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Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

Review

Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

Former submarine officer Lloyd Bucher, a hard-working, hard-partying man of 40, was given his first command, the USS Pueblo, a rinky-dinky, former cargo ship that would be used to conduct oceanographic research. But the ship's true purpose was shrouded in mystery, even as it was being outfitted for its new mission --- to gather intelligence electronically to assess the ability of the secretive, communist country of North Korea to wage war.

The Pueblo contained top-of-the-line intelligence-gathering equipment and top-secret code machines. Many of the young crew were highly trained communication technicians who would operate the equipment behind the triple-locked doors of their work area. Also on board were copious stacks of classified documents that, if they fell into enemy hands, could have very damaging consequences. However, there was insufficient equipment aboard to destroy the equipment and documents in a timely manner if the ship and crew ran into trouble. Bucher had asked numerous questions of higher-ups and had been informed that there was little chance the Pueblo would run into trouble. But the ship, whose theme song was "The Lonely Bull," would be alone and basically on its own.

"Descriptions of the crew's time in captivity are bone-chilling and difficult to read, but must be read if one is to have a clear understanding of what these men survived and overcame."

Pueblo's steering was a problem, and it had a top speed of just 13 knots. The ship had only been at sea a few days in January 1968. It was stopped in international waters when trouble with a capital T arrived --- a North Korean submarine chaser. Speeding torpedo boats and two MiG fighters also appeared on the scene quickly. The crew began destroying surveillance equipment and burning/disposing of secret documents, but they had neither proper nor sufficient equipment to complete that critical task. Nor enough time, as it turned out. As armed North Koreans boarded torpedo boats from the submarine chaser, Bucher quickly ordered his ship out of harm's way. The North Korean vessels had speed and maneuverability on their side. The Pueblo was poorly equipped to outrun the enemy or to stand her ground and defend herself. She was a sitting duck, and Bucher's worst fears were quickly realized.

One young sailor was killed, and many were seriously wounded from the barrage of firepower that struck the Pueblo. Very reluctantly, Bucher ordered his ship stopped because to continue would mean more damage to the ship and injury to the crew. The North Koreans quickly boarded and roughed up the crew. Bucher was then forced to order his ship moved and to follow the sub chaser. When they reached the port of Wonsan, the Pueblo crew, blindfolded and bound, were hurried off their damaged floating home to an unknown but horrifying future.

The next 11 months were sheer terror, filled with physical and mental abuse, and continual threats and harassment for all the men. The crew was malnourished, deprived of sleep, fresh air and exercise. Many had health problems and injuries that were aggravated by their horrible living conditions. The North Korean guards taunted, brutalized and humiliated the crew. Officers threatened to kill Bucher, and he received even harsher treatment than his men. The North Koreans were adamant that the men would never be released unless the U.S. government apologized very publicly for spying. Crew members were forced to write propaganda-filled letters home and to various government officials.

Behind closed doors in Washington, top Navy and government officials debated and argued how to get the men and the ship back safely without provoking any more hostilities. There were no easy answers, even as everyone weighed in with opinions. As time dragged on and on, the plight of the Pueblo crew faded from the public in general, but was never forgotten by the worried families of the American men. Eventually the U.S. and North Korea were able to reach a solution. The crew was  reunited on Christmas Eve 1968 in San Diego with their families. Unfortunately, the USS Pueblo remains in North Korea, where it is considered to be a trophy and a source of pride.

Author Jack Cheevers has done exhaustive research to unearth much new information, only recently unclassified. Descriptions of the crew's time in captivity are bone-chilling and difficult to read, but must be read if one is to have a clear understanding of what these men survived and overcame. Cheevers cites facts about the poor planning of the ship's first and only mission. What might have been done differently? Why was assistance not sent in time to save the ship and crew? Who thought Bucher should be court martialed and for what reason? Who is ultimately to blame for the loss of the Pueblo and the crew's imprisonment? Or should blame be shared? What, if any, lessons have been learned from the "Pueblo incident?" The author does an excellent job of answering these questions and shedding light on an often hazy piece of American history.

Reviewed by Carole Turner on December 13, 2013

Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo
by Jack Cheevers

  • Publication Date: December 3, 2013
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 0451466195
  • ISBN-13: 9780451466198