1968 was a long year for the United States. Nation altering events cascaded. Where some moments or events would become the mark of a decade, many of these moments stacked on top of one another. Right before the Tet Offensive the United States had managed to find itself in another prickly situation off the coast of North Korea.
The United States took a step forward to disguise a hydrographic AGER vessel (an environmental research ship), the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) which had been adapted for SIGINT Banner-class technical ship with about $1.5 million in intelligence-gathering equipment onboard. It was designed to monitor high frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) and other still classified signals.1 Using the USS Pueblo was seen as a good use of naval material; destroyers were often rejected for such purposes because the navy saw it as a “waste” particularly in the middle of the Vietnam War.2 Perhaps the greatest worry, if one were to worry which the US Navy did not, was a list of deficiencies cited by Commander Bucher who sought to rectify these numerous faults, one of which were that the engines of the Pueblo would frequently break down.
The mission of the Pueblo, loaded with such intelligence material, was to sail from Yokosuka to Sasebo, Japan before heading off the coast of North Korea. Once there it was meant to travel farther to conduct surveillance off the coast of Vladivostock, USSR before heading south along the east coast of North Korea before returning to Japan’s Tsushima Straight.3 The NSA noted that it was meant to be a “general collection effort” to create a database and determine the location of certain emitters.4 In spite of this sensitive mission, the U.S. government did nothing about the known Soviet spy ships disguised as “fishing trawlers” because the Pueblo was meant to be in international waters.5
As the Pueblo got on its way and reached closer to North Korean waters, around midday on 22 January 1968, two North Korean fishing vessels were following the Pueblo and had likely alerted the North Korean military.6 North Korea quickly alerted their radar. An NKN radar station at Kalgoch’ I-Ri at 3 pm began tracking the still unidentified ship, the USS Pueblo while it was moving southwards. A second radar station had picked up the Pueblo two hours later; by the 22nd of the same month North Korea was still monitoring the Pueblo from the coast with, at 6 pm, six Second Fighter Division MiG-17s flew over the bay where the unidentified vessel was traveling.6
The Pueblo meanwhile, as was said, was ill-fated. There were Korean translators aboard but their skills weren’t up to the needs of the job as they’d been assigned at the last minute before the Pueblo had departed Japanese waters.7 This would have serious ramifications once North Korean ships began to show up in the area.
The Pueblo, even though it was a disguised espionage ship, still sported two .50-caliber machine guns, both of which lied in unarmored and unprotected positions. And just like the linguists, the crew weren’t proficient on the weapons because the US expected the USS Pueblo’s main defense to be its position within international waters.8 This is noteworthy because should it come under fire, it would also be necessary to remove the tarp and chip the ice away from the weapons which would take roughly ten minutes of effort before the weapons could become active. The commander, Bucher, had claimed that any sailor who had attempted to man these weapons would be immediately cut down. Aside from this, the Pueblo stored ten Thompson sub-machine guns with about 300 rounds of ammunition along with 50 anti-swimmer concussion grenades which were stored below decks.9 Essentially, the USS Pueblo would be indefensible should it come under attack even if they were able to access and properly use their weapons.
On 23 January 1968 just outside of North Korean territorial waters the Pueblo was confronted by four North Korean P-4 motor torpedo boats, two modified S.O.1 submarine chasers and two MiG-21 fighters flying 1500 feet overhead which had fired rockets into the sea to intimidate the Pueblo.10 Due to the Pueblo’s position and mission, Bucher was also unaware that two days prior North Korea had attempted to assassinate the South Korean leader in the Blue House raid which had likely put his ship at additional, yet unknown, risk.
