Can you believe there was a time when we caved to the communists of North Korea and let them capture, beat and torture some of our sailors? This weekend marks the 42nd anniversary of one of the most shameful episodes in recent United States history. And I doubt if the mainstream media will contain a single word about it.
Several years ago, my youngest son and I were watching a program on the History Channel when the program’s narrator mentioned the capture of a U.S. Naval vessel by Communist North Korea back in 1968.
“That didn’t really happen, did it, Dad?” my son asked me. When I replied that it had, he was stunned. “Do you mean to tell me that North Korea seized one of our ships, beat and tortured the crew for most of a year, and we didn’t do anything about it?”
I was shocked that my son had never heard of the USS Pueblo before and embarrassed that the answer to his question was “yes.” Somehow, that whole sorry episode had been blotted out of the history books. I wonder how many of you reading these pages now know the story. How about your children or grandchildren? Do any of them remember the Pueblo?
Happily, I could do better than just issue a mealy-mouthed reply about how this country “protested vigorously.” At the time, many of us did everything possible to get our leaders to act. When the sailors were finally released I helped arrange a nationwide speaking tour for one of them, radio officer Lee R. Hayes. Lee gave hundreds of speeches and participated in thousands of media interviews. Here’s part of the story he told.
The ship that became the Pueblo was originally launched in 1944 as Army cargo ship FS-344. In 1966 it was transferred to the Navy and renamed the Pueblo. It began service as a light cargo ship, but in 1967 it was redesignated GER-2 and was converted into an intelligence-gathering ship. (GER stood for General Environmental Research, a euphemism for spying operations the ship would conduct on behalf of the National Security Agency.)
In January 1968, the Pueblo was ordered to patrol off the east coast of communist North Korea to conduct surveillance of Soviet naval activity in the Tsushima Straits. The ship was also ordered to eavesdrop on any electronic transmissions it could intercept that originated in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as that communist captive called itself.
Within hours of reaching its destination, the Pueblo was harassed by Soviet or North Korean vessels. On Jan. 21, the ship reported that a modified Soviet-style sub-chaser passed within two miles of its bow. The next day, two apparent fishing trawlers from North Korea (which were probably Soviet spy ships) passed within 25 yards of the Pueblo. Any seaman reading this will know that this dangerously close encounter had to have been intentional.
On Jan. 23, a sub-chaser accosted the Pueblo and demanded to know its identity. In response, Commanding Officer Lloyd M. Bucher ordered that the U.S. flag be raised. The North Korean vessel then ordered the ship to stand down or be fired upon.
Instead, the Pueblo followed the orders it had been given back in Japan and tried to leave the area. It could not outrun the sub-chaser, however. Shortly thereafter, three torpedo boats appeared on the horizon and joined in the chase. The attackers were subsequently joined by two MiG-21 jet fighters. Soon, a fourth torpedo boat and a second sub-chaser appeared on the horizon.
The North Koreans pulled alongside the Pueblo and tried to board the ship. When Bucher ordered the Pueblo to take evasive maneuvers, two North Korean vessels opened fire on the ship. Suddenly, cannon fire and machine-gun bullets were raking the vessel.
The Pueblo was ill prepared to withstand such an attack. Its armament consisted of two Browning .50-caliber machine guns — hardly a match for rockets and missiles. Moreover, the machine guns were wrapped in cold-weather tarpaulins and the ammunition for them was stored below decks.
As the cannon fire continued, Bucher gave the order to “stop engines” and signaled the North Koreans that he would comply with their orders. He also ordered his own crewmen to begin destroying as much of the sensitive materiel as possible that was on board the ship.
The North Koreans ordered the Pueblo to follow them to the mainland. At first, the ship complied. But again — following orders it had been given in Japan — the ship stopped before it crossed the 12-mile limit into North Korean waters.
When this happened, the North Koreans once again opened fire on the ship. This time, one sailor — Fireman Apprentice Duane Hodges — was killed. North Korean soldiers from a torpedo boat and sub-chaser boarded the Pueblo. Our sailors were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs. Once they were helpless they were beaten and prodded with bayonets.
In a subsequent inquiry we learned that the Pueblo had been in radio contact with Naval security back in Japan throughout the incident. The Seventh Fleet command told Bucher that help was on the way. It turns out this was a lie; no jets or ships were ever dispatched to come to the aid of the ship.
No one at Seventh Fleet headquarters was willing to give the order to try to rescue the Pueblo. The decision was bucked back to Washington — first to the Pentagon, then to the White House. By the time then-President Lyndon Johnson was informed of the situation, the Pueblo was in North Korean waters. It was decided that any rescue attempt would be too dangerous. So the world’s most powerful military kowtowed to one of the weakest. I’m still ashamed of our leaders’ pitiful response.
