How North Korea Captured a U.S. Spy Ship in 1968

September 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: North KoreaUSS PuebloU.S. NavyMilitary HistoryKorea

How North Korea Captured a U.S. Spy Ship in 1968

The humiliating seizure of the USS Pueblo by North Korean gunboats in 1968 provided a searing indictment of America’s Cold War policy.

Key Point: The U.S. military sent an aging, leaky, refurbished cargo ship into hostile waters without adequate protection or contingency plans for emergencies.

The humiliating seizure of the American spy ship Pueblo on January 23, 1968, by North Korean gunboats proved both an enormous intelligence setback and a searing indictment of America’s Cold War policy. With their opening salvo of cannon and machine-gun fire aimed almost point-blank at the ship’s pilothouse, the North Koreans blew away both Pueblo’s main line of defense and the time-honored respect for the freedom of the seas. The attack also revealed the defenseless nature of the ship, her mission, and the entire concept behind it.

The stain on American honor started with Naval Intelligence and the National Security Agency (NSA), the originators of the spy ship program and Operation Clickbeetle, which sent the poorly armed Pueblo into hostile waters off North Korea’s east coast in the first place. Also coming in for a share of the blame were the planners who assessed Pueblo’s mission as one of minimal risk, the chain of command in Hawaii and Washington that seconded it, and the Lyndon Johnson administration’s unsophisticated interpretation of international relations as a bipolar rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Had American policymakers regarded North Korea as a country with its own national agenda, rather than as an auxiliary serving a global communist conspiracy headed by the Soviet Union, the Pueblo incident might have been avoided or resolved more effectively. The warning signs were there for all to see: the hostile actions of the North Koreans in 1967 alone—they violated some 542 times the 1953 armistice agreements that ended the Korean War, killing and wounding a number of American and South Korean soldiers alike—should have alerted American planners that the North Koreans’ supreme leader, Premier Kim Il-sung, was more than ready to act unilaterally, especially after severe economic hardships and political dissent compelled him to find a way to distract his people from their plight.

In the nine months before Pueblo’s capture, 20 South Korean fishing vessels had been illegally seized by the North Koreans for allegedly entering their territorial waters. The North Koreans violated the armistice terms 40 more times just in the first month of 1968, and 40 hours prior to the attack upon Pueblo dispatched a 31-man commando team across the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas in a brazen, though unsuccessful, attempt to assassinate the president of South Korea, with the United States Embassy as a secondary target.

With one day remaining on Pueblo’s first mission, which had been uneventful to that point, it was decided not to inform her captain, Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, of the hostile North Korean action, a grave miscalculation that had horrendous repercussions for the tiny ship’s crew, operating alone and unsupported in hostile waters. Bucher later wrote that, had he known of the commando attack, he would have immediately moved Pueblo 30 miles out to sea, where the enemy’s sub chasers and torpedo boats probably would not have ventured. The crisis might have been averted.

The AGER Program

During the Cold War the United States maintained an extensive intelligence-collecting effort aimed at communist countries within the Sino-Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviet Union, for its part, developed a program of ocean-going trawlers outfitted as electronic surveillance platforms. Throughout the 1960s, these trawlers trailed ships of the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet, inserted themselves into the center of U.S. fleet exercises, and operated in the open just outside U.S. territorial waters intercepting electronic communications.

The United States depended on aircraft, submarines, and low-altitude earth-orbiting satellites to provide a good portion of the intelligence efforts directed at communist countries; the flaw with these collection assets was their inability to remain on station for long periods of time. Looking at the apparent success of Soviet trawler operations, the Navy in conjunction with the NSA began development of the Auxiliary General Environmental Research (AGER) program to provide platforms that could remain inconspicuously on station for extended periods of time.

AGER ships were conceived as small, unarmed or lightly armed intelligence ships. Manned by U.S. Navy crews, communications technicians from the Naval Security Group, and civilian oceanographers, they would provide an equivalent capability to Soviet trawlers as well as be less costly to convert and operate. The United States already had a series of World War II-era Liberty-class ships serving as intelligence platforms; the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was a member of this series and was a success at its primary intelligence missions, but it was large and costly to operate.

