Photo of the Day

North Korean Propaganda Photograph of prisoners of USS Pueblo. Photo and explanation from the Time article that blew the Hawaiian Good Luck Sign secret. The sailors were flipping the middle finger, as a way to covertly protest their captivity in North Korea, and the propaganda on their treatment and guilt. The North Koreans for months photographed them without knowing the real meaning of flipping the middle finger, while the sailors explained that the sign meant good luck in Hawaii.

Flipping the North

North Korean Officials Had No Idea What Their Hostages Were Signaling in This Photo

The men in the photos look a little bored and awkward, maybe uncomfortable or even tense. The more you know about the photos, the more you read into them. But without context, what you see is young men assembled in rows for a formal group photo, staring into the camera or glumly off to the side. It could be a group photo of colleagues or a social club—a hum-drum setup. But stare longer and it’s obvious: In each photo, one or more of them is giving the finger.

All of these men are prisoners, pawns during a politically tense time, and they’re defying their captors in one of the only ways available to them: By flipping the bird.

It was 1968 and the United States was solidly mired in the Cold War, spying on the Soviet Union and its allies and being spied upon in return. The U.S.S. Pueblo was a Navy intelligence ship whose cover was collecting oceanographic data (of the 83 crewmen there were two civilian oceanographers aboard), but its actual duty was collecting intelligence on Russia and North Korea.

On January 23, 1968—just 18 days into its first mission—the Pueblo was approached by a North Korean vessel near the port of Wonsan. The vessel asked them their nationality, and the Pueblo hoisted the American flag. They were told to slow and prepare to be boarded; the Pueblo crew responded that they were 15.8 miles from land, and thus in international waters. But the situation quickly grew dire—three more North Korean boats appeared, and fighter jets flew overhead.

The North Korean ship opened fire on the Pueblo, killing one of the crew and wounding others. The Pueblo was barely armed; rather than fight back they began to frantically burn and dump documents, smashing equipment with axes and hammers. The ship was boarded and the crew taken captive. Bed sheets were cut up into blindfolds; they were tied up, punched, kicked, and prodded with bayonets.

“My mother’s prediction that I would die in dirty sheets was about to come true,”wrote one crew member, Stu Russell. “And to make it worse, I had my boots on.”

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.

The DPRK vessels fired upon the Pueblo again when she stopped just outside of the Korean territorial waters. Seaman Duane Hodges was mortally wounded in the attack, and several others were injured as they stood on the deck and flung materials into the sea. Without assistance, and unable to respond to the aggression with due violence, Commander Bucher had no choice but to order that they continue. Shortly after leaving international waters, the Pueblo was boarded.

Soon they were being sped toward North Korea. It was the beginning of what would be a 335-day ordeal. (The crew has written extensively about their experiences, much of it collected on a website maintained by the U.S.S. Pueblo Veterans Association.)

USS Pueblo.

The Pueblo, a naval intelligence ship, was conducting offshore surveillance of North Korean radar and radio installations when it was overtaken by the North Korean fleet. Following seizure of the ship, diplomatic tensions between the United States and North Korea heightened. North Korean officials claimed that the vessel, and the United States government, had been warned about conducting espionage activities in the region. In contrast, United States officials claimed that the Pueblo was seized in international waters, without provocation. The crew of the Pueblo was detained in North Korea for nearly a year before their release was negotiated.

In 1967, the Navy refurbished one of its aging cargo ships, transforming it into a remote intelligence collection vessel. The old hull provided sufficient camouflage for the classified communications and radar locator systems on-board. Because the projected missions for the ship were considered low risk, the Pueblo was outfitted with only minimal defensive weapons. The U.S Fifth Air Force stationed in Fuchu,Japan, was designated to aid the Pueblo if necessary, but no specific teams were reserved from daily operations or put on alert.

The Pueblo, commanded by U.S. Navy Commander Lloyd. M. “Pete” Bucher, was assigned a new, and relatively inexperienced crew. The crew reported to San Diego for training maneuvers, and then departed for Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. Upon its arrival in Pearl Harbor, the Pueblo needed significant repairs to its steering engine.

