THE USS PUEBLO CONNECTION

At my home in Wyoming, I have a bronze bust of Commander Lloyd Mark “Pete” Bucher of the USS Pueblo, which was captured by the North Koreans in January 1968 and held for nearly a year.

I had the privilege of meeting Commander Bucher. Through the years as we developed a friendship, he invited me to the crew reunions. This personal gesture led to relationships that have endured. Bonds developed and I was privileged with being made an honorary crew member.

When they were all awarded the POW medal, the Executive Officer, Lt. F. Carl Schumacher, took his medal off and gave it to me. After Commander Bucher passed away in 2004 at the age of 76, Schumacher headed the group.

The reunions were held at locations where there once was a prisoner of war camp. One of the most notorious was a Confederate prison which held Union soldiers in Americus, Georgia. I was there when they met in 2016.

USS Pueblo crew members, all of whom I have met and shared reunions with over the years, are a credit to America. They have put the unpleasant years behind the, have raised beautiful families and remained patriotic supports of their country.

Their love of life seems boundless and is reflected in their ever-present smiles.

THE USS PUEBLO INCIDENT: HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo was 18 days out from its home port of Yokosuka, Japan, with 83 men aboard. The ship, which had served as a supply ship in World War II, was 15 miles east of the North Korean peninsula off Wonsan. It was not conveying cargo, nor was it purported to be. Packed with cryptographic equipment, antennas and listening gear, the USS Pueblo was a spy ship. Detail of its capture and its crew’s fate were provided in an article in Stars and Stripes dated June 10, 2011.

The Pueblo and several other former supply ships had been converted to conduct electronic intelligence gathering for the National Security Agency under a program called Operation Clickbeetle. The United States was not the only country with spy ships. The Russians and Chinese had fishing trawlers similarly decked out with listening apparatus to patrol outside U.S. territorial waters.  

The captain of the ship

Lloyd Mark “Pete” Bucher was assigned as captain of the ship while it was being refurbished. Born in 1927, Bucher was orphaned at an early age, then his adoptive mother died of cancer when he was three. He drifted from relative to relative and through a series of orphanages until he himself successfully asked to be accepted in Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town in Nebraska in 1941. He dropped out his senior year to enlist in the Navy. After WWII ended, he attended the University of Nebraska where he entered the Naval ROTC. He graduated in 1953 and was commissioned as Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He assumed his first command, the Pueblo, on January 29, 1967.

Chain of command

The ship was labeled AGER (Auxiliary, General, Environmental Research). In addition to its crew, the ship was assigned 28 communications technicians under the command of Lt. Stephen Harris, whose chain of command was under the National Security Agency. Not long after the ship was commissioned on May 13, those technicians discovered the equipment in the Special Operations Detachment crypto room, or “SOD-Hut” had been installed upside down. It took two months and an extra half million dollars to correct. 

While the ship was underway, the technicians had little to do as the sailors worked. Their jobs wouldn’t start until they reached their destination. This situation, naturally caused some tension.

There also was a clash between Bucher, who was hot-tempered, hard-driving and not a stickler for rules, and his executive officer, Lt. Edward Murphy, a quiet, sensitive Christian Scientist.

Defense weaponry

The Pueblo was originally meant to set our unarmed, but a month after it was commissioned, Israeli fighter jets attracted the USS Liberty, a spy ship, during the Six Day War. Thirty-four sailors were killed; 75 were injured. 

Bucher turned down the cannons that the Navy would have installed, thinking they were too big. Instead, he had mounted two .50-caliber machine guns that were covered with canvas – and with ice in the winter storms.

The Navy refused to install the watertight hatches Bucher requested and nixed a system that would allow the ship to be scuttled if captured. Paper shedders and an incinerator aboard, as it turned out, were woefully inadequate to prevent the mass of classified documents on the ship from falling into enemy hands.

An intercepted mission

The Pueblo reached Yokosuka Naval Base in Tokyo Bay on December 1. There, its frequent steering and engine problems were fixed.

The ship set sail on January 5 for Sasebo, Japan, in the face of a Pacific storm, reaching there on January 9. After more repairs, the Pueblo headed through the Tsushima Straits. The storms continued.

