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.Â 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.