North Korea and the USS Pueblo
Today, July 8th, is the 5th anniversary of the death of Kim Il
Sung, North Korea''s first and only president and still known as
"supreme leader." So I thought it was a good time to spend a
few weeks on the mysterious, dangerous nation that he once
ruled. And to start off, we''re going to explore one of 1968''s
many momentous events, the seizing of the USS Pueblo by the
The Pueblo was an intelligence-gathering vessel and in January
of 1968 it set off on its first operational mission. As there was no
information on hostile activities by North Korean forces, the
mission was assigned a risk assessment of "minimal," which
meant that there would be no tactical support for it. Of course, in
1968 the U.S. was involved rather heavily in Vietnam and so
attentions were often focused there, not elsewhere.
The Pueblo departed Japan on January 11th and headed into the
Sea of Japan to perform her mission; the surveillance of North
Korean naval activity, the monitoring and recording of Korean
coastal radars and surveillance of Soviet naval units operating in
the Tsushima Straits. With a crew of 83 under the command of
Captain Lloyd Bucher, the Pueblo tooled around its area of
assignment maintaining radio silence to hopefully avoid, or at
least delay detection. If it were detected North Korean military
would do their best not to provide any electronic intelligence.
No radio messages were directed to Pueblo concerning the
attempted January 22nd assassination of South Korean President
Park. Approximately 40 hours before the attack on Pueblo a 31
man North Korean squad, dressed in South Korean uniforms, had
infiltrated across the DMZ between North and South Korea.
They then moved south to within 1 block of the Presidential
Palace before being detected and defeated. Informing the Pueblo
of the raid was discussed by officers at the "spook locker" in
Yokosuka, Japan but, with 1 day left on her mission off the
North Korean coast, the decision was made not to inform them.
On the morning of January 23rd the Pueblo moved landward from
its overnight position 25 miles offshore to about 15 miles off the
island of Yo Do. [North Korea claimed its territorial waters
extended 12 miles from shore]. Later, around noon, the bridge
called the captain to say that a ship 8 miles out was headed
towards Pueblo. Three minutes later another call came saying
the ship was 5 miles out and closing rapidly. It was a North
Two civilian oceanographers went on deck to take ocean
observations and the signal flags so indicating were hoisted (to
throw off the intruders as to the boats true intentions). As the
subchaser neared it became obvious that its crew was at battle
stations. At 1000 yards it asked Pueblo''s nationality and the
captain responded by raising the U.S. flag.
Three torpedo boats were sighted closing in from the
northeastern coast. The subchaser moved to 500 yards and
signaled "Heave To Or I Will Fire." Pueblo re-checked that the
distance from the nearest land was 15.8 miles. "I Am In
International Waters," came its reply. There were now four
North Korean vessels of war menacing the Pueblo, the subchaser
with her 57mm and the three torpedo boats with their machine
guns. And to make matters more ominous, two North Korean
MiG''s did a low flyover and a forth torpedo boat and second
subchaser were sited heading towards Pueblo. Bucher ordered
the boat to get underway seaward.
The subchaser''s communications were intercepted. "According
to present instructions we will close down the radio, tie up the
personnel, tow it and enter port at Wonsan. At present, we are
on our way to boarding, we are coming in."
One of the torpedo boats approached Pueblo so some North
Korean soldiers could board. Pueblo maneuvered to prevent this
and to depart the area. The first subchaser pulled along side and
opened fire with her 57mm guns while the torpedo boats raked
the superstructure with machine gun bullets as Pueblo tried to
maneuver in order to present as small a target as possible and
still head away from the coast. The 57mm explosive rounds
struck the radar mast, and flying bridge, wounding Bucher and
two other men. It became obvious that this was not typical
harassment. Bucher immediately ordered destruction of all
classified materials and modified General Quarters (no hands
above deck). The MiGs roared by overhead again. More fire
followed from the boats. No attempt was made by the Pueblo to
man their own guns.
The crew was frantically trying to destroy classified materials;
burning and shredding documents and smashing equipment with
hammers and axes in the Sod Hut, burning documents in an
incinerator behind the stack and even dumping stuff overboard
because the volume of sensitive material on board was too great
to be shredded and burned quickly.
Meanwhile, Pueblo had stopped and the firing stopped. The
subchaser signaled "Follow Me Have Pilot On Board." Pueblo
soon proceeded at 1/3 speed toward North Korea, then 2/3 speed,
then stopped. The subchaser and two torpedo boats resumed
firing. This last salvo mortally wounded Duane Hodges and
injured several other men who had been jettisoning documents
over the side.
Pueblo proceeded at 1/3 speed to halt the gunfire and to permit
the destruction of more materials. The Naval Security Group in
Japan had been continually monitoring the situation so they were
aware of Pueblo''s predicament.
Finally, the Pueblo was boarded. The men were gathered on the
decks where they were forced to sit blindfolded, with their hands
tied. Any resistance was met with punches, kicks or bayonet
When Pueblo was definitely inside North Korean territorial
waters she was stopped and a group of higher ranking officers
boarded from another torpedo boat.
After Pueblo docked in Wonson, her crew, bound and
blindfolded, was removed and led in front of a crowd of North
Korean civilians which was yelling and screaming insults at the
Americans. The Hispanic crew members were being attacked by
the soldiers because they were thought to be South Koreans.
Eventually, the crew was placed on buses with the windows
covered and taken to a train, also with windows covered, which
took them to the capital of Pyongyang where the press was
waiting with klieg lights and cameras at the railroad station.
They were then taken to prison.
Next week the conclusion.
[Source for some of this material: The USS Pueblo Veterans