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USS Pueblo captured

USS Pueblo captured

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, is engaged in a routine surveillance of the North Korean coast when it is intercepted by North Korean patrol boats. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters almost 16 miles from shore, but the North Koreans turned their guns on the lightly armed vessel and demanded its surrender. The Americans attempted to escape, and the North Koreans opened fire, wounding the commander and two others. With capture inevitable, the Americans stalled for time, destroying the classified information aboard while taking further fire. Several more crew members were wounded.

Finally, the Pueblo was boarded and taken to Wonson. There, the 83-man crew was bound and blindfolded and transported to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying within North Korea’s 12-mile territorial limit and imprisoned. It was the biggest crisis in two years of increased tension and minor skirmishes between the United States and North Korea.

The United States maintained that the Pueblo had been in international waters and demanded the release of the captive sailors. With the Tet Offensive raging 2,000 miles to the south in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson ordered no direct retaliation, but the United States began a military buildup in the area.

At first the captured crew of the Pueblo resisted demands they sign false confessions, famously raising their middle fingers at the camera and telling the North Koreans it was the “Hawaiian good-luck sign.” Once the North Koreans learned the truth, they punished the prisoners with beatings, cold temperatures and sleep deprivation, according to a lawsuit some of the Pueblo’s crew would later file against the North Korean government.

Eventually North Korean authorities coerced a confession and apology out of Pueblo commander Bucher, in which he stated, “I will never again be a party to any disgraceful act of aggression of this type.” The rest of the crew also signed a confession under threat of torture.

The prisoners were then taken to a second compound in the countryside near Pyongyang, where they were forced to study propaganda materials and beaten for straying from the compound’s strict rules. In August, the North Koreans staged a phony news conference in which the prisoners were to praise their humane treatment, but the Americans thwarted the Koreans by inserting innuendoes and sarcastic language into their statements. Some prisoners also rebelled in photo shoots by casually sticking out their middle finger; a gesture that their captors didn’t understand. Later, the North Koreans caught on and beat the Americans for a week.

On December 23, 1968, exactly 11 months after the Pueblo‘s capture, U.S. and North Korean negotiators reached a settlement to resolve the crisis. Under the settlement’s terms, the United States admitted the ship’s intrusion into North Korean territory, apologized for the action, and pledged to cease any future such action. That day, the surviving 82 crewmen walked one by one across the “Bridge of No Return” at Panmunjon to freedom in South Korea. They were hailed as heroes and returned home to the United States in time for Christmas.

Incidents between North Korea and the United States continued in 1969, and in April 1969 a North Korean MiG fighter shot down a U.S. Navy intelligence aircraft, killing all 31 men aboard. In 1970, quiet returned to the demilitarized zone.

READ MORE: What You Need to Know About North Korea

USS Pueblo captured - HISTORY

USS Pueblo Wikipedia History:

USS Pueblo (AGER-2) is a Banner-class technical research ship (Navy intelligence) which was boarded and captured by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) on 23 January 1968 in what is known as the Pueblo incident or alternatively as the Pueblo crisis or Pueblo affair.
North Korea stated that she strayed into their territorial waters, but the United States maintains that the vessel was in international waters at the time of the incident."

Executive Officer&rsquos comments:

The Pueblo&rsquos Executive Officer (and Navigator) reaffirms that the USS PUEBLO never ever intruded into the territorial waters of North Korea. His &ldquoconfession&rdquo to the &ldquodeep&rdquo intrusions claimed by North Korea was obtained under horrific torture. Intrusion &ldquoconfessions&rdquo were always prefaced with the disclaimer: &ldquoThe charts and records show that we intruded at the following points&rdquo. In fact the &ldquoCharts and records&rdquo do not support the intrusions claimed by North Koreas, but show them to be navigational impossibilities.

More recently, facts have come to light that indicate that USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea at the instigation of the Soviet Union, which was seeking a cryptographic machine onboard to match with a key provided to the Soviets by the spy John Walker .

Had the Pueblo&rsquos Commanding Officer obeyed briefing orders to &lsquodisengage upon compromise of your mission &ndash return to port&rsquo, the Pueblo would have left the Wonson area the day before, and there would have been no &ldquoPueblo Incident&rdquo. The first Pueblo mission compromise occurred when two North Korean fishing boats were encountered the day before the capture. The second occurred when they returned later that day with photographers taking pictures while sailing close to the Pueblo. These two &ldquocompromises&rdquo pierced the planned protection for the Pueblo&rsquos maiden voyage.

The Pueblo was captured because verbal orders were not carried out. There is no question that the Soviets quickly harvested equipment and materials which magnified the Walker spy compromise, and severely impacted the US involvement in South East Asia, specifically the TET offensive . Some have wondered what impact the Pueblo's compromised equipment might have had on the sinking of the USS SCORPION and the loss of her 99 Sailors.

Pueblo, still held by DPRK today, remains a commissioned ship of the United States Navy. North Korea's then leader Kim Jong Il, specified that the USS Pueblo be used to promote anti-Americanism. During the Anniversary celebration of the Korean War, the ship was moved from a berth on the Taedong River to a permanent encasement in the Botong River alongside a war museum in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

North Korea&rsquos return of the USS Pueblo would have been a positive first sign of friendship and gratitude for the food, fuel, and financial aid that American taxpayers have delivered to the North Koreans. However, it appears permanently ensconced and not likely to be repatriated by the current regime.

Spy Ship Pueblo:

Edited by John Prados and Jack Cheevers

Captured USS Pueblo crew members display their middle fingers in an official DPRK photo. The "Hawaiian Good Luck sign" became a routine gesture of defiance whenever they were photographed. (Photo courtesy USSPueblo.org)

Today, when many consider the actions of the leader of the Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-un, to be unfathomable and disturbing, there is a parallel to be made with those of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Forty-six years ago North Korean navy gunboats attacked and seized the U.S.S. Pueblo in international waters off the east coast of Korea. The Pueblo, a specialized U.S. Navy intelligence collection ship, was alone and virtually unarmed. The Pueblo was engaged in a mission to record communications and electronic emissions from North Korea. The ship had little recourse but to surrender when confronted by the North Korean warships. President Lyndon Baines Johnson considered but rejected various possible U.S. responses. Captured and taken to Wonsan, the Pueblo crewmen were imprisoned and tortured for months before Kim Il Sung freed them.

The United States Navy and the National Security Agency (NSA) had long conducted an electronic intelligence interception program using naval vessels. The Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964, and the Liberty incident in 1967 are both examples of international crises that had resulted from previous intelligence missions. Some of these missions were conducted by warships outfitted with extra equipment, others utilized specialized intelligence collection vessels. These missions typically aimed at obtaining knowledge about Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, or North Vietnamese technology-based military forces. By early 1968 this system for technical collection had become well-established.

The Pueblo's cruise involved both Navy and NSA goals. The latter agency, interested in additional data on North Korean coastal defenses, first requested the coverage. And intercepts of message traffic were always useful in breaking codes. The Navy wanted intelligence on North Korean submarines and a new class of Soviet ones thought to be operating in the area.[1]

The American naval commander in Japan, Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson, had formal responsibility for the enterprise along with the task of evaluating the risks involved. Admiral Johnson assessed the Pueblo mission as involving little risk. Every higher level of command, up to the 303 Committee, President Johnson's National Security Council unit charged with controlling spy programs, joined in this low risk estimate. These assessments were made despite the fact that North Korean warships had sunk a South Korean patrol craft during 1967, and that the North Korean press had been making accusations regarding "spy boats" in DPRK waters.[2] It was LBJ's policy, particularly after the Liberty Incident, to approve only those missions evaluated as involving minimum risks. Had the assessments been different the Pueblo probably would not have been sent out. There were many flaws in the U.S. preparations for this spy mission (Document 9).

