50 years ago today, the USS Pueblo was captured — my story
Like many other young men, I was drafted into the United States Army during the Vietnam era. I am not a hero, never saw combat and never was sent overseas, but I did help my country one dark morning exactly 50 years ago today.
As a seargent in the United States Army, I was stationed in Washington, D.C., assigned to the Pentagon. My assignment was working in the office of Current Intelligence. Our office received top-secret information from sources around the world. They arrived through coded messages. Converted to English, the message would be given to an officer with expertise in a particular foreign country. This information would be transferred to officers who acted as newscasters. Each morning, they inter-briefed our top military leaders.
Working the night shift, I received secret messages from around the world. I then read and sorted them by country, placing them on desk of the appropriate officer to determine what information would be included in each morning’s briefing. I would then see that the debriefing room was debugged. As each general came to the presentation, I checked their clearance and then guarded the room until the briefing was completed.
On Jan. 23, 1968, I arrived at the Pentagon about 1 a.m. and worked my way though several clearances. Upon entering the office, I began the usual routine of starting up the equipment, checking incoming data and filling the coffee pot. About an hour later, the alert sounded and I started to receive a message, “This is the U.S.S. Pueblo, we are under attack, about to be boarded,” etc. (things I can’t write about).
You can’t imagine how lonely I felt at that moment. How afraid I was that I would make some mistake. I was the only person in the whole Untied States who knew one of our Navy ships was, at that moment, in battle. I immediately telephoned the officer in charge of North Korean affairs and informed him. (He was a heavy sleeper. As a friend, I called every night to wake him up in time for his shift. I was especially expressive that night!) I remember how every minute seemed precious that night as I prepared for the rest of the staff to arrive for this crisis.
The rest is history. At the time of the capture, the U.S. claimed the U.S.S. Pueblo was 16 miles in international waters while North Korea claimed it was in their territorial waters. Approached by a North Korean submarine and ordered to identify its nationality, the Pueblo had raised the U.S. flag. When ordered to stand down, it attempted to move and was then fired upon by a submarine chaser. Soon, three torpedo boats and two MIG-21 fighters appeared, resulting in one sailor being killed and the commander and nine crew members being wounded.
The surviving 82-man crew was bound, blindfolded, transported to Pyongyang and charged with spying. The crew was sent to POW camps, starved and tortured. Bucher was brought before a mock firing squad and mentally tortured. When told that his crew would be executed in front of him if he did not confess, Bucher finally wrote a confession. The 82 survivors were released (exactly one year later) on Dec. 23, 1968, and returned home in time for Christmas.
Today the Pueblo is still listed as a commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, but it is moored on the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea, as a floating museum. Although I have never met any of the Pueblo crew, who are now in their 60s and 70s, I will never forget sharing that dark morning with them, 50 years ago on this date, as I sat in the Pentagon trying to help.
Bob Brown lives in Saranac Lake.