When McGonagle received the Medal of Honor, it was not done in standard fashion. In fact, the medal was presented by the Navy secretary in a secluded part of the Navy shipyard near Washington.
McGonagle was in command of the USS Liberty in 1967 when it was attacked by Israeli forces. The Liberty was an intelligence gathering ship sent to the Mediterranean by the National Security Agency to spy on Soviet pilots.
One day, for no foreseeable reason, Israeli fighter jets and attack ships converged on the Liberty. The ship was “in international waters, properly marked as to her identity and nationality, and in calm, clear weather when she suffered an unprovoked attack,” according to an official report. Machine gun fire, rockets, napalm and torpedoes rained down on the Liberty. One torpedo even tore a 40-foot hole in the ship, according to a report.
McGonagle, on the bridge, was severely injured from shrapnel and napalm burns. Even so, he refused medical attention so he could maintain command of a badly beaten ship. McGonagle said his crew is what inspired him to stay despite profusely bleeding. “I would lay down on the deck, and put my leg on the captain’s chair to stem the loss of blood,” he said. The captain stayed at his post the entire time, navigating by using the North Star so he could lie down.
Finally, 17 hours after the initial attack, U.S. forces arrived to help. Israel later apologized for the attack, saying it was a case of mistaken identity. But survivors have maintained the attack, which killed 34, was deliberate. McGonagle died March 3, 1999, at 73 years old.