DMZ Flashpoints: The 1968 USS Pueblo Incident

This week is the 39th anniversary of the USS Pueblo Incident. The USS Pueblo is a US naval ship that was used to intercept signal intelligence from North Korea before it was attacked and captured by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. This led to an embarrassing year for the United States as the North Koreans maximized the propaganda value of the US captives while gaining a treasure trove of valuable intelligence information from the captured ship. How could the Navy allow such a thing to happen? Was the crew at fault for allowing their ship to fall into enemy hands? To determine the answers to these questions it is important to take a good look at the complete history of the incident.

The USS Pueblo was an old commercial freighter that was converted in 1967 into a US Navy ship capable of gathering signal intelligence. Think of it as the US version of all the Russian fishing trawlers you hear about with antennas popping out all over the ship. After completing initial training on the US west coast in November 1967, the ship traveled to Japan in preparation for a future intelligence gathering mission. The USS Pueblo left the naval port at Sasebo, Japan on January 11, 1968 on it’s first intelligence gathering mission. The mission was to gather intelligence on Russian ships traveling through the Tsushima Straits and intercept electronic transmissions from North Korea.

The ship was under specific orders to not create an international incident and to stay out of North Korean territorial waters. However, an international incident had already occurred that didn’t involve the USS Pueblo when 31 North Korean commandos infiltrated across the Korean Demilitarized Zone to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The commandos were intercepted just outside the grounds of the Korean presidents home and all but one of the commandos was killed in a furious gun battle with South Korean soldiers January 21, 1968 in what became known as The Blue House Raid.

Tensions were running extremely high at the time that the USS Pueblo was drifting in international waters only 30 miles from the coast of North Korea. On January 22nd the Pueblo transmitted a situation report to Japan explaining that a North Korean sub chaser and two fishing trawlers had come near the Pueblo in the last two days. Despite the increased tensions and the fact that North Korean vessels were conducting reconnaissance of the Pueblo the US Navy leadership in Japan felt no need to inform the USS Pueblo of the assassination attempt and mounting tensions in the area or increase the ships security level. Throughout the mission the ships threat level was kept at minimum by the Navy. They did make sure to radio the latest NBA scores to the Pueblo though. As far as the crew of the USS Pueblo knew, it was business as usual on the fateful day of January 23, 1968.


Captain of the USS Pueblo Lieutenant Commander Lloyd Bucher

Just after lunch on the 23rd, three North Korean sub chasers were spotted approaching the Pueblo. The North Koreans signaled towards the Pueblo to identify themselves. The commander of the Pueblo, CPT Lloyd Bucher ordered his men to raise the American flag. After the flag was raised the North Koreans signaled that they were going to board the ship. CPT Bucher signaled back that the ship was in international waters. The North Koreans once again signaled that they were going to board the ship. At this time CPT Bucher ordered the crew to maneuver the ship away from the North Koreans. The North Koreans immediately tried to cut off the escape of the ship and opened fire on the Pueblo with their 57mm machine guns. Additionally two MIG-21s buzzed the Pueblo for added emphasis of how serious the North Koreans were. CPT Bucher ordered his crew to begin destroying all classified information and equipment and a distress call was radioed to Japan. Japan radio back that they acknowledged the distress call and that a rescue team would be mounted to assist them.

The North Koreans stopped firing and signaled towards the Pueblo to follow them. CPT Bucher thinking that a rescue team was enroute decided to comply, but only traveled at 1/3 speed in order to buy the ship more time for the rescue to come. However, no rescue was to come. It is important to remember that the United States was heavily involved in the Vietnam War at the time and the naval brass in Japan did not want to be the ones responsible for starting a second major war at the time that could have had disastrous consequences for the United States. They decided before they did anything they would have to get approval from the President of the United States. Before the US President even received word about what happened the USS Pueblo had already been captured.

While the naval brass were waiting for word from Washington the crew of the Pueblo continued to try and delay the North Koreans. However, the North Koreans again strafed the ship with machine gun fire and this time killed crew member Duane Hodges. CPT Bucher new the charade was over and allowed the North Koreans to board the ship. The North Koreans quickly tied up and beat the crew and then drove the ship towards the port city of Wonsan.


SR-71 footage of North Korean boats boarding the USS Pueblo

At Wonsan the 82 crew members of the Pueblo were taken off the ship and continued to receive brutal beatings from their guards as North Korean civilians cheered the capture of the Americans. The last time Americans had been at Wonsan was in 1950 when US Marines evacuated from the port after the Chinese military attacked the US military to aid their North Korean allies during the Korean War. The US Navy battleships had bombarded and destroyed the city before leaving. Wonsan was probably not the best location for an American to arrive in North Korea for the first time.