There was immense confusion aboard the Pueblo. Just before 11 am Lieutenant Steve Harris who was a Russian-speaking Harvard graduate posted a destruct bill on the door of SIGINT spaces to destroy classified documents and machines. By noon the crew had been warned that the first North Korean vessel was seen eight miles away and was approaching the Pueblo.11 The problem of destroying classified material was exacerbated because the Pueblo didn’t have a rapid way to destroy classified documents in spite of the numerous sensitive data aboard. The navy hadn’t even bothered to install an incinerator yet the Pueblo had one because Bucher had used money from the ship’s MWR to fund and buy one yet this incinerator was small and was unable to burn many papers quickly.12The Pueblo’s deficiencies continued; in order to talk with Lieutenant Harris, each order had to be repeated by whoever held the phone in the pilothouse, exacerbating the issues with time and confusion.13
As the foreign ships neared, Bucher did his best to hide the fact that his was an intelligence gathering ship. Knowing that there shouldn’t be more than roughly thirty people aboard a real oceanographic research vessel, he ordered everyone not preoccupied with business topside to hide below decks.14 Soon the subchasers neared the Pueblo where nearly a dozen North Koreans in green uniforms sporting automatic rifles were seen. The observation was conducted through the gun sight of twin 57-mm cannons as the North Koreans lowered their initial flag and raised: HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE.15 The Pueblo was stationary at this time.
By 1:15 pm the MiGs showed up for a single pass while Bucher ordered the preparation for destruction of classified material. In a message to Bucher, in an attempt to stall for time and escape the situation peaceably, the Pueblo responded: THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION. I AM DEPARTING THE AREA.16
Just after 2 pm the Pueblo was beginning its second transmission to the Fifth Air Force to find out what had happened to their calls for assistance at about 12:30 pm. Wilson, who was aboard the Pueblo, was told that no aid could arrive for at least three hours. By 2:30 pm the Fifth Air Force contacted Yokosuka noting that there wasn’t a single aircraft on alert; the Fifth Air Force estimated that there would be another two to three hour delay in launching the aircraft.17
Back aboard the Pueblo, Bucher attempted further evasion tactics by adjusting the ship. The sub chaser immediately opened fire on the American ship from a 57-mm cannon. Bucher, and everyone aboard, threw themselves to the deck; Bucher felt pieces of shrapnel lacerating his lower extremities. A second volley immediately followed.18 The entire episode had only lasted a recorded five or six seconds and while the pilothouse had been badly damaged, there hadn’t been any fatalities.
At this point Murphy, also aboard the Pueblo, was trying to communicate with Japan. However, the operator of Japan repeated, “Stand by to change frequencies.”19 It was unfortunate timing as Japan was in the middle of their twice-daily frequency changes and the operator wouldn’t stop talking long enough to hear what the Pueblo needed to say.
After the firing Bucher had finally given the official order to begin destroying classified “pubs and gear.” Since installing adequate communication wasn’t a priority on the Pueblo, the message had to be passed along as there wasn’t a loudspeaker nor portholes in the SIGINT area. Harris was left out of the immediate loop.20 Admiral Epes, who wasn’t out of the loop and was receiving messages, had decided by 3 pm that it would be pointless to send aircraft to aid the Pueblo as the Pueblo was likely to be in North Korean waters by the minimum hour and a half to three hours it would take for the aircraft to be made ready and arrive at the Pueblo’s current site.21 Even the hour and a half readiness was likely too soon as it would require the flight crew to already know their mission and have their materials currently ready. Osan was also out of the question. Some information has since became available but there is still redacted information; what is known is that Lieutenant General McKee was trying to aid the Pueblo; four F-4 aircraft were on strategic alert but they could only be loaded with 3,000-pound bombs as it was the only equipment available. Likewise the F-I05s at Yokota, Japan would not be able to reach Wonson before dark.22 McKee was authorized by General Ryan to attack the North Korean ships near the Pueblo but only if they were outside of the three-mile nautical limit and the F-4s were not permitted to be sent unless they were armed against possible MiGs which were assumed to be around the Pueblo.
Schmacher, aboard the Pueblo, asked Bucher if he wanted him to try for the machine guns. Bucher rejected the idea. While he had wanted to announce for men to man their battle stations, there weren’t any aside from the machine guns on deck which would’ve exposed any man who had made the attempt. Reportedly, it would’ve been almost certain death.23 And the North Koreans would fire multiple times upon the largely defenseless ship.