Bound for international waters off the eastern coastline of North Korea, the Pueblo’s stated mission was oceanographic research. However, the ship was part of a covert naval intelligence mission code named Operation Clickbeetle. The ship was charged with conducting a detailed survey of increasing North Korean naval activity, including assessing its potential fleet strength. Operation Clickbeetle further used the sophisticated equipment below decks on the Pueblo to intercept Soviet-North Korean communications, and locate radar and radio stations inland. Naval intelligence, in conjunction with the National Security Agency and the Naval Security Group Command, devised Operation Clickbeetle as part of a larger Cold Warera monitoring and espionage project intended to garner information about the influence of the Soviet Union on its satellite nations.

On January 23, a small fleet of North Korean ships approached the Pueblo. Commander Bucher and the crew noticed that the vessels were staffed at battle stations. The Pueblo intercepted transmissions revealing that the intent of the ships was to board the Pueblo, overtake the crew, and pilot the ship to North Korea. The crew was put on alert, and the Pueblo made way further into international waters. A North Korean subchaser signaled four nearby torpedo boats, and the fleet encircled the Pueblo. A North Korean military boarding party attempted to come aside the Pueblo, but the ship took evasive measures. Soon after, one of the North Korean vessels fired upon the Pueblo. Commander Bucher ordered all of the classified documents, information, and devices on the ship be destroyed. The ship then radioed Navy Pacific Fleet Command requesting emergency aid from military installations in Japan.

Another group of North Korean military attempted to board the Pueblo, this time sweeping the deck with heavy fire. At this time, fireman Duane Hodges, was killed while fending off the group attempting the board the ship. The United States vessel again attempted evasive maneuvers, but the ship was too slow and heavily out gunned by the surrounding four torpedo boats, two subchasers, and two Soviet-made MiG aircraft. The Pueblo stopped in the water and heeded instructions to follow the lead North Korean boat. Commander Bucher ordered the vessel to travel at its slowest speed to give the men time to destroy the classified equipment onboard. The Pueblo then steamed full speed and again tried to evade the fleet. The North Korean forces fired explosive shells onto the deck of the ship, injuring several crewmembers. The Pueblo again stopped, and the ranking officer of the North Korean vessels ordered the boarding party to seize control of the U.S. ship. A North Korean fisherman, working for the military, then piloted the Pueblo, at full speed, into the harbor at Wonsan. The crewmembers of the Pueblo were tied up and corralled on the forward well deck, before being transferred to their quarters.

Reported positions of USS Pueblo.

High-ranking North Korean officials were among those who seized the ship, overseeing the capture as the Pueblo’s crew were bound, blindfolded, and beaten. When the ship arrived at the dock in Wonsan, the eighty-three American prisoners were paraded off the ship to the cheers of a gathered crowd. The promised support fighters never arrived.

The United States responded to the events by amassing a Naval Task Force in the Sea of Japan. They demanded the return of the Pueblo and her crew, but the DPRK government refused to comply. Despite the provocation, the US military knew that a daring plan to storm the North Korean docks had a dismal likelihood chance of success. There was little doubt that the crew would be executed immediately in the event of an attack, and the DPRK’s Communist allies would almost certainly rise to defend their sister country. Though contingency plans included the use of military force, it was ruled out as means to recover the crew alive. President Johnson begrudgingly ordered that no strike take place as he explored diplomatic solutions.

Upon arriving in North Korea, the Pueblo crew was marched past a hostile public to buses with covered windows that ferried them to a train, also with covered windows. The train carried them to Pyongyang, where they were displayed for the waiting press before being taken to the first of two compounds where they would live for nearly a year.

The crew dubbed their first quarters “The Barn.” There they were housed in dim, cold cells, and beaten and tortured routinely by their captors. The men grew malnourished as they ate scant meals of turnips and a foul-smelling fish they derisively called “Sewer Trout.” One man’s shrapnel wounds were treated sans anesthetic; his tonsils would also be removed without pain relief.

Russell recalled a day when he and a few other men were transported to a shed out in the woods where they were told they would take a bath. Thoughts of World War II gas chambers fresh in his mind, Russell tried to come to terms with his impending death. “I had my ticket out of Korea, I was going home,” he wrote, “I could smell the pines and actually taste the cold night air, being alive was great.” Fortunately, the men had actually been taken to a rustic bathhouse.

