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North Korea Commemorates 50th Anniversary of USS Pueblo Seizure

Pueblo is shown at its new location at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang where it was moved in 2012

North Korea celebrated the 50th anniversary of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) incident on Tuesday via broadcasts on state television and in an international press statement.

In 1968, the North Korean Navy captured the signals intelligence ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and its crew of 82 sailors. The sailors suffered starvation and torture and were used for propaganda purposes for almost a year before a release was negotiated in December of 1968.

Today, Pueblo is a prized museum for Pyongyang. It is the only U.S. commissioned ship currently held captive by a foreign government. The anniversary of its seizure was marked by celebrations and a special segment on North Korean television, showing the crew getting haircuts, writing letters, reading and living in accommodations that appear to be a stark contrast to where the crew actually was confined.

The following is the official announcement from the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency:

Pyongyang, January 21 (KCNA) — It is 50 years since the Navy of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) captured the U.S. imperialist armed spy ship Pueblo.

Pueblo is the direct product of the acts of aggression against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea committed by the U.S. imperialists from the mid-19 century and a trophy symbolic of the U.S. bitter defeat and the DPRK’s eternal victory in the anti-U.S. confrontation.

On Jan. 23, Juche 57 (1968) KPA seamen captured the ship, which intruded into the inviolable territorial waters of the DPRK, thus clearly showing to the world that we never pardon aggressors.

More than 2,190,000 service personnel, people of various strata and youth and students visited Pueblo, an exhibit showing to the whole world the crime of the U.S. imperialists.

In the United States, seizure of Pueblo was an unwelcome public relations and strategic nightmare, according to the investigation after the incident. During a Navy board of inquiry, it became apparent U.S. military forces were unable to offer assistance during the incident because they were dedicated to ongoing operations in Vietnam. Pueblo, a lightly armed spy ship, was left to fend for itself against heavier armed North Korean vessels and MiG fighter jets, as detailed by Naval History Magazine in 2014.

Following the release of Pueblo’s crew, a Navy investigation criticized Cmdr. Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher, the ship’s commanding officer, for not taking a more aggressive stance when initially confronted by North Korean forces, for not adequately destroying surveillance equipment or classified documents, for allowing his ship to be boarded, and for surrendering without firing a shot.

Bucher, though, didn’t have any good options, retired Lt. F. Carl Shumacher wrote in the February issue of Naval History Magazine. Shumacher was a 24-year-old lieutenant on the bridge of Pueblo when the attack started, and his first-person account offers a harrowing look at what happened 50 years ago.

USS Pueblo at sea, 1967

“While the Pueblo did have two .50-caliber machine guns on board (a last-minute addition generated by the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty [AGTR-5] just six months earlier), the rapidly added gun mounts had no armor protection. Other weapons were limited—maybe eight .45-caliber sidearms and a couple of small Thompson machine guns. Enough to dispel normal boarders but not enough to resist the forces we were facing,” Shumacher wrote.
“With little firepower on board, our strategy was to stall for time—time for the might of the U.S. military to be brought to bear, time for our crew of 83 to complete emergency destruction, time for the North Koreans to realize the foolishness of their brazen attempt to seize a U.S. Navy warship on the high seas.”

While delaying for time, Pueblo sent messages to the U.S. fleet, asking for assistance, hoping the U.S. Navy would arrive.

“For the Pueblo, the silence from our shore-based commanders was deafening. Despite excellent online, fully encrypted, teletype-based resources and prepared reports from the Pueblo, no instructions were received,” Shumacher wrote. “The only navy trying to communicate with the Pueblo was North Korean.”

The same investigation criticizing Bucher’s decision making when surrounded by North Korean naval forces, though, commended his leadership during the crew’s 11-month detention. Bucher maintained a chain of command and repeatedly encouraged his crew to resist the North Koreans whenever they could. He staged a hunger strike to protest the crew’s treatment and pretended to not understand what North Korean interpreters were saying, according to the Navy investigation.

Shumacher said Bucher carefully crafted his required correspondence to be so full of jargon and Navy slang no one would believe the letters were anything more than North Korean-staged propaganda. This set the example of resistance for the crew to follow.

The captured crew of the USS Pueblo giving the “Hawaiian symbol for good luck,” 1968

Pueblo’s crew resisted when possible, most notably by frequently raising their middle fingers to ruin propaganda photo ops staged by the North Koreans, telling their captors the gesture was considered a “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign,” according to the Navy investigation. The crew was severely beaten near the end of their confinement when the North Koreans learned the gesture’s true meaning.

The Navy investigation recommended court-martial proceedings for Bucher, because of his actions before the seizure. Then-Navy Secretary John Chafee overruled this decision, though, stating, “it is my opinion that – even assuming that further proceedings were had, and even going so far as to assume that a judgment of guilt was to be reached – they have suffered enough and further punishment would not be justified.”