50 years ago today, January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo was seized by North Korean gunboats in international waters. The Pueblo was fired upon by the North Koreans, resulting in the death of one US sailor and the wounding of several others. The crew of the Pueblo did not fire or even ready the small number of weapons that they had on board.
The crew were taken to North Korea where they were subjected to deplorable living conditions and tortured in varying degrees for 11 months.
While there was some discussion of an armed intervention, including the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea, President Johnson opted for negotiation. This resulted in the release of all of the remaining crew on December 23, 1968, exactly eleven months after their seizure.
As did most Americans at the time, I followed the reporting of the events surrounding the Pueblo with moderate interest. However, when I got married three years later, the story became more personal. My new brother-in-law, Peter Milton Bandera, was a member of the Pueblo crew. It was his first assignment after graduation from basic training.
Milt was still deeply scarred by the events, as were all the crew members, and did not want to talk about it. On one occasion, he handed me a box with all of his memorabilia such as patches and insignia from the Pueblo. He asked me to keep the items until he was ready to look at them again.That did not occur for nearly 10 years. (I still have one patch from the Pueblo, a cherished gift from Milt.)
When Milt did decide to share his experiences with me, it was very profound. It was also at odds with what the official story had been. As time went on, I heard of other conflicts in the original story. Some of those details were later revealed in a 1970 book by the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd Bucher.
This post is not intended to address all of the concerns that have surfaced over the years regarding the USS Pueblo. However, it is worth noting a few of the questions that have been raised.
- The mission of the Pueblo, and electronic spy ship, was to monitor North Korean communications. The question remains as to why the ship had numerous classified documents on board which did not relate to their mission.
- One of the issues regarding these documents was the question of why the high-efficiency electronic furnaces had been removed from the Pueblo. In the event of the potential capture of these classified documents, the crew were left with only rudimentary ‘burn barrels’ and one small incinerator that the captain had purchased himself with which to destroy the documents. The result was that many of these documents fell into North Korean hands.
- There was also an issue of protection. The only armament carried by the Pueblo were two .50 caliber machine guns mounted on the bow. By order, a canvas shroud was placed over these guns.Bringing the guns to bear in any engagement would have required crew members to run across an open deck to get to the guns. Even then, the canvas shroud, which was often frozen solid, would have to be removed before the guns could be used. As a result, when the Pueblo came under fire from the North Koreans, there was no attempt to even use the small amount of available firepower. One of the later allegations against Commander Bucher was that he was derelict by not sending men out to attempt to return fire, even though there was little chance they would have survived.
Remaining crew of the Pueblo still meet on a regular basis to reminisce about their shared experiences. They are also continually supportive of Commander Bucher, even though the Navy board of inquiry recommended that he be court martialed for the loss of his ship. That recommendation was overturned by Navy Secretary John Chafee.
The USS Pueblo remains in North Korean custody to this day.