The Pueblo Scapegoat

Although ‘Don’t Give Up the Ship’ has long been a defining U.S. Navy motto, when confronted with an impossible situation, what exactly is expected of a captain?

When Commander Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher surrendered his ship, the USS Pueblo (AGER-2), to North Korean gunboats in 1968, he became one of the most notorious figures in U.S. Navy history. Bucher gave up his vessel without firing a shot, the first U.S. sea commander to do so since 1807. Many in the Navy’s upper echelons regarded him as a coward and a disgrace, shaking their heads in disbelief that he hadn’t done more to resist his attackers. “I would have shot the hell out of [the North Koreans],” declared retired Vice Admiral William Raborn, echoing the attitude of many old-line officers. “I would have made [them] pay a high price.” A Navy court of inquiry urged that Bucher be court-martialed, faulting him with almost palpable disdain in its report because “he just didn’t try.” 1

But did Bucher, a tough, experienced ex-submarine officer, really do the wrong thing?

An ‘Unlikely’ Attack

At the time of her seizure, the Pueblo , an electronic surveillance ship, was trying to pinpoint the location of military radar and radio stations along North Korea’s rugged east coast. The 176-foot vessel was alone, with no U.S. combat jets or ships to protect her. To defend herself, she had only two jam-prone .50-caliber machine guns. She was crewed by 81 officers and enlisted men plus two civilian oceanographers whose presence was intended to reinforce the ship’s cover story that she was engaged in peaceful scientific research. 2 Though packed with advanced eavesdropping gear, code machines, and classified documents, the Pueblo lacked a rapid-destruction system. Instead, her sailors had only fire axes, sledgehammers, two slow paper shredders, and a small incinerator to use in an emergency.

As the Pueblo snooped in international waters near the port of Wonsan on 23 January 1968, North Korean combat vessels rushed to the scene. Soon Bucher faced two Soviet-built SO-1–class submarine chasers, armed with 57-mm cannon, and four torpedo boats mounted with machine guns and loaded torpedo tubes. Two MiG fighters zoomed overhead.

The Navy had repeatedly assured Bucher that a communist attack on his ship was highly unlikely. He also had been told that if he did come under fire, he was on his own. Shortly before the Pueblo ’s departure from Yokosuka, Japan, Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson, who supervised spy-ship expeditions in the region, warned Bucher not to “start a war” by provoking the always touchy North Koreans. 3

The communist flotilla quickly surrounded the Pueblo as she lay dead in the water more than 15 miles off Wonsan. When the North Koreans moved to board the ship, Bucher tried to flee. But the antiquated spy boat—a converted Army freighter with a poky top speed of 13 knots—couldn’t escape her much faster pursuers. The torpedo boats opened fire with machine guns as a sub chaser began pounding the Pueblo with cannon salvos. Bucher ordered his men to get ready to destroy their top-secret equipment. A radio operator in Japan held out the possibility that Air Force F-105 fighter-bombers might be on their way to rescue them.

With the North Koreans blasting him and his men, Bucher stopped the vessel. The communists then told the U.S. captain to follow them toward Wonsan. Bucher did so, but crawled along at just four knots. When he stopped again, hoping to buy more time for his men to get rid of their secret materials, the gunboats again opened fire with cannon and machine guns. By now Bucher and ten other Americans were wounded, including a young sailor who hemorrhaged to death after a shell nearly severed one of his legs. A party of North Korean soldiers swarmed aboard. Bucher was pistol-whipped, karate-chopped, and kicked to the deck. The rest of the Americans were tied up and blindfolded. With night falling, a North Korean pilot steered the Pueblo to a dock in Wonsan.

Heightened Tensions

The outrageous attack on an American naval vessel in international waters during peacetime created a difficult dilemma for President Lyndon Johnson. With hundreds of U.S. soldiers perishing each month in Vietnam, the last thing Johnson wanted was a second land war in Asia. But with many Americans clamoring for revenge against North Korea, he was under heavy pressure to take some sort of action.

Meanwhile, tensions were rising sharply between North and South Korea. Just two days before the Pueblo seizure, North Korean commandos had nearly succeeded in assassinating South Korea’s iron-fisted president, Park Chung Hee. Seething with anger and drinking heavily, Park secretly instructed his generals to prepare to march north. 4 Both countries put their militaries on high alert. Terrified South Koreans hoarded rice and swapped their currency for black-market U.S. dollars as rumors of war multiplied.

