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Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Crew Of The Pueblo Released, December 23, 1968

Today in 1968, the crew of the USS Pueblo was released from North Korean custody. The 82 crew members had been held by the North Korean regime for eleven months after being accused of sailing into North Korean territorial waters. Their release marked the end of what would later be called the Pueblo Incident.

The USS Pueblo was launched in 1944 and was originally assigned to the US Army as a light cargo ship. The Navy acquired her in 1966 and soon thereafter re-designated her an Auxiliary General Environmental Research vessel, or AGER. In reality, her purpose was intelligence-gathering. She was manned not just by Navy sailors and officers, but by National Security Agency technicians as well.

The Pueblo left Sasebo, Japan on January 11th, 1968 with orders to gather electronic intelligence in the Tsushima Straits, where there had been recent Soviet naval activity. The ship’s captain, Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, was instructed to stay in international waters and avoid confrontations. The Pueblo was a small ship and her only armament was two Browning .50 caliber machine guns in unarmored positions. To make matters worse, her top speed was less than 13 knots, or about 15 miles per hour.

On January 23rd, 1968, the Pueblo was approached by a small North Korean naval vessel who demanded to know her nationality. The crew responded by raising the American flag, after which the North Korean ship ordered the Pueblo to either stop or be destroyed. Three North Korean PT boats were soon on the scene as well as two MiG-21 fighters. Unable to outrun her opponents, the crew began to destroy secret paperwork and equipment, but they did not have time to do a complete job. North Korea had just stolen an American spy ship in international waters, killing one American sailor in the process.

The Pueblo was able to get off a radio transmission to Seventh Fleet headquarters, but no help was sent. It is possible that President Lyndon Johnson was trying to avoid another war in Korea, especially with the Tet Offensive then raging in Vietnam. No matter the reason, once the crew was separated from their ship, a rescue mission became impossible.

The crew was starved and tortured over the course of the next eleven months until the US government agreed in writing that the Pueblo was spying on North Korea and offered an apology and a promise not to spy on the nation again. The crew was released at the DMZ between North and South Korea, after which the US then verbally retracted the entire admission of guilt.

A court of inquiry was held to determine what really happened that day in January, 1968. A court-martial was recommended for the captain, but this never happened and he continued to serve in the Navy until his retirement. The Pueblo remained in North Korean hands and is now a tourist destination in Pyongyang, the capitol of North Korea. The USS Pueblo is still a commissioned ship of the United States Navy.

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