H-025-3: The Release of the Crew of USS Pueblo (AGER-2), 23 December 1968
H-Gram 025, Attachment 3
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
31 January 2019
In my previous H-gram (024), I promised I would include the “final confession” that Commander Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher, skipper of USS Pueblo (AGER-2) was forced to sign under duress while he and his crew were being held by North Korea. They were subject to beatings, torture, and mock executions after the intelligence collection ship Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces in international waters off the coast of North Korea on 23 January 1968. Members of Pueblo’s crew also signed similar confessions, and during some forced propaganda photos showed what they told the North Koreans was a “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign,” which was a raised middle finger. Bucher’s “final confession” is a written equivalent of a “middle finger.”
Commander Bucher’s “Final Confession”
A final confession in anticipation of leniency for my crew and myself for the heinous crimes perpetrated by ourselves while conducting horrible outrages against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for the purpose of provocating and annoying those stalwarts of peace-loving humanity. The absolute truth of this bowel-wrenching confession is attested to by my fervent desire to paean (pronounced “pee-on”) the Korean People’s Army Navy, and their government to beseech the Korean people to forgive our dastardly deeds unmatched since Attila. I therefore swear the following account to be true on the sacred honor of the Great Speckled Bird.
Following rigorous training in provocation and intrusion wherein each of my officers had to meet the overly high standards I had set for them we emerged from the bowels of San Diego harbor bent on setting records for the highest yardage gained in intrusions ever set in the standard patrol. Our first stop was Hawaii where I visited the kingpin of all provocateurs, including spies. None other than Fleet General Barney Google. He was all I had been told, sly, cunning, closed mouth, bulbous nosed, smelling of musty top secrets and some foul smelling medicine that kept him going twenty hours a day in pursuit of the perfect spy mission. He talked haltingly with me but persuasively about our forthcoming mission, “By God Bucher, I want you to get in there and be elusive, spy them out, spy out their water, look sharp for signs of electronic saline water traps. You will be going to spy out the DPRK. By the sainted General Bullmoose we must learn why they are so advanced in the art of people’s defense.
We entered into our assigned operating areas along the Eastern Korean Sea at latitude 39 N and boldly steamed in a northerly direction to the farthest point we could. In doing so we had traversed Operation Areas, Mars, Venus and Pluto so named because like the planets, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is really far out. We knew that the lackeys of the Bowery Street Billionaires would never be satisfied until we found out all there is to know about the huge successes that the noble peace loving peoples in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had made in the recent past. Surely we had to find out how come such a newly-created government could lead its people so quickly into the number one position. As we went about detecting this valuable information, particularly the oceanic salinity, density, ionic dispersion rate, humpback whale counts, both low and high protoplasmic unicellular uglena and plankton counts. This information was of the highest value to our own scientists for the development of war mongering at sea when no one was looking.
Now we have come to realize just how great our crimes were and we seek the leniency of the Korean people even though we are criminals of the basest variety and deserve only swift punishment of the just Korean law. Further, we know that our crimes are greater than those of any criminals discovered this century, nevertheless we ask forgiveness and promise never to engage in such naughty acts ever again if we are forgiven. We know that our crime is merely a reflection of the dastardly policies of the Bowery Street Billionaires and we can only hope they realize their own responsibilities for our actions; because who else could have dreamed up such a heinous and foul playing ship as Pueblo and then searched out enough arch criminals such as we to operate it? Yea, we feel it is time indeed for those really responsible to step forward and accept their own roles and Admit, Apologize and give Assurances that they will never again prepare another spy bag to be filled with goodies. In summation, we who have been rotating on the fickle finger of fate for such long languid months give our word to the Great Speckled Bird that we will heretofore in all sincerity cleanse ourselves of rottenness and vituperations. We solemnly await our return to our loved ones so that the fickle finger can be replaced by the rosy fingers of dawn and salvation. So help me, Hanna.
In the end, in order to get the 82 surviving crewmen (plus one body) of Pueblo returned, the United States signed a formal written apology, an admission that Pueblo had been spying, and an assurance (the “three A’s”) that the United States would not spy in North Korea in the future. However, immediately before signing, the U.S. representative to the negotiations, Major General Gilbert H. Woodward, U.S. Army, made a verbal statement that the United States was signing the document for the sole purpose of getting the crew back, essentially renouncing the document even as he signed it. (This approach had been proposed by Eleanor Leonard, the wife of the State Department’s Korea country chief). This kabuki broke the impasse and was acceptable to the North Koreans as they could control the propaganda message that got back to their own people.
