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Debate Over Conduct in Loss of U.S. Spy Ship Continues After 20 Years : Pueblo's Surrender to N. Korea: The Shot That Wasn't Heard

January 17, 1988|PHYLLIS MESSINGER | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The crew of the USS Pueblo was eating lunch when the pilothouse passed down word that a ship had been spotted to the south, coming from the direction of the North Korean port of Wonsan. Five minutes later, an updated report: The ship was less than three miles away and closing fast. It was headed directly for the Pueblo.

The date: Jan. 23, 1968, 20 years ago this month.

Little more than two hours passed before the fight--if that's what it can be called--was over.

The Pueblo, escorted by the North Korean ship and three torpedo boats, was sailing toward Wonsan. Four crew members had been injured in the gunfire from the North Korean ships. One later died.

The Pueblo had never fired a shot.

So began a painful international ordeal for the United States that lasted 11 months--until the 82 surviving crewmen were released. The debate on the handling of the affair continues to this day.

Embarrassing for the Navy

It was, as one international law expert now says, "a most embarrassing thing for the Navy, which had a tradition going back 150 years of 'don't give up the ship.' "

Just as embarrassing for the United States was the fact that the Pueblo was a spy ship. And the North Koreans had captured her nearly intact, along with hundreds of Navy and National Security Agency documents detailing how the United States conducted seagoing espionage.

Even now the debate continues about whether the Pueblo's commander, Lloyd M. Bucher, should have surrendered the ship without a fight.

He maintained in a recent interview that he doesn't believe he had any other recourse:

"That ship was designed to perform a mission (spying). It was inappropriate for wartime use. It was supposed to have been protected by other elements of the military. But no one expected it would be attacked."

Bucher 'Suffered Enough'

Bucher acknowledged that he has taken a lot of the blame for the incident. A naval court of inquiry even recommended that he be court-martialed, but he wasn't. John H. Chafee, secretary of the Navy at the time, said Bucher and the other crew members "had suffered enough."

The Pueblo skipper says there is plenty of blame to go around.

"I think mistakes were made across the board, starting with the State Department and continuing with the Navy and the National Security Agency," Bucher said. "My view is that everyone who had responsibility made some bad mistakes in evaluating the information they had available.

"It always turns out that whoever is at the lowest level is the one held to account, and, in this case, that was me."

Bucher's second in command, Lt. Edward R. Murphy Jr., argued in a book published three years after the episode that Bucher "more than any other person, more than the Navy itself," should bear "the major portion of responsibility for the series of oversights, blunders and just plain confused thinking which . . . closed off one after another of the alternatives that should have been available to us until we were finally, hopelessly trapped."

Still Blames Bucher

Murphy says he hasn't changed his mind. "Nothing mitigated that, other than public opinion."

He described Bucher's surrender of the ship without firing a shot as "part of the infamy of the Pueblo. Had there been another commander, there would not have been an incident."

James Bamford, an expert on the top-secret National Security Agency, agreed with Bucher that the mistakes that led to North Korea's seizure of the Pueblo can be traced to the top military brass.

The first mistake, and the biggest as it turned out, was the Navy's assumption that the Pueblo, a converted Army supply ship, and its sister electronic surveillance ships needed only to be armed with the right to sail in international waters.

As Rear Adm. Frank L. Johnson, who was chief of U.S. naval forces in Japan at the time of the Pueblo's capture, later explained:

"The feasibility of this type of operation is dependent to a large degree on the safety provided by the time-honored recognition of the freedom of the seas. This has gone on for over 150 years. No public vessel had been seized in all that time."

Armed With One Cannon

So the Pueblo was armed with only an on-deck cannon, two .50-caliber machine guns and assorted hand-held weapons.

The cannon proved to be useless when the North Koreans attacked because any crew member manning it would have been directly exposed to gunfire, Bucher later told a Navy court of inquiry.

In addition, the Navy had no ships stationed nearby that could counterattack. The Pueblo was all alone.

"The commander was in an impossible position," said W. Thomas Mallison, professor emeritus of international law at George Washington University. "He could have done what he did, with a minimal loss of life. Or he could have fought it out in the tradition of 'don't give up the ship,' and there would have been a slaughter."

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