On January 21, 1968, with the Pueblo already cruising in the Sea of Japan off the DPRK coast, North Korean commandos who had infiltrated across the Demilitarized Zone attempted to attack the official residence of the president of South Korea (Document 6). In his detailed study of the ship's voyage and its aftermath, co-author Jack Cheevers has found no evidence that the U.S. command informed the Pueblo of this event, which was certainly relevant to the question of the risks she might encounter.[3] This was in spite of the fact that American authorities routinely kept the ship informed of a wide variety of communist military activities throughout the Far East-the Pueblo received as many as 8,000 messages of this kind during its mission (Document 24).

That same day a North Korean submarine chaser sailed close by Commander Bucher's ship, though without showing any hostile intent. On January 22, with the Pueblo off Wonsan, a pair of DPRK fishing trawlers circled her at a distance of less than 500 yards, then observed the American vessel from farther away, and finally closed back in to ball-tossing distance. Commander Bucher feared the DPRK ships might actually ram him.

But the trawlers left the scene. Pueblo was not again approached until around mid-day on January 23, when a North Korean submarine chaser followed by three torpedo boats closed on her and ordered Bucher's ship to heave to. The American skipper turned his vessel toward the open sea but thePueblo, a slow ship, had no chance of outrunning her pursuers and the North Korean warships opened fire with cannon and machineguns. The Pueblo was captured, taken to Wonsan, and Commander Bucher and his crewmen began 335 days in captivity. North Korea claimed the U.S. ship had violated its territorial waters (Document 1).

With her capture the NSA lost a host of cryptographic materials and encryption machines, plus whatever intercepted traffic the Americans had been unable to destroy. The crew's efforts to demolish these items were ineffective, in large part because the Pueblo's equipment for destroying classified materials was inadequate. A few days after the seizure a North Korean aircraft flew to Moscow with a load of almost 800 pounds, which officials speculated might be items gathered from the intelligence ship.[4] The NSA's damage assessment from the Pueblo affair nevertheless took the sanguine view that the Soviets would not be able to make use of the machinery because they lacked the necessary encryption keys (Document 25), not realizing in 1968 that the Russians were acquiring precisely this material from the Walker spy ring.

North Korean chart purporting to show the USS Pueblo had entered DPRK territorial waters off Wonsan. (Photo courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Once the Pueblo had been captured, the Johnson administration faced acute dilemmas on how to respond. American forces in Japan proved unable to support the Pueblo when she needed help.[5] A detailed State Department chronology of the affair (Document 23) shows the intense efforts made to craft a policy. Although the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and senior U.S. commanders in South Korea prepared a series of military options (Documents 4, 6, 8, 13, 17), forces were not in place to carry them out. The U.S. Pacific Command ordered a buildup and a show of force in the Sea of Japan, Operation "Formation Star," but it would be ten days before means were in place.[6] At a series of meetings with senior advisers on January 24 and 25, President Johnson refused to be drawn in by imputations from national security adviser Walt Rostow and CIA director Richard Helms that Moscow was really behind the North Korean action.[7] He also expressed doubts regarding the potential military options (Document 2). The Soviet Union in fact proved somewhat helpful in the diplomatic measures that finally led to the release of the Pueblo's crew in December 1968 (Documents 11, 19, 23).

As it conducted protracted negotiations with North Korea at Panmunjom, Washington was caught between pressures exerted by both South and North Korea (Documents 5, 10, 14, 20, 22, 23). President Johnson approved additional military aid for South Korea (Document 16). U.S. intelligence made fresh evaluations of tensions on the Korean Peninsula (Documents 12, 18). And the Pentagon, taking its cue from what had happened to the Pueblo, considered military support for future spy missions (Document 15). Congress, highly critical of the affair, conducted extensive hearings on the Pueblo Incident.[8] North Korea never returned the intelligence ship itself and in 2013 turned it into a floating museum in Pyongyang.[9]

The documents in this briefing book have been collected by Jack Cheevers during his research for Act of War. They will form parts of a much more extensive donation to the National Security Archive. We will post a notice when the Cheevers collection is available for research.

This Is the USS Pueblo: This Captured U.S. Spy Ship Still Remains in North Korea Today

The American crew was eventually moved to a better facility, where they were inundated with propaganda videos. The sailors attempted to clandestinely resist by formulating oddly worded confessions and flipping their middle fingers when posing for photos, which they explained was a “Hawaiian Good Luck” sign to their interrogators. Unfortunately, a Time magazine article eventually gave this ploy away to their captors, who subjected the prisoners to a week of brutal torture as a punishment.

Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats were slogging through months of negotiations at the border village of Panmunjom—talks slowed down by the North Korean negotiator being forced to read his points from cards, lacking the permission to formulate his own replies to American offers. Pyongyang was completely unwilling to return the Pueblo, and would only return the crew in exchange for a signed apology, a confession of guilt from the U.S. government, and a promise never to spy on North Korea again.

U.S. negotiator Gen. Gilbert Woodward struck on a way of making this demand palatable: in a gesture of mutual bad faith agreed upon in advance, the United States told the North Koreans it would sign such a document with the understanding it would retract the confession as soon as the crew of the Pueblo was returned. Kim Il-sung’s negotiator found this acceptable.

The eighty-two surviving crew members and one body were bussed down to the border crossing at the Bridge of No Return on December 23, 1968, exactly eleven months after the North Korean attack, where they walked back into American hands. As promised, Washington promptly rescinded its apology.

The crew was given a jubilant reception upon their return to the United States, but Captain Bucher was made to sit before a Navy court of inquiry. “Don’t give up the ship!” is an unofficial rallying cry of the U.S. Navy, and to the admirals of the court, Bucher had committed a cardinal sin when he surrendered his nominally armed vessel—even though attempting to shoot back would simply have led to the slaughter of the Pueblo’s crew. The admirals recommended a court martial, perhaps unmindful of an earlier classified report that found the U.S. Navy leadership culpable for sending the Pueblo, unprepared and unsupported, into a dangerous situation. Navy Secretary John Chafee, however, declined to press charges, telling the press that “they have suffered enough.”

The capture of the Pueblo marked a worst-case disaster scenario for U.S. intelligence, as the ship had carried a dozen top-secret encryption machines and coding cards. North Korea is believed to have flown eight hundred pounds of equipment from the Pueblo to Moscow, where it was reverse engineered, allowing the Soviets to tap into U.S. naval communications. The U.S. Navy was erroneously comforted by the belief that the Soviets lacked the new codes necessary to decrypt those signals, not realizing that the John Walker spy ring had just begun to furnish these to Moscow. This left U.S. naval communications compromised for nearly two decades.

