Remember the Pueblo, the crew and Commander Bucher, and the Great Hoaxes of 1968

December 24, 2008

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.

 General Charles H. Bonesteel III, U.S. Army, Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, (left) and Rear Admiral Edwin M. Rosenberg, USN, Commander Task Force 76, (right) greet members of Pueblos crew as they arrive at the U.N. Advance Camp, Korean Demilitarized Zone, on 23 December 1968, following their release by the North Korean government. USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and her crew had been captured off Wonsan on 23 January 1968. Note Christmas decorations.  Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

General Charles H. Bonesteel III, U.S. Army, Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, (left) and Rear Admiral Edwin M. Rosenberg, USN, Commander Task Force 76, (right) greet members of Pueblo's crew as they arrive at the U.N. Advance Camp, Korean Demilitarized Zone, on 23 December 1968, following their release by the North Korean government. USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and her crew had been captured off Wonsan on 23 January 1968. Note Christmas decorations. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

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.

Harry Iredell, one of the most active chroniclers of the Pueblo, wrote:

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 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.

A Navy Yeoman Second Class holds a U.S. flag, to be used to drape the coffin of Seaman Duane Hodges, who was killed when USS Pueblo  (AGER-2) was captured by the North Koreans off Wonsan on 23 January 1968. Seaman Hodges body was returned to American custody with the ships other crewmen, at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, 23 December 1968.  Official U.S. Navy Photograph

A Navy Yeoman Second Class holds a U.S. flag, to be used to drape the coffin of Seaman Duane Hodges, who was killed when USS Pueblo (AGER-2) was captured by the North Koreans off Wonsan on 23 January 1968. Seaman Hodges' body was returned to American custody with the ship's other crewmen, at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, 23 December 1968. Official U.S. Navy Photograph

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

Other sources

40th anniversary: Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and DBQ)

August 1, 2008

President Lyndon B. Johnson looks on as U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk prepares to join foreign ministers from more than 50 other nations in signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, July 1, 1968.  Photo courtesy the LBJ Library, Austin, Texas.

President Lyndon B. Johnson looks on as U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk prepares to join foreign ministers from more than 50 other nations in signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, July 1, 1968. Photo from the LBJ Presidential Library, Austin, Texas, via the Nuclear Archive.

Another missed anniversary — but a found archive of original documents on a key issue of our time which has flared up into worldwide controversy in the past year: On July 1, 1968, nations that had nuclear weapons and nations capable of making such weapons — more than 50 nations total — joined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to discourage anyone else from getting “the bomb.” In the past 40 years, few other arms treaties, or any treaties, have worked so well, reducing by two-thirds the potential growth of “the Nuclear Club.”

The National Security Archives at George Washington University (one of my alma maters) assembled a solid history as a press release, featuring links to 34 documents important to the NNPT. For AP world history and U.S. history, and pre-AP courses, and maybe for AP government, these documents form an almost ready-made Documents-Based Question (DBQ).

The Scout Report explains it well:

13. The Nuclear Vault: 40th Anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation

Signed into law on July 1, 1968, the historic Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was a major step towards creating a world that had the potential to be a bit safer from the threat of nuclear annihilation. This particular collection of documents related to the NPT was brought together through the diligence of staff members at the Archive’s Nuclear Documentation Project and released to the public in July 2008. The site starts off with a narrative essay which describes the backdrop to the signing of the NPT in 1968, along with offering a bit of additional context about the international political climate at the time. The site’s real gems are the 34 documents which include State Department cables, internal planning documents, and other items that reveal the nature of the political machinations involved with this process. [KMG]

Nuclear Archive does a good job itself — eminently readable, suitable for high school and maybe junior high:

Near the end of the protracted negotiations that produced the historic Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) 40 years ago, U.S. government officials warned that countries could legally reach “nuclear pregnancy” under the Treaty and then withdraw and quickly acquire nukes, according to declassified U.S. government documents published on the Web today by the National Security Archive (

The documents detail the well-known resistance to the NPT from countries like India (“China at her back, and Pakistan lurking on the sidelines”) but also from more unusual objectors such as Australia (concerned that the Western Pacific security situation might worsen) and Italy (unhappy about the “second-class status” of non-nuclear states). The documents suggest that the current crisis in the NPT system has deep historical roots, but also that current headlines overlook the long-term achievements of the NPT regime.

During the mid-1960s, prior to the NPT, U.S. intelligence had warned that as many as 15 countries had incentives to become nuclear weapons states but after the Treaty was signed, only five additional countries have developed such weapons (Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea, while South Africa has renounced them). How much of an impact the Treaty had on keeping the numbers low can be debated, but the non-nuclear standard that it set remains a central goal of the world community to this date.