Captain Bucher bore the brunt of the brutality as the Koreans had to get a confession to justify their act of piracy. At the end of the second day they threatened to begin killing his crew starting with the youngest. After the boy was brought into his cell Bucher capitulated with “Let him go, I’ll sign your damned confession” Within a day of capture the North Koreans attempted to force the crew to write “personal histories.” It was discovered they had captured a US Navy ship made up entirely of cooks & “line handlers!” The personal histories were judged, “not sincere.” The Koreans expected a US military response so time was of the essence. They needed confessions and they need them now. The beatings intensified in their severity. PUEBLO carried personnel files as well as pay records for all aboard. They were captured intact. It was easy to compare the written “personal history” to the US Navy’s complete record on a man. Back they came; no holds barred. The forced confessions were presented at Panmunjom as “Irrefutable proof of crimes by US Imperialist Aggressor forces.” These confessions would be updated periodically. Attila the Hun began appearing in them. “Our crimes against the DPRK are worse than those committed by Attila the Hun against humanity! Hitler appeared in one but apparently the Koreans had heard of him. The whole thing culminated in;
Captain Bucher’s Final Confession!

CDR Bucher’s “full”final, final, final confessionRecorded in 1995

As the crew suffered, cut off from outside contact, the public panicked. Washington demanded the return of the ship and its crew, North Korea rebuffed such requests, insisting the boat had been in North Korean waters. U.S. officials entreated President Lyndon B. Johnson to deploy the military, if necessary, to retrieve the men. In a television appearance days after the capture, Johnson demurred that “We shall continue to use every means available to find a prompt and a peaceful solution to the problem.” (Behind the scenes, the U.S. government was considering everything from a naval blockade to a nuclear attack.)

The public bristled; they felt the men had been abandoned. The New York Times declared the incident “humiliating” and the The San Diego Union began publishing a daily counter that ticked upward with every day the crew remained in captivity. A group of citizens calling themselves the  Remember the Pueblo Committee gave speeches, churned out bumper stickers, and tried to keep the media interested in the captives.

In June, we were taken to the Club for yet another film. Unlike the usual fare of feature films of the war movie, labor hero genre, we were shown two short subjects. One was a film about the DPRK soccer team’s visit to the play-offs in London. The other was about a US service man’s body being returned to the UN side at Panmunjom by the DPRK. Two different subjects, but one common action united the two films.
The film about the soccer team began with the North Korean team arriving in London and driving through the streets in a bus festooned with flags of the DPRK. As the bus drove down the street one proper English gentleman complete with derby and umbrella spotted the bus and flipped it off! The man must have been a Korean War vet and he was giving the bus the finger. Whoever was taking the pictures zoomed in on it.
A murmur went through the crew; the KORCOMs didn’t know what the finger meant.
This was further demonstrated in the second film in which a US Navy Officer flipped off the cameraman. They left it in. We now had a weapon! Back in our rooms we were elated, this was one more thing we could use to discredit the propaganda we were being forced to grind out. Several crew members expressed caution, but the general attitude was use it. We had been captured, but we never surrendered. Damn the Koreans, full fingers ahead.
The finger became an integral part of our anti-propaganda campaign. Any time a camera appeared, so did the fingers. A concern grew among us that sooner or later the Koreans would notice this and ask questions. It was decided that if the question was raised, the answer was to be that the finger was a gesture known as the Hawaiian Good Luck sign, a variation of the Hang Loose gesture. In late August one of the duty officers asked about the finger and seemed to be accepting of the explanation, but most of us realized that our zeal to ruin their propaganda would come back to haunt us, eventually.

The images are taken from original NK photos and films that were distributed world wide as part of their propaganda campaign.

Meanwhile, North Korean officials were launching a media campaign of their own. They filmed and photographed the men for propaganda—even putting them through the bizarre experience of re-enacting their own capture for North Korean cameras, to be distributed as propaganda. They were forced to participate in staged press conferences, where they performed exercise routines before an audience. They were made to sign false confessions and write letters to family declaring their support for North Korea.

Occasionally, the men were the audience. One day in June, the group was assembled to watch propaganda films. One was about the North Korean soccer team’s visit to London, another about the body of a U.S. soldier being returned to officials. In both films, something extraordinary happened: Someone flipped the cameraman off. In both instances, it seemed clear that the gesture didn’t translate; their captors didn’t realize that they were being insulted, and so the action was not edited out of the reels.

