On January 23, 1968, Americans were stunned to learn that a U.S. Navy vessel, the USS Pueblo, had been captured by North Korea. One crewman was killed in the assault, the other 82 were shackled, blindfolded, and taken to prison. President Lyndon Johnson forbade any attempt to rescue our seamen or to retaliate against their captors. The U.S. stood by, seemingly helpless, as the crew was tortured and starved for 11 months before being released.
The Pueblo was commissioned in 1944 as Army cargo ship FS-344. She was transferred to the Navy in 1966 and converted to an intelligence-gathering vessel, or spy ship, designated AGER-2. (AGER stood for Auxiliary General Environmental Research. You know how bureaucrats love their acronyms.) After training sessions on the West Coast, the ship sailed to Japan in November 1967.
On January 11, 1968, the Pueblo was dispatched to conduct surveillance of Soviet naval activity off the coast of North Korea and to monitor North Korean electronic communications. Commander Lloyd Bucher later testified that he was ordered to approach North Korea’s territorial waters, but to come no closer than one nautical mile (1.9 km) of the internationally recognized 12-mile limit. Commander Bucher said he and his crew followed their orders scrupulously and that they were in international waters when they were attacked.
On January 21, a modified Soviet-style sub chaser passed within two miles of the Pueblo. The next day, two North Korean vessels passed within 25 yards of the Pueblo. That same day, a North Korean unit crossed into South Korea and attempted to assassinate several South Korean political leaders. The crew of the Pueblo was not notified of this armed aggression by North Korea.
The following day, January 23, 1968, the Pueblo was approached by a North Korean sub chaser and ordered to halt or be fired upon. The Pueblo tried to sail further into international waters, when another sub chaser, three torpedo boats, and two MiG-21 fighter planes appeared and began circling the much slower ship.
Once again the Pueblo was ordered to stand down. When it did not, at least two of North Korean ships opened fire on it. Commander Bucher then ordered the crew to begin destroying as much equipment and sensitive material on board as they could, while he agreed to follow the North Korean warship. Throughout the episode, radio contact was maintained with the Naval Security Group in Japan. Seventh Fleet command was aware of the situation and promised to dispatch help. No assistance ever arrived.
The Pueblo followed the North Korean vessels, as ordered, but stopped again before it crossed the 12-mile limit. The North Koreans again opened fire on the ship, this time killing Seaman Duane Hodges. Soldiers from two North Korean vessels then boarded the ship. The U.S. crewmen were seized and blindfolded. Several were beaten.
The Pueblo was taken into port at Wonsan, North Korea and the crew interred in prisoner of war camps. The U.S. sailors later reported they were often starved and frequently beaten and tortured. The beatings got worse when their captors discovered that many of the crewmen were making obscene gestures with their hands when they were forced to pose for propaganda photos.
In December 1968, the United States won the release of the 82 sailors by issuing a written apology to North Korea for spying on the communist country. The statement promised we would not do so again. On December 23, 1968, the crew was taken to the South Korean border and permitted to walk across “The Bridge of No Return.” As soon as they were safely in South Korea, the U.S. government rescinded its apology and assurances.
Commander Bucher and all of the officers and crew of the USS Pueblo were ordered to face a Navy Court of Inquiry, which recommended that Bucher and his second in command be court martialed. The Secretary of the Navy, John Chafee, rejected the recommendation, saying, “They have suffered enough.” No charges were ever filed against anyone in the Seventh Fleet, the State Department, or the White House, for their dereliction of duty or utter cowardice in the face of an armed enemy attack.
In October 1999 the Pueblo was towed from Wonson, on the East Coast of North Korea, around the Korean Peninsula to Nampo on the West Coast. The ship was in international waters, or South Korea’s territorial waters, for several days. The United States made no attempt to recapture it or to sink it.
Today the USS Pueblo is docked outside the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, where it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in a country that has very few of them. Tours take visitors through the secret communications room, which is still full of encryption machines and radio equipment in partially disassembled condition.
Although no U.S. sailor has set foot on it for nearly 40 years, the Pueblo remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy.
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