The Pueblo was still attempting slow evasive maneuvers as the North Koreans rattled their machine guns again. This time the pilothouse was targeted further with all the glass finally being shot out of the window. Tim Harris’ left ear was buzzed and another zipped by Gene Lacy’s head. Lacy then yelled at Bucher, “Are you going to stop this son-of-a-bitch or not?” When Bucher didn’t react, Lacy reached forward and yanked the annunciator to All Stop.24 The engineers replied with answering bells which slowed the speed of the Pueblo from the previous 12-knot speed. Bucher didn’t say anything as seconds passed nor did he push the annunciator back to All Ahead Full. Instead, he walked to the starboard wing of the bridge. As a reply, the North Koreans stopped firing.
Meanwhile the destruction of classified materials was going very slowly. There were two paper shredders which could go through eight inches of paper every fifteen minutes which then the shredded paper had to be burned. At the same time, the NSA reported – although they do leave out that Bucher brought aboard the incinerator on his own and don’t mention that one hadn’t been installed – that the incinerator had a three pound limit and that it’d still lose sheets of paper.25 The documents were numerous. The CIA reports that there were “…more than 500 documents or pieces of equipment, including 58 technical SIGINT instructions, 37 technical manuals, 33 COMINT technical reports and 126 collection requirements. Additionally the Pueblo had copied about 8,000 messages containing SIGINT data transmitted over the fleet operational intelligence broadcast…” which included plenty of information on Southeast Asia and China along with US effectiveness of US collection efforts. The CIA added, “The Pueblo also used four cryptographic systems, associated keying materials, maintenance manuals, operating instructions, and the general communications-security publications necessary to support a cryptographic operation.”26
Further efforts to destroy the material was made. Lieutenant Stephen Harris mentioned the, “…great deal of confusion. The plan for shallow water destruction entailed making various fires in whatever was available, mostly wastebaskets…”27 At the same time, the Pueblo was still in “pretend” mode where, at this point, they were still supposed to be an oceanographic ship.
As there wasn’t a way for the smoke under decks to escape, the smoke continued to build while the documents burned. Aside from that, sailors also attempted to break a radio console with a sledgehammer, causing the handle of the sledgehammer to break. Others soon grabbed other hammers and fire axes to hack at the console with minimal results. With the effort of these few men, however, the radio console had eventually been suitably destroyed.28 It was clear between the papers and other sensitive material aboard that not everything would be able to be destroyed before the Pueblo was either boarded or sunk. But it was being led toward North Korean waters.
Bucher made a decision, wanting to know what would happen if he ordered a Full Stop. He soon received his reply as the North Korean SO-1 dropped back before firing back into the center of the ship on the starboard side. After the quick fire a full minute passed before Bucher ordered the Pueblo “Ahead One-Third”29 back toward North Korean waters. Three casualties were immediately called out with one critical. Lieutenant Murphy, who was the ship’s medical officer, had to run to his office to get the drugs where they were stored. All three men who’d been hit were burning papers from the cryptographic safe. The most graphic injury was from Fireman Duane Hodges who’d been shot in the groin which had ripped his intestines and partially severed his right leg.30
McClaren had taken over on the teletype, trying to contact Japan, “ARE YOU SENDING ASSISTANCE?” The Pueblo was still blind.31 Kamiseya, or Japan, replied, “WORD HAS GONE TO ALL AUTHORITIES. COMNAV FOR JAPAN IS REQUESTING ASSIT. WHAT KEY LISTS DO YOU HAVE LEFT? LAST WE GOT FROM YOU WAS ‘ARE YOU SENDING ASSIT?'”32
Bucher then ran out onto the port wing waving a white stocking cap, yelling, “Stop firing, you bastards!” Lieutenant Murphy, who was also continuing to destroy more classified papers had seen the commander and realized that Bucher was going to give up the ship.33 Meanwhile, below decks, Bailey, who resumed his activities at the teletype, told Kamiseya that “several” pubs would be compromised. Kamiseya asked for a list of what had yet to be destroyed. At 2:32 Baily told Kamiseya, “HAVE BEEN DIRECTED TO COME TO ALL STOP AND BEING BOARDED AT THIS TIME.” Kamiseya replied, “ROGER YOUR LAST. IT ON WAY TO CNFJ.” Baily answered, “…MEN INJURED AND ONE CRITICAL AND GOING OFF THE AIR NOW AND DESTROYING THIS GEAR.” Kamiseya sent an acknowledgment at 2:35 pm along with, “ROGER, GO AHEAD. CAN YOU TRANSMIT IN THE CLEAR?” There would be no further reply from the Pueblo.34
The next day the North Koreans claimed they had a confession from Commander Bucher who stated his assignment, adding, “My ship had conducted espionage activities on a number of occasions for the purpose of detecting the territorial waters of the Socialist countries. Through such espionage activities, my ship detected the military installations set up along the coasts of Socialist countries and submitted the materials to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.”35 It is interesting to note how vague the confession was in some parts yet also intensely accurate when compared against the Pueblo’s actual orders. While it’s likely to have been coerced in some way it does seem Bucher did offer at least some specifics.
