Ed.: 012318 – Words: 1403 – Audio: N/A
Today marks an oft forgotten event in the history of our relations with North Korea; 50 years ago today, January 23, 1968, the North Koreans seized the U.S. Navy intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, killing one man and subjecting 82 others to 11 months of captivity and torture before they were released. It’s often a forgotten event simply because of the time frame in which the event occurred. The year of 1968 was filled with many news events that simply drowned out over the months that passed the plight of the crew of the Pueblo. I have many times mentioned in this blog that I considered the year from 1968-1969 as being the most chaotic in my lifetime as it related to news events and social upheaval. Here’s a brief summation…
January 23 – North Korea Takes The USS Pueblo
January 30 – North Vietnam Launches the Tet Offensive; a militarily strategic failure but an immense propaganda success for the North… initiating huge public doubt about continuing a war which we were not winning in spite of what the Johnson administration and the generals were telling the public.
April 4 – Martin Luther King Assassinated In Memphis, TN
June 5 – Robert F. Kennedy Assassinated In Los Angeles
September 30 – Boeing Introduces The First 747 Jumbo Jet. Hardly a huge “bad” news event but it was a significant advancement in aviation technology at the time.
October 16 – Black Athletes At The Olympics Raise Their Fists In Apparent Political Defiance; shocking the American public and further enforcing the “black power” militancy in the news.
November 22 – TV’s First Inter-racial Kiss; Star Trek’s Kirk Kisses Uhura. Again, not a huge news event by itself, but it reflected the changing social mores during a period of civil rights activity around the country.
December 23 – Crew Of The Captured USS Pueblo Were Released. Eleven months to the day.
December 24 – Apollo 8 Circles The Moon For The First Time; man gets close. First time man sees the dark side. Seven months later Armstrong was walking on it.
Keep in mind that national and world events in between all these events were continuing constantly in the news. The Vietnam War, with its light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel false politics and daily body counts (Americans and the enemy), the anti-war movement and subsequent demonstrations across the country.. in every major city, the growing civil rights movements and riots, the infamous 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the hippie movement… 1968 was awash in what seemed like constant evening news chaos and turmoil. Among historians 1968 was the most significant year of events in modern American history.
The crew of the Pueblo was seized well beyond the 12 mile treaty distance claimed by North Korea. An investigation later concluded the Navy was at fault for failing to provide adequate security for the vessel (aircraft never was dispatched to the scene as two carriers were too far away), and the mission itself was poorly planned from the start. Essentially it was an eavesdropping vessel; radio listening intel gathering.
The seizure of the Pueblo remains one of the most embarrassing incidents in US military history, the first hijacking of a naval vessel since the Civil War, 153 years earlier.
The incident… …raised tensions in the region to near breaking point. Fifty years on, it remains the closest the world came to a second Korean War, one that show cables suggesting US generals were prepared to use nuclear weapons to fight, and could have sucked in both the Soviet Union and China.
Public outcry at first was strong and harsh and there were demands for swift action. As the months wore on and the other events of that time came and went, the Pueblo’s crew was becoming less important. A number of groups and committees were formed to keep the plight of the Pueblo crew in the forefront of the news. One particular national effort was the “Remember The Pueblo Committee” led by an Arlington Heights, Illinois pastor Rev. Paul Lindstrom. He seemed to capture the local and national news and became a driving force in keeping alive public interest. Also, the wife of Commander Lloyd Bucher, the Pueblo’s skipper, also became a focal point in holding public attention.
In 1968 I was a junior in high school and was doing a stint as a reporter/photographer for my school newspaper. Lindstrom had a scheduled speaking event regarding the Pueblo so I brought my tape recorder and attended the affair. Lots of press. I met the guy.. asked a few questions, wrote my story. It was a rather dynamic meeting, calling for LBJ to get the crew released.
It was a different time, back in 1968. Apparently feelings in North Korea were still fresh on the minds of the population.. many of whom either fought in the war or were collateral victims of it.
Again from CNN…
From the moment their ship was boarded onward, one of the most disturbing things for the crew was the North Koreans “total and complete hatred” for the US crewmen.
“You could just feel it,” (Stu) Russell (a captured crewmember) recalled in an interview with CNN. It bewildered the young Americans, many of whom “had no thoughts about North Koreans one way or another.”
It wasn’t until much later he learned of US activities during the Korean War: “We’d bombed the crap out of North Korea, killed over one third of the population. There was no family in North Korea that hadn’t lost close relatives because of America.”
This hatred — which previously manifested itself in random violence and cruelty — made it all the more likely to the crew that their North Korean captors would eventually execute them.
Now 50 years later the bulk of the North Korean population are the grandkids of those with the hatred in 1968 who were in the war. While the government brainwashes them from the cradle to the grave, there are very few veterans left to pass on the original hatred. The passage of time and generations has diluted the experiences.
It’s easy comparing the response by President Johnson to the recent crisis with Trump trying to get North Korea to the negotiating table to discuss their nuke testing. Consider this…
The negotiations stretched on for weeks and then months, as the crew of the Pueblo were tortured and hawks in both Washington and Seoul urged military action. Tensions reached such a height that during this period, Adm. Ulysses Sharp, commander in chief of all US forces in the Pacific, drafted a top secret plan to defend South Korea against a possible second invasion by the North.
In one scenario, dubbed “Freedom Drop,” US planes or ground forces would hit attacking North Korean troops and tanks with nuclear explosives while nuclear-tipped missiles with yields of up to 70 kilotons, more than triple that of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, would strike key targets inside North Korea.
Keep in mind, in 1968 North Korea had no nukes… but they did posses the capability of using artillery and rockets against Seoul. But in those days South Korea was hardly the economic juggernaut that it is today and the modern buildup of their cities and affluence was still in its infancy. While today’s deterrent against using force to compel the North to stop their nuke testing is their ability to cause a lot of damage and death in Seoul, back in 1968 the deterrent was the fear of bringing the Soviets and/or China into the conflict.
The leader of North Korea facing LBJ was Kim II-sung, grand-daddy to current Kim Jong-un.
Of note, in defiance to their captors, the crew of the Pueblo, whenever photographed, posed with their middle finger extended… convincing the North Koreans that the gesture was a Hawaiian good luck sign. Once the world saw the apparent humor, the embarrassed North Koreans spent considerable time torturing the crew for this stunt.
In the end the crew was finally released when the U.S. supplied a sign apology.
The USS Pueblo itself was never released. It is still an officially commissioned US Navy ship, one of the oldest in the US fleet. Since 2013, it has been used as a tourist attraction and propaganda museum in Pyongyang.
This means after nearly 50 years in mothballs Kim Jong-un furthered the embarrassment.
Maybe whatever negotiations we do with Kim in the future we include getting our ship back as a matter of principle… and a bit of pride.
(Great CNN historical account HERE.)