Various articles and books have been published about the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2), and the imprisonment of the crew and the negotiations and events that resulted in their release on December 23, 1968 – exactly eleven months after the seizure of the vessel in international waters by the North Koreans.
These events, dates, places, sequence, and personalities will not be recounted here in any detail. Rather, this series is a collection of vignettes which describe some of the unreported, often mundane events that occurred during the eleven months of captivity, thereby providing a better understanding of what it was like to be a prisoner of the North Koreans.
This seven part series was written by LCDR Ron Samuelson and is based entirely upon the recollections of Communications Chief James Kell, USN. Jim Kell was a member of the crew of the USS Pueblo and recounted his experience to LCDR Ronald A. Samuelson, USNR. They were both station on Oahu in 1969 and lived close to each other in Navy housing near Pearl Harbor. LCDR Samuelson would make drawings based on Chief Kell’s narratives, and show them to Chief Kell who would make recommendations to improve their accuracy. Chief Kell was the senior enlisted member of the “Research Department” aboard the USS Pueblo. Unfortunately, the mutual effort of CTC Jim Kell and LCDR Ron Samuelson was never completed as LCDR Samuelson was sent to Vietnam in latter 1969 and the CTC Kell sent to his new duty station in San Diego. They lost contact with each other and never completed their mutual project. Because of this there is no story line and only fragmented chronological flow. The collection of drawings and accompanying narrative is the sum of their aborted efforts.
Besides CTC Kell, LCDR Samuelson had other ties with the Pueblo in that he was a friend of the Officer in Charge of the Research Department, having attended Russian Language School with Steve Harris in 1964. In addition, LCDR Samuelson was the “Issuing Officer” (Officer-in-Charge) of the Registered Publications Issuing Office (RPIO Honolulu) located at Pearl Harbor, and personally provided Steve Harris with all of the cryptologic material (code, etc.) that would be needed for the Pueblo’s operations in the Far East. Samuelson’s last words to Steve Harris as he departed the RPIO were, “Bon voyage.”
The Pueblo itself was originally launched in 1944 as a U.S. Army general purpose supply ship. It went through various transformations, became a U.S. Navy ship in 1966, and renamed USS Pueblo after the Colorado City of that name. It was ultimately classified as an Auxiliary General Environmental Research vessel and designated AGER-2. Two other vessels were also in this class, the USS Banner (AGER-1) and the USS Palm Beach (AGER-3). There were five other, similar intelligence gathering vessels designated Auxiliary General Technical Research vessels, one of which was the USS Liberty (AGTR-5). Each was lightly armed and intended to conduct surveillance and collect electronic and communications signals close-in to foreign shorelines. However, the AGER program was a unique, joint program between the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Navy, and its tasking was accomplished not through normal Navy channels, but through the Navy Security Group Command. RPIO Honolulu, noted above was also affiliated with Commander Naval Security Group (COMNAVSECGRU) and the NSA.
The USS Banner had conducted the initial AGER mission in Asian waters. It was a successful undertaking, but precautions were taken such as aircraft were on strip alert and two U.S. Destroyers were within fifty miles of the vessel. After the Pueblo incident, the Banner and the Palm Beach were designated by the Navy as “stricken.” The Pueblo’s name remains on the list of U.S. Navy ships and part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The Navy also struck the AGTR ships. The USS Liberty, only seven months before USS Pueblo’s only intelligence collection mission, was badly damaged by Israeli warplanes as it patrolled in combat zone waters during the Six Day War in June, 1967. 34 men were killed and 172 wounded, including the Commanding Officer. The Israelis contended that they thought the Liberty was an Egyptian ship.
The Pueblo weighed 906 tons, mounted two .50 caliber machine guns, and had a crew of 83 officers and men, including two civilian oceanographers. Its mission included intercepting and locating coastal radar, determining North Korean and Soviet reaction to overt intelligence collection, and collection intelligence on Soviet Navy units. The three operating areas along the North Korean East coast in which the Pueblo would conduct its operations were named Pluto, Venus, and Mars. Upon completion of operations there the Pueblo would return to Sasebo, Japan and while en route, conduct surveillance on Soviet Navy units in the Tsushima Straits. The timetable was to depart Sasebo on January 8, arrive in operating area Mars about January 10, depart the operating areas on January 27 and return to Sasebo by February 4. Although CDR Bucher unsuccessfully tried to have the Pueblo’s mission raised to Hazardous, the mission was designated as “low risk” by United States Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet (U.S. CINCPACFLT). Within the CINCPACFLT staff was a Navy Security Group Department which represented the Commander, Naval Security Group who played a major role in the operations of the AGERs.
North Korea Vessels Approach
After departing Sasebo on January 11, the Pueblo steamed to the northern operations area Pluto in the vicinity of Chogjin and Songjin. Then the Pueblo started to patrol southward through operations Venus, and then into Mars off the coast of Wonsan, remaining outside of North Korea’s territorial waters. On January 22 two Russian built North Korean fishing trawlers approached and circled the Pueblo, one coming within 25 yards. CDR Bucher decided to break EMCON (emission control – radio silence) to send a SITREP (situation report) to COMNAVSECGRU informing them of the close encounter. However, the message was not received until 14 hours later because of poor atmospheric conditions. In their response, COMNAVSECGRU did not inform CDR Bucher that the North Koreans attempted an assassination of the South Korean President Park Chung-hee at the President’s executive mansion, known as the “Blue House.”
North Korea’s Attack
The following day on January 23, the Pueblo was 15.8 miles outside North Korea’s territorial limits, when she was approached by a North Korean SO-1 submarine chaser, capable of 40 knots, followed by three P-4 torpedo boats. The SO-1 signaled, “HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE.” Shortly after that order two North Korea MIG-21 fighters conducted a low fly over. A second SO-1 submarine chaser along with a fourth torpedo boat then approached the Pueblo. Attempting to avoid confrontation, the Pueblo attempted to depart the area at maximum speed. However, responding to the maneuver the first SO-1 came alongside and again indicated “HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE,” following with firing its 57mm cannon at the Pueblo wounding CDR Bucher and two other men. After the first assault, a P-4 torpedo boat sprayed the Pueblo’s superstructure with their machine guns and uncovered its torpedo tube. With the superior fire power by North Koreans and Pueblo’s 50mm gun frozen in ice and ammunition stowed below desks, it was clear the Pueblo could not defend herself against the North Korean attacks.
Emergency Destruction Called
CDR Bucher ordered the destruction of classified material, an order that would only partially be carried out since there were inadequate means to quickly accomplish this. In attempt to destroy classified material some was jettison overboard by Firemen Hodges and two others, but the men were wounded by gunfire in this heroic attempt. Shortly later Firemen Hodges died of his wounds – the only man who lost his life in the entire Pueblo drama. Throughout the attack, the Pueblo was in radio contact with the Navy Security Group in Kamiseya, Japan. The Pueblo was told “Some birds winging your way.” However, no air support or any other support arrived.
North Korean Army troops from one of the torpedo boats came aboard and took control of the Pueblo, blindfolded the crew and forced them to sit in the well deck and on the fantail. They were jabbed, kicked, and poked with bayonets. Once inside territorial waters more North Koreans came aboard and a North Korean pilot sailed the ship at maximum speed to the port of Wonson, North Korea. A jeering crowd awaited the Pueblo crewmen when they arrived. The nightmare of the members of the USS Pueblo had begun!