American POW giving finger to North Korean captors.

So began The Digit Affair. Unaware of these secret signals, the North Korean captors continued to threaten, torture, and coerce the crew members to prompt them to cooperate. They rehearsed staged press conferences and posed for photographs. In order to spare his youngest crew member from execution, Commander Bucher also agreed to sign a confession stating that the Pueblo had been in North Korean territorial waters at the time of the attack. All the while the men continued to subtly use “the finger” to signal to the US that the photos were staged propaganda. The North Koreans were unfamiliar with the western gesture, though after it appeared in many photos they asked the Americans about it. The Pueblo’s crew had agreed in advance to describe it as the “Hawaiian good luck sign,” and their captors seemed to accept that explanation.

Over the following weeks the military stalemate was punctuated by a series of photos, films, and letters depicting the crew of the Pueblo enjoying their comfortable stay in North Korea. On the surface, these communications seemed to indicate that the crew had willingly defected to the DPRK, but they contained numerous oddities. In letters home the crew members spoke of events which had never occurred, they used archaic words in their press conferences, and they appeared in a curiously large number of the photographs with their middle fingers extended to the cameraman.

The captured crew of the U.S.S.

“The finger became an integral part of our anti-propaganda campaign,” wrote crew member Russell. “Any time a camera appeared, so did the fingers.”

You see it in a shot of three bored looking men, two of them casually propping their heads up by clearly extended middle fingers. In a group shot of the men seated in two rows, as if for a school photo, a man in the front looks directly into the camera, his hands folded in his lap, and his top middle finger popped out. In another, a fellow looks like he’s chewing his fingernail—on his middle finger.

If their captors ever noticed the gesture, they had a story prepared: It was a “Hawaiian Good Luck sign,” a cousin of the “Hang Loose” sign, comprised of thumb and pinky extended.

This wasn’t the only way the crew defied their captors. In fact it was just one of several methods they had for coping with their plight through jokes. The finger was part of a larger campaign that included embedding in-jokes in forced confessions and letters home, giving their captors mocking nicknames, and even a bawdy poem.

“It could be considered pretty sick humor,” said crewmember Bob Chicca in a story detailing the way the Pueblo men launched a laughter offense. “It helped us survive and kept morale up. For that little period of time, we were in charge of our own lives.”

The triumphant reign of the Hawaiian Good Luck sign came to an abrupt end when Time magazine published a photo of the men and pointed out their ruse, writing in the caption that “three of the crewmen have managed to use the medium for a message, furtively getting off the U.S. hand signal of obscene derisiveness and contempt.”

When the crew’s captors read this, they kicked off what the men would come to call “Hell Week,” beating the crewmen mercilessly for days. During this especially bleak period, the men had no way to know they were actually close to going home.

Hawaiian Good Luck!

Their next project was a letter to President Johnson detailing their crimes against the peace loving Korean people! to “speed your repatriation!” A good amount of the language was stilted, and grammatically screwed up. It seemed to indicate it was written by a fourth grade elementary student. Another North Korean campaign that would appear with regularity was letters to “famous American’s who can help you be repatriated to your families.” They got letters to a garbage commissioner, a few dead people and Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) AZ, the famous peace loving senator!

Alvin Plucker was a crewmember back in 1968. On the cold, gray afternoon of January 23, 1968, eighteen days into the Pueblo’s three-week mission, Plucker was just off duty and preparing to get some sleep when an announcement came over the intercom demanding that all hands get below deck: Four North Korean vessels — three torpedo boats and a larger submarine chaser — were closing in. Soon other North Korean ships appeared, and two North Korean fighter jets roared overhead. When the Pueblo signaled that it was conducting oceanographic research and raised an American flag, the North Koreans signaled the boat to stand down so it could be boarded. When the Pueblo instead attempted to escape, one of the North Korean ships opened fire, wounding the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd Bucher, and several others. The cat-and-mouse game continued, with North Korean gunfire eventually killing Pueblo crewmember Duane Hodges and injuring many others.

