Fifty years ago, North Korea took an extraordinary gamble against the United States when communist gunboats attacked and captured a Navy spy ship, the USS Pueblo.
One American sailor was killed in the Jan. 23, 1968, assault. Eighty-two others were tossed into prison, touching off an international crisis that dragged on for nearly a year.
A U.S. naval armada gathered off North Korea, and North and South Korea alerted their armies for possible war. Lyndon Johnson’s Pentagon prepared plans to use nuclear weapons. A diplomatic sleight of hand finally ended the standoff, with Washington issuing a “pre-repudiated” apology to Pyongyang.
Led by their haggard but unbowed skipper, Cdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, the surviving sailors, who had endured torture and food deprivation, were let go and flew to San Diego, where cheering crowds greeted them on Christmas Eve 1968.
But the Pueblo itself — packed with advanced electronic eavesdropping gear and classified documents — was never returned. Today, it remains the only commissioned U.S. Navy vessel in the hands of a foreign power, docked next to a war museum in Pyongyang.
But there’s a perverse educational value in having the Pueblo moored in the Botong River.
The ship’s mission was a poorly planned affair. American and Soviet vessels had been eavesdropping on each other’s naval bases for years without serious problems under an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement.
As a result, no warships or aircraft were assigned to protect the Pueblo. The ship carried only small arms and two machine guns to defend itself. Cruising in international waters, it came under attack by four North Korean torpedo boats, two submarine chasers, and two MiG jets.
Bucher tried to flee farther out to sea. Equipped only with fire axes and sledgehammers, crewmen struggled to break up well-built electronic devices. They tried to burn mounds of secret documents in wastebaskets. But much classified material fell into communist hands when Bucher — with one sailor dead and 10 others wounded — decided to surrender.
In early 1968, President Johnson had his hands full with Vietnam. The last thing he wanted was a second war in Asia. He ordered the aircraft carrier Enterprise and 25 other warships to waters off North Korea, and more than 350 aircraft to bases in and around South Korea.
Despite strident calls for military revenge, LBJ held off while American diplomats opened secret talks with Pyongyang. Johnson’s team persisted amid…