Remembering North Korea's Audacious Capture Of The USS Pueblo 50 years ago North Korea attacked and captured a U.S. Navy spy ship. The U.S. chose negotiation rather than force to free the crew. Both sides learned lessons that resonate to the present day.
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Remembering North Korea's Audacious Capture Of The USS Pueblo

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Remembering North Korea's Audacious Capture Of The USS Pueblo

Remembering North Korea's Audacious Capture Of The USS Pueblo

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This is a story about a standoff between the United States and North Korea. We are not talking about the current tensions over nuclear weapons. This standoff occurred 50 years ago today when North Korean forces attacked the spy ship USS Pueblo off the east coast of North Korea.


The North Koreans eventually captured the vessel and its 82 surviving crew members. As part of our series looking back at the events of 1968 which shaped today's world, NPR national security correspondent David Welna reports on the saga of the Pueblo and its crew.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The waters off San Diego are where the USS Pueblo made its last port call in the U.S., bound for international waters off North Korea. For an eyewitness account of what happened when it got there, I visit a former crew member in the San Diego suburb of Bonita.

BOB CHICCA: I am Bonita's token POW (laughter).

WELNA: Retired Staff Sergeant Bob Chicca was one of two U.S. Marines assigned to the Pueblo. Unlike the rest of the crew, they both spoke some Korean.

CHICCA: They wanted a Korean linguist onboard, and I was it.

WELNA: That's because the Pueblo was on its maiden voyage as a spy ship masquerading as an environmental research vessel. Its mission - gathering intelligence electronically on the Soviet Union and North Korea for the Navy and the National Security Agency.

CHICCA: We were out there alone. That's why the ship's song was "The Lonely Bull" - 'cause we went out alone. And we were supposed to just collect intelligence and not cause trouble.

WELNA: But trouble came to the Pueblo.

CHICCA: That's a painting done of the attack on the ship.

WELNA: A big oil painting on Chicca's living room wall shows six North Korean warships and two MiG jet fighters firing on the Pueblo as black smoke rises from its deck.

CHICCA: They shot us up for two to three hours.

WELNA: What was that like?

CHICCA: Kind of gruesome (laughter). I got shot in the capture right there.

WELNA: A 57-millimeter shell hit him in the groin after tearing through two other crew members, killing one of them. The Pueblo was virtually defenseless. It had only two small machine guns draped with ice-encrusted tarps.

CHICCA: The last conversations we got over the radio was that help was on the way. Obviously it wasn't.


LYNDON B JOHNSON: What's your speculation on what happened?

ROBERT MCNAMARA: Mr. President, I honestly don't know.

WELNA: The next day, President Lyndon Johnson gets on the phone with his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who promises a speedy response.


MCNAMARA: I think we need a Cuban missile crisis approach to this. And God damn it, we ought to get locked in a room, and you ought to keep us there, insist we stay there until we come up with answers to three questions. What was the Korean objective? Why did they do it? Secondly, what are they going to do now, blackmail us, let it go? And thirdly, what should we do now?

WELNA: LBJ settles on a show of force. The next day he sends the aircraft carrier Enterprise closer to North Korea and activates Army Reserve units. Here's "ABC Evening News" anchor Bob Young.


BOB YOUNG: The Pueblo incident and today's military call-up come at a time when America is already engaged in one war, a war that has been challenged politically here at home almost as much it has been challenged militarily on the battlefields in Vietnam.

WELNA: Unlike today, when it's South Korea pressing for diplomacy with the North, back then Seoul was demanding a military response. Mitchell Lerner is a historian and Korea expert at Ohio State.

MITCHELL LERNER: The Pueblo is not just captured in a vacuum. It's at the same time that the North has launched an assassination attempt against Korean President Park Chung-hee that narrowly misses. So the South is really irate. And they are demanding that they march north and that the United States back them up.

WELNA: But the Johnson administration, mired in the Vietnam War, has no stomach for possibly restarting the Korean War. Instead, the U.S. spends month after month haggling with North Korea over releasing the Pueblo and its crew. Pyongyang insists the U.S. apologize for intruding in its territorial waters. In San Diego, I also talk with Eddie Murphy. He was the Pueblo's navigator and second in command. North Korea's claims, he says, were nonsense.

EDDIE MURPHY: At all times we were in international waters we never violated the 12-mile limit, never, ever penetrated the 12-mile limit.

WELNA: Did you come close to that 12-mile limit?

MURPHY: We were about 12.8 at one point. But never, ever did we violate their waters.

WELNA: While talks drag on the North Koreans beat, starve and torture their American captives, demanding written confessions. The Pueblo's commander, Lloyd Bucher, at first resists. But upon being told if he does not confess his fellow crew members will be executed, he agrees, but does so with an insulting play on words.


LLOYD BUCHER: The absolute truth of this bowel-wrenching confession is attested to by my fervent desire to paean the Korean People's Army Navy and their government.

WELNA: Paean, spelled P-A-E-A-N, means a tribute. At a reunion of the Pueblo's crew members years later Bucher, who died in 2004, recalls the trick he played on the North Koreans with his choice of words.


BUCHER: I was able to get them to buy the idea that we were all eager to paean North Korea, to paean Kim Il Sung and to paean their army and navy.


WELNA: Crew members also extended their middle fingers in photos North Korea unwittingly distributed worldwide. Pyongyang, meantime, is demanding what it calls the three A's - that the U.S. admit the Pueblo invaded their waters, apologize for having done so, and assure it would never happen again. On December 23, exactly 11 months after the Pueblo's capture, U.S. Army General Gilbert Woodward agrees to put his signature on such a statement. But he first makes clear he's doing so for just one reason.


MAJ GEN GILBERT WOODWARD: I will sign the document to free the crew and only to free the crew.

WELNA: But the crew is all the U.S. gets back.

JACK CHEEVERS: And it turned out that a lot of things had fallen into the Communists' hands.

WELNA: Jack Cheevers wrote "Act Of War," a history of the Pueblo incident. He says 10 encryption machines and thousands of top secret documents aboard the Pueblo fell into North Korean and eventually Soviet hands.

CHEEVERS: It'd been a tremendous loss, much worse than originally was feared. One of the NSA historians described it as everyone's worst nightmare. And it was considered the worst intelligence loss in modern history.

WELNA: The crew came home to San Diego, but the Pueblo itself remains in North Korea, part of a war museum. This video now plays aboard the captured ship.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The U.S. imperialists went down on their knees again before the independent army and people of Korea and signed the instrument of surrender.

VAN JACKSON: It's when David took on Goliath and won.

WELNA: Van Jackson was the Pentagon's top adviser on North Korea in the Obama administration. He's written a book on how because of the Pueblo incident the U.S. established a reputation in North Korea for backing down which continues to this day.

JACKSON: It was a hell of an embarrassment to the United States. It still is. But for North Korea this was a very proud moment that emboldened them to do more of this activity. They look at America's track record of restraint. And that's what they learned from.

WELNA: For LBJ, the Pueblo stood as a bad omen. Again, historian Lerner.

LERNER: In his memoirs he said if there's one day for me that symbolized the chaos of 1968 it was the morning I woke up and found out the Pueblo had been captured.

WELNA: Former crewman Chicca, for his part, doubts the U.S. Navy's learned much from the Pueblo incident.

CHICCA: I think they would prefer to forget it occurred. And the Pueblo is an Indian village in the desert, not a ship.

WELNA: American forbearance did ultimately free Pueblo's crew and avoid war. But North Korea also learned from the episode that standing up to a military colossus, much as it is today with its nuclear weapons buildup, is a risk it's willing to take. David Welna, NPR News, San Diego.


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