The U.S.S. Pueblo
The USS Pueblo
The USS Pueblo (AGER-2) was a research vessel, not a combatant ship. On January 22, 1968 few people ever heard of the ship. By sunset of January 23 almost everyone in the United States knew of the USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo Incident was the start of a bad year for the United States and a horrible year for the crew.
The U.S. Army commissioned the Freight and Passenger ship FP-344 on April 7, 1945. The ship was later designated a Freight and Supply ship, FS-344. From April 16, 1944 until the end of World War II Lt. William T. Melma was the ship’s captain. FS-344 accidentally sank an Ecuadorian banana boat and had an encounter with an enemy submarine in the Gulf of Mexico.[i]
She was mothballed in 1954. In April 1966 the ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy and renamed the USS Pueblo. It was initially designated AKL-44. The Navy changed the designation to AGER-2, an environmental research vessel, and commissioned the USS Pueblo on May 13, 1967. In November the USS Pueblo sailed to the Far East to begin an intelligence gathering mission.
[i] Except from the rear cover of “How to Stay Afloat Wearing Army Boots” by William T. Melma, http://www.usspueblo.org/Background/Ship_History.html, last accessed 10/14/2018.
The mission was to the waters off North Korea. US CINCPACFLT assessed the risk as minimal. Commander Lloyd Mark “Pete” Bucher, the ship’s captain, attempted to upgrade the assessment to hazardous. His requests were denied. In June 1967 the US Navy underestimated the hazard of anther spy ship on a mission, the USS Liberty. The results; 34 on board killed, over 200 wounded, and the USS Liberty was a total write off. The U.S. 5th Air Force asked about “strip alert” status for the USS Pueblo. The Commander Naval Forces Japan headquarters said a “strip alert” would not me needed. The USS Banner, which performed missions off the North Korean coast had all its missions assessed as minimal.[i]
The USS Pueblo sailed from Yokosuka, Japan on January 5, 1968. Bad weather forced it to make port in Sasebo, Japan. There Japanese yard workers repaired the damage caused by the bad weather. There is a story one of the crew was at a bar and when he told a bar girl he didn’t know where the ship was going the bar girl laughed and retorted, “You go North Korea!”[ii] On January 11 the USS Pueblo sailed from Sasebo.[iii]
On January 21, a Soviet S0-1 subchaser passed within 1600 yards of the USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo’s officers decided they were not identified so they maintained the USS Pueblo’s radio silence.[iv] That evening a North Korean commando unit of 31 men reached the outskirts of Seoul. They changed into South Korean army uniforms and went onto the grounds of the South Korean presidential palace. They closed to within 100 yards of the Blue House[v] when a South Korean sentry challenged them. After a brief but deadly firefight the surviving North Korean commandos withdrew. South Korean and U.S. Army soldiers hunted down the survivors. One commando made it back to North Korea and another, Kim Shin-Jo, was captured[vi]. The other 29 died in the initial firefight or the ensuing manhunt. There were 68 South Korean killed and 66 wounded, this included about 20 civilians who were on a bus and caught in the crossfire. Three American soldiers were also killed, and three others wounded, in the incident.[vii] The USS Pueblo was not informed of the Blue House raid.[viii]
The next day two North Korean fishing trawlers circled the USS Pueblo at 500 yards. The trawlers departed then returned and circled the USS Pueblo at 25 yards.[ix]
[i] USS Pueblo Organization, http://www.usspueblo.org/Pueblo_Incident/The_Mission_Begins.html, last accessed 10/19/2018.
[ii] While this could be an urban legend it would not be unusual. Often times people who were in and around U.S. military bases know things they shouldn’t and are not shy about telling or indicating what they know.
[iii] USS Pueblo Organization, http://www.usspueblo.org/Pueblo_Incident/The_Mission_Begins.html, last accessed 10/19/2018.
[iv] USS Pueblo Organization, http://www.usspueblo.org/Pueblo_Incident/January_22.html, last accessed 10/19/2018.
[v] The South Korean president’s residence.
[vi] DMZ Flashpoints: The 1968 Blue House Raid, July 16, 2015, http://www.rokdrop.net/2015/07/dmz-flashpoints-the-1968-blue-house-raid/, last accessed 10/20/2018. The commando that made it back to North Korea stayed with the North Korean Army and in time became a general.
