The USS Pueblo is still being held in Pyongyang
By the time White House aides woke President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of the night on January 23, 1968, it was already too late — the Navy’s intelligence vessel, the USS Pueblo, sent to spy on North Korea had been seized by the Communist country.
For weeks, the Pueblo coasted, intercepting communication without incident. As part of Cold War reconnaissance, the Navy and the National Security Agency wanted updates on the status of North Korea’s growing military and the Pueblo — a specialized spy ship packed with advanced sensors and encryption equipment — was the right fit for the mission.
But soon, the warnings came. On January 20, a North Korean modified Soviet-style submarine chaser passed within 4,000 yards of the Pueblo, which was about 15 miles southeast of Mayang-Do — North Korea’s most important submarine base. The next day, a pair of fishing trawlers made an aggressive approach within 30 yards of the Pueblo, but they also veered away.
On January 23, however, the USS Pueblo was approached by a North Korean submarine chaser — a small, fast ship designed to find, track and deter, damage or destroy enemy submarines — and was ordered to stand down or be fired upon. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters 16 miles from shore, but the North Koreans insisted the Americans were in their territory. The Pueblo attempted to maneuver away but, as a slow moving ship, it had no chance of outrunning the chaser.
Immediately, several warning shots were fired and soon three torpedo boats joined the chaser while two MiG fighter jets provided air cover. A fourth torpedo boat and a second submarine chaser appeared a short time later.
The North Koreans opened fire with cannons and machine guns, wounding the American commander and two others.
The Pueblo was severely outmatched in part because of its intelligence mission, but also because its ammunition was stored belowdecks and its machine guns were wrapped to disguise them — nevermind that no one on the ship had been properly trained to use them.
Faced with an inevitable capture, the Americans stalled for time so they could destroy as much of the classified information on board as possible, but a shredder became jammed with the piles of papers shoved into it and burning the documents in waste baskets filled the cabins with smoke.
One recent declassified NSA report captures exactly how deeply the debacle ran: “Radio contact between Pueblo and the Naval Security Group in Kamiseya, Japan, had been ongoing during the incident. As a result, Seventh Fleet command was fully aware of Pueblo’s situation. Air cover was promised but never arrived. The Fifth Air Force had no aircraft on strip alert, and estimated a two to three-hour delay in launching aircraft. USS Enterprise was located 510 nautical miles (940 km) south of Pueblo, yet its four F-4B aircraft on alert were not equipped for an air-to-surface engagement. Enterprise’s captain estimated that 1.5 hours (90 minutes) were required to get the converted aircraft into the air. By the time President Lyndon B. Johnson was awakened, Pueblo had been captured and any rescue attempt would have been futile.”
Initially, the Pueblo followed the North Korean vessels to shore, as ordered, but then stopped. The North Korean ships fired upon the Pueblo again, killing one American sailor, and then boarded the ship and sailed the Pueblo — and the remaining 82 sailors — to the port of Wonsan.
And that’s when their true and enduring ordeal began.
The crew members were blindfolded and transported to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying within North Korea’s 12-mile territorial limit and immediately imprisoned. It was the biggest crisis in two years of increased tension and minor incidences between the U.S. and North Korea.
North Korea kept them alive, but not much more.
“I got shot up in the original capture, so we were taken by bus and then train for an all-night journey to Pyongyang in North Korea, and then they put us in a place we called the barn,” Robert Chicca, a Marine corps sergeant who served as a Korean linguist on the ship, later recalled. “We had fried turnips for breakfast, turnip soup for lunch, and fried turnips for dinner….There was never enough to eat, and personally I lost about 60 pounds over there.”
Back home, there was dissent among government officials over how to handle the crisis. Representative Mendel Rivers of South Carolina became a vocal advocate for the president issuing an ultimatum that North Korea return the Pueblo and the hostages or prepare for a nuclear attack. For his part, Johnson was deeply worried that even agitating rhetoric would result in the execution of the hostages.
However, within days of their capture, President Johnson’s attention was redirected toward the Vietnam War when the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army launched a surprise attack against the U.S., the South Vietnamese and their allies in what became known as the Tet Offensive — an event that forced the president to order no direct retaliation against North Korea.
With little attention from the U.S., North Korea moved ahead with torturing the captives in an effort to obtain a confession and an apology. Commander Lloyd M. Bucher was psychologically tortured, including being put through a mock firing squad. Soon, the North Koreans threatened to execute his men in front of him. Eventually, Bucher agreed to “confess to his and the crew’s transgression.” They verified the meaning of what he wrote, but failed to catch his pronunciation when he read “We paean the DPRK [North Korea]. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung.” (He pronounced “paean” as “pee on.”)
Some prisoners also rebelled in photo shoots by casually sticking out their middle finger, a gesture that their captors didn’t understand. Later, the North Koreans caught on and beat the Americans for a week.
According to recently declassified documents, the Johnson administration considered several high-risk courses of retaliatory action, including a blockade of North Korean ports, air strikes on military targets, and a bogus intelligence leak to the Soviets that the United States planned to attack North Korea.
But one stood out more than all the others.
Pentagon war planners considered using nuclear weapons to stop a possible communist invasion of South Korea, as well as mounting a massive air attack to wipe out North Korea’s air force. The nuclear option, ironically codenamed “Freedom Drop,” envisioned the use of American aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to decimate North Korean troops.
However, President Johnson remained committed to a diplomatic solution to the standoff. That, too, had its challenges.
Richard A. Ericson, a political counselor for the American embassy in Seoul Ericson and George Newman, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Seoul, predicted how the negotiations would play out: “If your sole objective is to get the crew back, you will be playing into North Korea’s hands and the negotiations will follow a clear and inevitable path. You are going to be asked to sign a document that the North Koreans will have drafted. They will brook no changes. It will set forth their point of view and require you to confess to everything they accuse you of.”
They added: “If you allow them to, they will take as much time as they feel they need to squeeze every damn thing they can get out of this situation in terms of their propaganda goals, and they will try to exploit this situation to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the ROK. Then when they feel they have accomplished all they can, and when we have agreed to sign their document of confession and apology, they will return the crew. They will not return the ship. This is the way it is going to be because this is the way it has always been.”
Negotiations for the release of the crew took place at Panmunjom along the border of North and South Korea. And, true to the prediction, in December 1968, Major General Gilbert H. Woodward, the chief U.S. negotiator, signed a statement acknowledging that the Pueblo had “illegally intruded into the territorial waters of North Korea” and apologized for “the grave acts committed by the U.S. ship against” North Korea.
On December 23, 1968, exactly 11 months after the Pueblo’s capture, U.S. and North Korean negotiators reached a settlement to resolve the crisis. That day, the surviving 82 crewmen walked one by one across the “Bridge of No Return” at Panmunjon to freedom in South Korea and returned home to the United States in time for Christmas.
The U.S. then verbally retracted the ransom admission, apology, and assurance. Meanwhile, the North Koreans blacked out the paragraph above the signature which read: “and this hereby receipts for eighty two crewmen and one corpse.”
The USS Pueblo remains the only U.S. Navy ship held by a foreign government. In 2012, North Korea put on it a fresh coat of paint and added some exhibit labels, making it a tourist destination at the Fatherland War of Liberation Museum along the Pothong river in Pyongyang. It has since been moved to the Victorious War Museum.
In 1968, North Korea captured a U.S. war ship and tortured the 82 sailors on board was originally published in Timeline on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.