The assumption that the Pueblo incident was orchestrated by Moscow was ill founded, however. Though the Soviet Union was committed by treaty to come to North Korea’s defense, the Brezhnev government made clear it would not enter into war with the United States over a provocation from Pyongyang. Diplomatic communiqués released after the end of the Cold War reveal that Moscow was upset by the North Korean attack, which may have been egged on by promises of support from China, which was attempting to secure Pyongyang’s loyalty in the bitterly divided Eastern Bloc. A week after the Pueblo was captured, Kim Il-sung demanded additional economic aid from Moscow—a request which was reciprocated in a bid to pay off the North Korean leader into deescalating tensions with the United States.

Although Pyongyang profited from playing one patron against the other, its attack on the Pueblo was probably primarily motivated by the failure of its assassination plot in South Korea. Anticipating possible attacks from South Korea or the United, it may have seen taking the Pueblo as a preemptive move in an imminent conflict, or as a means to gain leverage over Washington and sow dissension between the United States and South Korea.

Many of the Pueblo’s crew went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and lifelong physical injuries. Over time, however, the crewmembers put up their own website testifying to their experiences, successfully lobbied for status as prisoners of war after it was initially denied to them, and sued North Korea in U.S. court for their treatment. As for the Pueblo itself, technically the second oldest ship still commissioned in the U.S. Navy, it remains in North Korean custody to this day. It is currently moored off the Potong River in Pyongyang, after it North Korea took it there from Wonsan. Currently, it serves as an exhibition of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

This first appeared in 2016 and is being republished due to reader interest.

USS Pueblo captured - HISTORY

  1. AGER &equals Auxiliary General Environmental Research.
  2. SIGAD &equals SIGINT Activity Designator. &rarr Wikipedia
  3. EMCON &equals Emission Control, also known as Radio Silence.
  4. SITREP &equals Situation Report.

Unknown to the US however, the Russians did have access to a wide range of keys and other crypto material, through US Navy chief warrant officer John Anthony Walker , who started spying for the Russians in December 1967. With this in mind, it seems logical to assume that the North Koreans passed on the KW-7 to the Russians, along with the information they had obtained from interrogating the crew of the USS Pueblo.

In his book Spymaster, former KGB general Oleg Kalugin even suggests that Pueblo Incident may have taken place because the Russians wanted to study the equipment described in documents supplied to them by Walker in 1967 [5].

  1. This is contradicted by some sources that state that Walker only provided the Russians with keys that were at least two months old and were supposed to have been destroyed. Furthermore, intact KW-7 machines had been lost before in Vietnam and had almost certainly been supplied to the Russians [9]. On the other hand, in her 2001 thesis, Major Laura Heath comes to the conclusion that, after weighting all publicly available sources, it seems more than likely that the Pueblo Incident was related to Walker's activities [10].

28 February 1968. 106 pages. 1

United States Cryptologic History. Special Series, Crisis Collection, Volume 7. 1992. 2

Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.
Retrieved via Wikipedia May 2016.

Federal court awards $2.3 billion to U.S. spy ship crew held hostage by North Korea in 1968

A U.S. federal court has ordered North Korea to pay $2.3 billion in damages to the crew and family of the spy ship USS Pueblo, who were tortured and mistreated for 11 months in 1968 after being captured by the North Korean navy . The Washington federal court said that the surviving members of the crew and families of those now dead are owed compensatory damages for confinement and suffering of $1.15 billion and doubled that for punitive damages against Pyongyang.

It said many of the 83-strong crew, one of whom was killed by the North Koreans when they seized the Pueblo on January 23, 1968, were mentally and physically abused during their captivity.

Released crewmen of the USS Pueblo are escorted by MPs upon their arrival at the U.S. Army 121st Evacuation Hospital at Ascom City, 10 miles west of Seoul, Dec. 23, 1968. / AP

In addition, wrote Alan Balaran, the government-appointed "special master" in the case to decide how damages were to be apportioned, most suffered long-lasting after-effects, both psychological and physical.

"As a result of the barbarity inflicted by the North Koreans, almost all required medical and/or psychiatric intervention," Balaran wrote.

"Many have undergone invasive surgical procedures to ameliorate the physical damage resulting from the relentless torture they underwent as prisoners," he wrote. "Several have attempted to numb their pain through alcohol and drugs, and most have seen their domestic and/or professional lives deteriorate. A few have contemplated suicide."

The North Koreans released propaganda photos and videos that showed a number of the captured sailors raising the middle finger to the camera as a sign of protest. They told their captors, who were unfamiliar with the gesture, that it was a "Hawaiian good luck sign."

In this photo released by the U.S. Navy, crew members of USS Pueblo pose while in captivity in North Korea in 1968. AP Photo/US Navy

The lawsuit was only brought in 2018 after the U.S. Justice Department ruled that, despite a law giving foreign government's broad immunity from suits in U.S. courts, they could be sued if the government had been designated a state sponsor of international terrorism.

Trending News

In late 2017 the Trump administration officially declared North Korea a sponsor of terror.

The Pueblo was on its first voyage as a U.S. Navy spy ship, under the guise of an environmental research vessel.

Pyongyang says it was in North Korean waters when it was captured, which Washington denied.

But it came as the U.S. was mired in a war in Vietnam and just as North Korean operators entered South Korea and tried to assassinate president Park Chung-hee.

That effort failed, but a number of South Koreans were killed and the seizure of the Pueblo crew complicated Seoul's desire to respond militarily.

The crew was freed after nearly a year of negotiations in December 1968, but Pyongyang held onto the Pueblo, making it into a museum.

The U.S. Navy still maintains it on its roster of active ships.

The court, in a final ruling on Wednesday, awarded damages of $22 million to $48 million to each of the 49 surviving crew members, and smaller sums to about 100 family members.

North Korea was not represented in the case, and it was not clear whether and how the victims expected to recover damages.

The ship now sits in the Potong River on the edge of the sprawling "Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum" complex in central Pyongyang, where thousands of North Koreans are brought each day to hear the North's version of how their country, against all odds, defeated the Americans in the 1950-53 Korean War and has been fighting off the hostile Goliath ever since.

First published on February 26, 2021 / 6:46 AM

© 2021 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.

The Seizing of the Pueblo

© All Rights Reserved. Please do not distribute without written permission from Damn Interesting.

In January 1968, the US Navy electronic surveillance ship USS Pueblo was quietly lurking off the east coast of North Korea, its assorted antennae pricked to absorb any kind of interesting electronic transmissions. There was little doubt that the North Koreans would cease any intelligence-worthy communications if they learned that the “environmental research” ship was eavesdropping, so the Pueblo’s crew operated under radio silence to avoid detection. Nevertheless, there was surprisingly little for the sophisticated electronics to observe in terms of signals, Soviet-friendly Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was uncharacteristically quiet. With so little information to pore over, the only interruption in the monotony was the occasional task of chipping the thick frosting of ice from the deck.

But on 22 January, something out of the ordinary happened. Two gray fishing trawlers spotted the Pueblo and circled her for a time, clearly agitated despite the fact that the US Navy ship was in international waters. There seemed to be little cause for concern, however, since such encounters were not unheard of. The trawlers departed without incident, so Commander Lloyd Bucher reported the episode and continued with his mission. Had the shore-side Navy personnel informed the Commander of the goings-on in Korea in the hours leading up to the event, he may have reconsidered his decision to remain so close to the edge of Korean territorial waters.

