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Incident Report -- The Seizure of the Pueblo





The seizure of the Pueblo was the subject of Congressional hearings, a Court of Inquiry, a dozen books, and a thousand newspaper and magazine articles, but now, more than 34 years later, there needs to be a re-examination of the very complicated events of January 23, 1968.

There is little disagreement about the facts of the seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo (AGER-2). There is much disagreement about what efforts should have been taken by various people.

While more than 12 miles off the territorial waters of North Korea, conducting electronic intelligence, the U.S.S. Pueblo, a 25-year-old converted Army coastal freighter, was surrounded and seized by the North Koreans.

The Pueblo had been taken out of mothballs, where it had spent some 15 years, because it was not an obvious Navy intelligence ship. It was, and looked for all the world to be, a small coastal freighter – smaller than many Navy seagoing tugs. Being small and civilian-looking, it would not draw attention to itself as it traveled up and down various coasts intercepting electronic intelligence such as phone calls and radar frequencies. The Navy had four such vessels at the time, compared to 40 similar Soviet vessels that did comparable missions around Western coasts.

During the fitting-out period in Bremerton, it became obvious to Cdr. L. M. Bucher, the Commanding Officer, that the onboard capabilities were inadequate to destroy all the classified material the ship would carry. Only axes and a small incinerator were provided, and a ship that would carry as much classified material as an intelligence ship would surely need much more.

And so, months before the ship was launched, Bucher sent a work request, dated June 9, 1967, to the Commander, Naval Ship Systems Command, requesting more destruction capability. The message read "The scope of security-sensitive equipment installed aboard, together with other classified material, renders their quick destruction impossible using conventional destruction means, i.e. fire axe, sledge hammer, destruction bags. An explosive destruction means should be provided the ship which will enable the commanding officer to thoroughly destroy all sensitive 'classified material' quickly should the need arrive.[1]"

CNO, who was an information addressee on the message, asked Chief of Naval Material in a subsequent message, dated July 5, 1967, to review the problem addressed by Bucher's message. In particular, CNO asked CHNAVMAT to review the desirability of "installing an explosive system to destroy sensitive 'classified material' quickly."[2]  Commander, Naval Ships Command, replied on July 18, 1967, that Bucher was correct but that, unfortunately, there was no such destruction capability available. In part, the return message read, "A destruct system for sensitive 'classified material' and components is considered highly desirable. However, accomplishment in the installed equipment would provide doubtful effectiveness. To have an explosive charge in the precise location that will completely destroy the equipment, the equipment itself must be designed around the charge. Experience has shown that changes added to existing equipment may provide only partial destruction..." And so, based upon this analysis, CNO refused to authorize an explosive destruction system for Pueblo.  (The Navy installed full explosive devices on the Pueblo's sister ship, U.S.S. Banner, for critical electronic devices on February 28, 1969, and, on December 8, 1968, for scuttling the ship. Both systems could be initiated by key from the bridge and from the Commanding Officer’s quarters. Further, the Navy subsequently commenced printing all critical publications on water-soluble paper so that the publications would become unreadable simply by soaking them. 

In an attempt to remain inconspicuous, the U.S.S. Pueblo was not initially burdened with guns for defense, because they would have belied the attempt to make it look like a small cargo vessel. In any case, the size armament that could have been put on such a small ship would provide it no protection against any ship of the line. During the pre-commissioning in Bremerton there was some discussion of putting a 3" gun aboard, because of the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty which had just cost 38 American lives. The idea was abandoned when it became obvious that even a 3" gun would have been so heavy as to make the Pueblo un-seaworthy.