A smaller ship that appeared nonconfrontational in nature might be able to remain on station longer and receive less attention than a large or heavily armed craft. To test the theory, one light auxiliary cargo vessel was selected for conversion; it was refitted and christened USS Banner (AGER-1). During her operations in 1967-1968 off the coasts of the Soviet Union and China and the west coast of North Korea, Banner’s efforts were considered successful, and the Navy was authorized to convert two more auxiliary vessels into AGERs. These ships became the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and USS Palm Beach (AGER-3). Pueblo was slated to join Banner in the western Pacific.

Hazardous Mission for the Aging USS Pueblo

The ship that became Pueblo was built in 1944 as U.S. Army cargo vessel FP-344; at 850 tons she was used as a general-purpose supply vessel during World War II and the Korean War. Laid up in 1954, she remained inactive until April 1966, when she was transferred to the U.S. Navy and renamed Pueblo (AGER-2), after which she began a lengthy conversion at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, for her new role as an intelligence platform. After training operations off the western coast of the United States, Pueblo departed for the Far East in November 1967 with a first-time captain and an inexperienced crew. While in Pearl Harbor and at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, the ship needed additional repairs, especially of her antiquated steering engine, which had failed 180 times in three days during pre-mission trials in San Diego.

While Pueblo was docked in Japan, Bucher asked his boss, Rear Admiral Frank Johnson, for TNT charges with which to scuttle the ship in an emergency. He was offered thermite instead, which Bucher refused, knowing it to be extremely hazardous as well as against naval regulations. Bucher didn’t pursue the matter, he wrote later, because he didn’t want his superiors to think they had a commander who was obsessed with blowing up his own ship. Pueblo was crammed with highly classified material and equipment, yet possessed only rudimentary equipment for destroying her secrets in an emergency. Bucher requested installation of an emergency destruct system but was refused—it was too costly, superiors said.

After the tragic and deadly attack upon Liberty by Israeli air and naval forces in June 1967, during the Six-Day War, the American chief of naval operations declared that all spy ships, no matter their size, would be armed immediately. Pueblo was authorized to carry a relatively large 50-mm cannon. But, overburdened with men and equipment, the vessel had neither the deck space nor qualified gunners to man the heavy weapon. Instead, Pueblo was supplied with two Browning .50-caliber machine guns, which were mounted on the starboard and stern rails without armor protection and wrapped in cold-weather tarpaulins, the ammunition stored below decks. Admiral Johnson was against arming Pueblo altogether, suggesting to Bucher in December 1967 that he point the covered guns downward or, better yet, store them below deck so as not to appear provocative.

Pueblo was never intended to fight; her protection lay in international law and the freedom of the seas. Like Liberty, Pueblo operated under the assumption that help would be available if needed. The American Seventh Fleet, U.S. forces in Korea, and the Fifth Air Force in Fuchu, Japan, were all informed of Bucher’s mission, but because of the minimal risk assessment, the Navy made no specific requests for emergency support. Brig. Gen. John Harrell, Air Force commander in South Korea, asked the Navy if planes should be kept on “strip alert” for a possible rescue operation, but the Navy declined. When Fifth Air Force personnel questioned the lack of request for strip alert statue for Pueblo, they were also informed that it wouldn’t be needed. All requests by Bucher to upgrade his mission assessment to “hazardous” likewise were refused.

The Capture of the Pueblo

On the afternoon of January 20, 1968, a North Korean SO-1 class Soviet-style sub chaser passed within 4,000 yards of Pueblo. Two days later, two North Korean fishing trawlers passed within 30 yards of Pueblo. That same day, a 31-man North Korean commando team infiltrated across the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas and attempted to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee and other senior government officials, penetrating as far as the presidential grounds before being halted. Oddly, Bucher and the men on Pueblo were not informed of the commando attack.