The previous evening, thirty-one North Korean operatives had secretly crossed the the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into South Korea. Clad in South Korean military uniforms, the commandos were within a block of their target⁠&mdash the Presidential Palace⁠&mdash before being detected. In the ensuing gunfight, twenty-nine of the would-be assassins were killed and one committed suicide. The single surviving prisoner was questioned, where he revealed that his mission had been to murder President Park and other senior government officials.

Unaware of the troubles onshore, the Pueblo began what was scheduled to be the final day of monitoring. The day was uneventful until lunchtime, when the crew’s meal was interrupted by a report of a North Korean warship advancing upon them at high speed. The patrol vessel approached at forty knots, and as it grew near it raised signal flags to demand that the Pueblo identify its nationality. Unease grew as the crew realized that the intercepting vessel was at battle stations. Commander Bucher verified by radar that his ship was indeed further than twelve nautical miles from shore, and therefore in international waters. The crew hoisted the American flag in response as three torpedo boats were spotted approaching from the coast.

The signal-flag conversation led to an alarming message from the DPRK patrol boat: HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE. Two MiG fighters buzzed the Pueblo, and two additional warships were sighted on the horizon, approaching fast. Bucher gave orders to make for the open sea. As a torpedo boat attempted to pull alongside, Pueblo’s pilot maneuvered the ship to prevent an armed group of soldiers from boarding. Retreat was the crew’s only option her weapons were sealed under a thick layer of winter ice. In response to her distress call the Naval Security Group in Japan promised to send fighters. The Pueblo vainly attempted to outrun the smaller, faster warships, but the DPRK ships gave chase, and shortly opened fire.

A hail of 57mm explosive rounds peppered the US Navy ship as she maneuvered away, and one of the pursuers opened a torpedo tube to prepare to fire. After a brief chase, Commander Bucher accepted the hopelessness of escape and gave the order to begin destroying all sensitive documents and equipment. The ship came to halt as crew members frantically loaded the incinerator with documents, threw materials over the side, and smashed equipment with hammers. The task was daunting, however, as the spy vessel had been furnished with a great deal of highly sensitive materials. In order to prevent further attacks, Commander Bucher complied with the attacker’s signal to follow them back towards the shore.

The DPRK vessels fired upon the Pueblo again when she stopped just outside of the Korean territorial waters. Seaman Duane Hodges was mortally wounded in the attack, and several others were injured as they stood on the deck and flung materials into the sea. Without assistance, and unable to respond to the aggression with due violence, Commander Bucher had no choice but to order that they continue. Shortly after leaving international waters, the Pueblo was boarded. High-ranking North Korean officials were among those who seized the ship, overseeing the capture as the Pueblo’s crew were bound, blindfolded, and beaten. When the ship arrived at the dock in Wonsan, the eighty-three American prisoners were paraded off the ship to the cheers of a gathered crowd. The promised support fighters never arrived.

The United States responded to the events by amassing a Naval Task Force in the Sea of Japan. They demanded the return of the Pueblo and her crew, but the DPRK government refused to comply. Despite the provocation, the US military knew that a daring plan to storm the North Korean docks had a dismal likelihood chance of success. There was little doubt that the crew would be executed immediately in the event of an attack, and the DPRK’s Communist allies would almost certainly rise to defend their sister country. Though contingency plans included the use of military force, it was ruled out as means to recover the crew alive. President Johnson begrudgingly ordered that no strike take place as he explored diplomatic solutions.

Over the following weeks the military stalemate was punctuated by a series of photos, films, and letters depicting the crew of the Pueblo enjoying their comfortable stay in North Korea. On the surface, these communications seemed to indicate that the crew had willingly defected to the DPRK, but they contained numerous oddities. In letters home the crew members spoke of events which had never occurred, they used archaic words in their press conferences, and they appeared in a curiously large number of the photographs with their middle fingers extended to the cameraman.

Unaware of these secret signals, the North Korean captors continued to threaten, torture, and coerce the crew members to prompt them to cooperate. They rehearsed staged press conferences and posed for photographs. In order to spare his youngest crew member from execution, Commander Bucher also agreed to sign a confession stating that the Pueblo had been in North Korean territorial waters at the time of the attack. All the while the men continued to subtly use “the finger” to signal to the US that the photos were staged propaganda. The North Koreans were unfamiliar with the western gesture, though after it appeared in many photos they asked the Americans about it. The Pueblo’s crew had agreed in advance to describe it as the “Hawaiian good luck sign,” and their captors seemed to accept that explanation.

While in captivity the prisoners were regularly beaten, with little hope of rescue. They were subjected to ridiculous lessons on the North Koreans’ version of US history which depicted the country as it was in the late 1800s. The were smothered in propaganda propping up the “Glorious Fatherland” in contrast to the “cowardly US imperialistic aggressors.”

In October 1968, Time magazine published a photo of the prisoners displaying their Hawaiian good luck sign, and from the photo’s caption the DPRK military learned that the gesture was one of “obscene derisiveness and contempt.” This discovery infuriated the North Korean captors, bringing about a period of beatings which came to be known as “Hell week.” During a seven day period, every member of the crew was brutally tortured in reprisal.

On 22 December the men were told that the US had decided to apologize for the Pueblo’s reckless trespass into DPRK waters, and that the men of the Pueblo’s crew were to be freed. Fearing a ruse designed to demoralize them, the men had little hope of being released. The following day they boarded a train which transported them to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, at which point they disembarked. After eleven months of captivity, the eighty-two surviving men walked across the Bridge of no Return which spanned the border of the DMZ, and met with US forces on the other side. In order to expedite the prisoners’ release, the US had provided North Korea with a written admission that the ship had been spying, as well as an official apology. Once the crew members were secured, however, they quickly retracted the admission and apology. The crew of the Pueblo were promptly flown back to the US, where they were met with their families and a cheering crowd of flag-waving supporters.

Commander Bucher and his crew appeared before a Navy Court of Inquiry regarding the Pueblo matter, and after extensive testimony a court martial was recommended for himself and the Officer in Charge of the Research Department, Lt. Steve Harris. Upon hearing this news the Secretary of the Navy rejected the notion outright, stating, “They have suffered enough.”

Today the USS Pueblo still resides in North Korea , where it is celebrated as one of the county’s most popular tourist attractions. Guided tours are offered which describe the DPRK version of the events. A North Korean website summarizes the story as follows:

“In January Juche 57 (1968) the navy of the Korean People’s Army captured the US imperialist armed spy ship Pueblo in the very act of espionage in the territorial waters of Korea. Like a thief raising a hue and cry, the US imperialists raved about “reprisals,” and ordered out many war vessels including a nuclear aircraft carrier and aircraft, bringing the situation to the brink of war.

Kim Il Sung denounced the US moves as a shameless aggressive act that would threaten peace and security of the DPRK and its people, and clarified the principled stand that the Korean people would retaliate for “retaliation” and return all-out war for all-out war.

Alarmed by Kim Il Sung’s resolute stand and the unyielding fighting will and indestructible strength of the Korean people who were rallied closely around their leader Kim Il Sung, the US imperialists signed a letter of apology, recognizing their aggressive act in the eyes of the world and guaranteeing that no US warship would intrude into the territorial waters of the DPRK again.”