[vii] Military History.com, https://militaryhistorynow.com/2013/09/20/the-blue-house-raid-north-koreas-failed-1968-commando-assault-on-seoul/, last accessed 10/20/2018.
[viii] USS Pueblo Organization, http://www.usspueblo.org/Pueblo_Incident/January_22.html, last accessed 10/19/2018.
[ix] USS Pueblo Organization, http://www.usspueblo.org/Pueblo_Incident/January_22.html, last accessed 10/19/2018.
About noon on January 23, the USS Pueblo was 15 miles (24 km) from the North Korean island of Yo Do. The USS Pueblo spotted the North Koran subchaser SO-1 about 8 miles (13 km) away headed for them at a speed of 40 knots. The SO-1 closed to 1,000 yards (900 meters) and asked for the USS Pueblo’s nationality. Captain Bucher ordered the U.S. ensign raised. At 1210 SO-1 reported the ship was GER-2 and it didn’t seem to have any weapons. The USS Pueblo sighted three P4 torpedo boats headed for them. The SO-1 closed to 500 yards (450 meters). The S0-1 signaled, “Heave to or I will fire.” The USS Pueblo answered, “I am in international water.” Two North Korean MiG-21s flew low over the USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo also sighted another subchaser and a fourth torpedo boat.[i]
Armed North Koreans transferred from a subchaser to a torpedo boat. The torpedo boat cut across the USS Pueblo’s bow. Subchaser SO-1 repeated the order “Heave to or I will open fire”. SO-1 opened fire with its 57mm guns and the torpedo boats opened fire with machine guns. The fire wounded Captain Bucher and two sailors. Captain Bucher ordered the destruction of all classified materials. He also gave the order “no hands above deck”. The MiG-21s made another low flying pass. The North Korean boats continued firing. Captain Bucher considered attempting to return fire would be senseless. Subchaser SO-1 signaled “Follow me have pilot on board.” The USS Pueblo followed SO-1. Fireman Duane Hodges and some other sailors were dumping classified information over the side. The USS Pueblo stopped and the North Korean boats opened fire, mortally wounding Fireman Duane Hodges.[ii] The last message the USS Pueblo received from the Navy Security Group in Kamiseya, Japan was, “Some birds winging your way.”[iii] Some U.S. Air Force F-105 were sortied but they were ordered to land in South Korea. The USS Pueblo stopped and North Koreans boarded the ship and captured the crew. The North Koreans sailed the USS Pueblo at maximum speed to Wonson.
[i] USS Pueblo web site, http://www.usspueblo.org/Pueblo_Incident/January_23.html, last accessed 10/26/2018.
[ii] USS Pueblo web site, http://www.usspueblo.org/Pueblo_Incident/January_23.html, last accessed 10/26/2018.
[iii] Station HYPO, USS Pueblo – An Odyssey of Captivity, By Captain Ron Samuelson, USN, (Retired), https://stationhypo.com/2018/01/24/uss-pueblo-an-odyssey-of-captivity-part-1-of-7/, last accessed 11/11/2018.
The crew were taken off the ship, bound and blindfolded, and put on a bus. The bus took them to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. On the way the North Koreans took them off the bus and assaulted them.[i] They were held in captivity under harsh conditions that included beatings and mock executions.[ii]
Commander Bucher signed a confession and admitted the USS Pueblo entered into North Korean waters. During preparations for a second international press conference Commander Bucher claimed he had a seizure of lockjaw and could not speak.[iii] Commander Bucher and his crew did many things to frustrate North Korean efforts to put on the façade the crew was treated humanely. In one case the crew was posed for a propaganda picture. Some of the sailors gave “the finger” as the photo was snapped. When asked the crew claimed it was a “Hawaiian good luck symbol”. The North Koreans eventually learned the truth and the crew suffered beatings because of it.
[i] Station HYPO, USS Pueblo – An Odyssey of Captivity, By Captain Ron Samuelson, USN, (Retired), https://stationhypo.com/2018/01/24/uss-pueblo-an-odyssey-of-captivity-part-2-of-7/, last accessed 11/11/2018.
[ii] Station HYPO, USS Pueblo – An Odyssey of Captivity, By Captain Ron Samuelson, USN, (Retired), https://stationhypo.com/2018/01/25/uss-pueblo-an-odyssey-of-captivity-part-3-of-7, last accessed 11/11/2018.
