A Day in History:  USS Pueblo “Incident” – North Korea, January 23, 1968

On January 23 it will be 50 years since the USS Pueblo, an intelligence gathering US Navy ship, was captured by North Korea. Known today as the Pueblo Incident, the ship carried 83 crew members. The capture was a major Cold War incident, where tensions were already high. It would be 11 months of abuse and torture before the crew was released.

Pueblo’s journey began on January 5, leaving Yokosuka, Japan for Sabeso. On January 11 she headed north, with orders to intercept and conduct surveillance of the Soviet Navy and gather intelligence from North Korea. On January 20 a North Korean submarine chaser passed close to Pueblo, and on January 22 two fishing vessels passed very close as well. That same day the North Koreans attempted to assassinate the South Korean President. This was not known to the U.S.

On January 23 a submarine chaser approached Pueblo and asked her nationality, whereby Pueblo raised the US flag. According to the North Koreans, the USS Pueblo deliberately entered their territorial waters; however the US stated that they were in international waters when the event took place. The North Korean ship asked Pueblo to stand down or be fired upon. Because Pueblo was outmatched by the North Korean and realizing they would be captured, the crew stalled for time. The crew began destroying sensitive material, but there was so much onboard that they were not able to complete the task. The submarine chaser was joined by torpedo boats and fighter planes. Pueblo was fired upon and one crew member was killed.

The crew was in touch with the Naval Security Group in Japan, and although air cover was promised, it never arrived. By the time the President was advised of the situation, Pueblo was already captured. It wasn’t until five days later that there was official confirmation of the capture.

USS Pueblo was ordered to follow the North Korean vessels. Once the ship was boarded the crew’s hands were tied and they were blindfolded and beaten. The ship was taken to the port of Wonsan, then transferred to Pyongyang where the crew members were charged with spying.

After the US offered an apology, a written admission that Pueblo had been spying and assurance that they would not do so again in the future, the North Korean government agreed to release the remaining crew members. Eleven months after they were captured, on December 23rd, 82 crew members were released.

Commander Butcher, his officers and the crew appeared before a court of inquiry. Commander Bucher faced a court martial of enquiry because he surrendered to the North Koreans, while a court-martial was also recommended for Steve Harris, the Officer in Charge of the Research Department because he failed to destroy classified material. In the end, charges were never pressed as it was decided that they had suffered enough.

USS Pueblo is still held in North Korea, moored along the Potong River in Pyongyang. It officially remains a commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy. It is currently used as a museum ship at the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum. The USS Pueblo is the only US Navy ship in the world that is held captive by a foreign nation.

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