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Cold War: USS Pueblo Incident

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Cold War: USS Pueblo Incident

USS Pueblo

Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy History & Heritage Command

USS Pueblo Incident - Background:

Constructed by the Kewaunee Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of Wisconsin during World War II, FP-344 was commissioned April 7, 1945. Serving as a freight and supply vessel for the US Army, it was crewed by the US Coast Guard. In 1966, the vessel was transferred to the US Navy and re-named USS Pueblo in reference to the city in Colorado. Redesignated AKL-44, Pueblo initially served a light cargo vessel. Shortly thereafter, it was withdrawn from service and converted to a signals intelligence ship. Given the hull number AGER-2 (Auxiliary General Environmental Research), Pueblo was intended to operate as part of a joint US Navy-National Security Agency program.

USS Pueblo Incident - Mission:

Ordered to Japan, Pueblo arrived at Yokosuka under the command of Commander Lloyd M. Bucher. On January 5, 1968, Bucher shifted his vessel south to Sasebo. With the Vietnam War raging to the south, he received orders to pass through the Tsushima Strait and conduct a signals intelligence mission off the coast of North Korea. While in the Sea of Japan, Pueblo was also to assess Soviet naval activity. Putting to sea on January 11, Pueblo passed through the straits and endeavored to avoid detection. This included maintaining radio silence. Though North Korea claimed a fifty-mile limit for its territorial waters, this was not recognized internationally and Pueblo was directed to operate outside the standard twelve-mile limit.

USS Pueblo - Initial Encounters:

As an added element of safety, Bucher directed his subordinates to maintain Pueblo thirteen miles off the coast. On the evening of January 20, while stationed off Mayang-do, Pueblo was sighted by a North Korean SO-1-class sub chaser. Passing in the twilight at range of around 4,000 yards, the vessel showed no outward interest in the American ship. Departing the area, Bucher sailed south toward Wonsan. Arriving on the morning of January 22, Pueblo commenced operations. Around noon, two North Korean trawlers approached Pueblo. Identified as Rice Paddy 1 and Rice Paddy 2, they were similar in design to Soviet Lentra-class intelligence trawlers. While no signals were exchanged, Bucher understood that his vessel was being observed and ordered a message sent to Rear Admiral Frank Johnson, Commander Naval Forces Japan, stating that his vessel had been discovered. Due to transmission and atmospheric conditions, this was not sent until the next day.

Throughout the trawlers' visual inspection, Pueblo flew the international flag for hydrographic operations. Around 4:00 PM, the trawlers left the area. That night, Pueblo's radar showed eighteen vessels operating in its vicinity. Despite a flare launched around 1:45 AM, none of the North Korean ships attempted to close on Pueblo. As a result, Bucher signaled Johnson that he no longer considered his ship under surveillance and would resume radio silence. As the morning of January 23 progressed, Bucher became annoyed that Pueblo had drifted approximately twenty-five miles off the coast during the night and directed that ship resume its station at thirteen miles.

USS Pueblo Incident - Confrontation:

Reaching the desired position, Pueblo resumed operations. Just before noon, a SO-1-class sub chaser was spotted closing at high speed. Bucher ordered the hydrographic flag hoisted and directed his oceanographers to commence work on deck. The ship's position in international waters was also verified by radar. Nearing to 1,000 yards, the sub chaser demanded to know Pueblo's nationality. Responding, Bucher directed the American flag to be hoisted. Clearly unfooled by the oceanographic work, the sub chaser circled Pueblo and signaled "heave to or I will open fire." At this time, three P4 torpedo boats were spotted approaching the confrontation. As the situation developed, the ships were overflown by two North Korean MiG-21 Fishbed fighters.

Confirming its position as being located nearly sixteen miles from the coast, Pueblo responded to the sub chasers challenge with "I am in International Waters." The torpedo boats soon took up stations around Pueblo. Not wanting to escalate the situation, Bucher did not order general quarters and instead attempted to depart the area. He also signaled Japan to apprise his superiors of the situation. Seeing one of the P4s approaching with a contingent of armed men, Bucher accelerated and maneuvered to prevent them from boarding. Around this time, a fourth P4 arrived on the scene. Though Bucher desired to steer for open sea, the North Korean vessels attempted to force him south towards land.