On January 21, the ship encountered two North Korean fishing boats. The Pueblo had been detected.

Two days later, a North Korean submarine chaser caught up with the Pueblo and began circling the ship, which was still in international waters. The sub chaser ordered the Pueblo to stop or be fire upon.

Bucher responded, “I am hydrographic,” but that didn’t work.

The only communication tech who knew any Korean could understand little of the sub chaser’s radio transmissions.

Three torpedo ships drew close, and more could be seen on the horizon. A boarding party was spotted. Not long after, a machine gun opened fire on the Pueblo.

Bucher ordered destruction of documents and equipment in the SOD-hut, but progress was slow. When the Koreans boarded and insisted on a tour, many documents were visible.

Bucher had been assured that air support would be able to reach him in time of danger. Not so. Four American aircraft carries were in an hour’s flight but the Navy sent no assistance. The Air Force jests sent out from Okinawa were too far away.

Capture and mistreatment

The crew were tied up and blindfolded, then sent below deck as the ship headed for Wonsan. Mistreatment, even beating, began immediately. Lockers were ransacked.

The following editorial, which I wrote and published in 2006, includes Commander Bucher’s first-hand account of the torture endured by the USS Pueblo crew.

Geneva Convention and USS Pueblo (editorial)

The U. S. Congress is ‘struggling’ this week to define limits the CIA may use for interrogation of terrorists and various assorted enemy combatants. The Geneva Convention Article 3 is the focal point of the debate.

Humane treatment of those whose religious beliefs dictate the killing of all Americans and Jews, according to Article 3, must not go beyond the point of offending their dignity.

Defending this point are such guardians of the American conscience as U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; John Warner, R-Virginia, and former prisoner of war himself, John McCain, R-Arizona.

If the CIA is too harsh with these killers, we are told by Sen. Lindsey Graham that we are no batter than they are.

What is baffling to most Americans about Article 3 is the obvious fact that jailing these barbarians is a great offense to human dignity to begin with.

The fact that President George W. Bush needs strong interrogation methods to save American lives is pushed aside.

No one, to my knowledge, has suggested a form of interrogation that involves pain or bodily harm that could be considered torture.

Few Americans have the opportunity to associate with and hear first had stories of prisoners of war themselves and, in particular, their descriptions of the torture they suffered in captivity.

Last week, the crew of the USS Pueblo held its 10th biennial reunion in Pueblo, Colo., the city of the ship’s namesake.

USS Pueblo AGER was listed as an unarmed oceanographic survey shop, tiny by US Navy standards at slight less that 1.000 tons.

Commanded by Commander Lloyd mark (“Pete”) Bucher, USN, the Pueblo was assigned to patrol the coast of North Korea in January 1968.

While cruising off the coast on January 23, 1968, and clearly beyond the territorial waters of North Korea, the Pueblo was viciously attacked by four North Korean torpedo boats and a Russian-built sup chaser. Machine gun bullets and cannon fire ripped through the aluminum-constructed superstructure, killing fireman Duane Hodges.

The Pueblo was boarded by North Korean soldiers and forced to follow its attacker vessel into the Port of Wonsan.

Ashore and in the presence of an interpreter, commander Bucher demanded his crew be “treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and that the crew be kept together.” The North Korean Colonel in charge shouted back, “You capitalist dogs are espionage agents of the CIA and have no military rights. You will be tried in our People’s Court and shot!”

Within the first days in prison, Commander Bucher recalls some 16 severe beatings, one to unconsciousness. Constant pleas to his captors to observe the Geneva Convention were ignored. The men of the Pueblo were beaten likewise and Commander Bucher noticed in the urinals that his men, like himself, were urinating blood.

Among various schemes to maintain morale were means of ridicule of their captors without the guards’ comprehension. One such scheme involved an obscene gesture, not observed in polite company, performed by raising the middle finger of the right hand into an upright position whenever approached by a prison guard. On inquiry, the guard would be told, “This is the Hawaiian Good Luck gesture which means happiness and good health to you.”

