the MTBs' crews.)

The final photographic image, shown below, was taken as the MTBs purportedly terrorized the ship's crew by racing around the ship and strafing her starboard side with machine gun and cannon fire, soon after the torpedo hit.   It too shows the ship heading northward.

(Additionally, as you can see, the above image is out-of-focus too.  Yet it is easy to see that the sky is clear and visibility between the MTBs and Liberty was completely unobstructed.  The MTBs had a clear view of USS Liberty and could have easily read her very large letters "GTR" and the even larger number "5" on both sides of her bow.)

Every known photographic image taken with part of the ship included, during the air and sea attack, shows the ship heading in a North or Northeastern direction.  Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that Liberty turned northward when attacked, and likely continued heading northward, toward the open sea, during the entire attack, as depicted in the diagram below.

(Click on image for enlarged view; use browser back-button to return.)

In conclusion, the analysis above shows that Captain McGonagle's NCOI testimony and the NCOI's course plotting charts of the ship track, during the attack, were wrong.  Obviously, the ship did not remain on or near her 283-degree heading during the attack, as Captain McGonagle claimed repeatedly in his testimony (emphasis added):

"In the latter moments of the air attack, it was noted that three high speed boats were approaching the ship from the northeast on a relative bearing of approximately 135 at a distance of about 15 miles.  The ship at the time was still on course 283 true, speed unknown, but believed to be in excess of five knots. ... I realized that if I attempted to turn to starboard, I would expose a larger target to the torpedo boats.  I elected to maintain a heading of 283 at maximum speed."*
Being aware of a ship's course and commands affecting its course are of paramount concern to any ship's captain; thus, a finding that proves the Captain was wrong about the ship's course is significant.  It calls into question the reliability of other testimony, by Captain McGonagle, within the NCOI record and elsewhere, about other important aspects of the attack that he claimed but other survivors (e.g., Ensign Lucas' NCOI testimony) refute to this day.