USS Pueblo Incident - Attack & Capture:

As the P4s circled close to the ship, the sub chaser began closing at high speed. Recognizing an incoming attack, Bucher steered to present as small a target as possible. As the sub chaser opened fire with its 57 mm gun, the P4s began spraying Pueblo with machine gun fire. Aiming for the ship's superstructure, the North Koreans attempted to disable Pueblo rather than sink it. Ordering modified general quarters (no crew on deck), Bucher initiated the process for destroying the classified material aboard. The signals intelligence crew soon found that the incinerator and shredders were insufficient for material at hand. As a result, some material was thrown overboard, while equipment was destroyed with sledgehammers and axes. Having moved into the protection of the pilot house, Bucher was inaccurately informed that the destruction was proceeding well.

In constant contact with the Naval Support Group in Japan, Pueblo informed it of the situation. Though the carrier USS Enterprise was operating approximately 500 miles to the south, its patrolling F-4 Phantom IIs were not equipped for air-to-ground operations. As a result, it would be over ninety minutes until aircraft could arrive. Though Pueblo was equipped with several .50 cal. machine guns, they were in exposed positions and the crew was largely untrained in their use. Closing, the sub chaser began pummeling Pueblo at close range. With little choice, Bucher halted his vessel. Seeing this, the sub chaser signaled "Follow me, I have a pilot aboard." Complying, Pueblo turned and began following while destruction of the classified material continued. Going below and seeing the amount still to be destroyed, Bucher ordered "all stop" to buy some time.

Seeing Pueblo drift to a stop, the sub chaser turned and opened fire. Hitting the ship twice, one round mortally wounded Fireman Duane Hodges. In response, Bucher resumed following at one-third speed. Nearing the twelve-mile limit, the North Koreans closed and boarded Pueblo. Quickly gathering the ship's crew, they placed them on deck blindfolded. Taking control of the ship, they steered for Wonsan and arrived around 7:00 PM. The loss of Pueblo was first capture of US Navy vessel on the high seas since the War of 1812 and saw the North Koreans seize a large amount of classified material. Removed from Pueblo, the ship's crew was transported by bus and train to Pyongyang.

USS Pueblo Incident - Response:

Moved between prisoner camps, the crew of Pueblo were starved and tortured by their captors. In an effort to force Bucher to confess to spying, the North Koreans subjected him to a mock firing squad. Only when threatened with the execution of his men did Bucher consent to write and sign a "confession." Other Pueblo officers were compelled to make similar statements under the same threat.

In Washington, leaders varied in their calls for action. While some argued for an immediate military response, others took a more moderate line and called for talks with the North Koreans. Further complicating the situation was the beginning of the Battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam as well as the Tet Offensive at the end of the month. Concerned that military action would put the crew at risk, President Lyndon B. Johnson began a diplomatic campaign to free the men. In addition to taking the case to the United Nations, the Johnson Administration opened direct talks with North Korea in early February. Meeting in Panmunjom, the North Koreans presented Pueblo's "logs" as proof it had repeatedly violated their territory. Clearly falsified, these showed one position as being thirty-two miles inland and another indicating that the ship had traveled at a speed of 2,500 knots.

In an effort to secure the release of Bucher and his crew, the United States ultimately agreed to apologize for violating North Korean territory, admit that the ship was spying, and assure the North Koreans it would not spy in the future. On December 23, Pueblo's crew was freed and crossed the "Bridge of No Return" into South Korea. Immediately following their safe return, the United States fully retracted its statement of apology, admission, and assurance. Though still in possession of the North Koreans, Pueblo remains a commissioned warship of the US Navy. Held at Wonsan until 1999, it was ultimately moved to Pyongyang.

Selected Sources

  • USS Pueblo (AGER-2)
  • Naval Warfare: USS Pueblo
  • The Pueblo Incident
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