Johnson responded to the ship seizure with a massive buildup of American military power in and around the Sea of Japan, dispatching more than 350 U.S. warplanes and 25 warships led by the carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN-65). The president also called up 14,000 Air Force and Navy reservists—the largest mobilization of American military personnel since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. At the same time, Johnson secretly reached out to North Korea, hoping that closed-door negotiations with the communists would bring a peaceful resolution to the standoff. 5 He privately promised President Park, a close U.S. ally and personal friend, a wealth of new military equipment in exchange for not taking any action that could touch off a second Korean War.

Who Was Bucher?

LBJ also wanted to know more about the captain. The president and his advisers knew from the Pueblo ’s radio transmissions that she had been captured without firing her guns. Why hadn’t Bucher fought back? Had he handed over the spy boat and her valuable equipment to the communists for money? Had they somehow blackmailed him? Johnson instructed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to conduct an in-depth background investigation of the captain. 6

Agents of the Naval Investigative Service soon fanned out in the United States and Japan, where Bucher had been stationed during his submarine days in the early 1960s. The military gumshoes checked his bank records and grilled friends, relatives, and old shipmates about his “morals.” One officer who had served with Bucher grew so incensed at the intrusive questioning that he threw a punch at his interrogator.

Born in Pocatello, Idaho, in 1927, Bucher had been orphaned as a toddler. A couple that ran a local restaurant adopted him, but his new mother soon died and his father was imprisoned for bootlegging. By age 7 the boy found himself without parents or a home and survived by foraging for food in restaurant trashcans and sleeping in cardboard shelters. Eventually he was arrested for stealing fishhooks from a five-and-dime store and sent to a Catholic children’s home in northern Idaho. At 14, he moved on to Boys Town, the famed Omaha, Nebraska, refuge for abused and abandoned boys. He played on the football team and served as captain of the school’s cadet corps, organized after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1945, when he was 17, he enlisted in the Navy, but the war had ended by the time he was assigned to a supply ship in the Pacific.

Bucher later attended the University of Nebraska and married a Missouri farmer’s pretty daughter. He rejoined the Navy as an officer in 1953 and two years later entered submarine school. In the late 1950s and early ’60s he served onboard three subs with the delicate and dangerous task of eavesdropping on Soviet naval activities in the Far East.

Perhaps because of his Dickensian childhood, Bucher craved the company of others. He was the life of any party, telling jokes, gulping martinis, and leading everyone in song into the wee hours. Smart and well read, he could converse knowledgably about anything from U.S. naval tactics in Vietnam to Shakespeare’s sonnets to the ups and downs of the San Diego Chargers. He enjoyed fraternizing with enlisted men and occasionally jumped into a brawl at some wharf-side dive. One longtime friend aptly described him as an “intellectual barbarian.”

In the submarine corps he earned good job reviews as well as the respect of many of the men under him. He never realized his dream of commanding his own sub, though, ranking 20th on a list of candidates for 17 available boats. In 1966 the Navy “surfaced” him, putting him in charge of the Pueblo , a balky, World War II–era tub that had been dusted off from the Navy’s mothball fleet and refitted as a spy platform.

The Naval Investigative Service eventually reported that while Bucher had had a few sexual dalliances with Japanese bar girls, there was no evidence he was a traitor. 7 As part of the background probe, the Central Intelligence Agency worked up a psychological profile of Bucher. The CIA shrinks, too, concluded that he was a loyal American. However, they couldn’t resist pointing out what they evidently regarded as a significant character flaw: the captain’s “strong inclination to become too involved with his men.” 8

Hellish Imprisonment

After mooring the pirated spy ship in Wonsan, the North Koreans paraded Bucher and his men past a screaming, spitting mob of civilians at the dock and threw them into a prison under nightmarish conditions. For the next 11 months the sailors were routinely tortured, beaten, and starved. 9 The communists applied horrendous pressure on Bucher in his first hours of captivity, trying to force him to sign a phony confession that he had intruded into their territorial waters for the purpose of espionage. He was beaten, threatened with a firing squad, subjected to a mock execution, and taken to a bleak basement to view an Asian man who had been gruesomely tortured and was barely alive. “Look at his just punishment!” shrieked a communist translator, claiming the man was a South Korean spy and implying that Bucher was in for the same treatment. The captain bravely refused to sign. He finally caved when the North Koreans threatened to shoot his men, one by one before his eyes, and brought in his youngest sailor, a 19-year-old, as the first victim.

