USS Pueblo, Part II
After the capture of the USS Pueblo the North Koreans released
a purported confession from Captain Bucher which the Pentagon
branded a fabrication, flatly denying that the ship had
encroached on the North''s territorial waters.
President Johnson, provoked and exasperated, restrained himself
despite a public outcry for quick military retaliation. He
responded by calling to active duty 15,000 air force and naval
reserves as well as ordering the aircraft carrier Enterprise to
assume a station off the coast of South Korea. LBJ''s desire was
to give the impression that despite the war in Vietnam, he
continued to exercise freedom of military action.
A week after the seizure of the Pueblo, the Vietcong launched
the Tet offensive with every vital city and provincial capital in
South Vietnam coming under assault. LBJ''s attentions were
quickly diverted from the Pueblo crisis to more pressing matters.
While military sources acknowledged that the Pueblo was a "spy
ship," it had been under orders to move off rather than fire its
guns. This backed up those who claimed that Bucher''s surrender
was in contradiction to Navy tradition. The U.S. took the case to
the U.N. Security Council but the Council failed to act.
Presidential candidate Richard Nixon called the Pueblo incident
"an incredible blunder" by the Johnson administration for having
failed to provide adequate protection for the ship. But Nixon did
counsel firm diplomacy rather than rash action.
The State Department issued the following statement on
"The North Korean action is not only against all principles of
international law, but is against international practice and past
experience involving this type of ship. Since naval vessels enjoy
sovereign immunity on the high seas, the United States does not
provide protective escort for these ships, nor do other powers
also operating intelligence collection vessels.
[On the issue of why the U.S. didn''t attack the Koreans when it
was known the Pueblo was being seized, the State Department
said the following]
"There were no naval forces which could have reached the area
in time. Aircraft could have done so, but in addition to not
wanting to endanger the safety of the crew of the Pueblo the field
commanders had to consider the likelihood that the North
Koreans would be able to put up a sizeable defense force."
The State Department proceeded to spell out that the seizure was
part of a pattern...
"The North Korean campaign culminated in the recent attempt to
assassinate South Korean President Park and in the illegal seizure
of the Pueblo. These incidents may have had some connection
with the Vietnam situation, in that they may be an attempt by the
Communists to divert South Korean and U.S. military resources
which together are resisting the aggression in Vietnam. The
incidents are, moreover, in accord with North Korea''s overall
aggressive posture directed at South Korea and the United
In March, as negotiations for the release of the crew dragged on,
alleged confessions were constantly being presented by the
North. LBJ received a letter reportedly from the crew that stated
"repatriation can be realized only when our government frankly
admits the fact that we intruded into the territorial waters of
North Korea "and committed hostile acts."
In May, Secretary of State Dean Rusk reported to Congress that a
stalemate had been reached in negotiations for the crews release.
By mid-September LBJ (who had announced the previous spring
that he wasn''t running for reelection in the fall) was annoyed that
Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, the Democratic ticket,
were doubting his Vietnam policy. At the same time he had to
deal with reports that his administration was ready to apologize
to the North Koreans over the activities of the Pueblo, in return
for release of the ship and its crew. The State Department flatly
rejected the apology report and made public what it said were
secret orders issued to the Pueblo nearly 3 weeks before its
seizure, instructing the captain to remain at least 13 miles off the
North Korean coast, superseding a 1966 standing order
permitting ships to go as close as three miles. To Johnson''s
continued frustration and embarrassment, the ship and crew
remained in Korean hands.
Finally, on December 23rd, 11 months after the seizure, the crew
of the Pueblo was turned over to American authorities only after
the U.S. first repudiated the North Korean charges that the ship
had intruded illegally into North Korean waters and had engaged
in espionage, then signed a "confession" prepared by the North
Korean regime. Commander Bucher also denied the charges in a
press conference in Panmunjom at the time of his release.
Secretary Rusk called the release arrangements insisted upon by
the North "a strange procedure...If you asked me why these two
contradictory statements proved to be the key to effect the
release of our men," he said, "the North would have to explain
On December 24th, Christmas Eve, the men of Apollo 8 became
the first human beings to orbit the moon.
*For 11 months, the crew of the Pueblo endured beatings, mental
torture and malnourishment at the hands of their captors.
Captain Bucher later received a court-martial for permitting the
North Koreans to board the ship (which remains in North Korean
hands to this day). His intelligence officer also received the
court-martial for having failed to destroy sensitive manuals. A
third officer received a letter of admonition for failing to provide
leadership to the crew, but the Secretary of the Navy, John
Chafee threw out the findings, saying of the three officers:
"They have suffered enough."
One anecdote from a crew member, Don Peppard, perhaps shows
the real attitude of the crew during their time in captivity.
Peppard and fellow sailors made obscene gestures while posing
for a North Korean propaganda photo. When their guards asked
them what the gestures meant, they said it was a Hawaiian good
luck sign. After the picture was published and the meaning of
the gestures discovered, the sailors were severely beaten.
The Pueblo was just one of many historic and chaotic events of
1968, the most tempestuous year of the century. And it''s just
another lesson warning us that we shouldn''t be surprised by
anything the North Koreans pull in the future.
[Chief Sources: Jules Witcover, "The Year The Dream Died."
Also Department of State archives]