In January 1968, the US Navy electronic surveillance ship USS Pueblo was quietly lurking off the east coast of North Korea, its assorted antennae pricked to absorb any kind of interesting electronic transmissions. There was little doubt that the North Koreans would cease any intelligence-worthy communications if they learned that the “environmental research” ship was eavesdropping, so the Pueblo’s crew operated under radio silence to avoid detection. Nevertheless, there was surprisingly little for the sophisticated electronics to observe; in terms of signals, Soviet-friendly Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was uncharacteristically quiet. With so little information to pore over, the only interruption in the monotony was the occasional task of chipping the thick frosting of ice from the deck.

But on 22 January, something out of the ordinary happened. Two gray fishing trawlers spotted the Pueblo and circled her for a time, clearly agitated despite the fact that the US Navy ship was in international waters. There seemed to be little cause for concern, however, since such encounters were not unheard of. The trawlers departed without incident, so Commander Lloyd Bucher reported the episode and continued with his mission. Had the shore-side Navy personnel informed the Commander of the goings-on in Korea in the hours leading up to the event, he may have reconsidered his decision to remain so close to the edge of Korean territorial waters.

The previous evening, thirty-one North Korean operatives had secretly crossed the the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into South Korea. Clad in South Korean military uniforms, the commandos were within a block of their target⁠— the Presidential Palace⁠— before being detected. In the ensuing gunfight, twenty-nine of the would-be assassins were killed and one committed suicide. The single surviving prisoner was questioned, where he revealed that his mission had been to murder President Park and other senior government officials.

Unaware of the troubles onshore, the Pueblo began what was scheduled to be the final day of monitoring. The day was uneventful until lunchtime, when the crew’s meal was interrupted by a report of a North Korean warship advancing upon them at high speed. The patrol vessel approached at forty knots, and as it grew near it raised signal flags to demand that the Pueblo identify its nationality. Unease grew as the crew realized that the intercepting vessel was at battle stations. Commander Bucher verified by radar that his ship was indeed further than twelve nautical miles from shore, and therefore in international waters. The crew hoisted the American flag in response as three torpedo boats were spotted approaching from the coast.

A staged surrender
A staged surrender

The signal-flag conversation led to an alarming message from the DPRK patrol boat: HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE. Two MiG fighters buzzed the Pueblo, and two additional warships were sighted on the horizon, approaching fast. Bucher gave orders to make for the open sea. As a torpedo boat attempted to pull alongside, Pueblo’s pilot maneuvered the ship to prevent an armed group of soldiers from boarding. Retreat was the crew’s only option; her weapons were sealed under a thick layer of winter ice. In response to her distress call the Naval Security Group in Japan promised to send fighters. The Pueblo vainly attempted to outrun the smaller, faster warships, but the DPRK ships gave chase, and shortly opened fire.

A hail of 57mm explosive rounds peppered the US Navy ship as she maneuvered away, and one of the pursuers opened a torpedo tube to prepare to fire. After a brief chase, Commander Bucher accepted the hopelessness of escape and gave the order to begin destroying all sensitive documents and equipment. The ship came to halt as crew members frantically loaded the incinerator with documents, threw materials over the side, and smashed equipment with hammers. The task was daunting, however, as the spy vessel had been furnished with a great deal of highly sensitive materials. In order to prevent further attacks, Commander Bucher complied with the attacker’s signal to follow them back towards the shore.

The DPRK vessels fired upon the Pueblo again when she stopped just outside of the Korean territorial waters. Seaman Duane Hodges was mortally wounded in the attack, and several others were injured as they stood on the deck and flung materials into the sea. Without assistance, and unable to respond to the aggression with due violence, Commander Bucher had no choice but to order that they continue. Shortly after leaving international waters, the Pueblo was boarded. High-ranking North Korean officials were among those who seized the ship, overseeing the capture as the Pueblo’s crew were bound, blindfolded, and beaten. When the ship arrived at the dock in Wonsan, the eighty-three American prisoners were paraded off the ship to the cheers of a gathered crowd. The promised support fighters never arrived.

The United States responded to the events by amassing a Naval Task Force in the Sea of Japan. They demanded the return of the Pueblo and her crew, but the DPRK government refused to comply. Despite the provocation, the US military knew that a daring plan to storm the North Korean docks had a dismal likelihood chance of success. There was little doubt that the crew would be executed immediately in the event of an attack, and the DPRK’s Communist allies would almost certainly rise to defend their sister country. Though contingency plans included the use of military force, it was ruled out as means to recover the crew alive. President Johnson begrudgingly ordered that no strike take place as he explored diplomatic solutions.

