█ ADRIENNE WILMOTH LERNER
The Pueblo incident involved the 1968 seizure and hijacking of the USS Pueblo by North Korean military forces. The Pueblo , a naval intelligence ship, was conducting offshore surveillance of North Korean radar and radio installations when it was overtaken by the North Korean fleet. Following seizure of the ship, diplomatic tensions between the United States and North Korea heightened. North Korean officials claimed that the vessel, and the United States government, had been warned about conducting espionage activities in the region. In contrast, United States officials claimed that the Pueblo was seized in international waters, without provocation. The crew of the Pueblo was detained in North Korea for nearly a year before their release was negotiated.
In 1967, the Navy refurbished one of its aging cargo ships, transforming it into a remote intelligence collection vessel. The old hull provided sufficient camouflage for the classified communications and radar locator systems on-board. Because the projected missions for the ship were considered low risk, the Pueblo was outfitted with only minimal defensive weapons. The U.S Fifth Air Force stationed in Fuchu, Japan, was designated to aid the Pueblo if necessary, but no specific teams were reserved from daily operations or put on alert.
The Pueblo , commanded by U.S. Navy Commander Lloyd. M. "Pete" Bucher, was assigned a new, and relatively inexperienced crew. The crew reported to San Diego for training maneuvers, and then departed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Upon its arrival in Pearl Harbor, the Pueblo needed significant repairs to its steering engine.
Pueblo's mission CBIAC operations. The ultimate mission of the Pueblo crew remained classified until official mission orders were given to the crew after departing Pearl Harbor in late November, 1967. The ship arrived in Yokosuka, Japan, were further adjustments to onboard systems were made, and soon after departed on January 11, 1968.
Bound for international waters off the eastern coastline of North Korea, the Pueblo's stated mission was oceanographic research. However, the ship was part of a covert naval intelligence mission code named Operation Clickbeetle. The ship was charged with conducting a detailed survey of increasing North Korean naval activity, including assessing its potential fleet strength. Operation Clickbeetle further used the sophisticated equipment below decks on the Pueblo to intercept Soviet-North Korean communications, and locate radar and radio stations inland. Naval intelligence, in conjunction with the National Security Agency and the Naval Security Group Command, devised Operation Clickbeetle as part of a larger Cold Warera monitoring and espionage project intended to garner information about the influence of the Soviet Union on its satellite nations.
The Pueblo was assigned three operational areas in which to work, code named Pluto, Venus, and Mars. The first two areas, Pluto and Venus, off the northeast coast of the Korean Peninsula, yielded very little information. The Pueblo therefore moved to its final area further south, Mars, ahead of schedule. While in transit, the Pueblo crossed paths with a Soviet-made North Korean subchaser vessel. Since the Pueblo was instructed to maintain radio silence, it did not report the encounter to its support team in Japan. Furthermore, the Pueblo was 30 miles from the coastline, well into established international waters. After arriving in Op Area Mars on January 22, the Pueblo was again approached by two North Korean vessels. The two boats, apparent fishing trawlers, circled the Pueblo at close range. Sensing the foreign vessels may have been
sent to conduct reconnaissance on the Pueblo , Commander Bucher sent a civilian team to the ship's deck to conduct oceanographic research, maintaining the ship's cover. After the North Korean vessels left the area, the communications room aboard the Pueblo began intercepting increasing electronic communications between the ships and on shore stations. The Pueblo broke communications silence and notified Naval command of the situation.
Naval command received the message sent by the Pueblo fourteen hours later. During that time, a special unit of North Korean soldiers, dressed as South Korean military personnel, crossed the internationally established Demilitarized Zone into South Korea. The unit traveled to Seoul on a mission to attack South Korean government buildings and potentially assassinate the South Korean President. The North Korean saboteurs were discovered within miles of the presidential palace, and later executed. The incident brought the two nations again to the brink of war, and heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. United States Naval Command decided that the Pueblo did not need to be informed about the event, and that the vessel was safe in international waters. They advised the ship merely to relocate an additional five nautical miles from the coastline, a full 15 nautical miles into international waters.
On January 23, a small fleet of North Korean ships approached the Pueblo . Commander Bucher and the crew noticed that the vessels were staffed at battle stations. The Pueblo intercepted transmissions revealing that the intent of the ships was to board the Pueblo , overtake the crew, and pilot the ship to North Korea. The crew was put on alert, and the Pueblo made way further into international waters. A North Korean subchaser signaled four nearby torpedo boats, and the fleet encircled the Pueblo . A North Korean military boarding party attempted to come aside the Pueblo , but the ship took evasive measures. Soon after, one of the North Korean vessels fired upon the Pueblo . Commander Bucher ordered all of the classified documents, information, and devices on the ship be destroyed. The ship then radioed Navy Pacific Fleet Command requesting emergency aid from military installations in Japan.
