“Don’t you know there’s a war going on?”

The response of the Fifth Air Force representative to our efforts at coordinating emergency response to any contingency support requirement of the “Gravy Boat” was understandable, but not reassuring.

“All our quick-response aircraft are in Vietnam,” he continued.  But when we asked him to put us on distribution for his message telling CINCPAC he would not comply with the OPORDER, he changed his tune.  Commander Carl Jennings, Lieutenant Commander Carl Hokenson and I had made the coordinated effort on behalf of COMNAVFORJAPAN in accordance with the OPORDER.  Given the, albeit reluctant, assurance of contingency support, we left the Air Force Headquarters west of Tokyo and headed back to Yokosuka, , proceeding with preparations for the USS BANNER’s intelligence collection missions, given the code name “Gravy Boat.”

It was toward the end of 1965 and into mid-1966 that the USS BANNER transited the Pacific for a complete refit and, making Yokosuka, Japan her homeport, embarked on a series of intelligence collection mission.  BANNER had been an AKL, but was now outfitted with an extensive electronics suite, including the latest and most sophisticated communications intelligence collections equipment the U.S. had available.  This installation was given the name “Sod Hut,” and BANNER was given an Auxiliary Research designator.  It was the second of the series (USS PALM BEACH was the first) and was the first to deploy to the Pacific, predecessor to the ill-fated USS PUEBLO.

It was my privilege in those days, as Surface Intelligence Officer for the Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Japan, to work closely with BANNER’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Bob Bishop.  Bob was a “mustang” quartermaster, and a sharper professional I never met.  During the weeks of final outfitting, bringing aboard the Signals Intelligence team from Kami Seya, merging the “specialists” with his own crew to form a cohesive unit and making preparations for operations at sea, I spent many hours aboard the ship, going over every possible contingency with Bob.  We discussed, in detail, every aspect of any foreseeable eventuality.

“Bob, what will you do if they try to force you into port?” was one of the questions I asked him.  He responded immediately: “They’ll never force me into port – I’ll scuttle the SOB first!”

Continuing the discussion, he called his warrant officer chief engineer to the wardroom and asked him how long it would take to scuttle the ship.  “Two minutes with a chipping hammer” was the prompt reply, a reference to the very thin hull of BANNER.  After some serious thought, he said he could open the cooling water intake valve to flood the engine room, and punch several holes with the fire ax.

Give me five minutes and nobody will be able to stop it going down, but it might stay afloat for another two hours.”  Lieutenant Bishop then told him to write it up as a ships’ bill.

We spent a lot of time in the Sod Hut installation, which was about 20 feet fore and aft, as I recall it, with solid electronics from deck to overhead on overhead on both bulkheads.  The center of the compartment was similarly jammed with electronics in a built-in rack, leaving just enough room to squeeze around the forward and aft ends. When we reviewed the plan for emergency destruction of this equipment (enough explosive to disintegrate the entire electronic suite), Lieutenant Bishop said he had no intention of going to sea aboard a floating bomb and vetoed the idea of explosive.  Instead, he acquired two heavy sledge hammers and made sure the Sod Hut crew knew what was expected if an emergency destruct situation ever arose.

Lieutenant Bishop was also greatly concerned with the amount of classified documents he was supposed to have aboard.  He took only the minimum; those pertaining only to the immediate assigned mission.  Even so, he was concerned with the emergency destruction problem.  The plan was to use thermite grenades, or canisters, set off in the top drawer of each filing cabinet, the idea being that the thermite would burn the classified documents, starting at the top and burning on through each drawer as gravity drew the thermite down.

Our SIGINT team from Kami Seya said they had actually tried to burn some documents in this way, and found there were a few problems with the procedure.  First of all, the thermite only burned the papers with which it came into direct contact, burning a hole through the center of the files and leaving the rest unburned and legible.  Worse, the thermite went right through the files and out the bottom of the file cabinet.  Aboard ship, the thermite would continue on through the deck and through the next compartment, and so on.

Noting that he already had a bill to scuttle the ship, Bob decided not to use thermite grenades.  Instead, he had several duffle bags rigged with quarter-inch boiler platted fitted into the bottom, a new canvas base sewed over it, and the sides of the bags perforated and grommeted with numerous three-quarter-inch holes.  The essential, hard copy, classified documents were carried in these bags rather than in file cabinets.  Access to the open deck to dispose of these bags, if need be, was just aft of the “break,” in sheltered area where it would be possible to cast them overboard under any foreseeable circumstances.