It is noted that Bucher was separated from the others once they arrived in Pyongyang. The crew were apparently threatened with death which may have been another reason for the confession and signs of the coercion. Some of the crewmen were also severely beaten.36 The officers were given their own rooms while the enlisted were tossed together eight to a space. The physical abuses the men suffered came from fists or kicks to the head or the ground or forcing crew members forced to squat with an inch square stick behind their knees until they’d lose consciousness. Attempted brainwashing was predictably added.37 By December 19, after many months in captivity, the crew was suddenly released and sent to South Korea.
The global heat in the area was rising. Not only had the Pueblo been raided with the North Koreans attempting to assassinate the South Korean president two days before, but soon thereafter President Pak of South Korea contacted the cabinet and party leaders to “prepare measures to counter and root out once and for all such atrocious activities.”38 The UN had prohibited such actions but North Korea had been quite active the previous few days.
The reasons for North Korean doing what it did in taking the Pueblo and later shooting down the EC-121 left everyone wondering about the North Korean aim. There were questions about placing more attention on North Korea, to distract North Koreans from the failing economy, to distract the United States from upcoming Tet in Vietnam or simply recklessness. The State Department in 1968 noted, “North Korea is the most denied of denied areas and the most difficult of all intelligence targets.”39
The Soviets weren’t even entirely sure of what North Korea was thinking. Throughout the 1950s North Korea slowly drifted away from the Soviet sphere and lapsed into the Chinese. Part of this was due to the change of leadership in Khrushchev who didn’t expect an outright war with the United States and her allies. The unlikelihood of direct war between the USSR and the USA meant that North Korea wasn’t nearly as important and China was allowed to move into the Soviet vacuum. By 1968 Khruschev had been out and replaced, essentially by the new face, Brezhnev who at one point claimed that he “never had anything to do with this damn foreign policy.”40 And so his goals, while similar in some ways, would also be different.
But the event didn’t simply end here. The Soviets soon piqued their interest and the Americans wanted their ship returned. Both Democrats and Republicans were furious over the incident. Democrat Senator Strom Thurman of South Carolina said, “There should be no doubt that the United States will fight if necessary to obtain the immediate release of this ship and all of its personnel.”41 Less than a few weeks later Republican Representative William Bray spoke, “The Soviet Union and North Korea are certainly working together now to make the whole incident as humiliating and difficult for the United States as they possibly can.”42 The Republican then called for the release of more information, accusing the Johnson administration of hiding military preparedness information from the public at the time.
