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Incident Report:

A MATTER OF ¼ MONEY

 

When the Court of Inquiry was announced, it was decided that it would be held, for the convenience of the main participants, in the theater of the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California.

Coronado is a small, brass-encrusted Navy village just across the bay to the south of San Diego. The Naval Amphibious Base theater seats about a hundred and fifty people.

The small size necessitated limiting the press corps to about a dozen, so that the public could also attend the proceedings. Needless to say, the severe limitations of the press corps caused a storm of protest because this was the stuff of which history was made and the Pueblo story was front page on every newspaper in the nation. Every paper, TV, and radio station wanted to be represented, and only a small handful could be represented.

Through a selection process known to only a very few in Washington, the lucky dozen  were selected – numbered among whom was one Trevor Armbrister.

Trevor came to San Diego representing the then-famous Saturday Evening Post, but almost upon his arrival the Post closed its doors.

Now here was Trevor with his very valuable press credentials, but no one to represent. Apparently, Saga, a man's magazine, was only too happy to have a representative at the Inquiry, so a deal was struck.

I couldn't tell you, without research, the names of the famous dozen who were covering the Inquiry, but I remember Trevor for two reasons. The first was that he was by far the most visible, the hardest-working, the most inquiring of the reporter lot. Not just immediately before the Inquiry, but during, and most importantly, after the Inquiry was over.

I met with Trevor several times, including a great lunch at the Hotel Del Coronado. He was always pressing for information. After the Court of Inquiry was over, I received calls from Kansas to Yokosuka from Pueblo crewmembers who wanted to know if it was OK for them to talk with a Trevor Armbrister. It was fine with me, and it was obvious that Trevor was doing the most detailed investigation of anyone on the subject of the Pueblo seizure.

Jean and I said several times that we could hardly wait for the Armbrister story to come out in Saga – it had to be the most detailed analysis available. When the story was published in Saga, I read it and passed it to Jean without comment. She read it and said, "You could have tossed off that story in half an hour!"

We looked at one another and said to each other at the same time, "Book."

Trevor was using all the gathered material for a book. When it hit the streets it was, indeed, the definitive story of the Pueblo. It was an exhaustive analysis of all aspects of the Pueblo, without emphasis on any one area. Bucher's book, Bucher, My Story, was much more personal and much better regarding the actual capture and the internment of the crew. Certainly that was a story that Bucher knew better than anyone.

But Trevor was telling the story on a broader plane. He was tracking the events at the White House, at COMNAVFORJAPAN Headquarters in Yokosuka, and at CINCPAC's Headquarters in Hawaii. Although he was not particularly kind to Rose and me in his book, still he did do the best overall job of encompassing the entire event.

Trevor is probably most responsible for my failure to retire at a grade higher than Lieutenant Commander. His book came out just a few weeks before my Commanders Board met, and the book was almost required reading in Washington. In the book, Trevor committed a sin that I have always used in University teaching as an example of the difference between "true" and "accurate."

Trevor quoted me as having said in an interview with him, "My wife is a right-wing reactionary extremist, well to the left of me." I said that. Exactly those words, but to be accurate, it should have been reported as follows: "My wife is a right-wing reactionary extremist, well to the left of me," Hemphill said laughingly. (Prolog: To his everlasting credit, Trevor read this account on-line and e-mailed me an apology. That took major cajones, especially since it had been the reaction to his initial account, not the account itself, that had caused me to be the victim of Unintended Consequences. Trevor is a stand-up guy.) 

Actually I was, and am, a Libertarian. At the time, I was not registered as a Libertarian because there was no such political party, but I had been a Libertarian since 1964, and have been registered in that Party almost since its inception. I am not a "right-wing extremist" and only jokingly said so in the interview. The quote was true – it was not accurate because it did not convey the meaning of the words. There is a great difference between "I am going to kill you" said in anger between two knife-wielding men, and the same words playfully said by frolicking lovers.

Apparently, the Commanders Board cannot take a joke, although, in all honesty, I did not have much chance of promotion because of all the publicity linking my name with the Pueblo seizure from the beginning. I did have a friendly Captain sitting on my Board. He told me that I was not rejected outright, but was reconsidered several times before final exclusion, and that the Pueblo affair had been my undoing. Since I had been one of the fastest officers ever qualified for Officer of the Deck on a major ship, one of the most junior officers ever to Qualify for Command of Submarines, one of the most junior officers to command a major Reserve Training Center on the West Coast, especially one that had additional duty as the Officer in Charge of a Reserve Submarine, and that I had been recommended by one of my submarine commanding officers for early selection to Commander, something must have happened for me not to make early selection, not to make regular selection, and to twice fail late selection to Commander. 

One of the civilians who worked with me at the Naval Electronics Laboratory Center, and who disagreed with our strategy to keep the Pueblo affair before the public, said, "I disagree with you, but if there is ever another war, I hope (Washington) knows what your phone number is."

I consider that a great compliment. 

Trevor is now a Senior Editor of Readers Digest.

 

After more than two decades of neglect, there is a new book on the 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo. This new book, superbly researched by an Assistant Professor of History at Ohio University, used recently-released official documents. In fact, there are 28 full pages of footnotes. Just released, the book is The Pueblo Incident by Matthew Lerner, published by the University Press of Kansas.

The book lacks the pathos of Bucher’s first-person account in Bucher, My Story, and it does not have the immediacy of Trevor Armbrister’s A Matter of Accountability, but it does have the advantage of sober reflection and an historian’s research.

The book places the incident in context. It examines the cultural context of the Navy in a time of austerity, the nation in a time of war, the US political scene in a time of LBJ frustration with riots and political assassinations, and the international situation dominated by the coldest part of the Cold War.

This context is necessary for a valid reflection on this controversial subject, because we can’t accurately superimpose today’s values on past events.

While many in the Navy were absorbed by the seizure, and San Diego was particularly sensitive, the nation barely noticed the seizure of the Pueblo. Lerner notes that “…public apathy marked the eleven-month ordeal.” He remarks that Time Magazine, nine months into the captivity of the crew, carried a propaganda picture of the crew with a small caption – but had room in the issue for five paragraphs about Rhodesia, four paragraphs about Panama and four more paragraphs about the Congo. He further notes that Time left the Pueblo entirely off the list of problems to be faced by the in-coming Nixon administration, while Newsweek mentioned the Pueblo ten times in February but only four time between May and September.

Lerner’s treatment of the Pueblo’s Commanding Officer is highly commendatory. The dust jacket says, “In fact, (Commander Loyd Mark “Pete”) Bucher emerges for the first time as the truly steadfast hero his men have always considered him.” Lerner takes each scenario of the event, quotes those who criticize Bucher and then analyzes the situation as to the options available to Bucher. In every case, Lerner demonstrates that, given each “no-win” situation, Bucher selected the best option available.

Lerner cites many comments from the crew, all of whom hold Bucher in an almost God-like position. On the day after the return of the crew I personally witnessed crewmembers on their knees, with tears running down their faces, trying to touch Bucher’s trouser legs as he walked into the Christmas dinner hall.

This book was preceded in the past few months by the Ollie North War Story on Fox, chronicling the Pueblo story. I contributed to that  TV program and was given a name credit at the end. Other books on the subject are on the way, and I will be a contributor to those. The author of this current book had no contact with Bucher or with me; it was simply “from the record.”

If you have an interest in history, or just have forgotten the Pueblo incident, this is as good as it is going to get. For now, this is the “book of record” on the subject.

 

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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Allen Hemphill
Last modified: August 13, 2012