The American ship was outnumbered and out of options. The vessel was minimally armed, and the closest U.S. military air support was hours away. So just before 3 p.m., the Pueblo surrendered, shutting down its two diesel engines. It was the first U.S. Navy ship to surrender during peacetime in 150 years. When North Korean officers boarded their prize, they found a trove of classified documents in various stages of hurried destruction.

The Pueblo wasn’t an oceanographic vessel, the North Koreans realized. They’d captured a U.S. spy boat.

Historical Crises in North Korea.

Plucker was the ship’s quartermaster, responsible for maintaining the vessel’s nautical charts and maps. Data-gathering and record maintenance suited Plucker, since he’d always been a collector. Growing up on a trout farm in southwestern Nebraska, he’d wander the plains for hours — partly to stay away from his violent father, partly to scout for arrowheads. But he couldn’t always avoid his father’s fury. When Plucker was eighteen, his father hit him so hard he left home for good, hitchhiking to Colorado Springs and eventually enlisting in the Navy. He figured that was his safest military option, since the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War. “All the Marines were getting shot up,” he explains. “And I’d heard from a sailor about all the wild women.”

Plucker saw action in the Navy, but mostly of a different sort. He was assigned as a quartermaster to the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier engaged in jet raids over Vietnam and recovery missions for downed helicopters. With two months left in his enlistment, Plucker received orders that he was being transferred to the USS Pueblo, a ship he’d never heard of — and when he flew to Washington state and saw it moored in Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, he could see why. “That thing was a piece of junk,” he says of the 176-foot vessel, a light cargo ship that was then more than twenty years old. But that was the point: The ship was supposed to look as inconspicuous as possible, to conceal its real mission. The Pueblo was part of Operation Clickbeetle, the code name for a secret new Navy program that was turning old freighters into spy boats. Retrofitted with surveillance equipment, designated as AGER-2 (short for Auxiliary General Environmental Research) and sent across the Pacific with Plucker and 82 other crewmembers aboard, the Pueblo set off from a U.S. naval base in Japan on January 5, 1968, ostensibly to collect oceanographic data — but what it was really collecting was information on the Russian Navy and coded messages from North Korea.

Crisis: Kim Il-Sung was photographed in September 1968 basking in applause from his followers. At the time his regime was deeply involved in negotiations over the Pueblo, with one senior Congressman calling for LBJ to threaten nuclear war.

Which meant that once it seized control of the Pueblo, the North Koreans suddenly had hard evidence that the United States was spying on them. To make matters worse, two days earlier, a team of North Korean commandos had snuck into South Korea to assassinate President Park Chung-hee, but the “Blue House Raid,” as it became known, failed spectacularly. Discovered before they reached their target, the would-be assassins were caught up in a bloodbath, with nearly all of them killed on sight. And now North Korea was eager for retribution.

The North Korean soldiers who boarded the Pueblo tied up Plucker and the remaining crewmembers, hauled them onto the deck and roughed them up. They then navigated the ship to a North Korean port, where the blindfolded sailors were paraded past jeering civilians before being taken by train to a prison compound in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. There they passed their time either locked in small, cold prison cells, or getting tortured in interrogation rooms. “I just know, after a certain part of your life, after so many beatings and screaming, you become numb,” says Plucker now. “It doesn’t seem like something that a person could do to another person.” He was slapped in the face, punched in the kidneys and kicked in the groin, and he had his hands crushed between wooden planks as guards stood on them. Bucher, the ship’s commander, faced the worst of the abuse: His captors beat him repeatedly, threatened him with execution, and told him they’d start shooting his crew if he didn’t confess to being a spy.

At first the captives assumed their imprisonment wouldn’t last long. A U.S. aircraft carrier had moved into position just off the coast of North Korea, and President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of state called the Pueblo’s seizure an act of war. The crew had been told that the reason their ship wasn’t heavily armed and they weren’t trained for combat was because they had the might of the U.S. military behind them if something went wrong. “We were expecting them to come get us,” says Plucker.

But that didn’t happen. After a few days, the aircraft carrier steamed away. With the Vietnam War escalating, the Johnson administration quietly decided that one international quagmire was enough. There would be no ultimatum, no immediate rescue mission.

Plucker and his colleagues were being left behind.

Crew of the USS Pueblo being released from North Korean custody and walking across the Bridge of No Return on 23 December 1968.