Despite such terror, the pain of his wounds, bouts of hepatitis and other illnesses, and the loss of about half of his body weight, Bucher proved a superlative leader in prison. He persistently demanded better food and medical treatment for his men and at one point went on a five-day hunger strike to protest the miserable meals of rice, turnips, and chunks of a fish so smelly and disgusting that his men dubbed it “sewer trout.” He urged them to defy their captors in whatever ways they could and often led by example, mocking the prison guards and their rules. When the communists tried to take propaganda photos of them, the sailors raised their middle fingers to ruin the pictures, telling the clueless North Koreans they were displaying the “Hawaiian good luck sign.”

Unbeknown to the captives, the Johnson administration was doggedly trying to free them, negotiating privately with the North Koreans at the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. For months the communists demanded that the U.S. government sign a false admission that the Pueblo had violated their territorial waters in order to spy and that no such intrusions would occur again. 10 The American position was that the surveillance ship was performing a military mission on the high seas and had done nothing wrong under international law. The stalemate was broken when the North Koreans unexpectedly accepted a last-ditch U.S. offer to sign a confession only after publicly repudiating it. Bucher and his men finally were released and arrived in San Diego on Christmas Eve 1968 to cheering crowds of well-wishers.

Surviving the Court of Inquiry

Within weeks, however, the Navy convened a court of inquiry to examine the circumstances that led to the Pueblo disaster. The five admirals on the court heard eight weeks of often emotional testimony in an auditorium at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California. The auditorium was typically crowded with newspaper and television reporters, since the widely publicized sufferings of Bucher and his men had struck a deep chord of sympathy with the American public. The president of the court was Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen Jr., the patrician-looking, sharp-witted commander of U.S. antisubmarine warfare forces in the Pacific.

After an emaciated Bucher delivered a spellbinding account of the attack on his ship and his travails in prison, a Navy lawyer warned that he faced a possible court-martial under Article 0730 of Navy regulations, which forbade a commander from allowing a foreign power to search his ship or remove any of his sailors “so long as he has the power to resist.” 11 The warning provoked a tornado of protest from newspaper commentators, members of Congress, and ordinary citizens who suspected the Navy was trying to scapegoat Bucher for mistakes made by higher echelons in the planning and execution of the Pueblo ’s ill-fated mission. Angry letters and telegrams poured into Coronado, including one addressed to “Bowen and his pimps.” 12

Admiral Johnson, Bucher’s former supervisor, testified about his on-call arrangements with the 7th Fleet and 5th Air Force to rescue the Pueblo in the event of an emergency. But under close questioning by Bowen and his court colleagues, it became clear that no combat ships or aircraft were readily available to deal with an emergency in the Sea of Japan. Most 7th Fleet assets were tied up off Vietnam, and the Air Force, also drained by the war, had few planes ready for action in Northeast Asia. Johnson admitted he had no dedicated forces to deploy if the Pueblo came under attack.

During his time in the witness chair, Bucher detailed a long list of the Pueblo ’s matériel deficiencies. The most serious was the lack of a rapid destruction system for the ship’s code machines and other classified goods. He related that he had searched unsuccessfully for dynamite before leaving Japan and that the Navy had rejected his written plea for a quick-destruct system, saying it was too expensive. An irritated Bucher had gone out and bought a commercial fuel-fed incinerator, dipping into the crew’s recreation fund for the required $1,300.

The captain also explained his rationale for giving up without a fight. After the communist gunboats surrounded him, he felt completely outgunned and trapped. The Pueblo ’s two machine guns lacked protective shields, jammed frequently, and were covered by frozen tarpaulins. Bucher believed that any men who went out on deck and tried to uncover, load, and fire them would be quickly cut down by North Korean gunners. When the enemy vessels opened fire, he resisted the urge to shoot back, knowing that the sub chasers’ 57-mm cannon could chop his boat into splinters from a safe distance. For the same reason he didn’t turn his small arms on the boarding party.

Bucher said he decided not to scuttle for fear that the Pueblo would be wallowing without power or maneuverability if the F-105s showed up. (A dozen jets had been dispatched from distant Okinawa but ordered to stop in South Korea.) 13 He also thought the communists might have mistaken his ship for a South Korean vessel and would leave as soon as they realized she was American. This explanation, however, was undercut by Bucher’s earlier statement that he had hoisted the U.S. colors shortly after the gunboats arrived.