The guards were pleased and this broke some of the tension in that it brought smiles to the prisoner’s faces.

All went well until the North Koreans decided to send a group picture of the 82 surviving members of the crew to U.S. authorities showing that all were accounted for. In order to show a measure of defiance of their captors, the men showed the Hawaiian Good Luck sign.

It was not meant for publication in the United States. However, a U.S. Senator from Ohio gave it to Time magazine where it was displayed on the cover with full explanation.

The crew was beaten periodically during the entire 11 months leading up to the disclosure by Time magazine.

What became known as “hell week” was the result. The most severe beatings of all followed.

Here’s a description of one beating in Commander Bucher’s own words” “A guard belted me in the jaw with his infantry boots. Then drop-kicked me into a rain of blows from the two other officers, who kept it up until I sagged to the floor, half-conscious. These beatings were repeated twice a day and alt least once a night over the next several days and soon my ribs felt cracked, my guts ruptured, my testicles ready to burst, my face a pulp, my teeth loosened and almost falling out.”

Every crew member suffered alike. One crew member, Marine Staff Sergeant Robert Chicca, required 11 reconstructive surgeries on release.

So much for the protection of the Geneva Convention Article 3.

(End of editorial)

Release and inquiry

After 11 months of captivity, the prisoners were told the U.S. government had admitted its crimes and they would be released.

Indeed, the United States had admitted that the Pueblo had entered North Korean waters, apologized for the intrusion and assured the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that this will never happen again. The admission, apology and assurance were verbally retracted after the release of the 82 men.

The captives were bused to Panmunjom and ordered to march, as their manes were called, across the “Bridge of No Return” into South Korea. A coffin contain the body of Duane Hodges also was released.

The crew reached San Diego, California on Christmas Eve. They were welcomed home as heroes.

The Navy brass, however, wanted some explanations. After a few days with their families, the crew was interviewed, and then a Court of Inquiry was convened. The crew had not followed the Code of Conduct, the brass charged. Classified information had been at risk.

The crew argued the code did not fit the circumstances because the North Koreans already had their personnel files, and because there was not official “war.”

The board of five admirals conducting the inquiry recommended Bucher be court-martialed for giving up the ship so easily and letting classified materials fall into the hands of the captors. Bucher had told reporters gathered on the South Korean side of the bridge at Panmunjom that he surrendered because it would have been nothing but “a slaughter out there” if he had resisted. As reported in the Stars and Stripes on December 25, 1969, he added, “I couldn’t see them killing the entire crew for no reason at all.”

Other charges were recommended, including some against Rear Admiral Frank Johnson, Commander Naval Forces Japan, and Capt. Everett Gladding, director of Naval Security Group Pacific, for failing to provide protection and support.

John Chafee, Secretary of the Navy, dismissed all the charges, saying the crew had suffered enough. By the end of the year, the AGER program was discontinued. Two of the ships, the Banner and the Palm Beach, were decommissioned. The Pueblo, however, is still actively commissioned nearly 50 years later, assigned to the 7th Fleet at Yokoska, but is still held by North Korea.

The Pueblo was salvaged from Wonsan harbor by the North Koreans some 30 years after its capture and eventually moved to the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum. Moving the ship to the Taedong River required transit through 1,000 nautical miles of international waters. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry told the U.S Navy “hands-off” during the move, to the disappointment of some crew members.

Prisoner of war medals

In 1988, when the military announced it would present Prisoner of War medals to those captured in the nation’s conflicts, the Pueblo’s crew members were not included They were classified as “detainees.” However, congress eventually overturned this decision and the medals were awarded to the crew in May 1990.

Likewise, according to an article in Stars and Strips dated January 2016, members of the Pueblo crew were not included under a law that required payment to hostages held in Tehran, Iran, of $10,000 for every day of captivity amounting to about $4.4 million per hostage. 

USS Pueblo Veterans Association was formed in 1985 and has since held several reunions. As of 2016, 64 members survive.

Reference: Something Ventured: Portrait of an American Dreamer, E. Ralph Hosteller, published in 1999 by American Farm Publications. Pg. 74-78)