The U.S. reaction to the initial capture of Pueblo was marked by great confusion as practically no one in the entire U.S. government (including the U.S. Navy) had any idea that Pueblo even existed, let alone what her mission was and what she was even doing off North Korea. There was no viable plan for alert aircraft from the closest carrier (USS Enterprise), or the Fifth Air Force in Japan, or any other means, to come to Pueblo’s aid. At the time of her capture, she was surrounded by four motor torpedo boats, two submarine chasers, buzzed by two armed Mig-21 fighters, and hit by multiple 57-mm and hundreds of rounds of smaller-caliber machine-gun fire during two major firing episodes as Bucher first attempted to escape, avoid being boarded, and then attempted to stall over a period of two hours. (Please see H-Gram 014 for more on the capture of Pueblo).
One of Pueblo’s crewmen, Fireman Duane Hodges, was killed by North Korean fire and 11 others, including Bucher, were wounded. Pueblo’s two .50 caliber machine guns would have required crewmen to expose themselves in the open for about 10 minutes under heavy machine- gun fire to chip ice, remove tarps, load, and make each gun operational. As the North Koreans did in fact fire on any personnel who exposed themselves, the likelihood of a crewman being able to bring a .50 caliber to bear was about zero. Although in the end Bucher ordered one of his crew to accept the line thrown by the North Korean boarding party, he technically did not surrender the ship. The ship was captured and the flag hauled down by the North Koreans.
Upon boarding, the North Koreans blindfolded and beat the crewmen with rifle butts, prodded them with bayonets, and withheld needed medical treatment for the wounded, beginning 11 months of abuse and torture. The level of abuse was intense at first, eased a bit until the North Koreans were tipped to the real meaning of the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” by a U.S. press article, which was followed by a period of “hell,” and then relatively less severe treatment in the final months. Bucher, who was wounded with a painful shard of glass in his rectum, was beaten and psychologically tortured with mock executions. He was also shown an Asian man who had been hideously disfigured as a result of torture. For 36 hours, Bucher resisted signing a confession, only relenting when the North Koreans threatened to execute his crew one by one, bringing in the youngest member of the crew and putting a gun to his head in front of Bucher. As the months went on, Bucher would embellish his “confession” until it reached the form above.
The administration of President Lyndon Johnson was caught by surprise by the capture of Pueblo, and the President received a wide range of completely contradictory advice on how to deal with it. There was vehement dissent within the administration and senior military no matter what option he chose. With the war still raging in Vietnam—the Tet Offensive would occur a week after the capture of the ship—the last thing Johnson wanted was another war, even though some senior advisors and politicians strongly advocated for an armed response to the capture. There was already an ongoing crisis in South Korea as, three days before the capture, a force of North Korean “commandos” (Korean People’s Army Unit 124) had infiltrated into the South Korean capital of Seoul in an attempt to assassinate the South Korean president, getting to within a couple blocks of the “Blue House” before the attempt was discovered and resulting in a running gun battle that killed 31 North Koreans and 26 South Koreans. (Pueblo was notified of this attack time late, via a routine intelligence summary). This resulted in contentious relations between the United States and South Korea, as the United States wanted to restrain any precipitous South Korean actions. Meanwhile, the South Korean government had been as surprised by Pueblo’s operations as the U.S. government, and the South Koreans believed (with some justification) that they were shut out of any negotiations between the United States and North Korea on how to resolve both the Blue House and the Pueblo incidents.
President Johnson opted for an approach that did not escalate the situation, because a consensus emerged that there was no military option that would get the crew back alive, and all military options risked outbreak of war in the Korean Peninsula, which would cost many thousands of lives. Options that were rejected included blockading North Korean ports, air strikes on North Korean military targets, and limited attacks across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The President did opt for a major show of military force, immediately dispatching the USS Enterprise carrier task group (TG 77.5) commanded by Rear Admiral Horace H. Epes, Jr., which had just returned to sea after being battered by a particularly severe tropical depression off Japan and was on its way to Vietnam, over 500 nautical miles from Pueblo at the time of the attack. Enterprise was followed quickly by two more carriers (ultimately five carriers would respond, most of them drawn from Yankee Station operations off Vietnam). At one point, 25 U.S. Navy ships were operating in the Sea of Japan and 350 U.S. Air Force combat aircraft were deployed to South Korea. Most of the ships were released to return to Vietnam by mid-February to respond to the Communist Tet Offensive—and as it became apparent that there were no good military strike options.