As a former salvage diver, I knew that these bags would be extremely difficult to locate in any appreciable water depth, such as 200 feet or more, which applied to all the areas in which BANNER was expected to operate.  Further, these would be international waters, and any search effort would show that the bags were not in any country’s territorial waters.  A “burn” facility was installed on the stern, where each day’s accumulation of classified message traffic was disposed of.  Thus, given half-way decent weather, there would never be more than a 24-hour accumulation of classified material to be burned.

In those mid-1969s days, the Soviets were playing “hardball” in terms of ship-to-ship confrontations with the U.S. Navy.  They were “shouldering” and otherwise harassing our ships worldwide.  CINCPACFLT decided enough was enough, and issued a directive that all Navy ships in this area of cognizance would act with boldness, maneuvering only at the last minute to minimize (not avoid) damage.  Considering BANNER’s then hull, I mentioned this to Bob, and he asked me to obtain a waiver in his case.  COMNAVFORJAPAN messaged for instructions, and CINCPACFLT issued an exception to the rule of BANNER.

I remember asking Captain Tom Dwyer (who had relieved Captain John Lacy as COMNAVFORJAPAN N-2) what he was telling our Japanese counterparts about BANNER and her mission. Captain Dwyer (who was another superb boss) was holding to his instructions not to reveal anything but the authorized cover story to the JMSDF: BANNER was a research vessel, doing “atmospheric research” in the Sea of Japan.  In those days, Rear Admiral Uchida, head of JMSDDF Intelligence Division (later Admiral Uchida, Japanese “CNO”), was a frequent golfing companion of Captain Dwyer.  The N-2 informed us one Monday morning of the following conversation with the Admiral: “Captain Dwyer, we are aware of the location and activities of your spy ship; I believe I can keep mention of it out of the press.  By the way, there are several favors I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

I left Japan in mid-1966, reassigned to the Navy Field Operational Intelligence Office (NFOIO) at Fort Meade.  The USS PUEBLO arrived in Yokosuka shortly thereafter, and Commander Pete Boucher, the COMSUBFLOT-SEVEN staff, took over as Commanding Officer.  I had known Pete primarily as the voice at the other end of the secure communications line between our COMNAVFORJAPAN Intelligence Operations spaces and his facility at COMSUBFLOTSEVEN.  He also sat in on all our briefings of submarines preparing for intelligence collection operations in the Far East.

USS Pueblo (AGER-2)

I have often wondered at the vast difference between the total preparedness and contingency planning of BANNER, and the apparent lack of such planning on PUEBLO.  In my view, Commander Boucher cannot be faulted for his leadership and courage ashore in North Korean captivity, but I must question his preparedness of the adversity he encountered at sea.  (Some readers may not be aware that the only death of the PUEBLO crewman occurred after capitulation to the North Korean Navy.  In international waters while PUEBLO was proceeding into port, the ship moved slowly in order to burn several days’ accumulations of classified message traffic and otherwise implement the emergency destruction bill.  The North Koreans took them under fire in order to speed them up).

At about 0200 one winter’s morning in early 1967 I got a phone call to come at once-there was a problem.  At the NFOIO spaces in the NSA building I read the reports of PUEBLO’s capture by the North Koreans and realized that the Fifth Air Force representative had been “blowing smoke” when he assured us they would have contingency-response assets available.  It would not be the first time that the “can-do” attitude expected of all competent military organizations had been extended beyond rational limits.  The only contingency response Fifth Air Force had available was nuclear attack.

An immediate update to the North Korean order of battle was required.  Not with a great deal of hope, I placed a secure-phone call to Larry Swim, the ace photo interpreter at “Building 213” in Washington, D.C. Despite the hour, I was amazed to hear Larry’s voice at the other end of the line. “What are you doing there at two in the morning?” I asked.

“Waiting for your call,” he said.  “We just got a bucket down two days ago and finished analysis this afternoon.  Are you read to write?”

He proceeded to list the entire North Korean order of battle, port by port.  I put the data in message format and sent it Op Immediate to CINCPACFLT, COMSEVENTHFLET, COMNAVFORJAPAN and carriers in WESTPAC.

But it was too late to help PUEBLO.  Without immediate contingency air support, prior to the capture of the ship and crews, the only response would have been punitive, and probably would have resulted in the death of the entire PUEBLO crew.  They had it rough enough as it was.

By Don Tuthill

Source: NCVA CRYPTOLOG Fall 1988 (Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly)

Featured image: USS Banner (AGER1)