Over the following weeks the military stalemate was punctuated by a series of photos, films, and letters depicting the crew of the Pueblo enjoying their comfortable stay in North Korea. On the surface, these communications seemed to indicate that the crew had willingly defected to the DPRK, but they contained numerous oddities. In letters home the crew members spoke of events which had never occurred, they used archaic words in their press conferences, and they appeared in a curiously large number of the photographs with their middle fingers extended to the cameraman.

A crew member flashing the 'Hawaiian good luck sign'
A crew member flashing the 'Hawaiian good luck sign'

Unaware of these secret signals, the North Korean captors continued to threaten, torture, and coerce the crew members to prompt them to cooperate. They rehearsed staged press conferences and posed for photographs. In order to spare his youngest crew member from execution, Commander Bucher also agreed to sign a confession stating that the Pueblo had been in North Korean territorial waters at the time of the attack. All the while the men continued to subtly use “the finger” to signal to the US that the photos were staged propaganda. The North Koreans were unfamiliar with the western gesture, though after it appeared in many photos they asked the Americans about it. The Pueblo’s crew had agreed in advance to describe it as the “Hawaiian good luck sign,” and their captors seemed to accept that explanation.

While in captivity the prisoners were regularly beaten, with little hope of rescue. They were subjected to ridiculous lessons on the North Koreans’ version of US history which depicted the country as it was in the late 1800s. The were smothered in propaganda propping up the “Glorious Fatherland” in contrast to the “cowardly US imperialistic aggressors.”

In October 1968, Time magazine published a photo of the prisoners displaying their Hawaiian good luck sign, and from the photo’s caption the DPRK military learned that the gesture was one of “obscene derisiveness and contempt.” This discovery infuriated the North Korean captors, bringing about a period of beatings which came to be known as “Hell week.” During a seven day period, every member of the crew was brutally tortured in reprisal.

On 22 December the men were told that the US had decided to apologize for the Pueblo’s reckless trespass into DPRK waters, and that the men of the Pueblo’s crew were to be freed. Fearing a ruse designed to demoralize them, the men had little hope of being released. The following day they boarded a train which transported them to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, at which point they disembarked. After eleven months of captivity, the eighty-two surviving men walked across the Bridge of no Return which spanned the border of the DMZ, and met with US forces on the other side. In order to expedite the prisoners’ release, the US had provided North Korea with a written admission that the ship had been spying, as well as an official apology. Once the crew members were secured, however, they quickly retracted the admission and apology. The crew of the Pueblo were promptly flown back to the US, where they were met with their families and a cheering crowd of flag-waving supporters.

Commander Bucher and his crew appeared before a Navy Court of Inquiry regarding the Pueblo matter, and after extensive testimony a court martial was recommended for himself and the Officer in Charge of the Research Department, Lt. Steve Harris. Upon hearing this news the Secretary of the Navy rejected the notion outright, stating, “They have suffered enough.”

A guided tour of the USS Pueblo
A guided tour of the USS Pueblo

Today the USS Pueblo still resides in North Korea , where it is celebrated as one of the county’s most popular tourist attractions. Guided tours are offered which describe the DPRK version of the events. A North Korean website summarizes the story as follows:

“In January Juche 57 (1968) the navy of the Korean People’s Army captured the US imperialist armed spy ship Pueblo in the very act of espionage in the territorial waters of Korea. Like a thief raising a hue and cry, the US imperialists raved about “reprisals,” and ordered out many war vessels including a nuclear aircraft carrier and aircraft, bringing the situation to the brink of war.

Kim Il Sung denounced the US moves as a shameless aggressive act that would threaten peace and security of the DPRK and its people, and clarified the principled stand that the Korean people would retaliate for “retaliation” and return all-out war for all-out war.

Alarmed by Kim Il Sung’s resolute stand and the unyielding fighting will and indestructible strength of the Korean people who were rallied closely around their leader Kim Il Sung, the US imperialists signed a letter of apology, recognizing their aggressive act in the eyes of the world and guaranteeing that no US warship would intrude into the territorial waters of the DPRK again.”

Though at the time the US downplayed the intelligence loss suffered, it is generally believed that the Pueblo’s secrets were of significant value to the Soviets. There are some indications that the Russian government had urged the North Korean military to seize a US spy vessel in order to provide them with American secrets. They had been lagging 3-5 years behind in communications technology, but after reverse-engineering the US equipment and code books the Soviets made dramatic improvements to their systems.

As of this writing (late 2006), many members of the Pueblo crew still survive, though Commander Bucher died in 2004, due in part to injuries sustained while in captivity. The USS Pueblo Veteran’s Association maintains a website which shares the personal accounts of many of those who suffered torture while remaining resolute and defiant. To this day, the USS Pueblo remains at the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, though it is still considered a commissioned ship in the US Navy.