The bottom line, the captain testified, was that he didn’t want his men slaughtered in a futile effort to defend their ship. In response to a question from his lawyer, he declared flatly that he lacked the power to resist at the time he halted his boat. The admirals, though, seemed unconvinced. For generations, a banner has hung at the U.S. Naval Academy as an inspiration to midshipmen. It bears the last words of a mortally wounded commander, James Lawrence, during an 1813 battle off Boston Harbor: “Don’t give up the ship.” In the minds of many naval officers, that brave exhortation carried the gravity and immutability of sacred writ. The Navy is a war-fighting organization, and loss of life is the inevitable byproduct of war. If Navy officers surrendered whenever they felt boxed in by an enemy, the service couldn’t function. It would fall to pieces.

Although one member of the court of inquiry thought Bucher should get a medal for his leadership of his men in prison, the five admirals unanimously recommended in April 1969 that he face a court-martial on five counts, including permitting his ship to be seized while he still had power to resist and failing to destroy his classified materials. 14

A Sympathetic Public’s Influence

But could Bucher really have fought off the six gunboats and two MiGs that had enveloped him on that wintry day in 1968? What were his chances, realistically, of breaking out of such a tactical vise? If the answer was slim to none, did he have a moral responsibility to surrender without wasting his subordinates’ lives? Few would argue that a man with a derringer surrounded by six men with shotguns possesses, in any practical sense, the power to resist. Was there a point at which resistance regardless of the odds becomes an act not of bravery but of recklessness, even idiocy?

Weary of growing U.S. combat casualties in Vietnam, many Americans sided with Bucher’s decision to conserve the lives of his crew. When public-opinion pollsters asked whether the captain “did a disservice to this country in trying to save his own life,” 68 percent of the respondents said no and only 9 percent said yes.

Newly appointed Navy Secretary John Chafee had to walk a fine line in his final disposition of the case. A politically savvy former Rhode Island governor, he realized that public and media sympathy precluded a court-martial of Bucher. But the secretary, who had served as a Marine company commander in the Korean War, wanted to pay homage to the brass’ strong disapproval of Bucher’s surrender, and he understood the importance of maintaining the don’t-give-up-the-ship ethos within the officer corps.

Chafee fashioned a shrewd compromise. At a press conference in May 1969, he revealed his admirals’ preference for a court-martial, but announced that he was overruling their recommendation. Chafee candidly admitted that mistakes and miscalculations by the Navy had led to what he called the Pueblo ’s “lonely confrontation by unanticipatedly bold and hostile forces.” Thus, the consequences of the ship’s seizure “must in fairness be borne by all, rather than by one or two individuals whom circumstances had placed closer to the crucial event.” Noting that Bucher and his men had endured a great deal of punishment in North Korea, the secretary said they’d face no further disciplinary action by the Navy. “They have suffered enough,” Chafee said as reporters raced for the phones. His decision was widely praised for its wisdom and compassion.

An Intelligence Debacle

Besides capturing the sailors, the North Koreans seized a host of secret equipment and documents, including key cards used to program code machines and intelligence reports showing how deeply U.S. eavesdroppers had penetrated North Vietnamese antiaircraft defenses. Bucher indicated during the court of inquiry that he never grasped the sheer volume of classified hardware and paper that needed to be destroyed. It’s also likely that he didn’t understand the full implications of that material falling into communist hands. But he did know that as more and more of his men were wounded and killed during the attack, he’d have fewer hands to destroy the secret gear. By running, he hoped to buy more time for the destruction work to proceed.

How serious was the intelligence loss from the Pueblo ? According to long-secret National Security Agency damage assessments obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the capture of the ship and her eavesdropping gear was one of the worst intelligence debacles in U.S. history. 15 Of the 539 classified documents and pieces of equipment onboard the ship, up to 80 percent had been compromised, the NSA reported. Only 5 percent of the electronic gear had been “destroyed beyond repair or usefulness.” NSA officials worried that the North Vietnamese, in particular, might tighten their communications security, making their secret messages harder to crack and putting U.S. servicemen in more jeopardy.

But the United States was lucky. NSA analysts concluded in a 1969 report that the North Vietnamese had gained no apparent advantage on the battlefield as a result of the ship’s commandeered electronics. Nor has any evidence surfaced since then that U.S. security interests were damaged as a result of the Pueblo incident.

On balance, Bucher did the right thing in preserving the lives of his men.

Source: U.S. Naval Institute/Jack Cheevers