It’s not unusual in wartime for the Medal of Honor to be presented by someone other than the President. Well, not unusual for Korea and earlier. For Vietnam-era awards and later, it’s pretty much been a Presidential moment.
Except for one. Navy Captain William McGonagle, who earned his Medal of Honor 8 June, 1967. Captain McGonagle received his Medal from the Secretary of the Navy in a little noted ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard.
On the official website for the Medal of Honor, where I get the citations from, Captain McGonagle’s Medal is listed in the Vietnam War awards – which is both consistent with their parsing of eras, and well, misleading.
Here is Captain McGonagle’s citation:
McGONAGLE, WILLIAM L.
Rank and organization: Captain (then Comdr.) U.S. Navy, U.S.S. Liberty (AGTR-5). place and date: International waters, Eastern Mediterranean, 8-9 June 1967. Entered service at: Thermal, Calif. Born: 19 November 1925, Wichita, Kans. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sailing in international waters, the Liberty was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats which inflicted many casualties among the crew and caused extreme damage to the ship. Although severely wounded during the first air attack, Capt. McGonagle remained at his battle station on the badly damaged bridge and, with full knowledge of the seriousness of his wounds, subordinated his own welfare to the safety and survival of his command. Steadfastly refusing any treatment which would take him away from his post, he calmly continued to exercise firm command of his ship. Despite continuous exposure to fire, he maneuvered his ship, directed its defense, supervised the control of flooding and fire, and saw to the care of the casualties. Capt. McGonagle’s extraordinary valor under these conditions inspired the surviving members of the Liberty’s crew, many of them seriously wounded, to heroic efforts to overcome the battle damage and keep the ship afloat. Subsequent to the attack, although in great pain and weak from the loss of blood, Captain McGonagle remained at his battle station and continued to command his ship for more than 17 hours. It was only after rendezvous with a U.S. destroyer that he relinquished personal control of the Liberty and permitted himself to be removed from the bridge. Even then, he refused much needed medical attention until convinced that the seriously wounded among his crew had been treated. Capt. McGonagle’s superb professionalism, courageous fighting spirit, and valiant leadership saved his ship and many lives. His actions sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. (Captain McGonagle earned the Medal of Honor for actions that took place in international waters in the Eastern Mediterranean rather than in Vietnam.)
What’s disingenuous about this citation is simple. In all other citations for the Medal they talk about the Germans, the Apaches, the Mexicans, the Filipinos, the Japanese, the NVA and Viet Cong, and use words that clearly indicate… –the Enemy.
Not in this one.
… the Liberty was attacked without warning by jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats which inflicted many casualties among the crew and caused extreme damage to the ship.
Yes, indeed they were. Jet fighter aircraft and motor torpedo boats of the Armed Forces of Israel, then engaged with the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and others during the Six Day War.
I don’t pretend to know the truth of the matter – the Israeli government still claims it was a case of mistaken identity – that the electronic signals monitoring ship was mistaken for an old Egyptian vessel.
The survivors of Liberty take no prisoners in their assertion of a war crime. Which is appropriate, as the described behavior of the attackers of Liberty, including machine gunning lifeboats (in this case to prevent their use) , fits the definition of a war crime.
I don’t know what the truth is, and it’s pretty clear that neither government really wants to know what the truth is.
But the ghosts of the USS Liberty, and her Captain, deserve better than they have received.
And that’s coming from someone who considers himself a supporter of Israel.