On This Day

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US Navy/AP
Crew members of the USS Pueblo are pictured in captivity in North Korea, 1968.

On This Day: USS Pueblo Seized by North Korea

January 23, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo Navy ship, holding the crew captive for 11 months.

North Korea Seizes U.S. Ship

The USS Pueblo was part of Operation Clickbeetle, an intelligence-gathering operation off the coast of North Korea. It began its mission on Jan. 11, 1968, positioning itself in international waters, over 12 miles off the coast of North Korea.

The Pueblo, a refurbished Army vessel originally built during World War II, was in poor condition. “The ship never should have left the port,” writes Ohio State University professor Mitchell Lerner. “Suffering from a vast array of technical problems, the Pueblo was barely capable of floating. The steering engine failed 180 times in 3 days.”

On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korea, claiming that the Pueblo “intruded into the territorial waters of the Republic and was carrying out hostile activities,” sent out a squad of torpedo boats to seize the ship. The Pueblo attempted to flee, but the rundown ship was easily caught and boarded. The crew tried to destroy intelligence data and other sensitive information, but the North Koreans fired on the ship—killing one sailor—and were able to seize valuable intelligence items.

The Pueblo was led to a North Korean port and its 82-man crew was taken hostage. President Lyndon Johnson was committed to using diplomacy to resolve the situation. “Johnson never pursued retaliation against North Korea,” explains PBS. “He was committed to escalating the U.S. response in Vietnam, where more than a half-million American soldiers now served.”

For 11 months, the captive crewmembers were tortured, forced to write confessions and criticize the U.S. government in press conferences and films. “The crew did their best to discredit this propaganda by including innuendos and obviously false information in their letters, using slang, corny and archaic language during press conferences and displaying obscene gestures in photographs and movies,” writes the USS Pueblo Veteran's Association.
The crisis ended when the U.S. agreed to sign a confession stating that it “shoulders full responsibility and solemnly apologizes for the grave acts of espionage committed by the U.S. ship against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.” U.S. Army Major General Gilbert Woodward, who signed the document, disavowed it, saying, “I will sign the documents to free the crew and only to free the crew.”

On Dec. 23, 1968, the crew was released and allowed to cross the “Bridge of No Return” into South Korea. They were returned to the U.S. the following day, where they were treated for their physical and psychological injuries. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher was nearly court-martialed for failing to fire back when being captured, but the charges were dropped.

The USS Pueblo in North Korea

The Pueblo crisis remains fairly unknown in America today, as it is largely overshadowed by the Vietnam War. In North Korea, however, it is celebrated as a glorious moment in the country’s history.

North Korean Web site Songun, Banner of Victory wrote of the incident, “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.”

The USS Pueblo is currently on display for tourists in Pyongyang, seving as a symbol of North Korean nationalism. The U.S. has not decommissioned the Pueblo, and it remains as the only active-duty warship in enemy hands.

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