A moment in history with an American and North Korean incident

The USS Pueblo in North Korea

The USS Pueblo in North Korea

By Bill Derby

I was watching a couple of MASH re-runs over the weekend between ‘honey-do’ chores.  After one episode on Saturday my cell rang and it was my old Army chum, Jim McNab.

I’ve written about his three-time brush with death after being shot in Vietnam, acquiring leukemia from Agent Orange and a cardiac arrest incident a few years ago that left him without a heartbeat for 20 minutes. He fully recovered from that ordeal and other bouts of leukemia.  He had also been stationed in Korea after recovery from his gunshot wound.  I was happy to hear his voice and that he is doing great. We plan to get together this summer.

I told him I had just seen a MASH re-run and had actually been thinking about him and our duty in Korea. We both laughed. The Mountain Home VA recently had a program honoring all Vietnam vets and it reminded me of an incident a number of years ago still vivid in my mind especially after what happened on the United Flight last week of the physician being dragged out of his seat.

I recall when Judy and I were on a U.S. Airways plane in Orlando waiting to leave the gate. A young Marine sat down in front of us. He may have been on his way home for a few precious days with his girlfriend, wife or family before heading overseas. Or maybe he was going to a new duty station. It didn’t matter.

The flight attendant was standing beside us pointing down at the Marine rolling her eyes and pointing towards him. The young Marine didn’t see her. She held up two fingers and gave an affirmative headshake. She bent down to the young Marine.

“How about you moving to First Class, soldier” she said. “We have two extra seats.”

He gathered his bulky carry-on and along with another Marine sitting behind us, both headed for two First Class seats.

That’s great I thought. I turned to Judy and mentioned that was a wonderful gesture. It made me feel good as a veteran to see a young man in uniform treated in this very special way. It was a simple gesture of kindness shown by the flight attendants. I hope they still do that today.

Since our country has been having recent issues with North Korea I was interested in the events which happened over the weekend in robotic North Korea.  The Korean War (Police Action) was so long ago many of our younger generation may not be familiar with North Korean/American relations. When I was stationed there, we lost two or three GI’s in firefights with North Korean infiltrators weekly. Not many people heard about these small actions since Vietnam was raging.

I asked a couple of our young staff members if they had heard about the USS Pueblo incident. None knew about it. Below is short story about the incident which happened a couple of months after I returned to the states.  The description is from the HISTORY Channel on cable TV.

1968 USS Pueblo captured

(From the History Channel)

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, is engaged in a routine surveillance of the North Korean coast when it is intercepted by North Korean patrol boats. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters almost 16 miles from shore, but the North Koreans turned their guns on the lightly armed vessel and demanded its surrender. The Americans attempted to escape, and the North Koreans opened fire, wounding the commander and two others. With capture inevitable, the Americans stalled for time, destroying the classified information aboard while taking further fire. Several more crew members were wounded. The Pueblo commander was U.S. Navy Commander Lloyd. M. “Pete” Bucher.

Finally, the Pueblo was boarded and taken to Wonson. There, the 83-man crew was bound and blindfolded and transported to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying within North Korea’s 12-mile territorial limit and imprisoned. It was the biggest crisis in two years of increased tension and minor skirmishes between the United States and North Korea.

The United States maintained that the Pueblo had been in international waters and demanded the release of the captive sailors. With the Tet Offensive raging 2,000 miles to the south in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson ordered no direct retaliation, but the United States began a military buildup in the area. North Korean authorities, meanwhile, coerced a confession and apology out of Pueblo commander Bucher, in which he stated, “I will never again be a party to any disgraceful act of aggression of this type.” The rest of the crew also signed a confession under threat of torture.

The prisoners were then taken to a second compound in the countryside near Pyongyang, where they were forced to study propaganda materials and beaten for straying from the compound’s strict rules. In August, the North Koreans staged a phony news conference in which the prisoners were to praise their humane treatment, but the Americans thwarted the Koreans by inserting innuendoes and sarcastic language into their statements. Some prisoners also rebelled in photo shoots by casually sticking out their middle finger; (noted by the American’s as the ‘Hawaiian Good Luck Sign’) a gesture that their captors didn’t understand. Later, the North Koreans caught on and beat the Americans for a week.

On December 23, 1968, exactly 11 months after the Pueblo‘s capture, U.S. and North Korean negotiators reached a settlement to resolve the crisis. Under the settlement’s terms, the United States admitted the ship’s intrusion into North Korean territory, apologized for the action, and pledged to cease any future such action. That day, the surviving 82 crewmen walked one by one across the “Bridge of No Return” at Panmunjon to freedom in South Korea. They were hailed as heroes and returned home to the United States in time for Christmas.

Incidents between North Korea and the United States continued in 1969, and in April 1969 a North Korean MiG fighter shot down a U.S. Navy intelligence aircraft, killing all 31 men aboard. In 1970, quiet returned to the demilitarized zone.


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