The first press conference placed the officers in front of a row of North Korean reporters. There, the first demonstration of the “intrusions” was presented. At the same time, the forged charts and maps were presented by Gen Pak Chung Kuk at Panmunjom. They were photographed and published in western newspapers. Now it was the US Navy’s turn to analyze the “intrusions.”
The second press conference to include enlisted men was held August 13th. Again it was held for the North Korean press. Each man was forced by beatings to write, rewrite then re-write again a statement on how they missed their families and wished the US government would admit, apologize and assure for intruding in DPRK territorial waters! By this time, the Koreans had discovered many more intrusions!

While in captivity the prisoners were regularly beaten, with little hope of rescue. They were subjected to ridiculous lessons on the North Koreans’ version of US history which depicted the country as it was in the late 1800s. They were smothered in propaganda propping up the “Glorious Fatherland” in contrast to the “cowardly US imperialistic aggressors.”

On September 12th, an international  press conference, communist countries only, was held. Both times innuendo, archaic and corny language and phraseology, some with a sexual reference “penetration no matter how slight is sufficent to complete the act,” when referring to the “intrusions” were inserted into the prepared statements to thwart the propaganda.

U.S. officials finally agreed to sign a “confession” declaring that the Pueblo had trespassed in North Korean waters, although they did so only after formally stating that they didn’t believe in the statement they were signing.

On 22 December the men were told that the US had decided to apologize for the Pueblo’s reckless trespass into DPRK waters, and that the men of the Pueblo’s crew were to be freed. Fearing a ruse designed to demoralize them, the men had little hope of being released. The following day they boarded a train which transported them to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, at which point they disembarked. After eleven months of captivity, the eighty-two surviving men walked across the Bridge of no Return which spanned the border of the DMZ, and met with US forces on the other side. In order to expedite the prisoners’ release, the US had provided North Korea with a written admission that the ship had been spying, as well as an official apology. Once the crew members were secured, however, they quickly retracted the admission and apology. The crew of the Pueblo were promptly flown back to the US, where they were met with their families and a cheering crowd of flag-waving supporters.

The released prisoners arrived back in the states on Christmas Eve.

Reunion: The crew of the Pueblo were sent across the Bridge of No Return in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas on December 23, 1968, after spending almost the whole year in captivity.

As prisoners, the enlisted men lived eight or so to a room while the officers had private rooms. “Your daily life is so bloody slow, it’s like the time you were awake, instead of 12 or 14 hours, it feels like its 40 hours. But when you go to sleep, it’s total freedom, sleep instantly, soundly, never wake up until the next morning,” then 24-year-old communications technician Ralph McClintock said. “That’s the freedom, just absolute freedom. The dreams are unbelievable. You dream of the good things.”

U.S. officials realized military action would not have brought the crew home alive.The praise that (President) Lyndon Johnson got for acting like a diplomat was really significant. The crew was released two days before Christmas.Soon after, the Navy formed a board of inquiry to investigate the loss of the ship and each crew member was interviewed.

USS Pueblo in North Korea, 2012.

USS Pueblo (AGER-2) is an American technical research ship (Navy intelligence) that was boarded and captured by North Korean forces on 23 January 1968. It is now on display at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, North Korea. Created: 18 March 2014.

The navy considered a court martial for the ship’s captain, Commander Lloyd M “Pete” Bucher, for letting the Pueblo fall into enemy hands without firing a shot and for failing to destroy much of the ship’s classified material. But he was never brought to trial. John H Chafee, secretary of the navy at the time, said Bucher and the other crew members had “suffered enough”.

To this day members of the Pueblo crew say Bucher made the right decision, though years later his second-in-command publicly questioned Bucher’s decisions not to fight. “It would have been nice to take out some of the guys, some of them, and maybe go down fighting, but it would have been total suicide,” said Phares. “We never thought anything would happen, and we weren’t supposed to create an international incident.”

In 2002 the former US ambassador to South Korea Donald P Gregg said a North Korean foreign ministry official had hinted at a deal to return the Pueblo. But when he later visited Pyongyang, he said he was told the climate had changed and a return was no longer an option. In January the next year, the Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell reintroduced a resolution in Congress asking North Korea to return the ship. There has been no progress since, however – at least none that has been made public.

