The crew of the US Navy’s intelligence ship USS Pueblo recently came together to commemorate the vessel’s seizure by North Korea.
On January 23, 1968, off the coast of Wonson, North Korea attacked the Pueblo and seized it, along with its 83-person crew. After the initial assault, which resulted in the death of one crew member, the surviving Marines and sailors were held captive for 11 months.
Of these, three crew members, Don Peppard, now 86, Bob Chicca, who is 79, and Rick Rogala, aged 76, were in attendance at the commemoration earlier this week, Navy Times reported. All three of them were held as hostages and sustained severe physical injuries during their captivity.
EurAsian Times could not determine why September was chosen as the month to commemorate. Only two years ago, in 2021, a federal district court determined that the USS Pueblo crew members and their family members were eligible for compensation more than 50 years after the incident happened.
In a memorandum published in February 2021, a US District Court for Columbia stated that “North Korea was liable” for “its incorporated theories of assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, solatium, and wrongful death.” The crew members were found to be liable for a compensation of US$2.3 billion in damages.
However, since the funds available in the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund have dried up, the victims have not been able to receive the total amount of their awards. So, the crew now requests Congress to adopt legislation to grant adequate cash.
Despite the tragedy the US spy ship endured, it continues to be a part of the US Navy. The Pueblo, the second-oldest commissioned ship in the US Navy, was never retired. It is currently open to visitors as part of North Korea’s Victorious War Museum and is moored alongside a river in Pyongyang.
The commemoration of the 55 years comes at an opportune moment when tensions between North Korea and the United States are rising again after a relatively calm period. The US has been actively conducting military drills with South Korea, while Pyongyang has been launching one missile after another despite warnings.
The hostility between the US and North Korea goes back several decades, to the 1950s when Washington was party to the Korean War. Although the war ended in a truce, the hostility between the two disenchanted states continued in the aftermath despite the constitution of the Republic of Korea (ROK).
The capture of the US spy ship, USS Pueblo, resulted from this continuing hostility. EurAsian Times takes you back in history to the audacious capture of the US ship by the daring soldiers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea military.
How Pyongyang Captured A Prized US Possession
The USS Pueblo, a spy ship for Naval Intelligence and the National Security Agency, was on its first such spy mission when the incident occurred in 1968. The ship departed Yokosuka on January 5 to the US naval port in Sasebo, Japan. On January 11, 1968, Pueblo departed Sasebo and sailed through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan.
It departed with special instructions to gather electronic and signal intelligence from North Korea and monitor and intercept Soviet Navy activity in the Tsushima Strait. The mission’s designers overlooked that the absence of North Korean operations of a comparable nature near the United States would liberate North Korea from the threat of retaliation in kind, which had limited the Soviet response.
Pueblo arrived at the 42°N parallel on January 16, 1968, to prepare for the patrol. The patrol’s mission was to transit the North Korean coast from 41°N to 39°N and back without getting any closer to the coast than 13 nautical miles, and at night, Pueblo would move out to a distance of 18–20 nautical miles.
The ship was posing as an environmental research vessel when it sailed into international waters off North Korea’s eastern coast.
However, the mission was challenging from the outset since only two of the sailors had prior navigation knowledge, which made this difficult. The ship’s captain said, “I did not have a highly professional group of seamen to do my navigational chores for me.”
The Vietnam War and the Cold War were still raging in January 1968. Still, American military authorities believed the Pueblo would have no trouble if it stayed in international seas. However, that judgment proved otherwise, given how belligerent North Korea was.
Moreover, the time when the Pueblo was sailing near North Korea was beset with a spate of violence in the region. On January 22, a North Korean KPA Special Operations Force squad targeted the Blue House executive palace to kill the then-South Korean president Park Chung-hee. Pueblo was not informed and did not foresee the danger that was coming for it.
Just a day after the assassination attempt created ripples, on January 23, when a North Korean submarine chaser approached Pueblo and questioned it about its nationality, Pueblo responded by hoisting the American flag and ordering the civilian oceanographers to start water sample procedures with their deck winch.
Unconvinced, the North Korean vessel told Pueblo to withdraw or risk being fired. Pueblo tried to turn away but moved far more slowly than the submarine chaser. There were many warning shots fired. In addition, three torpedo boats joined the pursuit and eventual attack after they appeared on the horizon.
Two MiG-21 fighters from the Korean People’s Air Force quickly joined the attackers. A few minutes later, a second submarine chaser and a fourth torpedo boat emerged on the horizon. In contrast, Pueblo was a sitting duck with a few handguns and two 50-caliber machine guns hidden behind ice-coated tarps.
Authorities from the US Navy and the Pueblo crew maintain that Pueblo was miles outside North Korean territorial waters before its capture. In contrast, the North Koreans have consistently held that the ship was entirely inside the North Korean territory and, hence, under its area of jurisdiction.
North Korea ultimately seized Pueblo under the pretext that the spy ship had violated its territorial seas, and it was determined to force the crew to make public admissions of crime. This led to almost a year-old period of what the US crew described as “barbarity.”
The Crew Came Back But The Ship Did Not
North Korea’s brazen capture of the Pueblo came as a bold shock to the United States, and an array of options to secure its release were brainstormed and rejected. It was deemed too dangerous to attempt a naval blockade of Wonsan’s heavily guarded North Korean harbor, where the captured Pueblo was anchored.
Next, the idea of seizing North Koreans on the high seas was rejected because of Pyongyang’s lack of concern for hostages. A brief suggestion was made to employ tactical nuclear weapons before it was discarded.
Johnson ultimately decided to display force symbolically. As part of this plan, American bases in South Korea received about 350 combat aircraft from the US. The United States called up Army reserve units, and the USS Enterprise sailing in the Sea of Japan was joined by two additional aircraft carriers and roughly 25 warships.
However, the best option of symbolism and force projection was exhausted, and North Korea still controlled Pueblo. The US had to take its least favorite route now: talks with North Korea. The negotiations with North Korea were held at the Panmunjom truce village along the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas.
The talks had a limited impact but were considered a positive head start. However, crucial time was lost as North Korea allegedly continued torturing and extracting confessions from the crew members, leading to immense physical and psychological trauma for the 82 imprisoned crew members.
Eventually, North Korean officials could secure the confession they were seeking from the crew. North Korea insisted that the United States sign a document known as the “three A’s” at the Panmunjom negotiations, which stands for “Admit wrongdoing, Apologise for it, and Assure it won’t happen again.
The chief US negotiator, US Army Maj. Gen. Gilbert Woodward made it apparent before signing the letter that North Korea had written it.
It was exactly 11 months after the Pueblo had been taken over on December 23, 1968. The 81 more crew members crossed the Panmunjom Bridge of No Return from North Korea to South Korea one by one under the leadership of Lt. Cmdr. Bucher. They were then flown to a heroes’ homecoming on Christmas Eve.
However, the USS Pueblo stayed in North Korean custody and is still there today. Ten encryption devices and thousands of pages of top-secret papers found on the ship also did.
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