They are safely back on American soil. Except for the boat, the U.S.S. Pueblo, which remains in North Korea, the biggest bauble for a failed North Korean government that clings to power at the price of the lives of its people.
40 years ago, yesterday, the crew of the Pueblo was repatriated, after 11 months of grueling prison time, and torture, and hoaxes that best demonstrate American views on authority.
On December 23rd, 11 months to the day of their capture, the crew of the PUEBLO walked, one every 15 seconds, across the Bridge of no Return to freedom and the opportunity to live the rest of their lives.
I had expected to write a lot more about 1968 through this year, the 40th anniversary — but events overtake a part-time blogger, often, and I am no exception.
I would like to see some recognition given to the crew of Pueblo at the end of this year. They deserve it for their great service to our nation, in the first place.
But in the second place, their story is a talisman of what happened to the U.S. in that stormy year, a year that I believe was one of the most traumatic in U.S. history. It was a year of bad news mostly, from Vietnam, in civil rights with the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in politics with the assassination of New York’s Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. on the night he won the California primary in the presidential race. One reason we think to remember the good news of Apollo 8 at the end of the year, is that the rest of 1968 was so bad. Apollo 8’s stunning success in the last week of the year was a refreshing and hopeful contrast to the despairing news from the rest of the year. Even the release of the Pueblo crew did not erase the bad taste from the capture, and their torture by North Korea.
Here is what I wrote about 1968 a while ago, in “Penetration however slight: More on a good and noble hoax — the U.S.S. Pueblo” :
1968 was depressing.
What was so bad? Vietnam manifested itself as a quagmire. Just when Washington politicians predicted an end in sight, Vietcong militia launched a nationwide attack in South Vietnam on the Vietnamese New Year holiday, Tet, at the end of January. Civil rights gains stalled, and civil rights leaders came out in opposition to the Vietnam war. President Johnson fared poorly in the New Hampshire primary election, and eventually dropped out of the race for the presidency (claiming he needed to devote time to making peace in Vietnam). Labor troubles roiled throughout the U.S., including a nasty strike by garbage collectors in Memphis. It didn’t help to settle the strike that the sanitation workers were almost 100% African American, the leadership of Memphis was almost 100% white, and race relations in the city were not so good as they might have been – the strike attracted the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – who was assassinated there in early April. In response, riots broke out in 150 American cities.
Two months later, in June, with the Vietnam War as a very divisive issue, the presidential campaign was marked by great distress of voters and increasing polarization. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy appeared to pull into the lead when he won the California primary in June, but he was assassinated that night. Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters, angry at President Johnson, showed up at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – with Johnson out of the race, the protests were essentially for show. Mayor Richard J. Daley took offense at the protesters, and Chicago policemen, who considered themselves the political opposites of the shaggy-haired protesters, attacked the protesters with clubs and tear gas. A national commission later called it a “police riot.” Vice President Hubert Humphrey could not make his opposition to the Vietnam War known soon enough or broadly enough, and had a tough campaign against Republican, former Vice President Richard Nixon, who promised that he had a “secret” peace plan for Vietnam. Nixon won in a squeaker. Nixon had no secret peace plan.
At the end of the year, the U.S. got a feel-good story out of the Apollo Project, when NASA launched Apollo 8, which orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve.
Throughout the year, there was the continuing sore of Americans held captive by the Republic of North Korea.
Commander Lloyd M. Bucher and the men of the U.S.S. Pueblo were captured by a superior force of North Korean gunboats on January 23, 1968, a few days before the Tet Offensive. The capture and 11 months of captivity were a trial for the 84 men, and an embarrassment for the U.S. Tortured and unable to effect an escape, Bucher and his men did the next best thing: They played hoaxes that made the North Koreans look silly.
Among other things, Cmdr. Bucher had signed a confession demanded (by torture) by North Korea. When news of this confession was revealed in the western press, observers were concerned that a U.S. citizen would succumb to making what was regarded as a false confession, but a coup for communist totalitarians. The texts of the confessions and other material from the captives, however, revealed something quite different. The confessions were written or edited largely by Bucher and the crew, and to an American with any familiarity with popular culture, they were hilarious.
My recollection was that at least one of the confessions was that the Pueblo had indeed penetrated North Korean territorial waters, but it was phrased to make it sound like the definition of rape offered in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). I could not find any record of that confession on the internet.