Later, partially as a result of the Israeli attack on the Liberty, and just before the ship was sent to the Orient from San Diego, a decision was made to put armament no smaller than 20 mm cannon (two twin mounts) on all intelligence vessels[3]. Days before the actual deployment from Japan to the coast of North Korea, a decision by COMNAVFORJAPAN was made to substitute smaller, fewer, and essentially Army .50 caliber single machine guns on the bow and stern. As the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Thomas Moorer, was later to testify before Congress, "...the guns on the Pueblo are for antipersonnel purposes and we did not put them on toward a view of having her engaged in a pitched battle with superior firepower." Essentially, COMNAVFORJAPAN decided to substitute smaller .50 caliber Army machine guns for the CNO-directed 20 mm guns, and to reduce the ordered number from four to two. (Additionally, according to a prepared statement that COMNAVFORJAPAN read before the House Subcommittee, "Frankly, I was somewhat opposed to arming the AGERs for the following reasons: 16 unarmed missions had been successfully conducted as of December 19, 1967; armed AGERs might be considered provocative; capabilities of the weapons were marginal in any except limited circumstances, such as against small boats and personnel; and their availability on board might encourage ill-advised counteraction by the AGER's and create the opposite of the unopposed use of and safety on the high seas. Furthermore, on three prior surveillance missions, foreign ships had trained guns on the U.S.S. Banner as a harassment tactic. This again created the possibility of an armed AGER and an opposing ship escalating a simple confrontation into a more serious shooting situation. On the first mission to be conducted by an armed AGER, the U.S.S. Pueblo, I was concerned in regard to the reaction of unfriendly countries. As a result, and in order to minimize provocative action by the Pueblo, the Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. Pueblo was directed to keep the installed defensive armament covered or stowed so as not to elicit unusual interest, to employ weapons only when the threat to survival was obvious, and was advised that the application of force through the use of arms was authorized only as a last resort in self defense[4]."  

On the fateful day of January 23, 1968, the Pueblo was engaged by three vastly faster torpedo boats with a total of six heavier 20 mm cannons and six torpedoes, and a submarine chaser with a 3" cannon and two 37 mm cannons. The speed of the torpedo boats was more than 50 knots, and the speed of the submarine chaser was 25 knots. The maximum speed of the Pueblo was 13.5 knots. Additionally, the North Koreans had two MIG fighter planes flying overhead, one of which made a strafing and rocket run.

Any way you look at it, this was the "superior firepower" that the Pueblo was never designed to compete against. The "A" in the Pueblo designation "AGER" designates the Pueblo as an "auxiliary" ship, one that depends on "ships of the line" for its protection.

No protection was provided for the Pueblo, probably because the stationing of a combatant ship in the vicinity would have drawn attention to the non-commercial identity of the Pueblo. Additionally, the Pueblo was protected by the flag of the United States – or so everyone thought. No nation had attempted to seize an American Naval ship on the high seas in more than 150 years, and it was assumed that no nation was likely to seize one now.

Unfortunately, the North Korean government is so bizarre that it has always been a loose cannon even in the Communist camp, and while we might have been operating under the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, the North Koreans were operating under the Marquis de Sade's Rules.

For reasons best known to the North Koreans, someone decided to commence firing on the Pueblo. Before the North Koreans commenced firing, the Pueblo, which had been lying at rest, hoisted an international flag message which said, "We are involved in scientific research." When the North Koreans ordered the Pueblo to permit a boarding party, the Pueblo slowly (it could only go slowly!) got underway and proceeded seaward.

The sister ship of the Pueblo, the U.S.S. Banner, had been harassed on 10 of her previous 16 missions, so the appearance of the North Korean naval armada and MIGs was not totally unexpected, nor were their threats to open fire or to board the Pueblo. Those threats had also been part of the previous pattern of harassment. The Pueblo, in keeping with orders, just headed slowly out to sea and filed a "Pinnacle 1" situation report with COMMNAVFORJAPAN.

This time, the North Koreans were not fooling. The Banner had made only two short cruises off Wonsan, once for a day and a half, and once just cruising by for a quick electronic listen. In neither case had the Banner been hassled off Wonsan, and the powers in Washington at the Joint Chiefs of Staff had decided that this first cruise of the Pueblo was of "minimal risk." Independent analysis at the Hawaii headquarters of Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), and in Yokosuka at COMNAVFORJAPAN also agreed the risk of the mission to be minimal. There was some background noise increase – the incidents of shooting and seizing South Korean ships had increased from some 50 two years previously to more than 540 incidents in the last year. And, after the Pueblo had set sail and before she arrived on station off Wonsan, the North Koreans had attempted an assassination of the President of South Korea.

Someone in the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington, the top super secret spook agency in the world and to whom the intelligence attachment on board the Pueblo reported, got nervous about the Pueblo.

Experience in traditionally dangerous operations of all types makes the participants in those activities place many barriers in the way of harm. It was not possible for the Pueblo, Challenger, or Chernoby to destruct without many mistakes being made in a sequence that finally leads to an inevitable  problem. Invariably, if someone, somewhere screws up and does something right, the disaster is averted. So it was with Pueblo. There were plenty of mistakes made for everyone to have a share in the disaster, from CNO, to NSA, to CINCPAC, to COMNAVFORJAPAN, to Bucher.