[iii] Station HYPO, USS Pueblo – An Odyssey of Captivity, By Captain Ron Samuelson, USN, (Retired), https://stationhypo.com/2018/01/27/uss-pueblo-an-odyssey-of-captivity-part-5-of-7/, last accessed 11/11/2018.
On January 26 the U.S. called Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve elements to active duty[i]. It appeared the U.S. might have a military response. In Vietnam the U.S. Marine garrison, and Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops, at Khe Sanh were under siege. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive on January 30, 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided the best chance for bringing the USS Pueblo sailors home alive was through negotiation. This made President Johnson appear indecisive to some. Others didn’t believe the USS Pueblo was in international waters. Other events in 1968 drew attention away from the USS Pueblo’s crew. Vietnam and how to deal with civil unrest were the major issues in the 1968 presidential campaign.
[i] Air Force Fiftieth Anniversary, The Cold War and Beyond, by Frederick J. Shaw Jr. and Timothy Warnock, Air Force History and Museum Program in association with Air University Press, 1997.
Return and Aftermath
The negotiations for the return of the USS Pueblo and its crew began on January 24, 1968. Rear Admiral John Victor Smith, USN, demanded North Korea immediately return the ship and its crew and apologize for its actions. He also advised the North Koreans the United States reserved the right to ask for compensation. North Korean negotiator, Major General Pak Chung Kuk, demanded the United States admit the USS Pueblo entered North Korean waters, apologize, and assure North Korea it would never happen again.[i]
It wasn’t until March 4 that North Korea identified Fireman Duane Hodges as the man who was killed in the incident. They also identified the wounded sailors. Negotiations dragged on, it even became laughing stock for the popular comedy variety series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in Show.
The Korean country director was James Leonard. It was November and the negotiations were deadlocked. Leonard’s spouse, Eleanor Leonard, suggested they state they are signing a false document right before signing the admission of guilt. James Leonard told the chief UN Negotiator at Panmunjom, U.S. Army Major General Gilbert H. Woodward, to point out to General Pak if they didn’t agree to this proposal the U.S. would withdraw the proposal and they would have to negotiate with the next president, Richard M. Nixon.[ii]
At Panmunjom General Woodward said; “The document which I am going to sign was prepared by the North Koreans I will sign the document to free the crew and only to free the crew.” He then signed the admission. North Korea has signed confessions. North Korea has the USS Pueblo as a museum ship. The U.S. Navy still has the USS Pueblo listed as a ship in commission.
The U.S. civilian population hailed Commander Bucher and his crew as heroes on their return home. The military reaction was mixed. The U.S. Navy held a Court of Inquiry. Commander Bucher pointed out numerous errors by the U.S. Navy. The Court of Inquiry recommended Commander Bucher and Lieutenant Steve Harris, the Officer in Charge of the Research Department, be court-martialed. The Court of Inquiry singled out Marine Sergeant Robert Chicca and 10 Navy crew members for praise for their acts of resistance while in captivity. Secretary of the Navy John Chafee decided against a court-martial stating, “They have suffered enough”. In 1972 an Air Force military training instructor, giving a class to basic trainees on the Code of Conduct, held up Commander Bucher as an example on how not to behave in the face of the enemy.
The U.S. Navy decommissioned the other AGER ships; the USS Banner and the USS Palm Beach.[iii] On April 15, 1969 a North Korean fighter shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 over international waters over 100 miles from North Korea. The attack killed all 31 on board the EC-121.[iv]
[i] USS Pueblo Organization, http://www.usspueblo.org/Prisoners/Negotiations.html, last accessed 11/15/2018.
[ii] USS Pueblo Organization, http://www.usspueblo.org/Prisoners/Negotiations.html, last accessed 11/15/2018.
[iii] Station HYPO, USS Pueblo – An Odyssey of Captivity, By Captain Ron Samuelson, USN, (Retired), https://stationhypo.com/2018/01/29/uss-pueblo-an-odyssey-of-captivity-part-7-of-7/#more-9265, last accessed 11/18/2018.
[iv] Steeljawscribe,com, http://steeljawscribe.com/2009/04/14/this-date-naval-aviation-history-deep-sea-129, last accessed 11/18/18.
© 2018 Robert Sacchi