The Untied States soon sent its own task force to the area. Most notably for a series of unfortunate events would be the USS Swordfish, a nuclear-powered submarine. While conducting covert surveillance near Vladivostock, the Swordfish struck a block of ice and had to return to Yokosuka, Japan for repairs. Upon seeing the photo in a Japanese newspaper, the Soviets incorrectly43 stated that the damage was caused by a collision with the Soviet nuclear-armed submarine, K-129. It isn’t an unreasonable assumption as the 7th Fleet would have a total of six submarines in the Sea of Japan and near the Japanese coast but time would prove the Soviets wrong in this regard. Due to the accusations, tensions heightened within the Soviet Pacific Fleet commanded by Admiral Nikolay Amel’ko raised full combat readiness. All Soviet first-line nuclear submarines of the 26th Division settled in their positions. Captain Aleksandr Samokhvalov (Ret.) who was a veteran submariner said the Sea of Japan literally “boiled” from all the warships in the area. He added that, “…the world stood on the brink of thermonuclear war.”44 The USS Pueblo had turned into a flash point within a flash point. Some believe that the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), a Skipjack-class fast attack submarine, was later sunk by the Soviets in retaliation for the supposed attack on the K-129.45
The Americans were ready to respond beyond a few submarines. One of the lead ships was the Truxtun which, upon hearing of the Pueblo, immediately turned 180 as a missive came over the 1MC, where Radarman Third Class John L. Perry repeated the message that they, “…told us that US ship had been captured by the North Koreans and we were going to assist, if possible.”46 The task force, which included the aircraft carrier Enterprise, began to run northward at roughly 33 knots, however, the Truxtun was much faster than the other ships as it was nuclear-powered and it led the way. And while the Truxtuon would be first, it would be ineffective on its own whether either sinking or aiding the USS Pueblo.
After the initial USS Pueblo incident, there were roughly thirty ships and three carrier groups in the area. The Truxtun and the Enterprise took up a position in the Yellow Sea. The Truxtun was prepared for war, as cited by Perry, with U.S. aircraft carriers on both sides of the Korean peninsula aided by the Air Force bases in the south.47
As the navy sat in wait for World War III to happen for multiple reasons within a few days, the US President, Lyndon Johnson, was trying to gather more information. Showing a bit of naivete he asked during his foreign affairs luncheon at the White House if it was “…typical of the Soviets to be so firm on a thing like this.” To this, his Secretary of State answered, “The Soviets will say something knowing the facts to be to the contrary.”48 Johnson expressed his worry that the United States was in the wrong, adding, as if to deflect potential blame, “This officer [Commander Lloyd M Bucher] doesn’t look like the normal, prudent, alert officer I would have handle Air Force One if it were on alert.”49 Naturally, Johnson immediately looked for scapegoats.
It didn’t take long before the Soviets and the Americans began talking to one another on the issue. On 3 February 1968, Brezhnev sent off a letter which he described as a demand that Americans stop amassing ships in the area. Brezhnev described the letter as a virtual ultimatum while Ambassador Thompson claimed the letter was “relatively mild.” Considering Brezhnev’s own foreign policy admitted weakness, it would be safe to accept Thompson’s word over Brezhnev’s. In turn, Johnson sent a reply days later agreeing to send the vessels “somewhat southward.”50 Brezhnev noted the agreement as American capitulation in his conference before the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.
Aside from the Koreas, the Soviet Union and the United States, Japan had also been involved. In more recently released material through the NSA, the Japanese believed that the United States had “suffered a loss in prestige” and that there were “questions concerning U.S. capabilities in the pacific.”51 The United States had received threats from the Soviet Union, had their ship taken, the President of South Korea was threatening retaliation of some sort and the Japanese were beginning to worry about US power and prestige which was showing US capabilities, or inability, in the Sea of Japan.
The confusion within the White House was incredible. There were still considerations that the Soviets were directly involved somehow and Johnson speculated that, “he would not be surprised if something happened in Berlin to coincide with what is going on in Vietnam and in Korea.” McNamara doubled down claiming it was “clear” the Soviets were in charge.52 But the Americans seemed to have it wrong.