The Navy had decided at the start of the covert intelligence operations using small, unarmed or lightly armed ships, that they would not send any ship into any situation where the intelligence analysis indicated that there might be any danger. Assessing these risks, the lowest risk is designated "minimal" and it was decided that only risks designated minimal would elicit an operation. The Pueblo mission was initially designated “Minimal Risk.”. Reassigning a category of risk higher than "minimal" would have immediately canceled the Pueblo mission. Those previous missions of the Banner had each been classified as "minimal risk," but in three of those missions, specific ships or planes had been placed on "standby" to provide assistance if it had been necessary. Someone in NSA sent a message to CINCPAC, COMNAVFORJAPAN, and CNO, saying that it was the opinion of NSA that the Pueblo mission was of a higher risk than the original "minimal" designation made when the mission was planned.

The message from NSA to all concerned never reached the appropriate hands in any of the naval commands. It was received by each command and handled by a relatively junior officer who decided, in each case, that it was not necessary to be actually seen by the Admiral in charge. The message went to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but no senior member of the JCS saw the message. The message was sent to the Commander in Chief, Pacific, Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, who never saw the message.  The message was sent to the Chief of Naval Operations, and was seen by his staff, but never passed to the CNO. Evidence from testimony before Congress indicates that if the Pueblo mission had not been labeled "minimal risk" it would have been canceled. Even some of those Banner missions that were listed as "minimal risk" were protected – and no mission by any similar vessel was ever undertaken that was selected as higher than "minimal risk."

A reading of the book "Attack on the Liberty" will show similar communications failures. Further, the subsequent downing of the EC-121 just 15 months after the seizure of the Pueblo had similar problems. The message of the EC-121 loss was not received by General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, until one hour and 38 minutes after the event, the Secretary of Defense, two hours and 33 minutes, and the Secretary of the Navy, seven hours and 55 minutes[5].

It should be remembered that at that time 250,000 messages were being sent by the Armed Forces each day, and that in some cases these messages were actually delivered to some member of the staff, as happened in the NSA messages warning that the Pueblo might need to be reclassified higher than the "minimal risk," but that the staff never actually showed the message to the Senior Officer.

The first indication of a difference between previous harassments of the Banner and the Pueblo incident came when a round from a 3" gun from the submarine chaser tore away the special antennas through which the Pueblo could have communicated directly with the White House, and it severely wounded Cdr. Bucher. One piece of shrapnel pierced directly up Cdr. Bucher's anus, and another 13 pieces ripped his leg to a bloody mess.

At this point the Pueblo was ordered to full speed (!) and sent a "Flash" message to the Commander of Naval Forces Japan (COMNAVFORJAPAN) that the North Koreans had commenced firing.

This news certainly did not please the Commander, Naval Forces Japan, Admiral Johnson. This was not the first time that a full intelligence mission had taken place off the territory of North Korea. The Pueblo had a "sister ship", the U.S.S. Banner (AGER-1), and the Banner had conducted missions, during which time she had been "harassed" – including being bumped by the North Koreans – ten times. During three of the previous sixteen missions of the Banner, the Navy Department had made special preparations for contingency alerts to provide ship and air cover.

There was no contingency plan for immediate assistance to the Pueblo. In fact, without making special arrangements for taking the assets of other commands, COMNAVFORJAPAN had but two ships under his immediate command – the Banner and the Pueblo! The decision to provide special cover for the three missions during which the Banner had been provided contingent protection was made, according to testimony of Admiral Moorer before Congress, by COMNAVFORJAPAN.

As usual, when the mission was planned, commencing in October of 1967, a "risk assessment" had been made, and there was a decision that this first Pueblo mission deserved no special protection. Most missions had no protection except for the sight of the flag of the United States being broken when the ship was approached in a hostile manner. That single act had been very successful for more than a century, because nations historically fear the might of the United States. Under International Law, Navy ships are considered to be a piece of the physical territory of the nation whose flag she flies. Consequently, a nation would not any more consider the seizure of a ship than it would consider the seizure of an embassy.

With 20/20 hindsight it is easy to second guess that decision about extra protection for the Pueblo, but at the time it was probably pretty rational to say that no one had seized an American ship on the high seas since 1807 and that it was very unlikely that anyone would do so on January 23, 1968. That very rational assessment was very wrong. (Actually, an American ship had been seized even more recently, and seized without a shot being fired. The ship was the U.S.S. Wake (PR-3), seized by the Japanese in 1941 in Shanghai by the Japanese. The Wake was much more heavily armed than the Pueblo!)

Now the lack of forces available for air cover, the lack of serious armament and the lack of explosive devices to destroy literally tons of equipment and books combined to make an impossible situation.

