A bit over 45 years ago – on 23 January 1968 – the USS Pueblo was seized in international waters by North Korean forces. It was only the second US Navy ship to be captured by enemy forces since the War of 1812 (the river gunboat USS Wake was captured by Japanese forces on 8 December 1941). It remains on the roster of US Navy ships today.
During the seizure of the USS Pueblo, one crewman – Fireman Duane Hodges – was killed by North Korean gunfire. The rest of the crew was captured alive.
The crew was held prisoner for 11 months in North Korea. Conditions were abysmal, and they were indeed abused and tortured by their North Korean captors. Calling this “a year in hell” isn’t much of an exaggeration. Some of the accounts here are disturbing; read them when you can afford to get disturbed – and angry.
However, though captive the crew did not give up. Even when forced to produce propaganda, the crew did what they could to discredit it. This included use of the legendary “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” for months as a way to show clandestine resistance – until the idiots running Time Magazine decided to blow the whistle on that bit of inspired defiance in their October 13, 1968 issue. And the forced apology of the ship’s captain,CDR Lloyd Bucher, is classic as well. (For those who don’t know: the term “paean” is pronounced virtually identically with “pee on”.)
The crew – and Fireman Hodges’ remains – were repatriated on 23 December 1968. A formal investigation into the incident was conducted. The ship’s captain, CDR Lloyd Bucher, and the head of the “Research Department”, LT Stephen Harris, were initially recommended for courts-martial. The SECNAV rejected this recommendation.
Regarding the USS Pueblo’s seizure, no one involved or nearby seems blameless. Nor does higher command, all the way up to DoN and DoD. There’s plenty of blame to go around for all. So in that respect, perhaps the SECNAV’s decision to “close the books” on the incident from a legal perspective was the best decision.
Given the risk of capture inherent in the USS Pueblo’s mission and the possible damage to US interests should she be captured intact, it’s fairly obvious that a substantial degree of negligence existed – both on the ship and off. The USS Pueblo carried far more sensitive materials than she should have on her last mission, and had inadequate means, plans, and procedures to destroy same. US forces were available relatively nearby on both land and sea that could have reacted in time to render assistance during the incident had proper preparations been made. No forces were prepared to respond, either at sea or on land – so none did.
And, lastly, higher HQ insisted on conducting the mission under ROE that were overly restrictive and likely unrealistic. This is particularly true given that the incident occurred during a period of near-open hostilities between North and South Korea spanning the years from 1966-1969. Conditions in Korea at the time were so bad that this period is referred to by many as the “Second Korean War”. Indeed, conditions were “hot” enough that duty in Korea and surrounding waters/airspace from 1 October 1966 to 30 June 1974 qualified for award of the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.
But questions about the USS Pueblo persist even today, and new questions have arisen since her seizure. She was moved from Wonson to Pyongyang in the late 1990s – via sea, through international waters between Japan and South Korea. Why didn’t the US make any attempt to recover her then? Just how badly did the USS Pueblo’s seizure hurt US security? And why did the North Koreans capture her?
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I won’t speculate on why the US made no attempt to recover the USS Pueblo when it was moved through international waters in the 1990s. Perhaps some former official from the Clinton Administration can shed light on that.
The question how badly the USS Pueblo’s seizure hurt US security was assessed at the time. The NSA has now declassified and released a large number of contemporary documents relating to the USS Pueblo’s capture. From even a cursory review of these documents, it is clear that the damage to US national interests and security due to the loss of the USS Pueblo was significant.
And those contemporary documents IMO likely grossly understate the magnitude of the damage.
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Part of the reason for the timing of the USS Pueblo’s seizure may be due to chance. January 1968 was an exceptionally busy time for the US military. In Vietnam, the siege of Khe Sanh was ongoing; the Tet Offensive would begin in a week. Further, as noted above1966-1969 was a period of exceptionally high tension and near-open hostilities between North Korea and South Korea/the US. The North Koreans were attempting to create a rift between South Korea and the US; they also knew the US was preoccupied with (and militarily stressed by) our commitments in Vietnam and thus might be less likely to risk additional confrontation as a result. Part of the reason for their decision to seize the USS Pueblo may be simply that we placed her at risk and North Korea simply decided to take a chance and grab her under those conditions.
That’s plausible, and might have been part of the reason. But I personally don’t think it’s the primary reason.
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Among members of the US military and intelligence communities, the name “John Anthony Walker” incites anger and disgust. This is fully justified. The bastard sold out his nation to the USSR during the height of the Cold War.
Walker’s damage to the Navy, and in particular to the US submarine community, is well documented. Modifications to the Soviet Akula-class submarines started with the fifth submarine of the class; those modifications made them much more operationally effective. These later Soviet Akula-class submarines have sometimes been referred to as the “Walker-class” due to the belief that Walker passed to the Soviets key aspects of US submarine technology, allowing them to modify the Akula design to be more effective.
That’s probably the second-worst thing Walker did while spying for the Soviets.
You see, Walker and some of his co-conspirators also had access to cryptographic materials. Specifically, they had access to keying materials and manuals. Give the adversary both key and algorithm and secure communications – isn’t.
Losing secure communications can indeed be a game-changer; think ULTRA in World War II. Keeping ULTRA secret was literally important enough that the Allies knowingly let men die to avoid tipping the Germans that their communications were being deciphered.
Only God knows how much we lost to the Soviets due to Walker. We have an idea what he gave them. We don’t know what they used the keys he gave them to recover – and read. The worst-case scenario . . . is bad. Catastrophic is not an understatement.
Walker is known to have begun passing keying materials to the Soviets in December 1967. The USS Pueblo was captured roughly a month later. And many, to include the former CIA Historian H. Keith Melton, believe there is indeed a direct connection between the two. Others disagree.
I don’t personally know. But it does fit. Though I can’t say for sure, count me among those who believe Walker is at least partially responsible for the capture of the USS Pueblo.
I’ve stated elsewhere that there is only a short list of people on this earth on whom I’d wish a death by terminal cancer. Walker will apparently be eligible for parole on May 20, 2015 – the date on which he will have been incarcerated for 30 years. He also reportedly has stage IV throat cancer as well as diabetes.
I sincerely hope Walker never sees another day outside prison. And yes – IMO he does deserve his current medical plight.
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About this article’s title: chaos theory tells us that a small change in conditions can, under the right circumstances, have major effects on distant parts of a large system. The name was coined by Edward Lorentz when describing how, under one particular model for weather prediction, a butterfly flapping its wings at a particular place and time could determine whether or not a hurricane would form several weeks later at a distant location.
Here, it’s possible that a single act of treachery may have led to the loss of a ship, a life, and nearly a year in hell for 82 others.
Seems to me like that qualifies.