Here is how one of the captured crew members remembered the reception they received from the North Koreans at Wonsan:

Interspersed with their unintelligible cries, to us anyhow, cries were shouts of “Death to the American Bastards” and an occasional “Gotdam, Gotdam.” I guess this was from folks who had hung out with the occupation troops during the Korean War. (…) God, I felt like terrible. Why couldn’t I just die and be done with this bullshit. Jesus, who were these people? I was beginning to take this personal. They didn’t know me well enough to hate me that much. Welcome to the land of unreasoning hatred and racial discrimination.

Stu Russell US Pueblo Crew Member Recalling Arrival in Wonsan

Reading Stu’s words about his experiences in 1968, I think it is safe to say not much has changed in North Korea to this day. The prisoners were eventually taken by train from Wonsan to the capitol city of Pyongyang. While this was going on the US military was conducting a build up of forces around the Korean peninsula. In order to relieve the pressure the North Korean leadership needed confessions from the Pueblo’s crew. Once in Pyongyang the crew was severely beaten and threatened with execution by the North Koreans to confess to being in North Korean waters when they were captured. When a crew member brought up the Geneva Convention he was severely beaten and told they were spies and thus do not fall under the Geneva Convention, plus the North Koreans never signed the Geneva Convention anyway. Despite the beatings and threats the crew members did remarkably well to with stand the beatings as long as they did. Eventually the beatings became to much and the crew agreed to a press conference to “confess”. At the press conference the crew sarcastically admitted to their “crimes” and flipped the middle finger towards the camera, which totally destroyed any propaganda value the North Koreans hoped to get from the prisoners. The North Koreans were not aware of what the prisoners words and gestures really meant and were infuriated when they found out. The crew received more brutal beatings from the guards.

The prisoners were now of worthless propaganda value so the North Koreans eventually worked out a deal with US negotiators for the release of the crew in exchange for a signed letter from the US government apologizing for the incident. The US agreed and the 82 crew members and the body of Duane Hodges were handed back to the United States by crossing over the Bridge of No Return at the Joint Security Area on December 23, 1968; a full 11 months after their initial capture. Immediately after the crew were repatriated, the US retracted the apology they had given to North Korea.


USS Pueblo crew members eating lunch at the JSA after their release.

Upon returning to the United States an investigation was conducted by the navy and CPT Bucher was recommended for a court martial. The Secretary of the Navy rejected the recommendation for a court martial and allowed CPT Bucher to continue his naval career until retirement. However, the initial court martial charges had clearly labeled CPT Bucher as the scapegoat for the USS Pueblo Incident even though blame for this incident could be spread far and wide throughout the naval leadership in Japan.

So why was North Korea clearly trying to provoke an incident? Probably for a couple of reasons. First of all with the Vietnam War raging the North Koreans wanted to test the American commitment to defend South Korea. At this time the North Koreans held a military edge over the South Korean army and the survival of the nation was only guaranteed by the US military. The large US response showed the North Koreans that the US was still committed to the defense of South Korea. A second reason was that the North Korean leadership saw a chance to score domestic political points by appearing to stand up to the Americans with the capture of the USS Pueblo and the subsequent propaganda victories the North Korean leadership was able to show to their own people. It is interesting to think that these two reasons bare similarities to why the North Koreans conducted their nuclear test last year.

Some other reasons that have been speculated is that the Russians wanted the North Koreans to capture the Pueblo in order to capture US codes. I think the capture of any codes was of secondary concern to the North Koreans who were probably more interested in the strategic and domestic reasons I mentioned for the capture of the Pueblo. The Pueblo was just the beginning of a number of provocative attacks between 1968 and 1970 that the North Koreans launched to undermine the United States and South Korea. Shows of strengths by the US in response to these incidents is what was responsible for keeping the peace on the peninsula.

This view is confirmed by this message sent to the USS Pueblo Veterans site from a man working for 8th Army Intelligence:

I was Chief, Intelligence Branch, Military Intelligence Division, AC of S, G-2, Hqs, 8th US Army when the USS PUEBLO was seized on 23Jan68. A few days before the BLUE HOUSE RAID had occurred. Thus there were 2 major incidents… acts of war… in one week. We had intel repts from NK POLLITBURO that NK was going to start second war front when US troop levels reached 500K in Vietnam. I and Bruce K Grant coauthored a memo 5 days before BLUE HOUSE RAID and at least one week before PUEBLO was seized that was used to put UNC on higher alert status. The memo subject matter was elements of RECON BUREAU (NK assassination teams) were coming into SK. Hindsight is 20/20.