Within the Soviet sphere, there was a noted complaint to the North Korean Ambassador that the Soviet Union had only learned about the USS Pueblo incident through the press.53 Furthermore, over time by April, Brezhenv who had claimed to be in such control besting the Americans, was complaining about not receiving any information from the American-North Korean talks at Panmunjom about the Pueblo. In the end, the Americans were the ones to provide transcripts to the Soviets; Brezhnev, in this instance, received nothing from the North Koreans.54
In spite of Brezhnev’s bravado in front of his own political countrymen, he was nervous about what the North Koreans were trying do. He had concerns that the North Koreans were trying “to bind the Soviet Union somehow, using the existence of the treaty between the USSR and DPRK…”55 The treaty, signed in 1961 in Article 1 stated that “The Contracting Parties declare that they will continue to participate in all international action designed to safeguard peace and security in the Far East.” Later in the same article came the charge that if one party were attacked, the other nation would immediately provide proper defense. In spite of what Brezhnev wanted to claim, in stating that if North Korea had instigated the attack on the USS Pueblo that that absolved this treaty, the treaty does not state whether the signer is an aggressor or defender. However, North Korea also broke the treaty before such questions would’ve come under consideration, as Article 3 states that both parties would work together on “all important international questions.” As North Korea was not supplying information to the Soviet Union, it further muddied the waters if the Soviet Union would provide appropriate aid.
Whether or not the Koreans sent transcripts or included the Soviets in their discussions isn’t all important when one considers the incredible favor the North Koreans did for the Soviets, perhaps in part to remain in their good graces. It had been reported, even as soon as President Johnson’s luncheon when he was questioning what was going on with the USS Pueblo that 792 pounds of cargo were loaded up from the USS Pueblo and put on a cargo plane heading toward the Soviet Union.56
A few days had passed before Johnson was trying to pass the blame. In an interview with Time magazine, Johnson spoke ignorantly when stating, “Three or four things could be true. Bucher could be a traitor. I do not think that this is true. He could be doped up.”57 Johnson knew very little of Bucher, perhaps even only his name and a few minor events. It is likely to say that Johnson knew even less than what this paper provides at that point and time yet he was willing to destroy a man’s career by putting it into the press that Bucher was a traitor, on drugs, or some other mysterious issue.
Despite what Johnson’s presumed view of Bucher was or how anyone perceived him, the American public were more than ready to get the Pueblo and those men returned. Within the first week of the knowledge becoming public to the American people, after the first week on February 9, 1968, the White House received 1002 letters talking about the Pueblo with 73% of them in favor of military action against North Korea. This number died down the following week to a receipt of 876 letters yet with the percentage demanding war going up to 81%.58
North Korea was playing a dangerous game. While it did seem to have Soviet backing against the Americans, behind closed doors Brezhnev warned Kim Ch’ang-bong that the treaty in place was only “defensive” and that the Soviets would not stand for a North Korean attack against South Korea.59 As confused as the Americans had seemed on the outside, on the inside the Soviets seemed just as confused. They certainly seemed prepared to defend North Korea against a potential attack but the talks behind the scenes seemed to belie that North Korea, if attacked, may be on its own if it continued to take further action without the inclusion of the Soviets.
The rest of the world split itself down between predictable lines. Whether right or wrong, North Korea was receiving a large part of the blame; Esmat Naguib from Egypt believed North Korea’s capture of the Pueblo and the attempted assassination attempt of the President of South Korea was to, “…effectively and directly help the North Vietnamese people with the consent of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.” The Libyan Foreign Minister al-Arabi spoke with the US and said the US side had been “reasonable” and that “..the word ‘Pueblo’ had now entered the Libyan vocabulary to describe a card player who was ‘sneaky.'”60 India cried out about US Imperialism attempting to “convert North Korea into a colony.”61 At this point in time, Egypt, Libya, and certainly India didn’t have enough information to comment on any of the facts, yet, there they were.
