“I don’t know how many of you are familiar with being subjected to one continuous lie after another, but it was an experience I’ll have to think about for a long time in order to come to sensible conclusions, and I’ll never be able to understand it… I do want very much to tell the people of the United States how much the crew of the Pueblo and myself had faith in them for the entirety of our detention. I had people come to me and say on so many occasions that they never appreciated how great it was to be an American until they had the misfortune to have been captured and stuck in a country that is so completely devoid of humanity and truthfulness..”
– Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, U.S. Navy, Captain (above), U.S,S. Pueblo, on December 23, 1968.
The U.S.S. Pueblo was captured by the military forces of North Korea on today’s date, January 23 in 1968. Her crew was taken captive and held prisoner in that forsaken country for eleven months before being released. During a large portion of that time they were beaten, starved and tortured by their captors. Please read and re-read the words of this brave and patriotic naval officer spoken on the occasion of that release, as I have countless times. They fill me with a sense of awe, and after I give you a brief account of the “Pueblo Incident”, I will explain exactly why it is that they affect me in this way.
The U.S.S. Pueblo Incident
On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo (pictured below), a Naval intelligence vessel, was engaged in a routine surveillance mission of the North Korean coast. At the time the Pueblo was positioned about 15.4 miles off the Korean coast. This put her comfortably outside the internationally recognized 12 mile limit for territorial waters, Lunch was being served in the ward room when a call came to the ships Captain, Lloyd M. Bucher that Pueblo was being approached by a ship 8 miles away. The ship turned out to be a North Korean subchaser, S0-1, approaching at 40 knots. As the enemy ship closed, it became clear that it’s crew was at battle stations. It radioed, asking Pueblo’s nationality and was answered by the raising of the U. S. flag. Pueblo shortly found herself surrounded (above) by another sub-chaser as well as three P4 torpedo boats, all of which were heavily armed and demanding her surrender. Pueblo tried to escape, but the North Koreans fired upon her, wounding the commander and two others. Firing back was impossible as the Pueblo was only lightly armed. Pueblo stalled for time, destroying the classified information aboard while sustaining more damage from enemy fire. Several more crew members were wounded. Ultimately Pueblo was boarded and taken to Wonson. The 83-man crew was bound, blindfolded, taken to Pyongyang, and charged with spying. One U.S. sailor was killed.
The United States government held that the Pueblo had been in international waters and officially demanded the release of her captive crew. The Tet Offensive began just seven days later 2,000 miles to the south in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson believed that the two events were linked, but LBJ ordered no direct retaliation. Negotiations followed. With the American forces so heavily engaged in Vietnam, LBJ wanted to avoid any sort of events that might lead to an escalation of the incident into a second Korean war.
The Pueblo Crew is Tortured
Meanwhile, the North Koreans, by the systematic use of torture, beatings, starvation, and coercion worked on their helpless captives. At one point they showed Commander Bucher the wretched condition of a South Korean whom they had nearly tortured to death, and told him that they would do exactly this to every member of his crew if he didn’t sign a “confession”. In this way, they eventually wrung a confession and
an “apology” out of Bucher, in which he was forced to say, “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 the threat of more torture. At an obviously staged “news conference” in August, the crew was told to praise their humane treatment, but the Americans queered that deal by using clearly sarcastic language and tones of voice in their remarks. The real heart of this act of defiance came in the in the photo shoots when they casually stuck out their middle finger (above). When the North Koreans figured out what this meant, they beat the Americans for a week. Eventually a deal was worked out with America issuing a false apology which we promptly repudiated once we got our men back. The Navy investigated and recommended a court martial for Bucher, but the Pentagon declined to prosecute.
And in 1990 the Navy finally awarded Prisoner of War medals for the Pueblo crew.
Conclusion: American Ideals Matter
This is all particularly relevant in these days wherein we have continued threats from North Korea over nuclear weapons, and freedom of speech issues. No amount of lies that they tell either then or now can alter the huge lie that is North Korea. No amount of extolling the virtues of “the dear leader” or butt face, or Baby Kim or whatever he’s called can change the essential fact that when they were being tortured by these villains, it was their faith in the essential truth and humanity of America and her people that sustained these men. In my posting about the Berlin wall I said that “evil must be confronted and challenged in the world of ideas, because there could victories be won that were more important than military triumphs.” Well here we had the simple ideal of America as a just and noble country, coming up against the evil of the lies being beaten into these brave men by their North Korean captors, and the idea of American exceptionalism won. And that’s why the words of Captain Bucher fill me with a sense of awe. And I hope that they will do the same for you.