The crew of the USS Pueblo was eating lunch when the pilothouse passed down word that a ship had been spotted to the south, coming from the direction of the North Korean port of Wonsan. Five minutes later, an updated report: The ship was less than three miles away and closing fast. It was headed directly for the Pueblo.
The date: Jan. 23, 1968, 20 years ago this month.
Little more than two hours passed before the fight--if that's what it can be called--was over.
The Pueblo, escorted by the North Korean ship and three torpedo boats, was sailing toward Wonsan. Four crew members had been injured in the gunfire from the North Korean ships. One later died.
The Pueblo had never fired a shot.
So began a painful international ordeal for the United States that lasted 11 months--until the 82 surviving crewmen were released. The debate on the handling of the affair continues to this day.
Embarrassing for the Navy
It was, as one international law expert now says, "a most embarrassing thing for the Navy, which had a tradition going back 150 years of 'don't give up the ship.' "
Just as embarrassing for the United States was the fact that the Pueblo was a spy ship. And the North Koreans had captured her nearly intact, along with hundreds of Navy and National Security Agency documents detailing how the United States conducted seagoing espionage.
Even now the debate continues about whether the Pueblo's commander, Lloyd M. Bucher, should have surrendered the ship without a fight.
He maintained in a recent interview that he doesn't believe he had any other recourse:
"That ship was designed to perform a mission (spying). It was inappropriate for wartime use. It was supposed to have been protected by other elements of the military. But no one expected it would be attacked."
Bucher 'Suffered Enough'
Bucher acknowledged that he has taken a lot of the blame for the incident. A naval court of inquiry even recommended that he be court-martialed, but he wasn't. John H. Chafee, secretary of the Navy at the time, said Bucher and the other crew members "had suffered enough."
The Pueblo skipper says there is plenty of blame to go around.
"I think mistakes were made across the board, starting with the State Department and continuing with the Navy and the National Security Agency," Bucher said. "My view is that everyone who had responsibility made some bad mistakes in evaluating the information they had available.
"It always turns out that whoever is at the lowest level is the one held to account, and, in this case, that was me."
Bucher's second in command, Lt. Edward R. Murphy Jr., argued in a book published three years after the episode that Bucher "more than any other person, more than the Navy itself," should bear "the major portion of responsibility for the series of oversights, blunders and just plain confused thinking which . . . closed off one after another of the alternatives that should have been available to us until we were finally, hopelessly trapped."
Still Blames Bucher
Murphy says he hasn't changed his mind. "Nothing mitigated that, other than public opinion."
He described Bucher's surrender of the ship without firing a shot as "part of the infamy of the Pueblo. Had there been another commander, there would not have been an incident."
James Bamford, an expert on the top-secret National Security Agency, agreed with Bucher that the mistakes that led to North Korea's seizure of the Pueblo can be traced to the top military brass.
The first mistake, and the biggest as it turned out, was the Navy's assumption that the Pueblo, a converted Army supply ship, and its sister electronic surveillance ships needed only to be armed with the right to sail in international waters.
As Rear Adm. Frank L. Johnson, who was chief of U.S. naval forces in Japan at the time of the Pueblo's capture, later explained:
"The feasibility of this type of operation is dependent to a large degree on the safety provided by the time-honored recognition of the freedom of the seas. This has gone on for over 150 years. No public vessel had been seized in all that time."
Armed With One Cannon
So the Pueblo was armed with only an on-deck cannon, two .50-caliber machine guns and assorted hand-held weapons.
The cannon proved to be useless when the North Koreans attacked because any crew member manning it would have been directly exposed to gunfire, Bucher later told a Navy court of inquiry.
In addition, the Navy had no ships stationed nearby that could counterattack. The Pueblo was all alone.
"The commander was in an impossible position," said W. Thomas Mallison, professor emeritus of international law at George Washington University. "He could have done what he did, with a minimal loss of life. Or he could have fought it out in the tradition of 'don't give up the ship,' and there would have been a slaughter."
Bamford says he is not convinced that the Pueblo remained outside the 12-mile limit recognized as international waters. U.S. spy planes and ships "have a tendency to actually penetrate closer to pick up more signals," he says.
Had Been Aggressive Before
Even if the Pueblo remained more than 12 miles off the coast of North Korea, Bamford says, "there were a lot of arguments that the United States should have anticipated that North Korea might have done this. North Korea had been aggressive against what they suspected were espionage ships and planes."
In addition, Bamford says, the ship was carrying far too many classified documents because it "was just the policy of the Navy to send out documents to all ships, whether they needed them or not."
Compounding the problem was insufficient equipment to destroy the documents.
A shredder aboard the Pueblo quickly became jammed with the piles of papers anxious crew members shoved into it. Crewmen tried burning the documents in waste baskets, but smoke quickly filled the cabins. And there were not enough weighted bags to toss all the secret materials overboard.
Bamford says that after the Pueblo episode, the Navy and the National Security Agency abandoned spying from small ships and now use destroyers or destroyer escorts that can defend themselves. The disadvantage is that such a big ship can't hide.
'Can't Sail Unnoticed'
"A destroyer just can't sail unnoticed along a country's coastline," Bamford says. "It's like having a tank in front of your house."
The crewmen themselves speak more of the trauma of their captivity in North Korea than the loss of their ship.
During the court of inquiry hearings, they spoke of brutal beatings and torture.
Murphy, who now sells campers in El Cajon, says he still has periods when he can't move because "my back was totally redesigned by rifle butts and boot kickings."
James R. Kell, who was chief communications technician on the Pueblo and is now director of finance for El Cajon, remembers one particularly bad nightmare about the beatings about two years after he and the other crew members were released.
"It was one of the more frightening times," he says.
No Help From Soviets
All the while, U.S. officials in Washington were debating what to do. They demanded that the North Koreans release their captives, to no avail. They tried to get the Soviets to help. No luck there either.
They debated military choices, including storming Wonsan harbor and forcibly retrieving the ship or seizing a North Korean ship for bargaining power. But, recalls then-National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow, "there were no hawks. The intelligence was already in North Korea's hands. So, we had no satisfactory options. We all agreed that our task was to get the men back and to do so without lying."
Eventually, the United States did come up with a solution, although it was a strange one.
Nicholas Katzenbach, who was undersecretary of state at the time, recalled in an interview that a foreign service officer came up to his office sometime in early December, 1968.
"The officer had spent some time in Korea and said the Koreans were so compulsive about things that if we were to admit all the things we were accused of, but start by saying we didn't do any of these things and end with another denial, we might get them out," Katzenbach said.
Takes Plan to President
"It seemed far-fetched to me, but I said I would give it a try. I went to President (Lyndon B.) Johnson, and he agreed that it was farfetched, but he said he was willing to give it a try."
The strategy worked. On Dec. 21, Maj. Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward, the chief U.S. negotiator in talks with the North Koreans, signed a statement acknowledging that the Pueblo had "illegally intruded into the territorial waters of North Korea" and apologizing for "the grave acts committed by the U.S. ship against" North Korea. Both before and afterward, he read into the record a statement disavowing the confession.
Two days later, exactly 11 months after the Pueblo was seized, the crew walked to freedom.