Though at the time the US downplayed the intelligence loss suffered, it is generally believed that the Pueblo’s secrets were of significant value to the Soviets. There are some indications that the Russian government had urged the North Korean military to seize a US spy vessel in order to provide them with American secrets. They had been lagging 3-5 years behind in communications technology, but after reverse-engineering the US equipment and code books the Soviets made dramatic improvements to their systems.

As of this writing (late 2006), many members of the Pueblo crew still survive, though Commander Bucher died in 2004, due in part to injuries sustained while in captivity. The USS Pueblo Veteran’s Association maintains a website which shares the personal accounts of many of those who suffered torture while remaining resolute and defiant. To this day, the USS Pueblo remains at the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, though it is still considered a commissioned ship in the US Navy.

In 1968, North Korea captured a U.S. war ship and tortured the 82 sailors on board

By the time White House aides woke President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of the night on January 23, 1968, it was already too late — the Navy’s intelligence vessel, the USS Pueblo, sent to spy on North Korea, had been seized by the Communist country.

For weeks, the Pueblo coasted, intercepting communication without incident. As part of Cold War reconnaissance, the Navy and the National Security Agency wanted updates on the status of North Korea’s growing military and the Pueblo — a specialized spy ship packed with advanced sensors and encryption equipment — was the right fit for the mission.

But soon, the warnings came. On January 20, a North Korean modified Soviet-style submarine chaser passed within 4,000 yards of the Pueblo, which was about 15 miles southeast of Mayang-Do — North Korea’s most important submarine base. The next day, a pair of fishing trawlers made an aggressive approach within 30 yards of the Pueblo, but they also veered away.

On January 23, however, the USS Pueblo was approached by a North Korean submarine chaser — a small, fast ship designed to find, track and deter, damage or destroy enemy submarines — and was ordered to stand down or be fired upon. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters 16 miles from shore, but the North Koreans insisted the Americans were in their territory. The Pueblo attempted to maneuver away but, as a slow-moving ship, it had no chance of outrunning the chaser.

Immediately, several warning shots were fired and soon three torpedo boats joined the chaser while two MiG fighter jets provided air cover. A fourth torpedo boat and a second submarine chaser appeared a short time later.

The North Koreans opened fire with cannons and machine guns, wounding the American commander and two others.

The Pueblo was severely outmatched in part because of its intelligence mission, but also because its ammunition was stored belowdecks and its machine guns were wrapped to disguise them — nevermind that no one on the ship had been properly trained to use them.

Faced with an inevitable capture, the Americans stalled for time so they could destroy as much of the classified information on board as possible, but a shredder became jammed with the piles of papers shoved into it, and burning the documents in waste baskets filled the cabins with smoke.

One recent declassified NSA report captures exactly how deeply the debacle ran: “Radio contact between Pueblo and the Naval Security Group in Kamiseya, Japan, had been ongoing during the incident. As a result, Seventh Fleet command was fully aware of Pueblo’s situation. Air cover was promised but never arrived. The Fifth Air Force had no aircraft on strip alert, and estimated a two to three-hour delay in launching aircraft. USS Enterprise was located 510 nautical miles (940 km) south of Pueblo, yet its four F-4B aircraft on alert were not equipped for an air-to-surface engagement. Enterprise’s captain estimated that 1.5 hours (90 minutes) were required to get the converted aircraft into the air. By the time President Lyndon B. Johnson was awakened, Pueblo had been captured and any rescue attempt would have been futile.”

Initially, the Pueblo followed the North Korean vessels to shore, as ordered, but then stopped. The North Korean ships fired upon the Pueblo again, killing one American sailor, and then boarded the ship and sailed the Pueblo — and the remaining 82 sailors — to the port of Wonsan.

And that’s when their true and enduring ordeal began.

The crew members were blindfolded and transported to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying within North Korea’s 12-mile territorial limit and immediately imprisoned. It was the biggest crisis in two years of increased tension and minor incidents between the U.S. and North Korea.

North Korea kept them alive, but not much more.

“I got shot up in the original capture, so we were taken by bus and then train for an all-night journey to Pyongyang in North Korea, and then they put us in a place we called the barn,” Robert Chicca, a Marine corps sergeant who served as a Korean linguist on the ship, later recalled. “We had fried turnips for breakfast, turnip soup for lunch, and fried turnips for dinner….There was never enough to eat, and personally I lost about 60 pounds over there.”

Back home, there was dissent among government officials over how to handle the crisis. Representative Mendel Rivers of South Carolina became a vocal advocate for the president, issuing an ultimatum that North Korea return the Pueblo and the hostages or prepare for a nuclear attack. For his part, Johnson was deeply worried that even agitating rhetoric would result in the execution of the hostages.

However, within days of their capture, President Johnson’s attention was redirected toward the Vietnam War when the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army launched a surprise attack against the U.S., the South Vietnamese, and their allies in what became known as the Tet Offensive — an event that forced the president to order no direct retaliation against North Korea.

With little attention from the U.S., North Korea moved ahead with torturing the captives in an effort to obtain a confession and an apology. Commander Lloyd M. Bucher was psychologically tortured, including being put through a mock firing squad. Soon, the North Koreans threatened to execute his men in front of him. Eventually, Bucher agreed to “confess to his and the crew’s transgression.” They verified the meaning of what he wrote, but failed to catch his pronunciation when he read “We paean the DPRK [North Korea]. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung.” (He pronounced “paean” as “pee on.”)

Some prisoners also rebelled in photo shoots by casually sticking out their middle finger, a gesture that their captors didn’t understand. Later, the North Koreans caught on and beat the Americans for a week.

According to recently declassified documents, the Johnson administration considered several high-risk courses of retaliatory action, including a blockade of North Korean ports, air strikes on military targets, and a bogus intelligence leak to the Soviets that the United States planned to attack North Korea.

But one stood out more than all the others.

Pentagon war planners considered using nuclear weapons to stop a possible communist invasion of South Korea, as well as mounting a massive air attack to wipe out North Korea’s air force. The nuclear option, ironically codenamed “Freedom Drop,” envisioned the use of American aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to decimate North Korean troops.

However, President Johnson remained committed to a diplomatic solution to the standoff. That, too, had its challenges.

Richard A. Ericson, a political counselor for the American embassy in Seoul, and George Newman, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Seoul, predicted how the negotiations would play out: “If your sole objective is to get the crew back, you will be playing into North Korea’s hands and the negotiations will follow a clear and inevitable path. You are going to be asked to sign a document that the North Koreans will have drafted. They will brook no changes. It will set forth their point of view and require you to confess to everything they accuse you of.”

Remembering North Korea's Audacious Capture Of The USS Pueblo

Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, commander of the USS Pueblo, leads his surviving crew members as they arrive in North Korea following their capture on Jan. 23, 1968.

Bob Chicca is a retired Marine staff sergeant whose uniform is on exhibit in the capital of North Korea. It's in a display case aboard the USS Pueblo, the only commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy held in captivity. Visitors now tour the ship, which is moored along a Pyongang river, as part of North Korea's Victorious War Museum.

Chicca was one of the Pueblo's 83 crew members. He and the 81 others who survived an artillery barrage on the high seas were taken captive by North Korea, along with their ship, on January 23, 1968.

"We were an experiment that was deemed, I don't know whether it would be a failure, but it certainly didn't work," Chicca, now 73, recalls at his home in the San Diego suburb of Bonita.