At the time I wanted to “backchannel” to J-2 down the hall. My supervisor wanted to go through channels with the memo. In the end, he said I was right and we should not have relied on official channels but walked the memo up the hall to J-2. The immediate response to the seizure was consideration of a tactical nuke airburst over WONSAN to deny access to the PUEBLO. I wrote an 8 point memo: 5 against, 3 for the airburst tact nuke. The memo went out under CINC, UNC signature unchanged. Then we began updating target lists and outlined the contingency plan for nuclear weapons use in the event NK miscalculated and did attack across the DMZ. Knowing what was at stake and NK not knowing and perhaps might miscalculate we leaked it to the CHICOM’s what was at stake: there would be a nuclear weapons response if NK came across the DMZ. Tet occurred shortly thereafter.

We also leaked that if any of the PUEBLO crew were executed or killed we would also use nukes as that would be an act of war even greater than the seizure of the PUEBLO. We truly thought at the time that coupled with the POLITUBURO report that a second front was about to open up. We were 30% TOE and the only way we could defend ourselves was with nukes. It was my understanding that the initial request and idea for airburst tact nuke came down the pipeline from President Johnson.

The threat of nuclear war is probably the only thing that kept these soldiers alive and prevented war. However, in the years after the Pueblo incident there have been many critics of CPT Bucher. They criticize his actions of giving up the boat without a fight, such as not using the .50 cal machine gun. Other criticize the fact that the ship didn’t have a robust plan to destroy all the classified information on the ship. Hindsight is always 20-20, but I really think CPT Bucher did the best he could in the circumstances he found himself in. He brought all, but one of his crew members home and their actions to destroy their own propaganda value to the North Koreans by flipping off the video cameras was down right heroic and these men should be remembered as heroes.

Today the Pueblo sits as museum on the Taedong River that runs through the North Korean capitol city of Pyongyang. Often tour groups are taken to the ship that serves as a great propaganda trophy for the North Koreans. Attempts to return the Pueblo to the United States have been made, but the latest response from the North Koreans is that the Pueblo will only be returned if a high ranking US official such as the Secretary of State visits North Korea. With the ongoing negotiations with North Korea over their nuclear weapons programs, I just have to wonder if the fate of the USS Pueblo is even mentioned in any negotiated settlements with Pyongyang? I believe the return of the Pueblo should be included in any negotiations conducted with North Korea. The men of the Pueblo were abandoned by the government in 1968, but by demanding the return of the Pueblo now would in effect show these brave men who gave 11 months of their lives for their country that their sacrifices are not forgotten. Unfortunately I think the sacrifices of these men are as forgotten now by our country’s leadership as they were in 1968.

GIKorea

GIKorea

I am a US military veteran that has served all over the world to include in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. I have been blogging about Korea, Northeast Asia, and the US military for over 10 years.

29 Comments

  1. While briefly mentioned in your analysis, I don't believe you give enough weight to the Blue House Raids.

    MND was screaming bloody murder (no pun intended) for KIS' head on a stick for that stunt. The only South Korean that could stop them just had survived an assassination attempt, so he probably had a little revenge on his mind, too.

    The only folks that could stop the South Koreans from a full scale invasion was the Americans, and the only way the US would stop a war of northward agression was to have some chips on the table.

    Remember the Blue House Raid was late on the 21st, news about its failure (and the subsequent manhunt, similar to the one in 1996 Kangnung submarine infiltration) were reported on the 22nd, and the Pueblo was intercepted at noon.

    While a Russian subchaser passed the Pueblo on the 21st, the Pueblo crew believes they were not detected by the Russians (read their account on their website) but by the North Korean Navy (with overflights by the Air Force) on the morning of the 23rd.

    In the 36-42 hours after the Raid, the KPA had the bargaining chips necessary to stop an invasion. (42 hours, if the Raid was discovered at 1800, 36 if it was discovered at midnight.) That's a pretty quick implementation of a contingency plan.

    If you can find a copy, Pueblo's XO LT Murphy wrote a rather unflattering (of Bucher) memoir titled "Second in Command." While critical of Bucher in general and specifically of his actions on the morning of capture, LT Murphy retrospectively recognizes their roles as pawns in the Cold War chess game.