Hijack of the ship and crew. Another group of North Korean military attempted to board the Pueblo , this time sweeping the deck with heavy fire. At this time, fireman Duane Hodges, was killed while fending off the group attempting the board the ship. The United States vessel again attempted evasive maneuvers, but the ship was too slow and heavily out gunned by the surrounding four torpedo boats, two subchasers, and two Soviet-made MiG aircraft. The Pueblo stopped in the water and heeded instructions to follow the lead North Korean boat. Commander Bucher ordered the vessel to travel at its slowest speed to give the men time to destroy the classified equipment onboard. The Pueblo then steamed full speed and again tried to evade the fleet. The North Korean forces fired explosive shells onto the deck of the ship, injuring several crewmembers. The Pueblo again stopped, and the ranking officer of the North Korean vessels ordered the boarding party to seize control of the U.S. ship. A North Korean fisherman, working for the military, then piloted the Pueblo , at full speed, into the harbor at Wonsan. The crewmembers of the Pueblo were tied up and corralled on the forward well deck, before being transferred to their quarters.
After the arrival of the ship into North Korean port, the crew and command of the Pueblo were paraded in front of national media as grand propaganda and then shipped to a series of secret detainment facilities. Their imprisonment began in a sparse, remote prison on January 24, 1968. Over the course of a year, the crew suffered mental and physical torture at the hands of their captors. Severe beatings were routine, and the crew received inadequate food and medical care. While United States diplomatic envoys tried to secure their release, the North Korean government provided staged photographs of the prisoners playing sports and enjoying leisure activities. Several crewmembers displayed their middle finger in the photographs to indicate that the photos were merely staged propaganda. When North Korean officials realized the gesture's meaning, the crew was again beaten.
Official diplomatic negotiations failed to secure the release of the Pueblo crew. Only after Commander Bucher and the other officers of the ship capitulated under severe duress to demands to sign a confession of wrongdoing and espionage activities did the North Korean government agree to discuss the release of their American prisoners. Members of the Military Armistice Committee met twenty eight times after the capture of the Pueblo . The United States and North Korean diplomats fought over the release of the ship's crew for nearly eleven months before the U.S. diplomatic mission agreed to admit guilt for the incident and sign a statement similar to that signed by the Pueblo officers. Before the official signing of the North Korean drafted document, diplomatic representative Major General Gilbert Woodward issued a statement to the United States government disavowing the admission of culpability and dismissing the North Korean treaty. He further stated that the United States does not officially apologize for any past actions in the incident and that the North Korean document would be signed for no other purpose than to insure the release of the Pueblo crew. The command and crew of the Pueblo was officially released on December 28, 1968, after nearly a year of captivity.
Although the North Korean government finally capitulated to the release of the crew of Pueblo , they refused to return the ship itself. The ship was evaluated and photographed by North Korean military intelligence, as well as Soviet officials. Because much of the classified equipment onboard had been destroyed by the crew during the hijacking, the North Koreans and Soviets gained little information about United States remote intelligence gathering equipment and operations. The Pueblo remained in Wonsan harbor for nearly three decades, serving as a propaganda piece and museum. In 1998, the North Korean government relocated the Pueblo . The boat was towed to the west coast of North Korea, and remains a propagandistic museum.
The crew of the Pueblo received little recognition for their actions in preventing the transfer of classified material onboard the ship to enemy powers, or for their time in captivity. Following their release, crewmembers received the Purple Heart for wounds received in action. The Pueblo 's officers endured a series of inquiries and hearings regarding their negotiations with their North Korean captors. At one time, naval officials considered court marshal for Commander Bucher and several other officers for signing the North Korean written confession of American wrongdoing. However, no member of the command or crew ever received disciplinary action. The lack of recognition for their service, and the numerous conduct inquiries, drew sharp criticism from the veterans of Operation Clickbeetle and the public. At the end of the Vietnam War, a series of retrospective stories in a national magazine drew attention to the Pueblo Incident and the plight of the Pueblo crew. The Navy then granted several more awards to various crewmembers, including a posthumous award of the Silver Star to Duane Hodges. In 1990, in accordance with a special act of Congress, the crew and command of the Pueblo was finally granted Prisoner of War (POW) status for their time in captivity.
The Pueblo was the first United States Navy vessel commandeered since the American Civil War. It was the only ship to surrender to hostile forces, other than those with whom the United States was at war, since the Chesapeake in 1807.
█ FURTHER READING:
Bucher, Loyd M. My Story. New York: Doubleday, 1970.
Lerner, Mitchell B. The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002.