The USS Pueblo Incident

Mitchell Lerner
Professor of History, Ohio State University

November 13, 2002

This presentation will cover a little-known chapter in Cold War history. The USS Pueblo incident received little attention in January, 1968 when it began, and almost 35 years later, during the current nuclear drama on the Korean peninsula, it remains unfamiliar to the American public. Today, well under the US public's radar, US and North Korean officials are currently negotiating the return of the Pueblo, which the communist country seized at gunpoint in international waters in January, 1968. To take a page from David Letterman, this talk will be presented as a top ten list, examining ten things you may not have known about the Pueblo incident.

Quite simply, you may not know the incident happened. It occurred 35 years ago, involving 83 American sailors, of which one was killed and the other 82 imprisoned, tortured and humiliated by their North Korean captors.

The USS Pueblo, initially an Army general purpose supply vessel, was built in 1944. While it was retired in 1954, it was brought back into service in 1966 under Operation Clickbeetle, a joint Naval Intelligence and National Security Agency effort. The operation involved converting cargo ships to spy vessels outfitted with state-of-the art equipment to intercept signals communications. The repairs involved creating a metal room known as the Sod Hut, where technicians would operate the surveillance gear to intercept and gather sonar, radar and other types of signals communications. Clickbeetle was actually inspired by Soviet surveillance operations dating back to the late 1950s.

On January 11, 1968, the Pueblo left Japan for its first mission and set off for the coast of North Korea. For two weeks, it operated relatively quietly outside North Korea. It was later surrounded by North Korean forces. Attempting to flee, the Pueblo was attacked which resulted in the death of one sailor. The spy ship surrendered and the remaining 82 crew members were taken prisoner by the North Koreans.

Number nine on our list: the ship never should have left the port. Suffering from a vast array of technical problems, the Pueblo was barely capable of floating. The steering engine failed 180 times in 3 days. The internal communications were pathetic. The Sod Hut, the most vital and sensitive location on the ship, was not wired to the intercom system. Anyone within the metal room wishing to send or receive messages over the ships intercom had to go outside, even though the procedures required the door to be tripled-locked at all times. The general alarm system operated on the same system as the intercom. Should the alarm sound, the intercom would be rendered useless. External communications were state of the art in theory; however in reality they were atrocious. In essence, the external communications were inefficient and unreliable.

With all the classified equipment and documents on the ship, the crew was unable to destroy them. Axes and sledgehammers proved useless against the metal encased equipment, while the shredders and the incinerator for the documents were also worthless. As a result, documents were to be put in weighted bags and thrown overboard, a futile exercise if the Pueblo operated off an enemy's coast.

Number eight on the countdown: You may not know how badly the intelligence community performed. Operation Clickbeetle missions required a minimal risk environment. The planners' low-risk assessment hinged on the fact that the Pueblo would be operating in international waters. This was the core of the problem. While the US and Soviet Union conducted such operations off each other's coasts and reached a tacit understanding, there was no such consensus with other communist states. The US intelligence community assumed that the understanding between the US and the Soviet Union extended to the greater communist bloc. The Pueblo failed all of the criteria for low risk status, including political sensitivity, weather, scope of operation, ability to perform, and degree of support. Furthermore, the US intelligence community ignored warning signs emanating from the Korean peninsula in 1967 and 68. In 1966, North Korea violated the armistice agreements 60 times, yet the next year, it would violate it 543 times. In January, 1968 not only did the communist country violate the agreement 40 times, but specifically attempted to assassinate the South Korean president.

You many not know what happened on January 23, 1968. After an uneventful few weeks, the North Koreans spotted the Pueblo on the afternoon of January 22. Harassment was to be expected in international waters, and the captain was instructed not to back down. On January 23, 4 North Korean torpedo boats and submarine chasers surrounded the vessel. As they prepared to board the ship, it attempted a futile escape. The North Koreans easily attacked the slow-moving vessel. The Pueblo captain surrendered, and the spy ship followed it captors back to the harbor. On the way to the harbor, the captain decided to stall for time, allowing for classified documents to be destroyed. The North Koreans opened fire from 25 meters, causing more damage and killing Duane Hodges, who was carrying documents to be thrown overboard. The ship was boarded and the crew gagged.

