USS Pueblo – A U.S. Navy ship in North Korea

The USS Pueblo is a ship that many Americans may not have heard of. But it is an active Navy vessel that sits in the harbor of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. How did it get there?

USS Pueblo’s Coast Gaurd Service

The USS Pueblo began her life at the shipyards in of Kewaunee Wisconsin in the year of 1944.  She was to be a United States Army freight and passenger vessel. She was commissioned at New Orleans on the 7th of April  1945. She served as a coast guard manned Army vessel and was used for training civilian Personnel for the Army. At the time she had the designation of FP-344 (Freight and passenger). This was later changed to FS-344 (Freight and supply). She was taken out of active service in 1954.

U.S. Army Cargo Vessel FP-344 (1944) Fitting out at the Kewaunee Shipbuilding & Engineering Corp. shipyard, Kewaunee, Wisconsin, circa July 1944. FP-344 was later renamed FS-344. Transferred to the Navy in 1966, she became USS Pueblo (AGER-2). Courtesy of Kewaunee Shipbuilding Corp., 1968. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Transfer to the Navy

In 1964 the US Department of Defense decided that it needed smaller, cheaper and flexible vessels for intelligence collection operations. In other words, ships that would spy from a legal distance, picking up radio transmissions. The light cargo ships that had been mothballed for the last nine years. But they were deemed to be suitable ships for the purpose.

On the 12th of April 1966, FS-344 was transferred to the US Navy and was renamed USS Pueblo

Journey near North Korea

On the 11th of January 1968, the USS Pueblo left the US Naval Base at Sasebo Japan. It then headed northward to the Tsushima Strait in the Sea of Japan. Her orders where to intercept and conduct surveillance of Navy activity of the Soviet Union. It was also to gather signal and electronic intelligence from North Korea.  

On the 16th of January 1968, USS Pueblo arrived at the 42nd North parallel.  The plan for the patrol was not to get any closer than 13 nautical miles to the coast of North Korea. At night they would move out to a distance of between 18 to 20 nautical miles.  This proved to be a challenge is only two of the crew had good navigational experience. The captain later reported “I did not have a highly professional group of semen to do my navigational chores for me”

On the 20th of January 1968 a North Korean submarine chaser, came within 4000 yards of the Pueblo.

On the 22nd of January, 2 North Korean fishing boats named Rice Paddy 1 and Rice Paddy 2 came within 30 yards USS Pueblo.

What the crew of the USS Pueblo was unaware of at the time was an incident from earlier that day. A North Korean unit attempted to assassinate the South Korean president Park Tri at home. This is the executive Mansion known as the blue house. (South Korea’s equivalent of the White House )

This would have meant that tensions were extremely high between the two countries. It would have been valuable information for the crew to have. For some reason, they were not informed

The chase

On January 23rd USS Pueblo was approached by a submarine chaser and her nationality was challenged. The crew responded by raising the United States flag.

 The North Korean vessel then ordered the Pueblo to stand down or to be fired upon. The crew of the USS Pueblo then attempted to maneuver the ship away. However, the ship was considerably slower than the submarine chaser. Warning shots were fired by the North Korean ship.

 Over the Horizon 3 North Korean torpedo boats appeared. They started to chase the Pueblo as well and to attack the ship.

Damage to the USS Pueblo

 The North Korean attackers were soon joined by Mig Fighters.  A 4th torpedo boat and a 2nd submarine chaser then appeared on the horizon a short time later.

The ammunition on the Pueblo was stored below the decks and the machine guns were wrapped in cold weather tarps. This meant that the machine guns were not manned and no attempt was made to man them.

The USS Pueblo was seriously outgunned by 2 Submarine chasers, 4 torpedo boats, and 2 MIG fighters.

The crew of the Pueblo had been in contact with the Naval Security Group in Japan all throughout the incident.  The 7th Fleet command was fully aware of the Pueblo situation. Air cover was promised but it never came. There were no aircraft on alert and it was estimated a 2 to 3-hour delay in launching aircraft. The USS Enterprise was located 510 nautical miles to the south of Pueblo. However, her 4 planes on alert were not equipped for an air-to-surface engagement. The Enterprise Captian was also estimated that it would take 90 minutes to get the aircraft into the air.  The USS Pueblo was on her own.