In addition to the military show of force, which had no discernable impact on the North Koreans, the Johnson administration also initiated a major call-up of reserve units (almost 15,000 men in 14 Air National Guard, eight Air Force Reserve and six Navy Reserve units), many of which ended up in Vietnam. In addition, the terms of service were extended for many draftees already in service. As U.S. domestic support for the war effort in Vietnam was already starting to get shaky, some in Johnson’s own party accused him of using Pueblo as an excuse to call up the reserves.
As the Johnson administration opted for a diplomatic and negotiated solution, the first step was to lodge a protest at the United Nations, which had the usual result—nothing. President Johnson also personally sent a cable to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin under the mistaken assumption that the Soviet Union was either behind the capture or was in a position to do something about it. The best evidence today indicates that the Soviets were as surprised as everyone else, and were actually quite unhappy at North Korea for risking a war that the Soviet Union had no interest in either.
The U.S. and North Korea entered into negotiations at Panmunjon on the DMZ (the usual place for that sort of thing) and the initial lead U.S. representative was Rear Admiral John Victor Smith, until he was relieved by Major General Woodward in April 1968. And, as is typical in any negotiations with North Korea, the talks were agonizingly slow and frustrating. It wasn’t until the 26th meeting, in December 1968, that any significant progress was achieved, and the breakthrough did not occur until 17 December 1968. Only then did things move with any degree of speed. On 23 December 1968, Commander Bucher was ordered by the North Koreans to lead his crew (and one body) single file over the “Bridge of No Return” across the DMZ into South Korea with the executive officer, Lieutenant Ed Murphy, going last.
In a previous H-gram (014), I covered the court of inquiry. Although there was extensive controversy regarding Commander Bucher’s action in giving up the ship without a fight, there was near-unanimous consensus that he had led his men admirably in captivity under extreme duress. There was also recognition that the crew had acquitted themselves honorably, although there was extensive debate regarding the applicability of the Code of Conduct (implemented after the Korean War ended), and even in subsequent congressional testimony, Navy lawyers reversed themselves over what applied and what didn’t. This debate would actually be worthy of a separate article. For one, was the United States in a state of war with North Korea? Although the Korean War had ended with an armistice in 1953, technically the legal answer was yes; however, the U.S. Navy had sent Pueblo into close proximity to North Korea expecting that it would be treated under “peacetime” rules and not be subject to hostile attack. The crew was also at a severe disadvantage in limiting their responses to name, rank, and serial number when the North Koreans had their complete personnel jackets, which were captured with the ship. The North Koreans showed no compunction in torturing crew members for attempting to refuse information that the North Koreans already had in their hands. Although the ship was officially classified as an “auxiliary, general environmental research” ship, Pueblo was not equipped with sufficient emergency destruct capability, so the North Koreans captured plenty of classified material proving that the ship was engaged in intelligence collection, making denials a pointless gesture.
Commander Bucher did not receive any kind of award for his leadership and conduct in captivity. However, several of his crewmen did as a result of exceptional resistance to North Korean interrogation and torture, although all were downgraded one level below what Bucher recommended. Sergeant Robert J. Hammond, USMC, was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism as he “through his unyielding resistance and fierce loyalty to his shipmates and country, became a symbol of resistance, courage, and dedication to the United States.” Silver Star Medals were awarded to Lieutenant Frederic Carl Schumacher and posthumously to Fireman Duane Hodges. In addition, six Bronze Star Medals (with Combat V) were awarded. When the Prisoner of War Medal was created in 1985, the crew of Pueblo was initially not considered eligible (despite the “Combat V” on previous awards) because the U.S. Navy classified them as “illegally detained” rather than “prisoners of war.” Congress passed a law overturning this characterization, and the crew was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal in 1990 along with a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in the initial attack, and beatings and torture endured in captivity.
USS Pueblo remains the second oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy. However, it is a museum ship in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
(A Matter of Accountability: The True Story of the Pueblo Affair, first published in 1970 by Trevor Armbrister, is particularly thorough and objective, especially given how close to the event it was written. The NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships [DANFS] entry for Pueblo, updated in 2017 by Mark L. Evans, is also very thorough and accurate.)
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