Under a rain of 20 mm cannon fire and 3" cannon fire, the Pueblo limped slowly toward the open ocean. Too slow to run and too weak to fight, Bucher fought for time to destroy classified material and to permit air cover to get to his position. If there was going to be air cover.

There is disagreement between Bucher and the Navy, and the testimony before Congressional Committees by all the brass does little to clarify things. Bucher contends that during the briefing conducted by the staff of CINCPAC in Hawaii he was promised assistance if anything went amiss. The testimony of CNO, CINCPAC, and COMNAVFORJAPAN before the Special Subcommittee on the U.S.S. Pueblo of the Committee on Armed Forces of the House of Representatives is as confusing as it is enlightening.

What all the testimony boils down to is that regardless of any promises or understandings, there were no forces close enough to the Pueblo to have had an effect on the seizure. The planes on the Enterprise were 510 miles away, but no one ordered an immediate launch, and it would have been necessary for the planes, because of the distance, to have remained on station for only a very short time, after which they would have been compelled to land in Japan.

The only planes launched without orders from a higher command were launched by the Commander of the 5th Air Force, Gen. McKee. (Gen McKee was the only operational commander who was in his office at the time the Pueblo was seized, and who had the assets and the fortitude to react immediately.) These planes were launched from Okinawa, an hour and 23 minutes after they were ordered to launch. The delay was the need to arm them. They were ordered to land in Osan, South Korea for refueling. They were held on the ground there because by the time they could have arrived at the Pueblo, General McKee deemed it would be too dark for the planes to distinguish the Pueblo from the attacking ships. At the time, it was impossible for the aircraft to distinguish between friend and foe in a swirling sea fight at close quarters, at least without prior electronic arrangements. There was a delay somewhere between the time the Navy said they called Gen. McKee and the time the General's staff said they received the call (the Navy said it called at 1:30 PM local time, but the duty officer for the Air Force said he received the call at 2:00 PM). Regardless, Gen. McKee was the only commander that reacted to the calls for assistance by doing anything except relaying the messages to other commands that already had the Pueblo calls for help. Gen. McKee testified that if he had been requested to provide support for the Pueblo mission he would have had planes on strip alert in South Korea which would have been 45 minutes from the Pueblo – and would have arrived in plenty of time. No request was made for such assistance from COMNAVFORJAPAN.

The only U.S. planes actually capable of arrival over the site of the seizure in a timely manner were about 10 F-105 Air Force planes on strip alert in South Korea, but they were configured for nuclear weapons delivery and did not have conventional capability. It would have taken three hours to have reconfigured the F-105s. Actually, there were properly-equipped South Korean Air Force planes which could have been available for assistance to the Pueblo, but General McKee was advised by General Bonesteel, the senior commander in South Korea, not to ask for such assistance[6].

No help was available, but Bucher did not know that. In fact, once the Pueblo left the port of Sasebo, Japan, no official message was ever again sent to the Pueblo by anyone. Bucher, on the day of the seizure, sent only two official messages regarding the incident. The remaining information was sent by the radio operators in what the Navy characterizes as "operator-to-operator" conversations. In most cases, these unofficial conversations have to do with girls, liberty ports and Christmas gifts – just continual conversation to keep communications open and to alert both sides when atmospheric conditions warrant changing frequencies. As communications begin to fade between operators who are keeping up rather constant chatter, the operators can agree on a new frequency to continue the communications. If communications get lost because the channel was not kept open by constant chatter, it is necessary to scan many potential frequencies to find one agreeable to both operators. It is therefore necessary to keep talking once communications is open in a highly charged atmosphere where loss of communications for even a few minutes might be important.

In the case of the Pueblo seizure, the "operator-to-operator" communications became vital because Bucher was too busy to send off any more "official" messages. He was trying to maneuver toward the open sea under cannon raking, checking three wounded men and one dying man, and yelling at the communications destruction team to hurry up. Badly wounded himself, Bucher was delaying the seizure by appearing to go as fast as he could while actually following the North Korean guide ships at 1/3 speed, sending confusing signals to the North Koreans, and occasionally stopping.

It was during one of the delaying stops that the North Korean SO-3 opened up again with its 3" gun and Duane Hodges was killed. Bucher went below to comfort Hodges.