This is a fantastic source for student projects, for reports, for teachers putting together presentations, for students to read on the Cold War, on 1968, on nuclear weapons, on the Johnson administration, on foreign affairs and how treaties work and are negotiated.

Powerful stuff. Go see.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Dr. Bumsted at Grassroots Research for pointing me to this site.

Legacy of 1968: USS Pueblo still shadows North Korean relations

June 29, 2008

It’s clear that U.S. relations with North Korea (the Peoples Republic of Korea, or PRK) still suffer from institutional memories of the USS Pueblo incident. For both sides the Pueblo incident remains a sore point from 1968, a very trying year for the U.S. anyway.

PRK was scheduled to detail its nuclear activities in a report last Thursday when I started pondering this issue — part of the continuing negotiations to close down nuclear weapons production in PRK. PRK hoped to get off the U.S. list of “terrorist nations.

Al Jazeera featured this story, below, in September 2007. In addition to footage of the Pueblo, still illegally held by PRK, and used as tourist site and propaganda opportunity, the piece explores the effects of the incident on more recent events, the negotiations to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

And now we know the rest of the story. PRK delivered the report; Bush announced the nation would be taken off the list of supporters of terrorism.  (Report below from CBS News)

PRK destroyed the cooling towers to their offensive reactor.

And now we’re right back where we were in 1995. Eight years of Bush’s work pushed us backwards 13 years.  Partial compliance by PRK, but the bomb-building project is on hold.

Nuclear non-proliferation mades some strides this last week. Still I can’t help the feeling that January 21, 2009, cannot arrive quickly enough.

Remember the Pueblo veterans. The Pueblo Affair still dogs relations between the U.S. and the PRK, through no fault of the crew of the Pueblo who endured a year of brutal captivity, and then seem to have been forgotten by the nation they served so well.

“Old iron pants” Cronkite

February 10, 2008

I noted a documentary on Texas water problems, narrated by Walter Cronkite. Okay, no kid in college today remembers Cronkite on the news every night; it’s likely that most of our high school students could not identify him in any way.

Walter Cronkite with NASA manned-flight capsules

Walter Cronkite anchoring coverage of a NASA manned space flight, for CBS News (Gemini Mission series?); CBS News Photo via NASA

Cronkite was the most respected man in news through the 1960s and 1970s. Recruited to CBS during World War II, Cronkite is famous for his sign-off — “And that’s the way it is . . .” — well remembered for his announcement of the death of President Kennedy, remembered among newsmen and space aficianadoes for his coverage of NASA’s glory days, and remembered for his post-Tet Offensive judgment announced in an on-air editorial that the American public had not been getting the facts about the Vietnam conflict, and that the U.S. could not “win” such a war. Because Cronkite’s credibility was so great, his turn on the view of the winability of Vietnam carried a lot of public opinion with him. When Cronkite’s views on the war turned against it, America turned against it.

So, it would be nice if students had a passing familiarity with the Cronkite story.

When I found Cronkite narrating a Texas Parks and Wildlife documentary, at 91, it pleased me.

But, looking for a short bio to link to for the post, I found this 1996 interview with Cronkite, introduced by a biographical sketch, including this piece of information:

Most recently, Cronkite, affectionately nicknamed “Old Iron Pants” for his unflappability under pressure, has recorded the many significant events of his distinguished career in his autobiography, A Reporter’s Life (Knopf, 1996).

What? How does “Iron Pants” relate to unflappability?

It doesn’t. Someone has cleaned up the story for public consumption. But the original story isn’t all that profane or racy, either.

During the political conventions of the late 1950s and 1960s, the three commercial networks, later joined by PBS, would camp out at the convention halls. Someone would anchor the broadcast for the network — Huntley and Brinkley for NBC, the current news anchor for ABC, and Cronkite for CBS — and the coverage frequently would take a couple of hours in the afternoon, and then go through the entire prime time hours (hey — it was late summer during rerun season; who cared?).

The anchor booths often were suspended capsules up in the rafters of the convention center; bathrooms were a long way from the anchor booths. Huntley or Brinkley, as a team, could take a break and take a stroll to relieve himself while his partner carried on. ABC sometimes brought in one of the roving reporters from the floor, or a guest anchor, to give their anchor some time out of the booth.

Cronkite soldiered on alone. He was called “Old Iron Pants” because he seemed to have no need to take a break to relieve himself.

This story was old by the time I covered the Democratic National Convention in New York City in 1976. One network reporter swore that, during the 1972 conventions, a group of reporters counted the coffees and waters going into Cronkite to see if he was doing some sort of fluidless sprint — he matched the other anchors drop for drop of consumption. So, in 1976, the rumor was that Cronkite had to have a private bathroom built into the anchor booth somewhere.