Hanging in Chicca's living room is a wide oil painting that vividly portrays North Korea's assault on the Pueblo. Two submarine-chasers, four torpedo boats and two Mig-21 jet fighters attack the ship as black smoke rises from its deck.

"I got shot in the capture, right there in those flames," Chicca says, pointing to the embattled vessel. A 57 mm shell hit Chicca in the groin after tearing through two other crew members, killing one of them.

The American spy ship managed to make radio contact with U.S. forces in South Korea during a nearly three hour standoff with the North Korean gunboats.

"The last conversations we got over the radio were that help was on the way, and it obviously wasn't," Chicca recalls. "I could not believe that we would be abandoned out there the way we were."

An overflight by a squadron of F-4 Phantom jet fighter-bombers had been promised, but it never took place. U.S. officials would later explain that the aircraft, whose mission was to respond to any nuclear strike the Soviet Union might carry out, were outfitted to carry nuclear rather than conventional bombs.

In the end, the Pueblo's skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd "Pete" Bucher, decided to do what few other captains of U.S. naval vessels have done: he gave up the ship.

Bob Chicca points to the spot on the deck of the USS Pueblo where he was wounded by a 57 mm shell during the attack on the ship by North Korea. David Welna/NPR hide caption

Bob Chicca points to the spot on the deck of the USS Pueblo where he was wounded by a 57 mm shell during the attack on the ship by North Korea.

"He definitely made the right decision," says Dunnie Tuck, one of the ship's two civilian hydrographers. "They (the North Koreans) were going to board us and they were definitely going to sink us if we kept going."

A mission gone wrong

It's not how things were supposed to go. The USS Pueblo, misleadingly identified on its hull as GER-2, was on its maiden mission as a spy ship for Naval Intelligence and the National Security Agency. Originally a World War II vintage cargo hauler, the Pueblo was posing as an environmental research vessel when it sailed into international waters off North Korea's eastern coast.

It was January of 1968, and even with both the Vietnam War and the Cold War raging, American military officials expected the Pueblo would have no trouble — as long as it kept to international waters.

"The Pueblo was a good symbol of America's Cold War myopia," says Korea expert and Ohio State University historian Mitchell Lerner. "(The crew members) were sent out there because the U.S. military said the Soviets run similar operations against us and we accept it and they accept it and no one ever said, 'Wait a minute, you're sending this ship to North Korea. That's not the Soviets.' "

Lerner says the Pueblo, armed with some handguns and a pair of .50-caliber machine guns trapped under ice-coated tarps, was a sitting duck.

"They were just completely unprepared and outgunned, just a total disaster," Lerner says. "And it was the men who paid the price."

That price would prove enormous. North Korea seized the Pueblo claiming the spy ship had intruded in its territorial waters, and it was determined to wring public confessions of wrongdoing from the vessel's crew.

"We got terrible beatings," Tuck, 80, recalls from the crew's time in captivity. "Head beatings, rifle butts and broomsticks - I had two chairs broken over my head."

Crew members initially resisted confessing to a violation of North Korea's territorial waters because they say it never occurred.

Eddie Murphy was the USS Pueblo's executive officer and navigator. He insists the ship never violated North Korea's territorial waters. David Welna/NPR hide caption

Eddie Murphy was the USS Pueblo's executive officer and navigator. He insists the ship never violated North Korea's territorial waters.

"You're talking to the navigator - at all times we were in international waters," says the Pueblo's former executive officer, retired Lt. Eddie Murphy. "We never violated the twelve-mile limit, never penetrated the twelve-mile limit."

Astonishment in Washington

North Korea's brazen capture of the Pueblo caught Washington flat-footed.

"What's your speculation on what happened?" President Lyndon Johnson is recorded asking the next morning in a phone call to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

"Mr. President, I honestly don't know," McNamara replies. "I think we need a Cuban missile crisis approach to this, and goddamn it, we ought to get locked in a room and you ought to keep us there, insist we stay there, until we come up with answers to three questions: what was the Korean objective, why did they do it secondly, what are they going to do now - blackmail us, let it go and thirdly, what should we do now?"

North Korea's seizure of the Pueblo came three days after 31 North Korean commandos sneaked into Seoul in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The Pueblo's crew had not been informed of the raid, in which 26 South Koreans were killed.

While South Korea currently supports resolving conflicts with the North through diplomatic means, this was not the case at that time.

"The South is really irate and they are demanding that they march north and that the United States back them up," says Lerner.

A naval blockade of the heavily fortified North Korean harbor of Wonsan, where the captured Pueblo was moored, was considered too risky. Seizing North Koreans on the high seas was dismissed on the grounds that Pyongyang would care little about hostages. The use of tactical nuclear weapons was briefly broached, then rejected.

President Lyndon Johnson prepares to open a press conference in the Cabinet room of the White House on Feb. 2, 1968, when he announced that U.S. and North Korean officials were meeting to discuss the USS Pueblo. AP hide caption

President Lyndon Johnson prepares to open a press conference in the Cabinet room of the White House on Feb. 2, 1968, when he announced that U.S. and North Korean officials were meeting to discuss the USS Pueblo.

In the end, Johnson opted for a symbolic show of force. Some 350 U.S. combat aircraft were moved to American bases in South Korea. Army reserve units were called up in the U.S. Two other aircraft carriers and about 25 warships joined the USS Enterprise in the Sea of Japan.

"They just basically steamed around in circles for several weeks," says Jack Cheevers, author of Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo.

"It was very cold, obviously, in the Sea of Japan during the winter months, and eventually they were told to stand down."

Months later, McNamara's successor as defense secretary, Clark Clifford, would tell Congress a military rescue of the Pueblo and its crew had been out of the question.

"One of the main reasons we didn't go in there with an attacking force," he testified, "was that we would not get our men back that would pretty well assure their destruction."

Cheevers says some in the U.S. were furious about both the Pueblo's capture and the lack of any forceful U.S. military response.

"The White House was being flooded with telegrams from angry Americans around the country," says Cheevers, "calling [Johnson] a coward, saying that the American emblem should be changed from an eagle to a chicken."

But neither those in the Johnson White House nor many other Americans had much appetite for another armed conflict.

"You have to remember that the Pueblo was captured at the height of the Vietnam War, and public opinion was really turning against the war at that time," says Cheevers. "The last thing we wanted was, in addition to fighting in Vietnam, to have to fight against the North Koreans and potentially the Chinese on the Korean peninsula."

So the U.S. settled for pursuing a diplomatic solution: talks with North Korea at the Panmunjom truce village along the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. The talks, at least initially, bore little fruit.

"The report that we are close to effecting a resolution to the problem is untrue," Defense Secretary Clifford told Congress in May 1968. "We are not close to it - they continue to be intransigent, but we're going to continue to try to work with them."

In captivity

Meanwhile, the ordeal of the 82 imprisoned crew members continued.

"My ear lobe on the right side was just hanging by a small part of the skin," Murphy, the ship's executive officer, says of a torture session where his head was beaten with rifle butts.

The damage was psychological as well.

"My room was right next to the torture room," Murphy continues, "and I heard every blow that every one of the sailors got, and some of those sessions still flash back in my head."

Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, commanding officer of the USS Pueblo, confesses to espionage at a press conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1968, with crew members looking on. KCNA/AP hide caption

Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, commanding officer of the USS Pueblo, confesses to espionage at a press conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1968, with crew members looking on.

