The US representative for Florida’s 17th congressional district, Rep. Steube Gregory, introduced a resolution last week that calls for the return of the USS Pueblo seized by North Korea on January 23, 1968.
The House “maintains North Korea’s seizure of the vessel USS Pueblo and its detention of the crew were in violation of international law,” says the resolution.
The resolution also adds the House “declares that USS Pueblo is the property of the United States government and should be returned to the United States.”
On January 21, North Korea’s official newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that Pyongyang would wipe out “not only a port or an airfield of a warmonger or invader but their entire land if a second USS Pueblo enters our territorial waters again.”
The USS Pueblo and its 83 crew members were detained during an intelligence gathering mission in the East Sea for Naval Intelligence and the National Security Agency. It was posing as an environmental research vessel when it sailed into international waters off North Korea’s eastern coast.
The proposed resolution argues the ship had “strict orders to remain at all times at a distance more than 13 nautical miles from the near point in North Korean territory, to avoid any possible incident.”
“The United States has no reason to believe the orders were not obeyed,” adding the ship was carrying three 50-caliber machine guns at the time of its seizure but that not a single shot had been fired.
One of the crewmembers, Fireman Duane Hodges, died on the day when North Korea seized the Pueblo. His body and the other 82 crew members were returned to the US in December 1968 after an 11-month detention in the North.
The crew and their families had lodged a damage suit against North Korea in 2018 for the “mental and physical abuse” they were subjected to during their detention.
Also, a US federal district court ruled against North Korea in 2021, ordering it to pay over $2 billion or a minimum of $3.35 million to compensate each of the crewmembers detained.
America Oblivious To North Korea’s Plans
It was the height of the Cold War, and the US was already engaged in Vietnam War. A few thousand miles away, US troops were still fighting a ‘previous’ war on the Korean Peninsula that was believed to have ended in 1953 with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement.
However, North Korea did not think so. Therefore, sporadic engagements between the North and South continued along the DMZ even after the 1953 armistice, and eventually, the North became bold to fire on American soldiers.
With the US military strength heavily invested in Vietnam, North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung wanted to create so much trouble for the US that it would give up protecting South Korea.
Also, only three days before its seizure of the Pueblo, North Korea deployed a team of 31 commandos that snuck into Seoul in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
However, the American military planners at the time seem to have been oblivious to these developments, as they did not expect the Pueblo to have any trouble as long as it kept to international waters, according to experts.
“The Pueblo was a good symbol of America’s Cold War myopia,” according to Korean expert and Ohio State University historian Mitchell Lerner who told NPR that the Pueblo and its 83 crewmembers were sent out there because, “the US 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.’”
Moreover, the Pueblo’s crew had not been informed of the raid carried out by North Korean commandos only days before, in which 26 South Koreans were killed.
Lerner said the Pueblo was a sitting duck armed with a handgun and a pair of .50-caliber machine guns trapped under ice-coated tarps.
“We were an experiment that was deemed, I don’t know whether it would be a failure, but it certainly didn’t work,” recalled Chicca, a retired Marine staff sergeant who was one of the Pueblo’s 83 crew members.
“I got shot in the capture, right there in those flames,” Chicca told NPR, pointing to a wide oil painting that portrays North Korea’s assault on the Pueblo. In the painting, two submarine chasers, four torpedo boats, and two MiG-21 jet fighters can be seen attacking the ship as black smoke emerges from its deck.
A 57mm shell hit Chicca in the groin after tearing through two other crew members, killing one. Pueblo managed to make radio contact with the US forces in South Korea during the standoff with the North Korean gunboats, which lasted for nearly three hours.
“The last conversations we got over the radio were that help was on the way, and it obviously wasn’t,” Chicca recalled. “I could not believe we would be abandoned the way we were.”
An overflight by a squadron of F-4 Phantom jet fighter bombers was promised, but it never happened. The US officials would later explain that the aircraft, which was meant to respond to any nuclear strike the Soviet Union might carry out, was armed with nuclear rather than conventional bombs.
In the end, the Pueblo’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, gave up the ship, something only a few other US Navy captains have done.
“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.”
Washington Was Surprised
The brazen seizure of the Pueblo caught Washington off guard! “What’s your speculation on what happened?” US President Lyndon Johnson asked in a phone call to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara the following day.
“Mr. President, I honestly don’t know,” McNamara replied.
“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?” he said.
Multiple options were considered, including a naval blockade of the North Korean harbor of Wonsan, where the captured Pueblo was moored but heavily fortified and considered risky.
Apart from that, seizing North Koreans on the high seas was also proposed but dismissed based on the assumption that Pyongyang would care little about hostages. The use of tactical nuclear weapons was briefly discussed, then rejected.
Ultimately, President Johnson resorted to a symbolic display of force as part of which 350 US warplanes were deployed to US bases in South Korea, and Army reserve units were called up in the US. Also, USS Enterprise, together with two other aircraft carriers and 25 warships, was dispatched to the Sea of Japan.
However, some in the US were unsatisfied with the administration’s response. They sent telegrams to the White House calling President Johnson a “coward” and saying “the American emblem should be changed from an eagle to a chicken,” according to Jack Cheevers, the author of Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo.
Nevertheless, the fact was that the US did not have much appetite for another war.
“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,” Cheevers explained, “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 US decided to pursue a diplomatic solution, and talks with North Korea commenced at the Panmunjom truce village along the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas.
Torture Of US Crewmembers
Meanwhile, crewmembers of Pueblo were being brutally tortured as Pyongyang wanted them to confess to violating North Korea’s territorial waters. However, the crewmembers resisted saying it never occurred.
“You’re talking to the navigator – at all times, we were in international waters,” said the Pueblo’s former executive officer, retired Lt. Eddie Murphy. “We never violated the twelve-mile limit, never penetrated the twelve-mile limit.”
“My ear lobe on the right side was just hanging by a small part of the skin,” Murphy said of a torture session where his head was beaten with rifle butts.
“My room was right next to the torture room,” Murphy continued, “and I heard every blow that every one of the sailors got, and some of those sessions still flashback in my head.”
“We got terrible beatings,” said Tuck, one of Pueblo’s two civilian hydrographers. “Head beatings, rifle butts, and broomsticks – I had two chairs broken over my head.”
North Korea got the confession it sought when Pueblo’s skipper Bucher finally declared, “We intruded into the territorial waters of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and committed hostile acts.” He only did that after being told that if he did not confess, his crew members would be executed, one by one.
Sailors Released, The Ship Remains In Captivity
Finally, the talks between the US and North Korea at the Panmunjom talks bore fruit after the top US negotiator, US Army Maj. Gen. Gilbert Woodward agreed to sign a document known as the three A’s: that admitted wrongdoing, apologized for it, and assured it would never happen again.
On December 23, 1968, precisely 11 months following the Pueblo’s seizure, the 81 crew members were repatriated with the US. They walked from North Korea over the Bridge of No Return at Panmunjom to South Korea, and from they were flown to a Christmas Eve heroes’ homecoming in San Diego.
However, the USS Pueblo remained in North Korean captivity, along with ten encryption machines and thousands of top-secret documents seized from the ship.
Today the USS Pueblo, moored along the Taedong River in Pyongyang, is on display as part of North Korea’s Victorious War Museum.
Visitors now tour the ship and are shown a video featuring a narrator who triumphantly proclaims, “The US imperialists went down on their knees again before the independent army and people of Korea and signed the instrument of surrender.”
Originally a World War II vintage cargo hauler, the USS Pueblo is still commissioned as an active ship in the US Navy.