There remained questions of who was at fault. Had the United States traveled into North Korean waters or had North Korea attacked a vessel within the international sphere? Major General Gilbert H Woodward seemed to cool the North Korean mind when he decided to accept blame on behalf of the United States along with assurances that such acts wouldn’t be repeated in the future. After the Pueblo sailors had been released, Woodward admitted that he signed the document only to secure the crew’s release, rejecting the integrity of his words.62
Later, it was confirmed by the ship’s executive officers, such as Lt. Edward R. Murphy, that the ship’s first “target” was Vladivostock before doubling down the North Korean coast. The last part of the mission, which never occurred, was to work within the Tsushima Strait to understand the Soviet presence in the area since 1966.63 The secondary mission was to see how the KORCOM (Korean Communists) and the Soviets would respond to an intelligence vessel working so close to their borders and to report any deployments indicating pending hostilities against the United States.64
The NSA reported that the intelligence loss had been catastrophic. The CTs, communications technicians, aboard the Pueblo had been harshly interrogated on the principles of the cryptographic equipment, equipment operating procedures and the relationship for he associated keying materials to the equipment. Some of these interrogation sessions numbered 20 times over many hours.65 More than one CT gave up information about how to change codes, how to operate KW-7 encrypted teletypes and even drew schematics of the KWR-37 which was used to copy the enciphered flee broadcast. However, with the materials the North Koreans and Soviets had already taken, this only saved them roughly three to six months worth of research, according to the NSA.66 The NSA further admitted in the same publication that the USS Pueblo compromised, “the full extent of the US SIGINT information on North Korean armed forces communications activities and US successes in the techniques of collection, exploitation, and reporting applied to this target.”
But then came the question of what to do with Bucher now that the sailors had been freed? There was the distinct question of why the ship had been given up without a defensive shot fired. As noted, Johnson was looking for a scapegoat and the NSA and the Navy also didn’t want their failures to become even more public. Even though duplicated files had been shoved aboard the USS Pueblo at the last minute and for no reason, and the Pueblo wasn’t given enough material to destroy documents in any reasonable amount of time and that Bucher had to purchase his own incinerator, the Navy was looking directly to punish Bucher even though the Pueblo was not defensible, particularly noting its guns on deck which would’ve been suicide should anyone had actually tried to reach them.
Anti-navy sentiment rose. Not just Bucher but other members of the Pueblo were selected for punishment of some sort. The media picked up on Johnson’s message, calling him “wan and thin” and speaking in “a choked voice” while describing him as “powerless” in front of questioning admirals.67 But it didn’t matter. The public wasn’t taking the bait. Editorials for Bucher and the selected showed up in favor of Bucher. The navy continued to add to the fire by rejecting requests for transcripts of the court in inquiry to newspapers across the country.68 Now that the North Koreans were no longer in the news, this same fervor turned to the navy that had hung its sailors out to dry. The NSA seemed to be letting the navy take the brunt of the blame at this point.
At the same time, Americans believed, mostly correct, that Bucher was being made as a scapegoat. Courtmartials were set up for him with a court of inquiry voting 3-2 in favor of courts-martial.69 By this point, the Tet offensive had already been conducted and the media reported poorly upon it. Americans were tiring of the Vietnam War and wanted to get away from the Far East and the military wasn’t doing itself any favors by blaming someone else.
To fix the issue of public perception the new Secretary of the Navy, John H. Chafee noted the recommendations of the court stating that he wasn’t going to pass judgment and decided that there wouldn’t be any disciplinary action for any crew since they’d suffered torture and deprivation by the North Koreans.70 However, looking at the upper echelon of the Navy or the NSA for leaving Bucher and his ship unprepared never went any further.
But was Bucher, and by definition the United States and the USS Pueblo in the wrong? Had they in fact crossed into North Korean waters? While the NSA still denies such things even in newly released information, Naenara of the DPRK claims the USS Pueblo and the ship left the Sasebo Port in Japan in December 1967 and then proceeded to cross the DPRK territorial waters “several times.”71 Bucher was responsible only to the point that he was running the USS Pueblo. Likewise, the US Navy and the NSA should’ve had punishments handed out throughout for those in Japan and higher positions for leaving the Pueblo defenseless and without adequate means of destroying potential, very sensitive documents. Additionally, loading on new personnel additions at the last minute who were not yet ready for their mission is also a negligence of duty of which has not yet been acknowledged. While Bucher is definitely responsible, and perhaps, a few others aboard his ship, he is no more responsible than those who orchestrated and designed the mission. But the attack does seem to have definitely occurred within international waters.