You may not know the consequences of the intelligence loss. While the Johnson administration's report concluded that the damage was "not vital," the administration quietly express sentiments that reflected otherwise. An intelligence estimate concluded that the Soviets had gained 3-5 years on the Americans in race for communications technology. President Johnson feared the Soviets would be able to catch up within a single year. Hours after the capture, a plane flew from Pyongyang to Moscow, carrying 790lbs of cargo believed to be from the Pueblo. In addition, the NSA intercepted a transmission from North Korea to the Soviet Union containing a cryptographic guidebook from the ship. The KW7 code radio represented the greatest loss as it was the most sophisticated piece of equipment.

Fifth on the countdown: You may not know how the American military responded. The initial and overall response was shock as no one ever expected a situation like this to unfold. The forces stationed in area proved unable to support the Pueblo in such a contingency. After the capture, the military demanded retribution, arguing that the Pueblo should be destroyed.

Military plans were all overruled by President Johnson. Plans included a 12-plane F-105 air strike on the harbor where the Pueblo was docked. Another plan involved 3 Navy Destroyers. Under covering fire, one destroyer would deploy a contingent of US Marines to board the Pueblo, kill the guards, and cut the ship loose to be towed. Johnson concluded that none of the plans would realistically bring the crew home alive and decided to take the diplomatic route. However, President Johnson prepared conventional buildups and contingency plans.

You may not know what happened to the men of the Pueblo. The crew cooperated with their captors, appearing in press conferences and public appearances criticizing the US government. On March 4, North Korea gave the US representative of the armistice commission a letter, signed by the entire Pueblo crew, admitting the ship had violated the communist country's waters and committed "hostile acts." According to the letter, the crew expressed no anger at their captors, but rather guilt for their own actions.

To understand these confessions, we need to look at North Korean brutality. The North Koreans beat Charles Law for six hours with a hammer handle while a communications technician was struck 250 times with a two-by-four block of wood and left, semi-conscious, in a pool of his blood. The technician confessed to everything, including escape plans from a James Bond movie.

It also must be said that the men did resist with subtle language and hints, indicating that their confessions were not of their free will. Commander Bucher, after being beaten and tortured, signed the confession with a false serial number and date of birth. One letter had at the bottom in tiny Morse code "this is a lie."

While the crew was tortured and humiliated, you may not have known how the American public responded. The Pueblo incident was almost completely forgotten against the 1968 backdrop of the Vietnam War, civil rights, assassinations. While there was initially outrage at the incident and calls for retribution, the anger and attention dissipated. By the fall, the Pueblo incident was hardly a factor in the elections.

You may not know how the crisis was resolved. 10 months had passed since January, with no breakthroughs. The Johnson administration had literally tried everything. North Korean president Kim Ill Sung demanded what the State Department referred to as the 3 As: Apology, Assurance, and Admission. The US had to sign a letter admitting to violating North Korea waters, assure it would never happen again, and apologize for doing so. In November, the US decides to sign the letter but have the North Koreans accept that the US will repudiate it beforehand. The administration concluded that renouncing the letter before signing might limit the political fallout. On December 17, the offer was accepted and on the 23 the parties sat down to sign. Hours later, the crew was released.

And the number one thing you may not have known about the Pueblo is what happened to the men when they returned. Despite receiving a hero's welcome on December 24, the euphoria did not last. That same day, the Navy created a board of inquiry. Hearings started in January, involving the testimony of the crew. Commander Bucher and Lieutenant Harris were recommended to be court-martialed. However, the public was appalled at this, and the Navy backed down and threw out the charges, stating that the Pueblo crew had suffered enough. At the court of inquiry, a journalist asked an Admiral on the board to explain who was ultimately to blame. The Admiral responded "there's blame enough for everybody."

Professor of history at Ohio State University, Mitchell Lerner is the author of The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy. Professor Lerner received his B.A. from Brandeis University and Ph.D. from University of Texas-Austin. He also edited the fourth volume of The Johnson Years.

Rapporteur: Michael Faerber

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