STEPHEN S. TOTH, LT, USN
Stephen Toth '63
Date of birth: September 12, 1939
Date of death: June 8, 1967
From the 1963 Lucky Bag:
From the September-October 1967 issue of SHIPMATE:
Lt. Stephen S. Toth, USN, died of wounds sustained when USS LIBERTY was accidentally attacked by Israeli Forces in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on 8 June. Services were held in St. Andrew's Chapel on 14 June, with interment in the Naval Academy Cemetery.
Lt. Toth was born in California and graduated from St. George's School in Newport, R.I. He attended Virginia Military Institute for one year before entering the Naval Academy, from where he was graduated in 1963. He served in the guided missile destroyer USS DEWEY as engineering officer. In 1965 he was ordered to USS ALBANY, a guided missile cruiser, where he was ASW officer for almost two years. This ship was responsible for recovery of the lost hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain and Lt. Toth's department had an important part in search operations. He was assigned to the LIBERTY, a communications research vessel, in November 1966 as navigator and operations officer.
Surviving are his parents, Capt. and Mrs. Joseph C. Toth of 301 53rd St., Virginia Beach, Va., and a sister, Mrs. James A. Linen IV who lives in Chicago, Ill., and Greenwich, Conn.
Seeing the Washington Post in early April with its photo of the caisson carrying CAPT McGonagle, skipper of USS LIBERTY (GTR-5), to his grave in Arlington and reading the news stories reminded me that our classmate Steve Toth was killed aboard the LIBERTY on 8 June 1967 by attacking Israeli jets.
I remember Steve well. When we were growing up in Washington, DC, in the late 1940's, we sometimes played or went to movies together -- my mother and aunt were both good friends of Steve's mother, Margaret. Steve's father was CAPT Joseph C. Toth, USNA '31, a decorated WWII veteran who retired in 1961. After we moved to Natchez, MS, and later to Annapolis, I lost track of Steve until we met again on 7 July 1959, the day we were all sworn in as Midshipmen. Steve had graduated from St. George's School and completed his rat year at VMI, then become a Plebe all over again. You may question his good sense, but apparently he validated many courses and was getting a dual major in nuclear physics. After graduation, I lost track of him again.
On 8 June 1967, the LIBERTY was attacked without warning while sailing in international waters. She was attacked by both Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats. No one came to LIBERTY's assistance in time to do anything meaningful to ward off the attacks. Only by the incredible skill and bravery of her Commanding Officer -- who was awarded the Medal of Honor -- and the Crew of the LIBERTY was the ship saved from sinking. Shortly after the attack on the LIBERTY, I saw the casualty list and learned of Steve's death. I was in VS-32 aboard ESSEX (CVS-9) and we were headed to the North Atlantic and later the Med. Little was known at the time about the Israeli attack on the LIBERTY. Not until the 1979 Random House publication of "Assault on the Liberty" by James M. Ennes, Jr., A LIBERTY officer, did I learn of any details of Steve's death. Today, I reviewed those sections of the book and thought our classmates should know of them. Steve was the navigator and intelligence officer on the ship -- one of our highly classified electronic and cryptology surveillance ships that operated near potential enemy countries gathering important information. They were essentially unarmed and unprotected.
On 8 June 1967, the LIBERTY was off Egypt just as the six day war between Israel and the Arab states began. CAPT McGonagle had requested an armed escort but -- as would happen again all too soon with the PUEBLO -- the controlling authorities denied any protection for this mission which was known to be going into an area where war was likely to break out at any moment. On the morning of the 8 June, an Israeli aircraft -- a French built transport -- began circling the ship, and soon there were Dassault fighters in the area. Steve was given the job of drafting the sighting reports of armed reconnaissance aircraft in the vicinity. Unknown to the LIBERTY, she had been ordered to open to at least 100 miles from the coast -- a message which was unaccountably delayed and did not reach the LIBERTY until she was actually under attack. Although the transport was identified as Israeli, the fighter aircraft were not identified. When they suddenly began strafing runs and rocket attacks on the LIBERTY, Steve went out on the bridge wing in the face of withering rocket and heavy caliber machine gun fire to identify the nationality of the aircraft for the skipper. He was immediately cut down, joining a growing number of dead and wounded. The recommendation for the posthumous award of the Silver Star reads: "As intelligence officer, LT Toth was on the starboard wing of the flying bridge, 04 level, when the strafing attack occurred. It became a vital matter to quickly establish the national identity of the aircraft that had initiated the vicious attack in order to inform higher authority. With complete disregard for his own personal safety he fearlessly exposed himself to overwhelmingly accurate rocket and machine gun fire to obtain this data. While engaged in this task a violent explosion on the starboard side of the bridge inflicted fatal injuries."
Steve was buried at USNA. He was the Toth's only son and, I believe, only child. His father was devastated by the tragic loss -- a loss which did not reflect well on our government’s handling of the situation. He died on 1 January 1969. Margaret Toth lived on into the 1980's. I believe she died about 1989 in Virginia Beach.
Unfortunately, the disastrous handling of the LIBERTY mission by higher authorities was to be repeated and played out with even more devastating effects to the PUEBLO in 1968. I hope that the men of the LIBERTY and the PUEBLO will not be forgotten. More importantly, I hope they will not have suffered and died in vain. The memory of Steve Toth should remind midshipmen and naval officers of today of the terrible price paid by the failures of leadership shown in the LIBERTY and PUEBLO incidents. The price of LIBERTY is indeed eternal vigilance. Jim Metcalfe
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Silver Star Medal (Posthumously) to Stephen Spencer Toth (669613/1100), Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as Intelligence Officer on board the U.S.S. LIBERTY (AGTR-5), in action in the Mediterranean Sea on 8 June 1967. Lieutenant Toth was on the starboard wing of the flying bridge, 04 level, when the first strafing attack occurred. It became a vital matter to quickly establish the national identity of the aircraft that had initiated the vicious attack in order to inform higher authority. With complete disregard for his own personal safety he fearlessly exposed himself to overwhelmingly accurate rocket and machine gun fire to obtain this data. While engaged in this task a violent explosion on the starboard side of the bridge inflicted fatal injuries . The actions of Lieutenant Toth on this occasion were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Philip Armstrong '53 was also killed in this attack.