North Korea Seizes the USS Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The USS Pueblo, a surveillance and information-gathering vessel on a mission shared by the U.S. Navy and the National Security Administration, was cornered, fired upon, and captured by North Korean vessels in international waters in the Sea of Japan. One American died, many were injured,and crew members were held for eleven months by the North Korean government.

Summary of Event

The USS Pueblo, a light cargo ship retrofitted with the surveillance equipment necessary to monitor North Korean and Russian naval activity as well as assess North Korean radar capability, was captured by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. The ship was part of Operation Clickbeetle Operation Clickbeetle , a mission dedicated to large-scale U.S. intelligence gathering. Ominously, the Pueblo’s mission took place on the heels of similar Clickbeetle missions by the USS Banner, Banner (ship) the USS Maddox, Maddox (ship) and the USS Liberty, Liberty (ship) all three of which had witnessed some degree of enemy hostility. Pueblo (ship) Cold War;Asia Espionage [kw]North Korea Seizes the USS Pueblo (Jan. 23, 1968) [kw]Korea Seizes the USS Pueblo, North (Jan. 23, 1968) [kw]USS Pueblo, North Korea Seizes the (Jan. 23, 1968) [kw]Pueblo, North Korea Seizes the USS (Jan. 23, 1968) Pueblo (ship) Cold War;Asia Espionage [g]Asia;Jan. 23, 1968: North Korea Seizes the USS Pueblo[09650] [g]North Korea;Jan. 23, 1968: North Korea Seizes the USS Pueblo[09650] [c]Cold War;Jan. 23, 1968: North Korea Seizes the USS Pueblo[09650] [c]Military history;Jan. 23, 1968: North Korea Seizes the USS Pueblo[09650] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 23, 1968: North Korea Seizes the USS Pueblo[09650] Bucher, Lloyd M. Law, Charles B. Bailey, Don Woodward, Gilbert H.

While gathering intelligence on the Soviet Union, the Banner had been approached by Soviet vessels and commanded to leave or be fired upon and swarmed by Soviet aircraft. The Maddox took enemy fire from the North Vietnamese on August 2, 1964, while gathering intelligence in the Tonkin Gulf. In the light of the Tonkin Gulf Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964) incident, later revealed never to have happened, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and began a serious buildup of troops in Vietnam, officially entering the United States into the hostilities of the Vietnam War. Lastly, on June 8, 1967, the Liberty was attacked by Israel while anchored in international waters off the Mediterranean Sea. The ship was gathering intelligence on Arab/Israeli relations when Israeli planes swooped down and opened fire on the ship, leaving thirty-four of the Liberty’s crewmembers dead and another 171 crew wounded. Sadly, the lessons of the Banner, the Maddox, and the Liberty had yet to be learned when the Pueblo arrived in Yokosuka, Japan, on December 1, 1967.

On January 5, 1968, the Pueblo and its crew of two marines, seventy-three naval enlistees, six officers, and two oceanographers left Yokosuka for Sasebo, arriving without incident on January 9. The Pueblo entered the waters east of Wonsan, North Korea, on January 13. Once off the coast of Wonsan the men picked up little information with their surveillance equipment. The first exciting news occurred on January 21, when a North Korean submarine chaser passed the Pueblo en route to Wonsan. The Pueblo’s commander, Lloyd M. Bucher, assumed the North Korean vessel had not spotted the Pueblo.

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In the early afternoon of January 22, two North Korean vessels from Wonsan sped directly toward the Pueblo and circled Bucher and his crew for almost two hours before retreating back to Wonsan. Evidently, the chaser spotted on January 21 had seen the Pueblo, and the subsequent ships had come for a closer inspection. During the night of January 22, radio operator Don Bailey informed COMNAVFORJAPAN (commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Japan) that the Pueblo had been spotted.

Quartermaster Charles B. Law was on watch the morning of January 23, when a North Korean chaser rapidly approached the Pueblo. Law alerted Bucher, who quickly went to the bridge and observed the North Koreans wearing flak jackets and combat helmets and staffing their guns. Moments later, the chaser closed in on the Pueblo and the North Koreans raised a flag, ordering the Pueblo to leave or be fired upon.

