There are two approximate physical sizes often stated for the American flags (National ensigns) that flew on USS Liberty before and during the attack: a 5′ x 8′ flag before the air attack, and a 7′ x 13′ flag before and during the MTB (motor topedo boat) attack. This essay will explore the accuracy of these approximate sizes, and attempt to determine the exact sizes of ensigns flown before and during the attack.
According to US Navy flag regulations*, a ship of Liberty’s length (greater than 451 feet) hoists the following ensigns: Daily or Steaming Ensign size-7 (listed dimensions 5′ x 9.5′), and Holiday Ensign size-5 (listed dimensions 9′ x 17′).
As you can calculate, both of these regulation-size ensigns have a height-to-length ratio of 1:1.9; i.e., the ensign’s length is 1.9 times its height. (By definition, a US Navy regulation size ensign, regardless of physical size, has a height-to-length ratio of 1:1.9.)
It is clear that the often cited 5’ x 8’ size does not have height-to-length ratio of 1:1.9, but as an approximate size it is close to a regulation size-7 ensign. On the other hand, the often cited 7′ x 13′ size is close to a 1:1.9 height-to-length ratio, but it is not listed in the Navy flag manual as being a regulation-sized ensign nor a close approximation of the prescribed size-5 ensign.
So, where did these askew approximate ensign sizes originate?
Likely, they came from a comment found in the NCOI (Navy Court of Inquiry) record appendix, on page VII, ‘Point 6’:
“LIBERTY flew a size 9 (approx 5 feet x 8 feet) U.S. ensign from her foremast throughout the morning of 8 June and until it was shot down by the Israeli air attack. At least 5 minutes prior to the torpedo attack a size 7 ensign (approx 7 feet by 13 feet) was hoisted at the main yardarm.”
While this may explain the source of ensign size estimates, it exposes two errors:
The ensign flew from the amidships mast, not the foremast.
The US Navy regulation ensign sizes given – size-9 and size-7 – grossly mismatch the approximate physical sizes stated. A US Navy regulation size-9 ensign is 3.5′ x 6.7′, and a size-7 ensign is 5′ x 9.5′. In other words, the Daily or Steaming Ensign was 3.5′ x 6.7′, and the Holiday Ensign was 5′ x 9.5′.
As you may have noticed, the ensign size-numbers cited above do not match the size-numbers prescribed, for a ship of USS Liberty’s size, in the Navy flag manual.
This is not as strange as it may seem. Whether or not any given ship flys the ensign sizes prescribed is dependent on its ability to hoist and maintain the ensign sizes. On some ships, rigging and antennas on the mast make it impossible or precarious to fly large flags, thus, these ships fly smaller regulation-sized flags than prescribed. (The US Navy flag manual cites an allowance for this circumstance.) So, it is possible that USS Liberty was not flying the ensign sizes prescribed in the Navy’s flag manual.
If USS Liberty flew the ensign sizes cited in the NCOI record, then likely there are photographic images showing the ship flying these size ensigns. If so, this would tend to validate the ensign size-numbers given in the NCOI record. A review of USS Liberty photographs revealed that there are photographs showing the ship flying, at various times, ensigns that appear very close to size-9, size-7 and size-5 ensigns.
In photographic images of USS Liberty taken at sea (see below), before the TRSSCOMM antenna was installed, it shows her flying an ensign that appears to be about size-9 (3.5’ x 6.7’).
In a photographic image taken the day after the attack (see below), it shows USS Liberty flying an ensign that appears to be size-7 (5′ x 9.5′).
In a post-attack photographic image showing USS Liberty entering Chesapeake Bay (see below), on her return home after the attack, it shows her flying a very large ensign that appears to be size-5 (9′ x 17′).
Thus, based on photographic evidence, it is clear that USS Liberty, at various times, flew either a size-9, size-7 or size-5 US Navy regulation-sized ensign, or an ensign with physical dimensions very close to these sizes. For size comparison purposes, the drawing below shows all three ensign sizes, stacked one-above-the-other, on USS Liberty’s central mast.
As cited previously, the NCOI record states the size ensign flown before the air attack began was size-9 (3.5′ x 6.7′), and the size flown during the MTB attack was size-7 (5′ x 9.5′). Thus, the ensign shown hoisted in day-after-attack photographic images of USS Liberty is likely the size ensign she flew during the MTB attack, and the size ensign flying before the air attack was physically smaller than the NCOI approximated.
Of course, with the ensigns being smaller, during the attack, than commonly believed, it brings into consideration the attackers’ ability to see them. This will not be explored here; but as the above images show clearly, the ensign can be seen flying on USS Liberty, regardless of its size.