Fifty years ago today, Christmas Eve, 1968, the USS Pueblo crew arrived home in San Diego, California. They had been held and tortured by the North Koreans during the past 11 months. This incident happened in the context of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive and uprisings and unrest across Europe and the United States. The Pueblo’s crew was returned after the election of Richard Nixon to be President.
On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, is engaged in a routine surveillance of the North Korean coast when it is intercepted by North Korean patrol boats. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters almost 16 miles from shore, but the North Koreans turned their guns on the lightly armed vessel and demanded its surrender. The Americans attempted to escape, and the North Koreans opened fire, wounding the commander and two others. With capture inevitable, the Americans stalled for time, destroying the classified information aboard while taking further fire. Several more crew members were wounded.
Finally, the Pueblo was boarded and taken to Wonson. There, the 83-man crew was bound and blindfolded and transported to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying within North Korea’s 12-mile territorial limit and imprisoned. It was the biggest crisis in two years of increased tension and minor skirmishes between the United States and North Korea.
The North Koreans wanted the United States to admit they were in North Korean territorial waters, and held the crew for almost a year, getting the maximum propaganda benefit and avoiding the risk of a new President taking a more aggressive course in response. The USS Pueblo Veterans Association maintains an informative website. They recommend a short BBC radio documentary, “Spy Ship: The Capture of the USS Pueblo,” which is excellent.
The crew was released on 23 December, with a U.S. official stating on camera that he was signing a (false) document prepared by the North Koreans and only signing to get the Americans back.
On December 23rd, 11 months to the day of their capture, the crew of the PUEBLO walked, one every 15 seconds, across the Bridge of No Return at Panmumjon. Each man was identified by Cdr. Bucher and greeted by a US Army Colonel and a US Navy Lt. Commander.
Lt. Edward Murphy, PUEBLO’s executive officer, was the last to cross into freedom. Finally, Cdr. Bucher was required to identify the body of Seaman Duane Hodges.
After being briefly checked at a medical facility, all the survivors were flown home to San Diego, where they were warmly welcomed by family and dignitaries.
As the crew left the planes a band played “The Lonely Bull.” The crew were united with their waiting families and greeted by Navy representatives, Gov. & Mrs Reagan, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, news reporters and citizens.
While the Navy senior uniformed leadership sought to fix blame well below themselves, the Secretary of the Navy, John Chafee, issued a statement rebuking them and refused to allow any punitive or negative administrative action against any of the crew.
The major factor which led to the PUEBLO’s lonely confrontation by unanticipatedly bold and hostile forces was the sudden collapse of a premise which had been assumed at every level of responsibility and upon which every other aspect of the mission had been based — freedom of the high seas. At that particular point in history, the common confidence in the historic inviolability of a sovereign ship on the high seas in peacetime was shown to have been misplaced.
The consequences must in fairness be borne by all, rather than by one or two individuals whom circumstances had placed closer to the crucial event.
In light of the considerations set out above, I have determined that the charges against all of the officers concerned will be dismissed, and I have directed the Chief of Naval Operations to take appropriate action to that end.
Every feasible effort is being made to correct any Navy deficiencies which may have contributed to PUEBLO’s seizure. The Navy’s leaders are determined that the lessons learned from this tragedy shall be translated into effective action.
The USS Pueblo is still on our naval registry and is the only American ship today in hostile hands. Some of the surviving USS Pueblo crew have called on President Trump to seek the return of our ship. President Trump has instead focussed on repatriation of our remaining war dead. If peace should be achieved, presumably the ship would either be returned or legally transferred to North Korean ownership as economic assistance.