December 23rd: Crew of the USS Pueblo Freed
The crew of the USS Pueblo crossing the Bridge of No Return.
Walking across a structure named the Bridge of No Return probably sounds like a terrifying prospect pulled from some sort of poorly written fantasy novel. But there really is a bridge by that name. And when 82 US Navy Sailors crossed it on December 23rd, 1968 they were no doubt thrilled to do so. Because the place they would be “not returning” to was North Korea. And they had spent the last 11 months imprisoned and tortured there after the capture of their spy ship, the USS Pueblo.
The USS Pueblo.
The Pueblo Incident began in January of that year when the ship in question departed the US Naval Base in Sasebo, Japan to conduct electronic and signal intelligence gathering in the Sea of Japan. Captained by Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, they were to patrol along the North Korean coast from north to south and then back while remaining far enough off to stay in international waters. But North Korea is not known for its adherence to international law. For example: the day before the Pueblo incident they had tried to assassinate the President of South Korea in the executive residence. Seriously. So attacking a US Navy vessel in international was not even the craziest crime the country committed that week.
Kim Shin-jo, one of only two North Korean operatives to survive the Blue House Raid, after his capture.
One of the North Korean Navy’s submarine chasers (small, fast attack ships) approached the Pueblo on January 23rd and requested her nationality. When the ship raised the American flag, the sub chaser demanded they stand down or be fired upon. The Pueblo tried to evade the enemy ship, but was unable. She was refitted cargo ship, not built for speed or maneuverability. Her only armament was several machine guns, all of which were wrapped to protect them from the cold at the time and the ammunition was all stored belowdecks. The Pueblo was not exactly a fighting ship, so her situation was dire from the start.
Painting of the attack on the Pueblo by Richard DeRossett.
The much faster North Korean ship fired several warning shots at the Pueblo as it tried to move away. The North Koreans then began firing at the ship itself. The attacker was soon joined by another sub chaser, four torpedo boats, and two Mig-21s. The Pueblo, which was in communication with Naval Support Facility Kamiseya in Japan, was promised air support but it never arrived. Still, she managed to evade the enemy vessels for over two hours during which several Sailors were wounded (including Bucher) and one, Fireman Duane Hodges, was killed. The men began destroying the classified documents onboard, but the shredder jammed and they were forced to burn them in garbage cans. The cabins quickly filled with smoke and rendered the process dangerous and impossible to finish. There were also not enough weighted bags to dump much of the surveillance equipment overboard. Shortly before 3pm local time, several of the North Korean boats managed to get close enough to send over boarding parties. The Pueblo and her crew were captured.
The captured crew, with Bucher in front, coming ashore in North Korea.
From the start the sailors, who were placed in a POW camp, were regularly tortured and starved. Commander Bucher was even put through repeated mock executions to force him to “confess” to North Korea’s claim that the Pueblo was spying in their territorial waters. He ended up writing such a confession only after his captors threatened to execute his men. But he found a way to turn the "confession" on them, frequently using the word “paean” (meaning a song of praise, pronounced like “pee on”) to express his feelings about North Korea. Phrases like "We paean the DPRK” and “We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung" seemed fine to the North Koreans but raised plenty of knowing chuckles back home. The rest of the crew practiced their own little form of resistance by flipping the bird in the many propaganda photos taken of them, telling their captors it was a Hawaiian good luck symbol. The North Koreans discovered the truth a few months later and further increased the suffering they inflicted as a result, but the Sailors probably considered it well worth it in the long run.
Some Sailors of the Pueblo wishing their captors "good luck."
President Lyndon Johnson ordered an immediate show of force, deploying huge amounts of air and naval power to the region. But when it became clear that the taking of the Pueblo was not a prelude to larger operations by the North Koreans, they were stood down. North Korea’s demands in exchange for the return of the prisoners was admission that the Pueblo had entered their waters, an apology from the United States, and a promise that the US would stop its naval spying operations. Signed and in writing, of course. The American negotiators, first Rear Admiral John Victor Smith followed by Army Major General Gilbert H. Woodward, met regularly with their North Korean counterpart Major General Pak Chung-kuk to try and alter the terms. But General Pak remained firm, demanding the Americans sign a document containing all three of the above provisions. As talks dragged on through the spring, summer, and fall US officials grew increasingly concerned for the crew and generally fed up with their opponents intransigence. On December 17th, General Woodward agreed to just sign the damn document.
General Woodward signing said document shortly after stating for the record that it was only done to release the crew of the Pueblo. And shortly before stating the same thing over again, just to really drive the point home.
Six days later the Pueblo’s crew, as well as the body of Hodges, were bussed to Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone. The event was timed to coincide with General Woodward signing the admission paper (after issuing a statement that it was only being done to get the captured men home, of course). Eleven months to the day after their capture, Commander Bucher led his men, some of whom were seriously injured or crippled, over the Bridge of No Return into South Korea. Executive officer Lieutenant Edward Murphy was the last man across.
The crew being greeted upon entering South Korea.
At first it seemed like the tribulations of the Pueblo’s crew would continue after their release. The Navy ordered them all, officers and enlisted, before a Court of Inquiry. They recommended a court martial for Bucher and another officer, Lieutenant Steven Harris (the Officer in Charge of the Research Department) for surrendering without a fight and failure to destroy all the classified material aboard, respectively. But Secretary of the Navy John Chaffee rejected the recommendation and said, "They have suffered enough." And, despite years of insistence by the US government that the crew were detainees and, therefore, not POW’s, the position was finally reversed in 1988. Two years later the survivors were official awarded Prisoner of War Medals.
Despite the delay in recognizing them as POW's the crewmen wounded during the incident, including Lieutenant Murphy (above), were awarded Purple Hearts in the immediate aftermath. Some, like Murphy, were awarded two medals at once: one for wounds sustained in the attack, one for injuries inflicted on them by their captors.
Bucher was not seen as vindicated by all, in particular Murphy, who wrote in his autobiography that his ex-skipper was a womanizing drunk who gave up classified information to the North Korean Army in captivity. Bucher, who had always loathed the extremely-by-the-book Murphy in turn, called his former XO cowardly and incompetent. So there may have been some personal animosity fueling their differences of opinion on the incident. And Commander Bucher, who explained that he acted as he did to prevent an international incident and save his men’s lives, continued to serve in the Navy until his retirement and published his own autobiographical account of the incident.
Commander Bucher receiving his Purple Hearts for the wounds he sustained in the attack and captivity.
The Pueblo remains in North Korea as a museum ship and part of the not-at-all-ironically named Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. Since it remains captive rather than decommissioned, the US Navy still considers it an active vessel. Thus, having entered service in 1945, it is the Navy’s oldest active ship after the USS Constitution.
The USS Pueblo in Pyongyang.