No one could find it.

One reporter for a New York station swore he’d met Cronkite in a restroom, but no one believed him. No one else in the room at the time could say they had also met Cronkite — no corroboration, no credibility.

And so the legend of “Old Iron Pants” grew, bolstered by stories from old reporters unfettered by Cronkite’s on-air brilliance, and ability to cover hours of conventions at a stride, were made possible by a bladder of legendary strength, if you listened to the old reporters wax on about the issue. “Old Iron Pants” is a nickname that has nothing whatever to do with reportorial ability, talent or luck. It instead refers to the ability of Cronkite to stay in the game while everyone else had to make a visit to the, uh, clubhouse.

This biography says Cronkite was “unflappable?” No, that doesn’t begin to tell the real story. Cronkite was stalwart, a rock unmoved by waters, gauging the political tides while unaffected (on-air) by his own.

At least, that’s the way I got the story. Anybody got a citation to something more reliable, and different?

As Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!” Let’s tell the whole truth.


Immediate update: Good grief! “Affectionately named ‘Old Iron Pants’ for his unflappability under pressure” may appear more often than “Cronkite” on Google. Is this another case where the polite, euphemistic explanation has supplanted the more raw, more sensible real explanation?

1968: Good news from a Grenoble skating rink

February 10, 2008

1968 was not completely black. Good news, sometimes great news, sneaked through the otherwise bleak barrage of bad news.

While the Tet Offensive of the Viet Cong against the forces of the U.S. and South Vietnam continued in a few places, the Winter Olympics got underway in Grenoble, France.

On February 10, 1968, Peggy Fleming won the gold medal in women’s singles figure skating.

Photo: IOC photo, via AllSport

It was the only gold medal the U.S. team won at Grenoble, but it capped the dramatic return of the U.S. figure skating team after a 1961 airplane crash that killed many members and coaches of the team, including Peggy Fleming’s coach. Fleming was just 11 at the time of the crash (she was not aboard the airplane), but the recovery of U.S. skating fell on her shoulders.

Without a stable of older mentors, Fleming had to invent the grace and style for which she has remained famous.   40 years later, now a grandmother, Fleming is still in demand as a speaker, commentator, and symbol of grace under pressure.

1968: Tet Offensive, Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer

February 1, 2008

In that momentous, often terrible year of 1968, February 1 found the offensive in full swing by the National Liberation Front forces (NFL, or Viet Cong) across South Vietnam. The “General Uprising” kicked off on January 30, the beginning of Tet, the Vietnamese new year celebration (Tet is based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar, shifting from year to year; in 2008 the first day of Tet is February 7). News was just beginning to hit the U.S., in the days before videotape from the field and easy satellite uplinks.

On February 1, 1968, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams accompanied a South Vietnamese police team trying to clear part of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) of Viet Cong; Adams put his camera up to aim as police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan put a gun to the head of a man suspected of being part of the NFL, Nguyễn Văn Lém. Adams clicked the shutter coincidentally as the police chief fired the gun, killing the suspect.

The haunting photo won Adams the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. It is an icon of 20th century war and the inhumanity of war (see Sherman’s comments, “war is hell”). Both for copyright and sensitivity reasons, I only link to a copy of the photo.  WARNING, POTENTIALLY OFFENSIVE MATERIAL:  See the photo at the bottom of this column.

The photo ruined the life of Gen. Nguyễn. Adams wrote in Time Magazine:

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.

What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?’

Adams continued to photograph Southeast Asia. Before his death in 2004, he said he wished he would be remembered for photographs of Vietnamese boat people being pushed out to sea by the Thai Navy, rather than being offered refuge by the Thais. Adams’ photographs of the boat people caught the ire of people around the world and led President Jimmy Carter to grant asylum to the refugees.


Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photo from the 1968 Tet Offensive

Via Wikipedia and BBC. Wikipedia caption: Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes Viet Cong Captain Nguyen Van Lem: February 1, 1968. This Associated Press photograph, “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon,” won a 1969 Pulitzer prize for its photographer Eddie Adams. Film also exists of this event, but owing to the more graphic nature of the film, the photograph is more widely known.


40th anniversary, capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo

January 28, 2008

On January 28, 1968, Commander Lloyd Bucher and the crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo were confronted by several armed swift boats from North Korea, and after an exchange of gunfire that resulted in the death of one of the Pueblo crew, the North Koreans took the boat and crew captive.

1968 was a dramatic and mostly bad year for the U.S. The 11-month saga of the crew in captivity often gets lost from accounts of the year.

Among other reasons I track these events, the crewman pulled a series of hoaxes on their North Korean captors that, I believe, helped lead to their release.

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