By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes*
From the point of view of the US Navy, the two most notable Cold War Spy Ship incidents were the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967 and the North Korean attack on the USS Pueblo in 1968. In previous articles, we dealt with the sad events of the USS Liberty. (See The USS Liberty Incident Part I and Part II). In this article we will consider the unprovoked attack on the USS Pueblo by North Korea.
USS Pueblo, image from US Navy
While the motives and actions of the USS Pueblo are easily understood, the motives and actions of the North Koreans are more difficult to understand and will require a glimpse at the North Korean situation in 1968.
The USS Pueblo AGER-2 is a Banner class technical research ship that was originally built as a US Army cargo ship in 1944 as part of the massive US ship building program in World War Two. After the war, the USS Pueblo operated under US Coast Guard command as a training vessel for US Army crews and was transferred the US Navy in 1966.
The Navy took the old cargo ship and performed a low budget conversion to Spy Ship configuration by adding receivers and code machines to a cramped “spook shack.” This type of low-cost conversion worked well on several ships of the same class and had provided the National Security Agency (“NSA”) and Naval Intelligence with an economical (by US government standards) platform for coastal electronics intelligence gathering.
After the unprovoked and still unexplained Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in international waters off of the coast of Egypt in 1967, we might imagine the rigorous evaluation and project-wide shake up that occurred in the NSA and the US Navy’s Spy Ship program. However, that earth shaking reorganization would take place only in our informed imaginations. Unfortunately for the crew of the USS Pueblo, intelligence operations continued to be conducted under NSA control without adequate coordination or support from Navy combat fleets and air bases. For the Pueblo crew, the consequences of that risky strategy were substantial.
Before departing from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state, the Pueblo’s captain, US Navy Commander Lloyd Bucher, and his intelligence specialists were concerned that the USS Pueblo had accumulated too many excess classified documents and manuals that were not required for their upcoming operations. The wise and diligent Commander Bucher informed his superior officer of these materials and requested to transfer them ashore. Unfortunately, no proper storage was available for them.
Captain Bucher also requested that destruction systems be installed on all classified equipment and document storage. Unfortunately, the NSA was thirsty for more intelligence from the US Seventh Fleet in the Far East, and the Navy, possibly under pressure from the White House, did not grant the delay needed for the installation of those simple systems.
To be fair, I should disclose that I don’t mind occasionally leveling a little criticism on the fantastically expensive NSA. I have never worked for them, and their highly paid bosses like to remain silent so they are an easy target for me. If they should take exception, they are welcome to make my computer blow up or come into my driveway for a friendly inter-agency conference. Since I don’t live in North Korea (and since they’re too busy counting all that cash) they won’t do either.
Tasked with intercepting radio and radar signals and observing Soviet naval activity, the USS Pueblo cast off from the Navy dock in Sasebo, Japan on January 11, 1968. She still had unwanted classified materials aboard and still lacked any destruction system for those materials or her code machines. An experienced, well-trained, diligent officer captained her, and he commanded a well-trained, highly skilled crew. None of them would see a friendly port again for nearly a year.
January 21, 1968
At 1730 hours local time, the USS Pueblo was 15.5 nautical miles from the coast of North Korea, near the North Korean naval base at Wonsan, when a North Korean sub chaser passed within 1600 yards of her. The sub chaser made no radio transmissions. Making an educated guess that Pueblo had not yet been identified, Captain Bucher decided to continue in radio silence to further delay identification. He knew that once his vessel was identified, the North Koreans would likely reduce radio traffic.
At 2000 hours, a battle erupted on land in South Korea when a 31-man North Korean infiltration team dressed as South Korean soldiers was detected and blocked at a checkpoint 100 meters from the South Korean president’s residence, the Blue House. The Navy considered the implications of the assassination attempt and decided to not recall the USS Pueblo.
January 22, 1968
North Korean radio traffic increased. At approximately 1400 hours, two North Korean trawlers approached to within 500 yards of the USS Pueblo and then left the area. Later they returned and approached within 25 yards of the ship.
At 2000 hours, Captain Bucher transmitted Situational Report 1 to the Navy Security Group Station in Kamiseya, Japan. Atmospheric conditions prevented that report and all other communications with Kamiseya from arriving until fourteen hours later.
During the night of January 22, the Pueblo moved out to a position 25 miles further offshore. In the morning, she returned to a position 25 miles off the coast of North Korea.
January 23, 1968
Captain Bucher was lunching in the wardroom when he received a message from the bridge that a North Korean sub chaser was approaching. A few minutes later, the bridge reported that the sub chaser was making 40 knots and was within five miles of the Pueblo.
Captain Bucher sent two civilian oceanographers to take ocean samples, and the Pueblo raised international signal flags indicating oceanographic operations. The North Korean sub chaser transmitted a voice message to Wonsan that it was approaching an unarmed US oceanographic vessel.
The sub chaser came within 500 yards of the USS Pueblo and demanded that she “heave to or be fired upon.” The US ship was already laying to at the time.
The Pueblo took a radar range on the North Korean Coast and verified that she was 15.8 miles from North Korea. She then signaled the North Koreans that she was in international waters. Three North Korean P4 torpedo boats approached the Pueblo at high speed.
The Pueblo got under way and headed further from the North Korean Coast. Two North Korean Mig 21s made a low pass over the vessel. A second North Korean sub chaser and another North Korean torpedo boat joined the scene.
At approximately 1330 hours, a North Korean torpedo boat attempted to come alongside and affect a boarding. The slow-moving USS Pueblo maneuvered to prevent that. The sub chaser opened fire with its 57mm cannon, and the torpedo boats fired their machine guns at the Pueblo.
Captain Bucher and another crew member on the flying bridge were wounded. The captain realized that this was not another typical harassment operation. He ordered modified general quarters (no personnel on outside deck areas). He also ordered all classified materials to be burned.
The USS Pueblo had two 50 caliber machine guns. However, the ammo was below decks and the guns were in unprotected mounts and unready to fire so attempting to man and prepare them would have been suicidal. The Pueblo managed to get a radio message to the Navy Security Group at Kamiseya, Japan, and they maintained radio contact until the North Koreans boarded.
The USS Pueblo communications techs used axes to smash equipment and began burning the classified documents and manuals. The North Koreans ceased firing and ordered the Pueblo to follow her into port. The USS Pueblo followed at one-third speed as the crew threw equipment overboard. The Pueblo stopped, and the North Koreans opened fire again, killing crew member Duane Hodges and injuring four other crewmen who were throwing materials overboard. The Pueblo resumed following at one-third speed.
The North Koreans ordered the Pueblo to stop, and then a boarding party boarded her and captured her crew. The North Koreans immediately started beating the crew members and blindfolded them. The invaders then navigated the Pueblo into Wonsan. The crew of the USS Pueblo began eleven months of brutal torture at the hands of the North Koreans.
Why did North Korean Dictator Kim Il Sung order the capture of the USS Pueblo from international waters and hold the crew captive for nearly a year of brutal treatment? What did he have to gain? What part did the USSR play in the incident?
The reaction in the White House was muted. The reaction by the majority of the US public and some of her allied citizens was one of shock and anger.
In the next segment, we will look at the US response to the attack on the USS Pueblo and examine the relationships between the communist allies of North Korea and the surprising ways in which they contributed to the events in question.
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*‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.
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