One thing I love about history is that no matter how much you think you know, there’s always something new to uncover.
Such was the case, here. I think I have a pretty good handle on 20th century US history. I’m not an academic, by any means, but I’ve done a fair bit of reading. I’ve either never heard of the USS Pueblo, or had forgotten about it until reading this book.
Technically speaking, the Korean War never ended. We were all reminded of this in 2018, when Donald Trump put on a big show on the Korean peninsula (with nothing to show for it, because he’s a fucking donut). In the mid-1960s, multiple border incursions by the North led to the deaths of hundreds of South Korean and American soldiers, and the capture of thousands of civilians. This was so pervasive, some went so far as to call it a second Korean War. However you want to conceive of it, this all culminated in an attempt, by North Korean commandos, to infiltrate the South Korean capital and assassinate the South Korean President, Park Chung-hee. In a mission that started on January 17, 1968 and lasted almost two weeks, the 31 commandos made it to within 100 meters of the President’s residence, known as the Blue House, before being stopped by a police captain. They attempted to escape, and ended up causing about 100 casualties on their flight north. 29 of them died, one was captured, and the last made it home free.
It caused a massive firestorm of paranoia and political turmoil within the country, as you can imagine. This tension was amplified by the fact that, three days after the Blue House raid, the Viet Kong began attacking Khe Sanh. The Tet Offensive following shortly thereafter, on January 30, made US support in Korea untenable. South Korea was girding for war, and they were largely on their own.
This was a tense time period in southeast Asia, and the everyone was on high alert. The US was incentivized to know what was going on. North Korea was primed for conflict, fearing reprisals for their aggression. South Korea was anxious about more raids and skirmishes. Russia and China were ever-weary of US encroachment. The worst thing that could’ve happened would be for someone to make a wrong move at the wrong time and elicit an overly-aggressive response. That could’ve lit a powder-keg.
About a week prior to all of this, on January 11, the USS Pueblo entered the Sea of Japan on a surveillance mission against the Soviet Navy, and with explicit instructions to gather intelligence in North Korea. It was a WWII research ship, lightly armored and with virtually no armament. The ship’s captain, Lloyd Bucher, had attempted an overhaul of the ship prior to starting the mission, but was rebuffed by a military not wanting to waste money on an old ship that wasn’t likely to see combat, and wouldn’t divert funding from the Vietnam War. Many of his requests were denied.
The mission itself was fairly uneventful. Until the afternoon of January 22, when the Pueblo was approached by two North Korean vessels. This was mere hours after the Blue House Raid, and the Pueblo had not been notified of what was happening on the peninsula. The following day, they were challenged, and soon chased, by a submarine chaser and ordered to stand down. After attempting to flee, they were also intercepted by three torpedo boats and two MiG fighter jets.
Captain Bucher ordered the destruction of secret intelligence documents, and tried to give his crew as much time as he could. It wouldn’t be enough. They were attacked, and crew (including the captain) were injured. Eventually, Captain Bucher ordered the ship halted, and he surrendered without having fired a shot.
He had also been briefed about possible conflict, and was told not to engage the enemy, or to risk instigating action.
The crew was taken captive, and held until just before Christmas of 1968. During their time in North Korea, they were repeatedly tortured. Their treatment is described in vivid detail, here, and it is absolutely harrowing. Privation was so terrible, Captain Bucher lost 85 pounds, and a crew member went blind from vitamin deficiency.
Upon being released by North Korea (and after grueling months of negotiations at Panmunjam – a name I recognize from the Billy Joel song We Didn’t Start the Fire), the crew were returned to the US and given a heroes welcome by the populace. The navy, however, subjected the crew to a court of inquiry that, while deeply unpopular, didn’t end up resulting in punishment for the rescued POWs. Captain Bucher, though recommended for a court marshal, continued his Navy career, retiring as a commander. Bucher was hailed as a hero by the crew, and credited with being a great leader who saved the lives of many of his men.
This was a phenomenal book, that both focused on the humanity of those involved in this incident while at the same time never losing perspective for the broader historical context in which this incident occurred. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in military history, or the geopolitical situation of 1960s southeast Asia.