On 50th anniversary of capture by North Korea, USS Pueblo crew still feels scars

Ralph McClintock wasn’t even supposed to be on the mission that changed his life.

Out of duty to both his country and sense of curiosity, the young U.S. Navy communications technician volunteered to fill a vacant spot on the USS Pueblo’s mission in the waters off North Korea in January of 1968. 

“I took the job because I wanted know what the North Koreans did and I wanted to see the enemy up close,” McClintock told Fox News. “The mission was only supposed to last 22 days.”

Instead of lasting 22 days, McClintock and 82 other Pueblo crew members  would spend 11 grueling months away from their home port – most of it spent in North Korean prisoner of war camps – in what might have been one of the more gripping dramas of the Cold War. But the incident was somewhat buried in the headlines of a tumultuous time.

It “was just an extraordinary year, with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson announcing he wouldn’t seek re-election, RFK and MLK being killed, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Apollo 8 launch to name just a few,” Jack Cheevers, author of “Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo,” told Fox News in an interview. “The Pueblo fell through the cracks of history because it became a sideshow to everything that happened.”

But Cheevers added that given the current heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, the saga of the Pueblo could hold clues as to how Washington should deal with its longtime adversary.

“The Pueblo incident may gain prominence over time because it teaches us that you can deal with North Korea, even during a major crisis,” he said.

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The Pueblo in Japan before its capture.  (Ralph McClintock)

The tale of the Pueblo begins in early January, 1968, when the crew set off from the U.S. Navy base on Yokosuka, Japan with orders to conduct surveillance on Soviet Navy and North Korean communication activity. The ship carried out its work without incident for the majority of the mission, with little to no resistance, as Commander Lloyd M. Bucher kept the vessel safely in international waters.

The problems began as the mission approached its close. First, a North Korean submarine chaser passed within some 4,000 yards of the Pueblo. Two days later, a pair of North Korean fishing trawlers came within 30 yards, while the "fishermen" looked on with binoculars and snapped photos.

“I’d never heard off any North Korean fishermen bringing cameras with them,” McClintock said.

The following day, Jan. 23, another submarine chaser appeared, challenged the Pueblo, and ordered the crew to stand down. The Pueblo tried to outmaneuver the other ship, but another submarine chaser, four torpedo boats and two MiG-21 fighter jets joined the scene.

After a protracted chase, which the Americans insist occurred in international waters and which cost one Pueblo crewmember his life, the U.S. sailors signaled compliance, and began destroying any sensitive material.

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An artist's depiction of the capture of the Pueblo  (USS Pueblo Veterans Association)

“We had large, weighted bags for dumping documents,” Don Peppard, an administrative assistant on the Pueblo and the president of the ship’s veterans association, told Fox News. “The problem was that there were just too many documents for us to destroy in such a short time. The North Koreans got a lot of documents.”

The North Korean also took all 82 surviving Pueblo crewmembers captive – blindfolding them and binding their hands on the trip to the port of Wonson. They were then bused to Pyongyang, and kept as prisoners of war in two different camps: the “Barn” and the “Farm.”

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Survivors of the USS Pueblo in Colorado in 2016.  (USS Pueblo Veterans Association)

“We had no idea what was going to happen to us, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem like it would be pleasant,” Peppard said. “At that point I felt like my life wasn’t going to be worth very much.”

While all of the crew were beaten and tortured, some of the worst treatment was reserved for Cmdr. Bucher. He was subject to horrific psychological torture, which included putting him in front of a mock firing squad in an attempt to force a confession. It was only when the North Koreans threatened to execute the entire crew in front of Bucher that he relented, and agreed to confess to the crimes leveled against him.

Bucher, who died in 2004, spent much of the rest of his life defending his actions. It wasn’t until 1989 that the U.S. government finally recognized the crew's sacrifice, and granted them Prisoner of War medals.

“His view was that the Navy treated the crew very unfairly,” Cheever said. “The crew really have had to fight to have their reputations restored.”

Some of the worst treatment came during a period they refer to as “Hell Week,” which occurred when the North Koreans discovered the crew had secretly given "the finger" in staged propaganda photos, an action the crew had initially explained as being a "Hawaiian good luck sign."

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The infamous "finger" photo that was taken as North Korean propaganda.  (USS Pueblo Veterans Association)

“They must have seen the Time Magazine article where they explained what ‘flipping the bird’ was,” Peppard said. “After they found that out, they beat us mercilessly.”

After 335 days in captivity – and following an apology, a written admission by the U.S. that the Pueblo had been spying - as well as an assurance the U.S. would not spy in the future – the men were sent to the Demilitarized Zone border with South Korea, and ordered to walk south across the "Bridge of No Return." Many of the men were crippled, malnourished and almost blind from the treatment they received.

Some, like Peppard and McClintock, say the fact that the story of their suffering has gone under-reported remains very difficult to accept.

They must have seen the Time Magazine article where they explained what ‘flipping the bird’ was. After they found that out, they beat us mercilessly.

- Don Peppard, administrative assistant on USS Pueblo

“There are a lot of people who have no idea of what we went through,” Peppard said. “I think we’re lost to history.”

Another sore point: The Pueblo itself remains in North Korea. Still officially in commission in the U.S. Naval Vessel Register, it sits in the Botong River in North Korea, where it has become a popular tourist attraction.

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The crew in buses after entering South Korea.  (USS Pueblo Veterans Association)

The U.S. has attempted to have the boat repatriated, without success. “I would really like to see our ship come home,” Peppard said.