North Korea eventually got the confessions it sought.

"We intruded into the territorial waters of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and committed hostile acts," Pueblo skipper Lloyd Bucher finally declared. He did so after being told that if he failed to confess, his crew members would be executed, one by one.

But Bucher also managed to insult the unsuspecting North Koreans by declaring, "my fervent desire to paean the Korean People's Army, Navy and their government," pronouncing paean "pee on."

And crew members routinely lifted their middle fingers while being photographed in captivity, telling their captors it was a Hawaiian gesture for good luck. They were severely punished during what became known as "hell week" after North Korea caught on to their ruse.

Crew's ordeal comes to an end

At the Panmunjom talks, North Korea demanded the U.S. sign a document known as the three A's: Admit wrongdoing, Apologize for it, Assure it will never happen again. It was the wife of one of the American negotiators who came up with the formula that ultimately freed the crew.

"She said right off the top of her head, well just offer to sign the letter," says Ohio State's Lerner, "and repudiate it at the very same moment that you're signing it."

It worked. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gilbert Woodward, the top U.S. negotiator, made clear before signing the letter that it had been drafted by North Korea.

"I will sign the document," he declared, "to free the crew and only to free the crew."

The date was Dec. 23, 1968, exactly 11 months after the Pueblo's capture. One by one, led by Lt. Cmdr. Bucher, the 81 other crew members walked from North Korea over the Bridge of No Return at Panmunjom to South Korea. From there, they were flown to a Christmas Eve heroes' homecoming in San Diego.

"People were shoulder-to-shoulder on the road," Murphy, the ship's second-in-command, says, choking up as he recalls their return. "It still takes my breath away thinking of that kind of welcome."

The USS Pueblo is moored in Pyongyang, North Korea, and is open to the public as a museum. It was never decommissioned and is the only U.S. naval vessel in captivity. KCNA/AP hide caption

The USS Pueblo is moored in Pyongyang, North Korea, and is open to the public as a museum. It was never decommissioned and is the only U.S. naval vessel in captivity.

But the USS Pueblo itself remained in North Korean captivity, as it does to this day. So did ten encryption machines and thousands of pages of top secret documents seized from the ship.

"There'd been a tremendous loss, much worse than than originally was feared," says Act of War author Cheevers. "One of the NSA historians described it as everyone's worst nightmare, and it was considered the worst intelligence loss in modern history."

Today aboard the Pueblo in Pyongyang, visitors are shown a video featuring a narrator who triumphantly proclaims, "The U.S.. imperialists went down on their knees again before the independent army and people of Korea, and signed the instrument of surrender."

"It was a ransom note that was signed by Gen. Woodward," says Murphy of the pre-repudiated confession that freed him. "Did our administration save lives by doing what they did? Saved my life. "

A conflict that continues to resonate

The Pueblo incident, as it came to be known, also left its mark on Johnson.

"In his memoirs," says Ohio State Korea scholar Lerner, "he said, 'If there is one day for me that symbolized the chaos of 1968, it was the morning I woke up and found out the Pueblo had been captured.' "

But the forbearance Johnson was willing to show in the Pueblo incident may well have been at the expense of growing North Korean defiance. Van Jackson, who was the Pentagon's top Korea adviser during the Obama administration, says the ship-seizing episode strengthened North Korea's belief in its strength as a David versus Goliath.

"It was a hell of an embarrassment to the United States - it still is," says Jackson. "But for North Korea this was a very proud moment that emboldened them to do more of this activity - they look at America's track record of restraint and that's what they learned from."

And that's the rub: caving in to Pyongyang's demand did ultimately free Pueblo's crew and avoid war. But North Korea seems to have learned from the episode that standing up to a military colossus - much as it's doing today with its nuclear weapons buildup - is a risk worth taking.

Former crewman Chicca thinks if any other lessons were to be learned from the Pueblo incident, they were likely lost on the U.S. Navy.

"I think they would prefer to forget it occurred," he scoffs, "and the Pueblo is an Indian village in the desert - not a ship".

USS Pueblo captured - HISTORY

The boarding and taking of the USS Pueblo was an act of war.
Not going after the Pueblo was sign of weakness.
Getting the crew and ship back should have been a top priority.

Pueblo Incident: Attacked by North Korean Military Forces

The USS PUEBLO's first operational mission was conceived by the and was tasked through the Naval Security Group Command. This first mission was primarily a period for training and testing. With no current information available on hostile activities by North Korean forces, the officer in charge at US CINCPACFLT assigned the mission a risk assessment of minimal. All attempts by PUEBLO's commanding officer to upgrade this assessment to hazardous were rebuffed.

Like the USS LIBERTY AGTR-5, PUEBLO operated under the assumtion that help would be available if needed. The US 7th Fleet, US Forces Korea, and the US 5th Air Force, Fuchu, Japan were informed of PUEBLO’s mission, but because of the minimal risk assessment, the US Navy made no specific requests for support. The tasking for similar USS BANNER missions had been rated as hazardous, and fighter aircraft had been made available on a strip alert status and 2 US Navy destroyers had maintained station within 50 miles of BANNER. When 5th Air Force personnel questioned the lack of request for strip alert status for PUEBLO’s mission, they were verbally informed that they would not be needed.

In addition to the lack of ready protection, the US Navy maintained the same communications procedures and methods for the PUEBLO mission as LIBERTY had operated under during her fateful mission of June 1967. The PUEBLO's inability to establish reliable communications with a higher command authority would be a similar repeat of the problems that contributed to the lack of help for LIBERTY. Unfortunately, it appears nothing was learned from the LIBERTY incident.

PUEBLO sailed from Yokosuka, Japan on the cold, gray morning of January 5, 1968 to transit to Sasebo. A picture taken of PUEBLO shortly before her departure shows some of her superstructure. PUEBLO departed Sasebo, Japan on January 11, 1968 and headed northward through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan to perfrom her mission the surveillance of North Korean naval activity, the monitoring and recording of Korean coastal radars and surveillance of soviet naval units operating in the Tsushima Straits. In route, PUEBLO was hammered by a winter storm, had trouble making headway, and took several dangerous rolls while tacking. The ship moved to the northern part of its first Operational Area Pluto, between 42 and 41 north latitudes, the weather was cold and ice formed on the ships deck and superstructure and had to be cleared. One sunny afternoon while in area Pluto, the tarps were taken off the .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the rail and gunnery practice was held, but the target bobbing about 20 yards off starboard was never hit. The northern half of this area was visually and electronically uneventful except for siting of Japanese and Russian freighters. Only the oceanographers obtained original data, water temperatures and salinities. PUEBLO moved south to the area off Song-gin still in Pluto. Again, ice, no electronic intelligence, only water samples and temperatures. So, PUEBLO moved south into Operational Area Venus between 41 and 40 north latitudes to lie to off Myang Do.

