The Buzz

In 1968, North Korea Captured and Tortured 81 U.S. Sailors (They Kept The Ship as a Trophy)

When the USS Pueblo slipped from its quay in Yokosuka, Japan on January 5, 1968, its crew of eighty-three could not have anticipated that what would have been a routine mission would turn into an eleven month ordeal that would bring the United States and North Korea to the brink of war and back. The Pueblo’s crew would be confronted with a no-win scenario intended to distract from Pyongyang’s recent indiscretions, and further intrigues within the Eastern Bloc.

A U.S. Army light freighter launched during World War II, the fifty-four-meter-long Pueblo had been recommissioned by the Navy in 1966s to serve as an “environmental research ship,” with two civilian oceanographers on board. This was a flimsy cover for the truth: the Pueblo was a spy ship, charged with intercepting and recording wireless transmissions and monitoring electronic emissions. Periodically, the Pueblo would transmit its findings using a sixteen-foot parabolic antenna on its deck to beam a signal towards the moon, where it would reflect back to the Earth for reception by Navy antennas in Hawaii and Maryland.

The lightly armed and ponderous Pueblo—capable of a maximum speed of only thirteen knots (fifteen miles per hour)—was not supposed to place itself in real danger, however. Like other “technical research ships,” it could sail safely within international waters—no closer than twelve nautical miles from shore—and still listen in. The Soviet Union had its own spy ships, and so both sides of the Cold War had to tolerate the presence of the others’ electronic spies.

Today, signals intelligence remains a common form of espionage—and a basically legal one, so long as the ships involved do not stray into territorial waters and aircraft stick to international airspace. Recently, the Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov was observed thirty miles off the U.S. East Coast. U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft routinely intercept signal traffic from North Korea and other nations. However, these electronic spies can only operate so long as the nations they are spying on respect the norms of international law—a risky proposition when tensions are high and the nation in question is governed by a capricious regime.

That January, the Pueblo was assigned by the NSA to intercept signal traffic from Soviet ships in the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea, and gather intel on North Korean coastal radars and radio stations. Her mission proceeded uneventfully until it encountered a North Korean subchaser (a corvette-sized vessel) on January 20. Two days later, it was spotted by two North Korean fishing trawlers, which passed within thirty meters of it. The Pueblo’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, informed the U.S. Navy and proceeded with the final phase of his mission.

Bucher was left unaware, however, that tensions between the two Koreas had just escalated dramatically. Near midnight on January 21, thirty-one disguised North Korean infiltrators came within one hundred meters of the South Korean presidential residence, the Blue House, in an attempt to assassinate President Park Chung-hee before being confronted and dispersed in a blaze of gunfire and exploding hand grenades. A shaken President Park put his troops on high alert and pressed for the United States to retaliate.

At noon on January 23, the Pueblo once again encountered another SO-1–class subchaser. The cannon-armed vessel closed on the Pueblo at high speed and challenged its nationality, to which Bucher raised the American flag. Next, the smaller boat transmitted: HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE. Bucher replied I AM IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS. In fact, the U.S. Navy stipulated that he keep his vessel several miles outside the boundary.

The subchaser’s captain was not satisfied, and continued to close on the Pueblo. Soon afterwards, two North Korean MiG-21 fighters swooped low over the 890-ton spy ship, and three P-4 torpedo boats joined the subchaser to surround the American vessel. Bucher turned the ponderous Pueblo around and made full speed eastward, managing to worm his ship away from a torpedo boat that attempted to land a boarding party toting AK-47s. The North Korean boats began raking the Pueblo with heavy machine-gun fire and blasting at it with the fifty-seven-millimeter cannon on the subchaser. Shrapnel sprayed across the bridge, wounding Bucher.

The Pueblo’s only weapons were two unloaded .50 caliber machine guns wrapped up in ice-coated tarps. (The spy ships were supposed to keep their defensive weaponry discrete.) The machine guns lacked gun shields and only one crewmember had been trained in their use. Bucher judged that any crew members attempting to load and fire the weapons would be massacred by the nearby boats, and that a few .50 caliber machine guns would not be of much use against an adversary armed with torpedoes and cannons.

Bucher was in radio contact with the U.S. Navy, but it had no forces ready to come to his ship’s aid. The four F-4 Phantom fighters on alert on the carrier USS Enterprise, roughly six hundred miles away, were not loaded with antiship weapons and would take an hour to rearm. Eventually, the U.S. Air Force scrambled a dozen F-105 fighter bombers from Okinawa. “Some birds winging your way” was the last message Bucher received. The aircraft never arrived, however; it turned around while over South Korea.