    Now, to put a dent in my own theory, there is speculation that the original John Walker had passed crypto keys to the Russians, yet was not able to pass a crypto device. I think the Russians took advantage of the situation to get crypto, but didn't instigate the situation.

    (Also, "CPT" is an O3 in the Army, "CAPT" is an O6 in the Navy. Bucher was neither – he was a "LCDR.&quotwink

  2. The John Walker theory I have heard before and briefly mentioned but I think that didn't have much to do with the Pueblo due to the tensions after the Blue House raid. I plan on doing a separate posting on the Blue House raid, but you are right that the US military was the ones who stopped Park Chung-hee from attacking North Korea. The USAF for example had to block all the runways to stop the ROKs from bombing NK. However, if the ROK's attacked NK they would have been playing into Kim Il-sung's hands. SK would be the role of aggressors and the US military probably wouldn't aid them in any initial invasion. A ROK invasion would give either the Chinese and Russians cover to help their ally and then the US would be drawn in. I don't think an invasion of NK could have ever been successful.

    I think the Pueblo was just more in a line of provacations by Kim Il-sung to provoke an SK invasion of the North between 68-70 precisely because Kim wanted the US and ROKs to appear to the aggressors in order to give the Russians or Chinese political cover to assist them. If an invasion couldn't be provoked he also wanted to test the US resolve to protect SK. I think the show of force was enough to convince Kim that even though the US was involved in Vietnam we could still send sufficient forces to aid the ROK.

    I haven't read the book by Murphy but I have read reviews of what he says but Bucher has plenty of veterans from that ship that support his view of what happened. It appears if Bucher was so incompetent as Murphy claims more veterans would come out and say so and the court martial would have happened giving the Navy the scapegoat they desired.

    You are right about the CPT but I was using CPT in reference to him being the Captain of the ship.

    However this is definitely a piece of Cold War history that shouldn't be forgotten by our political leaders today.

  3. GIKorea,

    Thanks for the HT. Great job on the article. You pretty much summed up the incident and it's ramifications. What you did not mention was the fact that time changes nothing in the bureaucracy of the U.S. military and its intelligence arms. I found the quote from the Army intelligence guy, quoted from the Pueblo website, to be most interesting in that I, as a person who formerly worked for U.S. Naval intelligence, have run into the same problems during my career. That is, getting the intelligence to the right people at the right time. I was fortunate in my career to have most of what I published seen by the top brass mostly unvarnished even up to and including the President. Sometimes intelligence passes through so many hands that its intended meaning is lost in the "assessments" of others who either by their own design or unwitting stupidity misrepresent the meaning you intially built into your report. Additionally, some important intelligence is lost in the shuffle as it proceeds up the chain.

    I think that the comparison of today to the time of the Vietnam war is a really good one indeed. Again we find ourselves embroiled in a situation that's straining our military, personnel-wise, almost to it's limits. We have seen the drawdown of forces in Korea to augment the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the north Koreans continue to yank our chain to their political favor knowing that we will do nothing overt because we are already stretched thin and cannot afford to open up a third front right now.

    The irony of all this is that it is all political. Whether in 1968 or in 2007, the U.S. has the strength to dominate north Korea and it's pitiful military but politics always limits our options. We could engage the north Koreans with our in theater air, naval, army and marine forces and have things wrapped up in short order but it would leave South Korea a smoldering wasteland, cause the Japanese to remilitarize and probably nuclearize, and wake up the sleeping red dragon to the east of north Korea too. China's just looking for a reason to use it's military hardware (a big portion of which was imported from France, THANKS AGAIN GUYS!!!) and behind all the smoke and mirrors of politics, they don't care if it's against Taiwan or the U.S.

    Bottom line, north Korea doesn't scare us, politics scare us and the times do not make a real difference at all. Before we had the Red Menace of Communism, now we have the Black Menace of international terrorism.

    Finally, as I said in my blog, I hope someday that we are able to free the USS Pueblo from her captors and put an end to this embarrassing moment in U.S. history. I believe, and correct me please if I'm wrong here, but the USS Pueblo is the only U.S warship since the Revolutionary War ever to be captured and held by a foreign force.

    Thanks again to GIKorea for keeping the memory alive.

  4. GI,

    How did Norks move Pueblo from Wonsan to Pyongyang? There is no inland waterway connecting these two cities. And Pueblo is too big to transport over land via rail. Only way they could have done is to go through Korean Strait between ROK and Japan. If they moved it through Korean Strait, then when? Why did CFC and US 7th Fleet allowed it?

