Skip to comments.40 years later, seized USS Pueblo is tourist draw in North Korea
Posted on 09/07/2007 7:41:24 PM PDT by Dubya
PYONGYANG, North Korea North Koreas greatest propaganda trophy, a captured U.S. Navy spy ship, floats along the banks of the Taedong River, beckoning visitors aboard to see how this country once humiliated the United States. It's the USS Pueblo, whose captain surrendered without firing a shot to North Korea in 1968.
Now a major tourist attraction, the vessel has become a floating symbol of anti-Americanism and the Cold War era. It draws some 1,000 people a day in organized tours designed to drum up patriotism.
It was a great victory for the Korean people to capture this ship, said Li Gyong-il, a tour guide dressed in a crisp taupe military uniform.
Even as tourists clamber aboard, inspecting bullet and shrapnel holes circled in bright red paint, poking into the captains quarters and taking the wheel on the bridge, the fate of the Pueblo is again in play. Several U.S. legislators have demanded its return, and North Korea hinted as recently as April of such a possibility as part of six-nation talks to dismantle the nations nuclear weapons program.
If the 177-foot vessel generates intense pride in North Korea, feelings also run strong in the United States, especially among survivors of the 82 crew members who were captured 39 years ago. During 11 months in captivity, they endured beatings and deprivation before a deal was struck to let them cross to freedom in South Korea.
Theres just a tremendous amount of bitterness on the part of the crew, said Stu Russell, a former reservist aboard the vessel who now lives in Eureka, Calif. Weve had a couple of suicides and a higher-than-normal divorce rate. We go through it every night. It doesnt go away.
Another former Pueblo crewmember said he longs for the ships return.
I would love to see that ship sail into San Diego harbor. Id just salute it, said Ralph McClintock, one of several dozen communications specialists posted aboard the spy ship when it was captured.
Temperatures were frigid on the Sea of Japan on Jan. 23, 1968, when three North Korean torpedo boats and a sub chaser circled the USS Pueblo at gunpoint and ordered its surrender. The United States later claimed that the ship, disguised as a marine research vessel, was outside North Korean territorial waters, a claim Pyongyang contested.
When the Pueblo crew started evasive maneuvers, the North Koreans fired machine guns, killing one U.S. seaman. Fearing a massacre aboard the lightly armed vessel, Cmdr. Lloyd Pete Bucher ordered it into port at Wonsan as crewmembers tried with little success to destroy the abundant intelligence material aboard.
We were told wed be executed. We were bound up, blindfolded and beaten, recalled McClintock, 63, who's now a television producer in Jericho, Vermont.
The beatings grew worse months later after the North Koreans discovered that the crewmen had staged a ruse. While assembled for propaganda photos, many of the crew offered middle-finger salutes to the camera.
We had a cover story, Russell said. We said it was the Hawaiian good-luck sign. They bought off on it.
The photo was published in a U.S. newsmagazine with an explanation of the real meaning of the gesture, enraging the North Koreans.
Tourists boarding the Pueblo today enter the galley to watch an 18-minute video, narrated in strident tones with rousing martial music in the background, that recounts how the ship was seized by dealing severe punishment to U.S. imperialist aggressors.
By the end of the ordeal, when the captives were allowed to leave North Korea just before Christmas 1968, the enemy knelt down before the Korean people and the outcome sent a signal to the world, the video says.
The aggressors who lorded it over everywhere in the world were driven out by our country. They returned without even turning their faces, without any dignity of the United States, it says.
Li, the tour guide, ushers visitors past lockers pocked with bullet holes and into interior electronic monitoring and cryptography chambers bearing shelves of secure communications equipment with red labels that say Top Secret -- Prohibited.
Thirty-four spies were on duty day and night to wiretap and spy on the important state and military information of our country, she said.
Much as Soviet trawlers laden with electronic listening gear patrolled the coasts of the Western world in that era, U.S. naval vessels thinly disguised as civilian ships sought to eavesdrop on the communist world.
Within days of the Pueblos capture, Soviet KGB officers are believed to have whisked some of the documents, codebooks and listening gear from the ship to Moscow.
For decades, the North Koreans kept the Pueblo docked in Wonsan, the port near the point of capture. But in 1999, they ran their own flag up the mast and sailed the ship for nine days in international waters to Pyongyang. Why U.S. naval forces based in South Korea and Japan didn't move in to seize the ship then hasn't been explained.