At this, the crew’s cost was severe. While there was only one death aboard the ship during the attack, (and a death almost immediately after the sailors’ release) what the American sailors suffered afterward were severe. A psychiatric diagnosis of the time revealed 22 had received psychological trauma: 1 Depressive Neurosis, 1 Obsessive compulsive neurosis, 1 paranoid personality, 5 situation anxiety, 4 passive dependent personality, 3 passive aggressive personality, 2 schizoid personality, 1 chronic anxiety and 4 developed reactive depression.72 While the one death is tragic, many more suffered beyond this point due to the treatment from the North Koreans and, as far as North Korea may be concerned, they could easily add on 22 more casualties which would drain the US military of its strength.
While the crew had been released eleven months after their capture, the USS Pueblo sits impounded in Pyongyang today. It remains as a war museum and can be used to commemorate “Victory Day” within North Korea. Since that time there have been efforts to punish or attempt to recover the Pueblo which is one reason why it has never been decommissioned by the US Government.
Pushed forward by three Republicans and updated within 2021, a bill lies in waiting citing that North Korea had violated international law and must return the USS Pueblo to the United States.73 And a recent attempt to sue North Korea on behalf of the sailors had been successful in the United States for $2.3 billion. Business Wire notes: “The case was filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act’s terrorism exception. This exception allows victims to sue a state sponsor of terrorism for torture, hostage-taking, personal injury or death resulting from its actions or its material support for such actions. The Trump Administration re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism on November 20, 2017, shortly after Trump’s 2017 visit to South Korea and a speech to its Parliament in which he highlighted the USS Pueblo incident as part of North Korea’s history of terrorist acts.”74
The USS Pueblo continues to be an ongoing struggle and a sore eye for the United States. The Pueblo, sitting tall in Pyongyang remains a fixture of the area. The documents and information stolen and tortured men meant the NSA and the United States had lost plenty of intelligence and prestige. It was a point in history which could’ve very well led to another World War moment but giving some credit to Johnson, pulled back and deescalated the situation. While it never should’ve been as great of a problem as it turned out to be due to the mismanagement by the NSA and the US Navy, the dangerous results were minimal compared to what they potentially could have been.
1 Streifer & Irek p 129
3 Streifer & Irek p 130
4 Mobley p 4
5 Streifer & Irek p 137
6 Mobley p 7
7 Mobley p 7
11 Streifer, Bill
13 Streifer p 128
14 ibid. p 129
15 ibid. p 129
16 ibid. p 131
17 Citeseer p 76
18 Streifer p 131
19 ibid. p 131
20 ibid. p 132
21 Citeseer p 77
22 ibid. p 79
23 Streifer p 132
24 ibid. p 133
25 ibid. p 133
26 Mobley p 5
27 Streifer p 127
28 ibid. p 133
29 ibid. p 134
30 ibid. p 134
31 ibid. p134
32 ibid. p 134
33 ibid. p 135
34 ibid. p 135
35 Streifer and Irek pp 129-30
36 Spaulting p 3
37 ibid. p 4
38 Weekly Summary p 7
39 Mobley p 3
40 Radchenko p 4
41 Duermeyer p 95
42 ibid. p 98
44 ibid. pp 44-5
45 ibid. p 53
46 Streifer & Irek p 133
47 ibid. p 133
48 ibid. p 131
49 ibid. p 131
50 ibid. p 138
51 ibid. p 131
52 Radchenko p 13
53 ibid. p 13-4
54 ibid. p 14
55 ibid. p 15
56 Duermeyer p 75
57 ibid. p 88
58 ibid. pp 88-9
59 ibid. p 17-8
62 Streifer and Irek p 131
63 ibid. p 134
64 ibid. p 134
65 Mobley p 5
66 ibid. p 5
67 Duermeyer p 91
68 ibid. p 91
72 Spaulting p 12
74 Business Wire
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