  5. They did it secretly in the middle of the night and were clever enough to not get detected. It would have been great if the US could have recaptured the thing when it was moving through the Korea Straits but our intel guys dropped the ball on that one.

  6. Anonymous,

    I said I could be wrong and I really suspected that I was so thanks for pointing that out.

    CPT Kim,

    They dressed her up as a fishing trawler, stayed well out of known merchant shipping lanes, with the exception of going through the Korea Straits, and reportedly met up with another north Korean merchant ship that led her into the Yellow Sea and the Korea Bay up to the port of Nampo initially then she was moved up the Taedong River to Pyongyang where she languishes in captivity today.

    GIKorea,

    GRRRRRR. I get so mad when people say things like "our intel guys dropped the ball" when they have little or no idea how the intelligence flows from source to consumer. I'm not mad at you personally, GIKorea but actually, the fact that the Pueblo was missing from her normal spot in Wonsan WAS reported through standard channels and by regular protocols but through ASS-essments it was ASS-essed that the nK guys had just moved her to a different part of the harbor that wasn't under normal surveillance, perhaps for maintenance, and nothing else was thought about it until she showed up at Nampo. This above all else illustrates my point that the U.S. has better things to do, apparently, than worry about getting back a ship that they lost 39 years ago.

    By the way, getting from Wonsan to the west coast of north Korea is MUCH more than an overnight trip especially when you're trying to be sneaky about it. Hehehehe

    Tim in Angeles sendzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  7. Great points Tim, who Ass-esses the intelligence by the way? Because if the North Koreans could slip the USS Pueblo right under our noes it just makes me wonder what else they can slip as well especially when considering they have materials to make nuclear weapons with.

  8. GIKorea,

    The people who ASS-esse the intelligence are self-righteous, self-important, self-deluded, know-it-alls that usually reside in positions where they are allowed to make decisions about what is the really important intelligence and what is not. Most of the time they are career intelligence people who, a couple of years before they got their present position, couldn't have even found north Korea on a map.

    It's this kind of thinking that got us in trouble on a certain date in 2001. I think you know which date I'm referring to.

    As for the Pueblo, sadly, even on a normal day she appears to look a lot like a fishing trawler and with the right camoflage you could have floated right past her and never known the difference. Most people, even in the Navies of the region couldn't tell you what she looks like. You can also bet that they didn't fly the U.S. flag over her while they were doing this either. Hehehehe

    Tim in Angeles sendzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  9. I ws in Vietnam 65-66 USMC. And always struggled with what when on with the Pueblo.. I am glad that now this has helped me with those on that boat. In Vietnam I was would have pulled the plug on the c4 to prevent me or my 'machines' from being captured.. I see it now differently.. sorry, that the world never truly reported what these Americans did!….

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  11. Records reveal there was a presentation of the POW medal to members of the USS Pueblo at San Diego May 5, 1990.

    I have been involved in research with the POW over a year. What was the justification (guideline) for awarding the POW medal?

  12. I have wondered why there was no medal or even a thank you for the selected few to be orderd to train and made combat ready the inactive reserves that were called to active duty in 1968 by Johnson,,
    We in Navy units whent thru hell for six months trying to make our Navy fighter squadrons ready for action. The inactive reserves by the most part faught every day to not be a part of the team to be ready for carrier operations so the task of us selected active reserves, {TAR}had to pick up the slack,,,I am speaking for about ten TAR’S per squadron,,, We did get choice of duty when deactivated and some got promotions,,,,but i believe thos few should have at least got a letter or a campain ribbon.

  13. The USS Pueblo Vets organization website has a different story about the Pueblo being moved from the est coast to the west coast. The website says that the US government knew about it, but decided not to do anything about it: “The move of the ship from Wonsan to Pyongyang was handled by Secretary of Defense William J. Perry who had been appointed by President Clinton his North Korea Policy Coordinator. In that role he was in favor of negotiation and appeasement. He was instrumental in arranging Secretary Albright’s visit to NK. He allowed the ship relocation from East to West and told the US Navy – hands off.”
    I contacted Ralph McClintock, the secretary of the Pueblo vets, and he said that the source for their info was former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry himself, who told them the circumstances of the move. Perry was a guest speaker at a conference in Dallas, TX which was attended by Skip Schumacher, the former Operations Officer of the USS Pueblo.

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