At that time, the Pueblo was simply floating in the waters off Wonsan, conducting surveillance; its engines were not running. Bucher, however, ordered the engines started in a bid to move away from the North Korean vessel. He also ordered Bailey to alert COMNAVFORJAPAN of the developments and send a call for help. By the time Bailey relayed the message, three North Korean torpedo boats had joined the chaser. One of the torpedo boats carried armed North Korean soldiers, with bayonets fixed, to the starboard side of the Pueblo in an attempt to board. Almost simultaneously, North Korean fighter jets began circling in the sky above the Pueblo. Bucher signaled that he was leaving the area and began moving out to sea. He also made it clear that the Pueblo was in international waters, but the North Koreans responded by opening fire. The North Koreans ceased firing only to see if the Pueblo would anchor, but Bucher continued his attempt to get out to sea. Once the North Koreans opened fire again, Bucher stopped the engines.

Members of the USS Pueblo’s crew are greeted upon release from captivity by North Korea, December 23, 1968.

(U.S. Navy)

The North Koreans demanded that the Pueblo follow them to Wonsan. Bucher complied, but followed slowly to give his crew time to destroy the top-secret documents and equipment aboard the Pueblo. On the way to Wonsan, Bucher ordered the engines stopped in a last-ditch effort to delay the inevitable surrender of the Pueblo. When the North Koreans noticed the change in speed, they fired a large shell at the Pueblo, killing crewmember Dana Hodges Hodges, Dana and seriously wounding Steve Woelk Woelk, Steve . The situation was grim. One American was dead, others were wounded (one seriously), and it became evident that the documents and equipment were not going to be destroyed in time to prevent them from falling into North Korean hands. At approximately 2:30 p.m., January 23, Bailey radioed COMNAVFORJAPAN one last time, informing them how bad the situation had become; he then signed off as the North Koreans boarded the ship.

Once at Wonsan, the Pueblo’s crew was blindfolded and transported by bus and train to the barracks that served as their prison and their home for the next eleven months. During those months of imprisonment the crew War crimes;North Korea was threatened, tortured, and humiliated by their captors.

Throughout most of 1968, negotiations for the release of the crew hinged on North Korea’s demand for the United States to apologize for spying on North Korea in North Korean waters. The United States refused, arguing that the Pueblo had stayed in international waters and was in international waters when apprehended by the North Koreans.

At 9:00 a.m., on December 23, 1968, U.S. major general Gilbert H. Woodward conceded and signed an apology in which he admitted that the Pueblo had entered North Korean waters and that the North Koreans had seized the Pueblo in an act of self-defense. The crew of the Pueblo was released two and one-half hours after the apology was signed, and Woodward immediately repudiated the apology. The crew returned home nearly one year after their capture, but without the Pueblo.

Significance

Perhaps the greatest significance of the seizure of the USS Pueblo was the time in which it occurred. The Pueblo was seized when the United States was in a war in Vietnam that pitted communist-backed forces against Western-backed forces under the overarching theme of the Cold War. Moreover, the very country that seized the Pueblo had been defeated by the United States in a similar type of engagement less than two decades earlier in the Korean War. Apart from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the United States had been very successful against its communist enemies, but the North Koreans’ successful seizure of the Pueblo was an exception: It was one of the early “victories,” at least on the propaganda front, for the communists during the Cold War. Pueblo (ship) Cold War;Asia Espionage

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brandt, Ed. The Last Voyage of the “Pueblo.” New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. An excellent book on the Pueblo incident as told by fifteen members of the crew that was captured by the North Koreans. Scholarly yet readable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lerner, Mitchell B. The Pueblo Incident: The Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002. An exhaustive study of the failure of those in the U.S. Navy and the federal government who knowingly and willingly sent the Pueblo into danger.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mobley, Richard A. Flash Point North Korea: The Pueblo and EC-121 Crises. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003. This examination of the Pueblo incident is drawn from declassified documents. Places the capture of the crew in context with other North Korean and communist aggressions.

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