By Ramón Rentería / El Paso Times
POSTED: 02/16/2014 12:00:00 AM MST
Many young Americans probably have never heard of the USS Pueblo and its capture by North Korea more than 45 years ago.
The Navy vessel's history is often forgotten or neglected except by its crew, their families and persistent writers like Jack Cheevers, a former Los Angeles Times political writer now living in Oakland.
Cheevers recently published "Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo" (Penguin Group). The book is billed as the riveting saga of a Navy commander and his men, imprisoned for 11 months in North Korea and subjected to merciless torture.
"The loss of the Pueblo — which was jammed with sophisticated electronic surveillance gear, code machines, and top secret documents — turned out to be one of the worst intelligence debacles in American history," Cheevers writes in the prologue. "The ship's seizure pushed the United States closer to armed conflict on the Korean peninsula than at any time since the Korean War in the 1950s. And subsequent investigations by Congress and the Navy revealed appalling complacency and shortsightedness in the planning and execution of the Pueblo's mission."
Two El Pasoans — Donald R. Peppard, a first class petty officer, and Seaman Ramon Rosales — were aboard the "technical research ship," the only U.S. Navy ship still held captive by a foreign government and now used as a museum ship. Over the years, both men have described the disastrous voyage and their experiences under North Korean captivity.
North Korean patrol gunboats attacked and captured the Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968. One crew member was killed and the remaining 82 were detained. North Korea claimed and the United States denied that the ship invaded its territorial waters.
The seizure made headlines across the United States and the world. But the so-called Pueblo incident was perhaps often overshadowed by other major news: the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights marches and unrest, and the murder of Robert F. Kennedy while campaigning as a presidential contender in California.
Cheevers stumbled onto a 1970 memoir written by Lloyd M. Bucher, the Pueblo's captain and an ex-submarine officer, while browsing for something to read at a coffeehouse in Venice, Calif. He then spent years doing research and interviewing more than 50 people, including Bucher, crewmembers and U.S. officials.
Cheever also mined declassified federal documents and added fresh details to a story that had previously been told in a movie and earlier books.
"One important question I haven't been able to answer is exactly what motivated North Korea to seize the Pueblo," Cheevers writes. "My speculation is that North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung simply couldn't resist the opportunity to harass and humiliate the United States, while simultaneously diverting its attention and military resources from the Vietnam War."
Bucher argued in subsequent congressional and Navy inquiries that the ship was ill-equipped to defend itself or destroy classified materials. He said his superiors resisted his demands to better outfit the spy ship.
Cheevers points out that while the American public saluted Bucher and his crew as heroes, the Navy tried to paint the captain as a coward for surrendering the ship without firing a shot.
More than 45 years later, North Korea — with a new, young leader determined to embrace nuclear weapons — still poses a dangerous threat to stability and peace in Northeast Asia.
Cheevers argues that the Pueblo's core mission of gathering intelligence still matters as the United States continues to try to better understand its foes and their strengths and weaknesses. But it is the human element, the crew's brave attempts to resist their sadistic captors and Cold War tension, that makes this well-researched book worth reading.
"As we unleash spies and covert operations against a growing list of twenty-first-century adversaries, we'd do well to remember the painful lessons of the Pueblo," Cheevers writes.
Ramón Rentería may be reached at 546-6146.