At some length, I succeeded in getting a copy of the out-of-print autobiography of Cmdr. Bucher, to check my memory of the confessions. The book is out of print. I found a couple of copies at a used book vendor, very inexpensive, through Amazon.com. However, shortly after ordering the books, I was informed by both the Post Office and the vendor that the books had been destroyed by sorting machinery. Fortunately, they had been shipped separately, and one finally arrived.
Unfortunately, the “Final, final confession” does not contain what I recall. However, the book revealed that after the writing of the “Final, final,” Bucher’s crew was asked to write more – apologies to the people of North Korea, and other propaganda documents. It was in those documents that the text I recalled, appeared.
2008 marks 40 years since that terrible year, 40 years since the Pueblo incident. For the sake of posterity, and to aid your lesson plans, here is the part of the confessions I recall which has not been available lately.
Bucher: My Story, Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, USN, with Mark Rascovich, Doubleday 1970, Dell 1971; p. 342
We did in fact get away with a composition that matched my Final, Final Confession for brazen kidding of the KORCOMS, and which far surpassed it in subtlety. Blended into the standard Communist verbosity were such lines of our own as:
“We, as conscientious human beings who were cast upon the rocks and shoals of immorality by the tidal waves of Washington’s naughty policies know that neither the frequency nor the distances of these transgressions into the territorial waters of this sovereign peace-loving nation matter because penetration however slight is sufficient to complete the act.” (“Rocks and Shoals” is Navy slang for the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the last line contains the essential definition of rape.)
This was both delivered over film and TV and published in the “Ping-pong Times.” The Glorious General was well pleased and set the same team to working on the next letter.
North Korea was anxious to cash in on the propaganda opportunities of the confessions and other material, and spread these documents as far as their naïve public relations offices could. Eventually, in late November or early December, a photograph of the captives, intended to show them healthy and having a good time, was distributed to newspapers. In the photo, the crew were shown smiling on a basketball court, holding a basketball, with a few of their North Korean guards. The photo was not published widely in the United States, however, because almost to a man, the crew were displaying what they had told the North Koreans was a “Hawaiian good luck symbol” – extended middle fingers. U.S. papers thought the photo inappropriate. European papers published it, however, and eventually Time Magazine ran the photo, with an explanation.
When news got back to Pyong Yang that the North Koreans had been hoaxed, the North Koreans instituted a week of beatings and torture. Within a couple of weeks, however, the North Koreans handed over the crew back to the U.S., at Panmunjon. U.S. officials were convinced that their signing an insincere confession got the Pueblo crew released. Anyone who ever read O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief suspected the North Koreans got the crew out of North Korea before they could hoax the government completely away.
Fortunately, Lloyd Bucher and the crew of the Pueblo did not follow H. L. Mencken’s advice after the Fillmore Bathtub hoax, and swear off hoaxes completely.
The “confessions” were hoaxes, great and glorious hoaxes in the best “Kilroy was here” spirit of American fighting forces. Unsure that they wouldn’t be executed, after being tortured, American Navy people still had the piss and vinegar to kick their captors in the ass.
There ought to be a special medal for that sort of stuff. There isn’t. More people should know and remember the story. Not enough do.
At Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub
- “A fine, patriotic hoax — the U.S.S. Pueblo”
- “Wits, not bombs” (on negotiating with DPRK to end their nuclear weapons program)
- “Penetration however slight”: More on a good and noble hoax – the U.S.S. Pueblo
- “History on the hoof: Richardson in North Korea“
- “40th anniversary: Capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo”
- “Legacy of 1968: USS Pueblo still shadows North Korea relations” (with recent video of the captured ship)
- Time cover story, February 2, 1968, “In Pueblo’s Wake”
- Website of the USS Pueblo veterans’ association
- The Pueblo, today, in North Korea
- U.S. Navy history site, on the Pueblo, with official, public domain photos
- Fox News story — surviving crew members hold a reunion after 40 years (September 2008)
- Damn Interesting story from 2006
- Cold War Museum entry on the Pueblo
- Wikipedia listing on the Pueblo
- “Remember the Pueblo,” Nicholas Kristoff on the lessons of the incident, in 2005