The unofficial "operator-to-operator" messages from the Pueblo to the communications station of COMNAVFORJAPAN at Kamiseya, Japan, contained plaintive cries for help:

(1:37 PM)[1:27 PM?] "They plan to open fire on us. They plan to open fire on us now. They plan to open fire on us now." This first message was the first clue that this incident was to be more than just another harassment. Unfortunately, because he was addressing a conference on cyclones in Tokyo, Bucher's immediate boss, Admiral Johnson, COMNAVFORJAPAN, would not get this message for ... minutes. The big boss in Hawaii, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, was flying between an aircraft carrier and Danang, Vietnam, and would not get this message until several hours later, after the final seizure of the Pueblo.

More "operator-to-operator" messages from the Pueblo were sent without the date and time that would indicate they were official messages: (1:28 PM) "North Korean war vessels plan to open fire."

(1:30 PM) "We are being boarded. (Repeated five times)... SOS (Repeated 13 times)...”

(1:31 PM) "We are holding emergency destruction. We need help. We are holding emergency destruction. We need support. SOS, SOS, SOS. Please send assistance. (Repeated four times.)...”

There followed several other messages regarding communications from the Pueblo. Then, at 1:45 PM, the Pueblo sent, “"We are being escorted into probably Wonsan – repeat Wonsan. Repeat Wonsan.”

Then, very rapidly, the following exchange took place between the Pueblo operator and the communications operator at Kamiseya:

(Pueblo) "Are you sending assistance?" (Repeated four times.)

(Kamiseya) "Word has gone to all authorities. Word has gone to all authorities. COMNAVFORJAPAN is requesting assistance. What key list do you have available? Last we got from you 'are you sending assistance'. Please advise what key lists you have left and if it appears your COMM(unications) spaces will be entered."

(Pueblo) "Have O key list and this only one have, have been requested to follow into Wonsan, have three wounded and one with leg blown off, have not used any weapons – 

At 2:10 PM, Kamiseya sent, "Still read you QRK fiver five. Go ahead keep KW-7 on the air as long as you can. We staying right with you."

2:11 PM (Pueblo) "Roger, Roger, will keep this up until the last minute and sure could use some help now."

2:12 (Kamiseya) "Roger, Roger. We still with you and doing all we can. Everyone really turning to and figure by now Air Force got some birds winging your way."

2:13 (Pueblo) "Roger, Roger, sure hope so. We are pretty busy with destruction right now. Can't see for the smoke."

2:14 (Kamiseya) "Roger, Roger, wish I could help more. All info you pass being sent to area commander and they in turn coordinating for whatever action got to be taken. Sure process already being initiated for some immediate relief. COMSEVENTHFLT, COMNAVFORJAPAN, and NSA Group PAC all got info right away."

There followed much of the same type of information between the two for another seven minutes, with the Pueblo requesting immediate assistance and Kamiseya assuring that everything possible was being done.

And everything possible was being done. Unfortunately, the Navy had placed itself in such a position that nothing could be done.

The testimony of CINCPAC before the House Subcommittee is instructive. This exchange between Congressman Alton Lennon and Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, CINCPAC at the time of the Pueblo seizure, sums up many interesting pages of obfuscation:

Mr. Lennon: "Would you repeat that?"

Adm. Sharp: "I said that I agree with you in this case, although the arrangements were there, the command and control arrangements, we couldn't do anything."

Mr. Lennon: "You couldn't utilize them?"

Adm. Sharp: "That is correct."

Mr. Lennon: "So what good are they?"

Adm. Sharp: "What was that?"

Mr. Lennon: "If they can't be used what good are they?"

Adm. Sharp: "Well, the circumstances in this case didn't allow us to take action using those command arrangements[7]."

Bucher was being kept advised of the promises from the Kamiseya operator, and, thinking that air support was soon to be overhead, he permitted the seven-man boarding party to come aboard 

Bucher calculated that when the promised air support, discussed on the communications network between operators, finally arrived to drive away the massive firepower of the surrounding ships, his 82 man crew could overpower the small North Korean boarding party. In retrospect, Bucher should have disabled his diesel engines so as to make the North Koreans slowly tow him into Wonsan.

But, thinking that there was air support on the way, and when it arrived he would need the engines to flee the scene under close air support, he did not disable his ship.

It is often said in the corporate world that you cannot make good decisions based on bad information. Bucher had unofficial, and bad, information, and, with 20/20 hindsight, it is obvious, even to Bucher, that he should have disabled his ship.

But he did not, and he was towed into Wonsan.



[1] pp. 729

[2] pp. 729

[3] CNO MSG of AUG. 28, 1967

[4] pp 737

[5] pp. 911

3 pp. 876-877

4 pp. 812-813


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