Russell, the former crew member, said senior Pentagon naval officers told a retired Pueblo commander that they were told, Hands off. Let them move the ship.
Some of the history surrounding the USS Pueblos capture has yet to emerge, said Russell, who's filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests seeking records from the Defense and State departments and the National Archives, to little avail. Its not all on the table yet, he said.
The Pueblo has never been decommissioned by the Navy and remains the only active-duty vessel in enemy hands.
North Korea has hinted at least twice that it would be willing to repatriate the Pueblo, first to Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and top aide to President George H.W. Bush, in 2005 and then this April to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who toured the ship.
Afterward, the State Department denied that a formal offer had been made and said that the USS Pueblo should be returned to the United States. North Koreas seizure of the vessel and its detention of the crew were in violation of international law.
Aboard the vessel, there is no hint of any return to U.S. hands.
The video declares that the ships presence in Pyongyang will testify century after century (of) the crimes of aggression played by U.S. imperialists against the Korean people.
Li, the tour guide, added: If we sent back the ship, it would be a crime to the Korean people.
2007 McClatchy Newspapers
How about a challenge to all seal teams. First team to demo the ship and make it out of N. korea has the bragging rights.
I would not lose sleep if their tourist attraction disappeared one night is a ball of flames and thunder.
I do not know what those monsters did to our people while they were in their custody, but I knew one of them for a year and a half while I was in Viet Nam. He would never speak about it at all.
I remember when the Pueblo was captured.
After the crews return to San Diego, they were
taken around 7 blocks up the street from me to
the Naval Hospital.
Some yrs. later I had got to shake hands with
Loyd Bucher, the skipper
Could you remind me, and the reporter, who was Commander in Chief in 1999?
That damn ship should have been sunk, right then. If not then, sink it at the pier now.
Interesting, what were the circumstances that you got to meet him? The Chi-coms ramming our P-3 in 2001 seems eerily similar to the Pueblo event.
Correct on your first guess! It was Time that triggered the borderline-fatal weeks of beatings that the crew endured after the Koreans showed them the Time magazine copy in an assembly.
From Bucher's account of their Time-Out:
"...threatened me with speedy execution after an [absolutely inevitable] trial. He was pretty convincing about it and I was returned to my cell feeling that my chances for survival had sunk to zero."
"Radioman Hayes had his jaw broken."
"...beatings were repeated twice a day and at least once a night over the next several days and soon my ribs felt cracked, my guts ruptured, my testicles ready to burst, and my face a pulp with all my front teeth loosened and almost falling out."
"I was by now staggering down the corridor once again urinating blood in a latrine fouled with the vomit of men sickened by their injuries."
Gosh, how'd you do it? We conservatives just seem psychic sometimes.
The Pueblo was based here originally.
AS with most of the crew, they continued on
here in San Diego.
During a rally for the troops during the early
WOT Boucher was there as was Duncan Hunter.
I had a chance to speak to him and shake his hand.
He is buried here at Fr. Rosecrans National Cem.
The photo was published in a U.S. newsmagazine with an explanation of the real meaning of the gesture, enraging the North Koreans. ................ Let me guess, Time? Newsweek?
Traitors then, traitors now. But this time we have the Internet and Free Republic!;)
It's a little late for that, but I like the way you think.....
Stephen Decateur and his crew must be turning in their graves.
We should bomb it.
1.5 Million North Korean troops poised at the 38th parallel, waiting to invade the south and itching for a reason. All they need is an "international incident" to set them moving south....especially if they think our military is stretched thin with Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the battles going on with the war against the Islamo-Facists.....
You may not belive it
Yes I know about the USS Liberty. Very sad that we did nothing about it.
I was a Sp4 stationed at the 121st Evac Hosp in 1968 and was sent to meet the crew when they were released. I was in that 1st bus you see in that pic at the bridge of no return. Capt.Bucher was seated between to men that immediately started asking him questions about what documents were destroyed and before he could complete his answer was asked a question by the other person who I’m guessing was either Naval Intel or CIA. The crew was taken to the 121st for medical exams and the next day sent home. For a 19 y/o it was quite an experience.