The Butterfly Effect

| February 17, 2013

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?

— — —

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.

— — —

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.

— — —

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.

— — —

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.

Category: Historical, Navy

Comments (14)

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  1. LIRight says:

    The accompanying linked information to your article Hondo, is excellent.

    Of particular interest, especially to Navy guys is Cdr. Bucher’s testimony at this link:

    For instance, Bucher stated: “… the ship’s steering was the most troublesome system. . . . I had lost steering as many as sixty times in two weeks. . . We did have a stability problem . . . one of the things that I recommended . . . funds and time prevented this . . . did not have a watertight door although I had requested one . . .”

    And….: “…because the ship was from the Army no such {separate} [communications] system was available and I was not provided with. . . . I did feel strongly about this and included it in every one of my progress reports . . . it was not possible to steer the ship from after steering. … I had no collision alarm.”

    Frustrating doesn’t come close to describing how I felt after reading this material.

  2. Old Trooper says:

    Great article, Hondo! Well done.

  3. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    Nice job. For your next project, may I suggest the USSS Liberty.

  4. AW1 Tim says:

    Nice post. Thanks for that. I have never understood why this nation took away the death penalty for treason and/or spying.

  5. Hondo says:

    AW1 Tim: espionage appears to be punishable by death under circumstances such as Walker’s – see 18 USC 794. Walker IMO pretty clearly disclosed info about both cryptographic systems and major weapons systems. My understanding is that Walker escaped the death penalty and got leniency for his son via a plea deal contingent on his cooperation during debriefing in disclosing just what he and his cronies had disclosed to the Soviets.

  6. DaveO says:

    For a more current aspect, there’s the PLAAF capture of a USN P-3-type(?) reconnaissance plane.

    Interesting that Time Magazine was treacherous even back then, and that the POTUS uses that Hawai’ian “Good Luck” symbol so often when meeting with folks outside his circle.

  7. A Proud Infidel says:

    Nice work Hondo, and I have to agree with you about his medical conditions.

  8. Mike Kozlowski says:

    …I had always thought that Walker had life without parole, again based on leniency for his son, who got out 13 years ago.


  9. NHSparky says:

    As a former submariner, I am in total concurrence with you, Hondo. The list of people I’d wish any form of cancer on is a very short one, but Walker and Whitworth are on that list.

  10. Ex-PH2 says:

    The news of the Pueblo reached us at NPC on the day it happened. Our division officer told us what had happened, and said it was an act of war. When some SA right out of boot asked what that meant (wasn’t me, I was an AN), he was told it meant we were ‘in for the duration’ if the US should go to war with the Norks. But nothing happened and the incident faded away and was supplanted by the My Lai incident later on. I do not recall much being said on the news about the release of the crew of the Pueblo or their condition or what they went through, only that Bucher was facing court martial.

    Walker got more attention than the Pueblo hijacking, because he sold all that information to the Soviets for a lot of cash and a high-end life style. Somehow, that makes that scumbag more interesting to the media than the good guys.

  11. Rick Fulton says:

    I was in the USAF 66-67 at Osan, then deployed to Vietnam as a volunteer in Oct 67. A few months later Tet kicked off. I have wondered over the years if the Pueblo intercepted information about an increase in logistical support coming from the USSR through China to North Vietnam. Perhaps there was a fear that info gathered in NE Asian waters would tip off MACV about the upcoming attack. Pueblo had gear to gather info but even with a SOD hut welded on deck had no way to analyze it, at least immediately. The Soviets and the Chinese were the primary enemies faced in Vietnam because they were the ones provided the bullets and weapons, and using the Viets (bad enough in their own right) as their people on point. USSR is gone but China is still out there, and just as nasty as ever.

  12. Roger Baker says:

    A great article. As a young ten year-old boy, I got to meet Capt. Bucher of the Pueblo as he transition into retirement. He was gracious for a man who had been severely criticized by members of my family who never wore a uniform. He was gracious, patient, and signed an autograph book with the message “Have a GOOD life!”
    I have read the story of the USS Pueblo and feel the captain did everything possible. Though Captain Bucher has passed away, I hope to meet him again and thank him more firmly. He did what was right for his crew.
    (retired USAF e-7)

  13. john Miska says:

    Chuck Ayling was from my Hometown and one of my older sisters knew him when she was in high school.