The ship was named after Pueblo, Colorado, and they would have loved to have the ship back. It’s very disappointing to have it still there, and still being used as anti-American propaganda. The planned display of the ship by North Korea hangs over the heads of the crew members who have long campaigned for its return.

The crew of USS Pueblo as they arrive at the U.N. Advance Camp, Korean Demilitarized Zone, on 23 December 1968, following their release by the North Korean government. Image includes: General Charles H. Bonesteel III, U.S. Army, Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, (left) Rear Admiral Edwin M. Rosenberg, USN, Commander Task Force 76.

The crew of the Pueblo received little recognition for their actions in preventing the transfer of classified material onboard the ship to enemy powers, or for their time in captivity. Following their release, crewmembers received the Purple Heart for wounds received in action. The Pueblo’s officers endured a series of inquiries and hearings regarding their negotiations with their North Korean captors. At one time, naval officials considered court marshal for Commander Bucher and several other officers for signing the North Korean written confession of American wrongdoing. However, no member of the command or crew ever received disciplinary action. The lack of recognition for their service, and the numerous conduct inquiries, drew sharp criticism from the veterans of Operation Clickbeetle and the public. At the end of the Vietnam War, a series of retrospective stories in a national magazine drew attention to the Pueblo Incident and the plight of the Pueblo crew. The Navy then granted several more awards to various crewmembers, including a posthumous award of the Silver Star to Duane Hodges. In 1990, in accordance with a special act of Congress, the crew and command of the Pueblo was finally granted Prisoner of War (POW) status for their time in captivity.

The Navy still lists the Pueblo as a commissioned warship; even though it’s docked on the Taedong River in Pyongyang where North Korea holds is up as a symbol of resistance to American aggression.

The American Navy look forward to that day when the Pueblo comes home, as a way to honour their service and U.S. Navy Commander Lloyd. M. “Pete” Bucher, who died in 2004. Pete Bucher is buried in Fort Rosencrans (National) Cemetery on Point Loma in San Diego. It looks out on San Diego Bay, their dream is to see the USS Pueblo sail into San Diego Bay.”

The Pueblo was the first United States Navy vessel commandeered since the American Civil War. It was the only ship to surrender to hostile forces, other than those with whom the United States was at war, since the Chesapeake in 1807.

Official record: The entire crew were photographed as a group at the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego after their return. They had been flown to the U.S. for health checks after months of ill-treatment in North Korea.

Today the USS Pueblo still resides in North Korea , where it is celebrated as one of the county’s most popular tourist attractions. Guided tours are offered which describe the DPRK version of the events. A North Korean website summarizes the story as follows:

“In January Juche 57 (1968) the navy of the Korean People’s Army captured the US imperialist armed spy ship Pueblo in the very act of espionage in the territorial waters of Korea. Like a thief raising a hue and cry, the US imperialists raved about “reprisals,” and ordered out many war vessels including a nuclear aircraft carrier and aircraft, bringing the situation to the brink of war.

Kim Il Sung denounced the US moves as a shameless aggressive act that would threaten peace and security of the DPRK and its people, and clarified the principled stand that the Korean people would retaliate for “retaliation” and return all-out war for all-out war.

Alarmed by Kim Il Sung’s resolute stand and the unyielding fighting will and indestructible strength of the Korean people who were rallied closely around their leader Kim Il Sung, the US imperialists signed a letter of apology, recognizing their aggressive act in the eyes of the world and guaranteeing that no US warship would intrude into the territorial waters of the DPRK again.”

Though at the time the US downplayed the intelligence loss suffered, it is generally believed that the Pueblo’s secrets were of significant value to the Soviets. There are some indications that the Russian government had urged the North Korean military to seize a US spy vessel in order to provide them with American secrets. They had been lagging 3-5 years behind in communications technology, but after reverse-engineering the US equipment and code books the Soviets made dramatic improvements to their systems.

Many member of the Pueblo crew still survive today, though Commander Bucher died in 2004, due in part to injuries sustained while in captivity. The USS Pueblo Veteran’s Association maintains a website which shares the personal accounts of many of those who suffered torture while remaining resolute and defiant. To this day, the USS Pueblo remains at the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, though it is still considered a commissioned ship in the US Navy.

 


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