On Jan. 23, 1968, Americans were stunned to learn that North Korea had captured a United States Navy vessel, the USS Pueblo. The North Koreans killed one crewman in the assault and shackled, blindfolded and hauled the other 82 off 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 suffered torture and starvation for 11 months before being released.
In December 1968, the U.S. won the release of the crewmen by issuing a written apology to North Korea for spying on the communist country. The statement promised we would not do so again. On Dec. 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 As soon as they were safely in South Korea, the U.S. government rescinded its apology and assurances.
And here’s an interesting footnote to the story. Three decades later, 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. President Bill Clinton refused to permit our military to recapture her or to sink her.
Today the USS Pueblo is docked outside the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, where she is one of the most popular tourist attractions in a country that has very few of them. Although no U.S. sailor has set foot on her for more than 40 years, the Pueblo remains a commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy.