The United States and North Korea have had several military confrontations since the end of the Korean War, but few were as potentially dangerous as the seizure of the USS Pueblo and her crew. While the incident was eventually resolved peacefully, few knew at the time that President Lyndon Johnson had prepared a range of military options to compel North Korea to release the crew, including air strikes on targets north of the DMZ and a cross-border raid complete with tanks. The incident, designed to provoke the United States, could well have escalated into World War III.
On January 23rd, the 1968 ex-World War II Liberty Ship USS Pueblo was in international waters approximately sixteen miles off North Korea’s eastern coastline. The ship, crewed by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. National Security Agency, was outfitted to spy on North Korea, conducting “naval surveillance and intelligence collection in support of high priority national intelligence objectives,” and to “collect photographic, acoustic, hydrographic, and other intelligence materials.” Despite North Korea’s history of provocations, the ship and her eighty-three man crew were unprepared for the oncoming attack, her .50 caliber machine guns unloaded and unmanned. Her defense lay in resembling a civilian merchant vessel, a cover that did not last long.
Not long after taking up station in the Sea of Japan, Pueblo was overflown by North Korean MiG fighters and fired upon by navy patrol boats who intended to board the ship and return her to the port of Wonsan. The North Koreans directed 57mm cannon fire at the bridge, wounding the captain, Cmdr. Lloyd Blucher, and two other sailors. The ship was taken into North Korean custody with one American killed and three others, including Blucher, wounded. The crew was eventually released eleven months later, and the USS Pueblo remains in North Korea to this day as a floating museum.
President Johnson, already embroiled in Vietnam, pushed for a diplomatic solution to the Pueblo crisis. Despite that, he had a range of military options prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in case they became necessary. These included air, land, and sea operations conducted by the U.S. military, from simple shows of force to events that could have triggered war on the Korean Peninsula—and possibly beyond.
One of the first options presented to the president was the sailing of USS Pueblo’s sister ship USS Banner off the coast of North Korea, in the same location, but with an armed escort consisting of the cruiser USS Canberra, two destroyers, twenty-four-hour airborne early warning aircraft coverage ( EC-121 Big Look aircraft ) and twenty-four-hour fighter and attack jet cover. In case of attack, Banner’s task force could count on air and naval forces based in South Korea and the USS Enterprise carrier battle group. While the option would demonstrate the United States was not afraid to continue conducting operations in international waters near North Korea, it wouldn’t have returned the U.S. crew home.
Another set of options involved flying aerial reconnaissance missions over North Korea, both as a show of force and as preparation for an attack. One option involved diverting A-12 spy aircraft flying out of Kadena Air Base, Okinawa from Black Shield reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam to overfly North Korea; indeed, one such mission had already been authorized by the president to locate the Pueblo itself, which it found in Wonsan harbor. The flights, which North Korea was unable to stop, would increase with frequency. Another operation involved flying drones into North Korea to gather intelligence, and yet another involved flying aircraft along the country’s coastline to conduct photographic reconnaissance. A fourth option involved A-4 Skyhawk attack jets with ALQ-71 jamming pods disrupting North Korea’s early warning radar network—perhaps as a precursor to impending air attack. All of these options “were subject to North Korean Air Force action” and while intimidating, also left the subject of the crew’s return in North Korea’s court.
One sea-based was to sail an unarmed tug up to Wonsan harbor to recover the Pueblo. The defenseless ship would be protected by strong air and naval forces over the horizon, and its arrive was to be timed to a diplomatic communique demanding the return of the ship and crew. Such a brazen act could have well ended in the tug being sunk and even more Americans killed. Another consideration: while the Pueblo was on North Korea’s east coast the crew was at the capital of Pyongyang on the country’s west coast. Although the U.S. Navy might have gotten their ship back right away, it could take a day or more for the crew to be returned, giving the North Korean leadership time to reconsider the American demand.
Air raids were a step up from the other options and would have involved direct combat between the Washington and Pyongyang. An air strike by U.S. airpower based on the Korean Peninsula and afloat in the Sea of Japan would destroy targets “of a military nature” north of the DMZ, compelling North Korea to take U.S. demands seriously. Planners warned however that America’s aerial armada risked going up against North Korea’s entire force of 500 MiG fighters—which outnumbered the 300 or so combat aircraft the Americans could generate for the operation. An air strike would have generated even more American prisoners of war in the form of downed pilots, while further angering Pyongyang. Planners also warned that North Korea would immediately launch counterattacks on its own terms, including sending missile boats against U.S. naval forces, attacking South Korean airfields, and intensifying cross-border raids and ambushes along the DMZ.