There is considerable controversy about where the Pueblo was when it was captured. Bucher and the other ship’s officers subsequently testified under oath that at no time did the Pueblo enter within 12 nautical miles of the North Korean coast. This is the generally accepted limit of claims for territorial waters. At the time, however, the North Koreans claimed a 50-nautical-mile sea boundary. No one disputes that the Pueblo was within 50 miles of the Korean coast.
In any case, once the ship was within 12 miles of North Korea, the Pueblo was boarded again — this time by some high-ranking North Korean officials. (Interesting that they waited until they could be certain the ship would not be attacked by U.S. forces. They undoubtedly were aware that, if the situation were reversed, Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung and his minions wouldn’t hesitate to blow one of their own ships to smithereens, killing all hands on board, rather than suffer the embarrassment of capture.)
They took the Pueblo into port at Wonsan on the eastern coast of North Korea. Then they took the 82 surviving U.S. crewmembers to a prisoner-of-war camp somewhere in the interior of the country. The men were starved and repeatedly tortured. (Their treatment got worse when someone realized that crewmen were secretly giving them “the finger” in staged propaganda photos.)
Bucher was singled out for particularly harsh treatment, including facing a mock firing squad. He refused to buckle when faced with his own death, but finally relented and agreed to sign a confession when his captors threatened to murder his crewmen, one by one, in front of him.
Since his captors couldn’t read English, Bucher was ordered to write his own confession. None of the North Koreans picked up on a play on words that Bucher included in his “confession.” He wrote, “We paean the North Korean state. We paean their great leader, Kim Il Sung.” (Read aloud, “we paean” sounds remarkably like “we pee on.” Get it? Good for you, Commander.)
During the course of 1968, the men were moved to a second prisoner-of-war camp, while negotiations for their release dragged on.Finally, in December of that year — 11 long months after the Pueblo was captured — the United States issued a written apology to North Korea, acknowledged that the ship was spying and promised that it would not happen again.
On Dec. 23, 1968, the crew of the Pueblo was taken by bus to the demilitarized zone separating Communist North Korea from the South, where the men were permitted to walk across “the Bridge of No Return.” Bucher led the long line of crewmen, with his second-in-command, Executive Officer Lt. Ed Murphy, bringing up the rear.
Once the officers and crew reached safety in South Korea, the United States retracted its admission, apology and assurance.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union we learned that the capture of the Pueblo was instigated by the Soviet Union, which very badly wanted a cryptographic machine that was on board. John Anthony Walker, an American traitor who provided the Soviets with thousands of secrets, had given them a key to deciphering our ciphers; now they needed to get their hands on an actual machine. Seizing the Pueblo provided that opportunity.
Bucher and the 81 other surviving officers and crew were ordered to face a Naval Court of Inquiry, which concluded by recommending that Bucher and Lieutenant Steve Harris (the officer in charge of the intelligence equipment on board the ship) be court-martialed for their “dereliction of duty.” As far as I can determine, there was no action taken against the Naval officers in Japan who lied to Bucher about sending help.
Secretary of the Navy John H. Chafee rejected the Naval Court’s recommendation, saying that, “They have suffered enough.” Bucher was never found guilty of any malfeasance and remained on active duty until his retirement. He died in 2004, partly as a result of complications from the injuries he received while he was a prisoner of war in North Korea.
During the inquiry there was some debate about whether or not Bucher acted within his orders. He admitted that part of his orders were “not to spark an international incident.” But he and his officers were adamant that they had not come within 12 nautical miles of the Korean coast. (Today, of course, global positioning satellites could have confirmed the ship’s location within a matter of inches.)
Some critics argued that the ship should have left the area after the first incident. But such encounters were considered routine at the time. U.S. forces frequently tested the territorial limits of Cold War opponents. If such actions caused the enemy to mobilize its military, there would be even more information to gather.
In October 1999, the Pueblo was moved from Wonsan on the east coast of North Korea to Nampo on the west coast. The trip required moving the vessel through international waters for several days, as it was towed around the coast of South Korea. Although the U.S. military had to have been aware of the Pueblo’s location, no effort was made to capture or sink the ship. To the best of my knowledge, there was never a court of inquiry — or any embarrassing questions at a White House press conference — about this failure to act.
The Pueblo subsequently was taken to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where it is now the most popular tourist attraction in the city. Thousands of visitors have been shown the ship’s secret communications room, still in a partially disassembled state from when the ship was seized. A popular souvenir of a visit, I’m told, is a photograph taken while a tourist stands behind the machine gun mounted at the rear of the ship. Yes, the same guns that remained wrapped in a tarpaulin during the attack and seizure.
To this day, the USS Pueblo remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy. It is sad that it has been abandoned by our leaders. But it would be tragic if its story was forgotten by our citizens.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.
Much of this material originally appeared in an article I wrote in 2008 for The New American (www.thenewamerican.com), one of my favorite conservative news magazines