Near twilight on January 21, a modified Soviet type S0-1 subchaser passed within 1600 yards of PUEBLO doing about 25 knots. It emanated no radar, or other electronic signals, nor were any crew seen. PUEBLO's officers decided she had not been identified so radio silence was continued. PUEBLO had received transmissions, but had maintained radio silence to hopefully avoid, or at least delay detection. If PUEBLO were detected the North Korean military would do their best not to provide any electronic intelligence. None of the US Navy radio messages from headquarters directed to PUEBLO mentioned the North Korean provocations which had been taking place while she was alone off the North Korean coast. (Had the silence been an unrecognized clue?) After a brief stay near Myang Do, PUEBLO proceeded further south into Operational area Mars to be stationed off the North Korean port Wonson. She would stay here through January 23rd and then depart for the Tsushima Strait. Anecdote: Cold and Colder

January 22 was an unusually sunny day and electronic intelligence (ELINT) started to pick up. Maybe PUEBLO's luck was changing. After lunch, two North Korean gray fishing trawlers (Russian-built Lenta class) approached and circled at about 500 yards, left to reconnoiter and returned to again circle PUEBLO at close range, approximately 25 yards. The ship’s photographer took photographs and the PUEBLO broke EMCON and attempted to send off SITREP-1, her first electronic messages to USNAVSECGRU Kamiseya. Though the Communication Technicians and Radiomen tried to raise a response to their radio messages throughout the night, they were unsuccessful. Due to ionospheric conditions, a reliable communications frequency was difficult to maintain. Repeatedly PUEBLO was asked to change frequency to try and improve reception in Japan. Finally, 14 hours later, at 10 AM on January 23 contact with Kamiseya was made and SITREP-1 transmitted.

No radio messages were directed to PUEBLO concerning the attempted January 22 North Korean raid on the South Korean Blue House. Approximately, 40 hours before the attack on PUEBLO, a 31 man North Korean squad, dressed in South Korean uniforms, had infiltrated across the DMZ. They then moved south to within 1 block of the Presidential Palace before being detected and defeated. Informing PUEBLO of the Blue House raid was discussed by officers at the spook locker in Yokosuka, Japan. But, with 1 day left on her mission off the North Korean coast, the decision was made not to inform PUEBLO. The only radio messages directed to PUEBLO contained the latest National Basketball Association scores.

The morning of January 23rd was relatively mild (in the 20 degrees F), with a thin overcast and light seas. PUEBLO moved landward from its overnight position 25 miles offshore to 15 miles off the island of Yo Do. Minor ELINT was active. SITREP-2 was prepared indicating PUEBLO was no longer under surveillance and would revert to radio silence. Receipts were received for both SITREPs from headquarters in Japan around noon.

The clouds had thickened during the morning and the day had become dreary and was getting colder. Lunch in the ward room was interrupted by a call to the captain from the bridge that a ship 8 miles out was headed towards PUEBLO. Three minutes later another call came saying the ship was 5 miles out and closing rapidly. It was a North Korean subchaser, S0-1, approaching at 40 knots.

The two civilian oceanographers went on deck to take ocean observations and the signal flags so indicting were hoisted. The ship's position had been verified by radar when the subchaser was first sited. As the subchaser neared it became obvious that it's crew was at battle stations. At 1000 yards it asked PUEBLO's nationality and the captain responded by raising the U. S. flag.

A message was intercepted at 1210 by U. S. sources from the S0-1 to shore: "The name of the target is GER-2. I judge it to be a reconaissance ship. It is American guys. It does not appear that there are weapons and it is a hydrographic mapping ship." (Moody, et al)

Three torpedo boats were sighted closing in from the northeastern coast.

The subchaser moved to 500 yards and signaled HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE. PUEBLO was already dead in the water? After re-checking that the distance from the nearest land was 15.8 miles, PUEBLO replied I AM IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS. There were now four North Korean vessels of war menacing the PUEBLO, the subchaser with her 57mm and the three torpedo boats with their machine guns. And to make matters more onimous, two North Korean MiG's did a low flyover and a forth torpedo boat and second subchaser were sited heading towards PUEBLO. She got underway seaward with the oceanographic gear still over the side. The oceanographers hauled it in when the PUEBLO slowed for a couple of minutes.

At 1306 the S0-1 radioed ashore: ". According to present instructions we will close down the radio, tie up the personnel, tow it and enter port at Wonsan. At present, we are on our way to boarding. we are coming in." (Moody, et al)

A group of North Korean military men with AK-47’s had transferred from one subchaser to a torpedo boat which then approached the PUEBLO's aft starboard side so these men could board. PUEBLO maneuvered to prevent this and to depart the area. With the North Korean vessels cutting across her bow she increased speed slowly to 12 knots. Unfortunately, the calm seas were aiding the smaller, but much faster boats. The first subchaser to arrive pulled along side flying the signal flags HEAVE TO OR I WILL OPEN FIRE and opened fire with her 57mm guns while the torpedo boats raked the superstructure with machine gun bullets as PUEBLO tried to maneuver in order to present as small a target as possible and still head away from the coast. The 57mm explosive rounds struck the radar mast, and flying bridge, wounding the captain and two other men on the flying bridge. It became obvious that this was not typical harassment. The captain immediately ordered destruction of all classified materials and modified General Quarters (no hands above deck.) PUEBLO continued eastward. The migs roared by overhead again. Another volley from the subchaser and torpedo boats followed. Machine gun fire continued to rake the PUEBLO. Her .50 caliber guns were mounted on the starboard and stern rails without protection, and were wrapped in frozen tarps. The ammunition was stored below. No attempt was made to man them. A torpedo boat uncovered one of its tubes.

PUEBLO crew was trying frantically to destroy classified materials burning and shredding documents and smashing equipment with hammers and axes in the Sod Hut, burning documents in an incinerator behind the stack, and even dumping stuff overboard because the volume of sensitive material on board was too great to be shredded and burned quickly.

Meanwhile PUEBLO had stopped and the firing stopped. The subchaser signaled FOLLOW ME HAVE PILOT ON BOARD. PUEBLO soon proceeded at 1/3 speed toward North Korea, then 2/3 speed, then stopped. The subchaser and two torpedo boats resumed firing. This last salvo had mortally wounded Duane Hodges and injured several other men who had been jettisoning documents over the side.

PUEBLO proceeded at 1/3 speed to halt the gunfire and to permit destruction of materials. Radio contact with Naval Security Group in Kamiseya, Japan had been continual so they were aware of Pueblo’s situation. "Some birds winging your way." Was the last message PUEBLO received.

The subchaser signaled her to stop and a torpedo boat pulled along side with the boarding party. The PUEBLO's men were gathered on the fantail and forward well deck where they were forced to sit blindfolded, with their hands tied. Any resistance was met with punches, kicks or bayonet jabs. Anecdote: Transition

PUEBLO again continued towards Wonson at 1/3 speed. When PUEBLO was definitely inside North Korean territorial waters she was stopped and a group of higher ranking officers boarded from another torpedo boat. A North Korean civilian pilot rang up all ahead flank speed and took the wheel. While a brief inspection of the ship was conducted by the North Korean colonel, the PUEBLO crew was herded into the forward berthing quarters.

After PUEBLO docked in Wonson, her crew, bound and blindfolded, was removed and led in front of a crowd of North Korean civilians which was yelling and screaming insults at the Americans. The Hispanic crew members were being attacked by the soldiers because they were thought to be South Koreans. Anecdote: Arrival in Wonsan Eventually the crew were put on buses with the windows covered and taken to a train, also with windows covered, which took them to Pyongyang where the press was waiting with klieg lights and cameras at the railroad station. The crew were then taken by bus to the first compound of their imprisonment.

Watch the video: The USS Pueblo: Bring Her Home - Part 2 (January 2022).