The capture of the USS Pueblo

The crews of the North Korean vessels attempted to board. The crew of the Pueblo managed to Implement evasive maneuvers to prevent boarding for over 2 hours.

  Then a submarine Chaser opened fire killing one member of the crew.  The smaller North Korean vessels then fired machine guns into the Pueblo.  The crew signaled surrender and then beginning to destroy secret sensitive material.  It was later said that the volume of material on board was so large that it was not possible to destroy all before the ship was captured.

The USS Pueblo followed the North Korean vessels is ordered but then stopped just outside North Korean waters. She was fired upon again and a sailor was killed.  North Korean troops finally boarded the USS Pueblo at 5 minutes before 3 local time. 

 Crew members had their hands tied and they were blindfolded beaded and poked with bayonets.  Once the USS Pueblo entered North Korean territorial Waters she was boarded by high-ranking North Korean officials.

The crew of the USS Pueblo
North Korean Propaganda Poster Showing the crew of the USS Pueblo

What happened to the crew of the USS Pueblo?

The USS Pueblo was taken into the port at Wilson North Korea.  The crew was moved to a prisoner-of-war camp. Then later to another camp.   the crew was starved and regularly tortured while in North Korea custody.

The commander Lloyd M. Bucher was Tortured psychologically he was put through a mock firing squad in an effort to make him confess. The North Koreans threatened to kill his men in front of him. Only then did Bucher agreed to confess to spying on North Korea.

The confession

He wrote the confession himself and the North Koreans verified the meaning of what he wrote.  However, they took the meaning literally and they failed to catch a hidden meaning written into his confession.

Bucher used the word paean which means to worship. In his confession he wrote:

We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung”.

Commander Bucher

However, when he read it out, he pronounced the word “Pee on”

Negotiations by the U.S. Government

Negotiations for the release of the crew of the USS Pueblo took place at Panmunjom.  The South Koreans were left out of the discussion which left them very angry.

The North Koreans refused to release the crew unless the US admitted to: 

  • Violating their territorial waters
  • Illegally spying on North Korea

While the US negotiators resisted this, the North Koreans would not budge on this point.  Finally, with no other way to get the crew back safely, the US negotiators signed the paper. They admitted that the US had violated North Korean waters. However, after the release of the crew, this was disputed. A statement was released saying the signing only took place to get the crew released.

The bridge of no return with the crew of the USS Pueblo crossing into South Korea

The bridge of no return

On the 23rd of December 1968, the crew was taken by buses to the Korean demilitarized zone also known as the DMZ border with South Korea.  The men then crossed the bridge with the body of firemen Duane d Hodges who was killed during the capture. It was exactly 11 months to the day after being taken prisoner. The captain led the line of crewmen followed by the end executive officer Lieutenant Ed Murphy. He was the last man across the bridge.

An inquiry was held into the incident. Prosecutors wanted to bring charges against the captain for failing to fight back or to destroy sensitive information. The secretary of the Navy intervened and said “they have suffered enough”

Commander Bucher continued his Navy career until retirement.

The Soviet involvement

At the time, American officials had assumed that the capture of the USS Pueblo had been directed by the Soviet Union.  However, since the fall of the Soviet Union records have emerged. The records show that North Korea had acted alone. Also, it seems the incident harmed relations between North Korean and the rest of the Eastern Bloc 

The USS Pueblo today sits as a North Korea Tourist attraction
A North Korea Tourist attraction

The USS Pueblo Today

The USS Pueblo was moved to the Taedong river and is now a tourist attraction in Pyongyang. It is located next to the new “Fatherland War of Liberation Museum”. The ship was renovated and was made open to tourists. There is a video showing the North Korean perspective of the incident. Visitors are allowed to board the ship and see the secret code room and crew artifacts.

The USS Pueblo remains an active US Navy ship.

Check out the story of the SS Baychimo. The ghost ship of the arctic!

Photo credits

By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work by uploader, http://bjornfree.com/kim/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32488364

By Laika ac from USA – USS Pueblo, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31723345

By Enemenemu – Own work, based on positions in FOIA release document http://www.dod.gov/pubs/foi/reading_room/952.pdf, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9534337

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47712291

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