Note to the reader: This chapter focuses on the attack on the Pueblo by North Korean gunboats on Jan. 23, 1968. It's not necessarily the most interesting chapter, but it's the most action-packed. "Bucher" refers to the ship's skipper, Commander Lloyd M. (Pete) Bucher.
The fuzzy photo above is a North Korean propaganda shot of a communist torpedo boat
racing past the American spy ship. I think this scene may have been reenacted after the Pueblo was captured.
Chapter 4 -- SOS SOS SOS
Bucher rolled out of bed just before 7 a.m. on January 23. He hadn’t
slept much. It had taken nearly 14 hours for his SITREP of the previous
afternoon to reach Kamiseya, in part because of heavy traffic on frequencies the
Pueblo used. The captain had anxiously checked with his radiomen during the night; any communications delay was worrisome, but one this long was dangerous. Now, feeling tired and stiff, he shuffled into the wardroom for a cup of coffee. The ship smelled sour; Bucher
resolved to tell the men to air out their bedding.
Fortified with caffeine, the skipper pulled himself up the ladder to the
flying bridge and joined Gene Lacy, that morning’s officer of the deck. The
weather was improving. The temperature had risen to a tolerable 20 degrees and a
four-knot wind was blowing out of the northwest. The sea undulated with gentle
swells; high thin clouds reflected the first pale fingers of dawn.
Bucher checked the ship’s position: 25 miles out. He told Lacy to close to 15 miles, making it
easier for the CTs to detect radio or radar emanations from Wonsan. Then he went
back down to the wardroom for breakfast, convinced this was to be another
routine day in the Sea of Japan.
By 10 a.m., the captain could clearly see the islands of Ung Do and Yo
Do, lying at the mouth of the large bay that leads to Wonsan. As he had done
ever since the near-shipwreck on the way to Sasebo, Bucher double-checked
Murphy’s navigation. Then he rang up ALL STOP on the annunciator. The Pueblo
went dead in the water exactly 15.5 miles from the nearest landfall. He saw no
activity outside Wonsan – not a single patrol boat, freighter, or fishing
vessel. Aside from yesterday’s excitement with the trawlers, the communists
seemed to be ignoring the American ship. Bucher felt a bit
Friar Tuck and Harry Iredale ambled out on deck for their daily plumb of
the depths. A work party came topside to clear snow and ice which had
accumulated during the night. With the temperature edging higher, there was
little buildup. Bucher heard the rhythmic sloshing of the ship’s superannuated
washing machine as it cranked to life in the fo’c’sle with the first laundry of
Steve Harris called from the SOD hut to report that the CTs were picking
up signals from two search radars conducting normal sweeps. There was also
something new: voices on North Korean radio channels.
“Anything indicating an interest in us?” Bucher asked.
“Not that we can read, captain. Probably routine traffic, but we’re
recording and will go back over the
Bucher had no use for that process. Taping and translating the communist
chatter would take hours, as the two Marine sergeants went over the recordings
inch by inch with Korean dictionaries in hand. They were supposed to be Bucher’s
early-warning system, but their inability to translate in real time meant he
had to guess at what the communists were up to. To reassure himself, he again
scanned the coast with his binoculars: still no
It seemed as if the Pueblo
was the only ship in the world.
At noon the captain was back in the wardroom for lunch. The mess was into
its second seating, 25 men digging into generous portions of meatloaf, mashed
potatoes, gravy, and succotash. Lacy, who’d turned over the conn to Charlie Law,
squeezed in with the rest of the
“Everything okay on your watch, Gene?” Bucher
“Yessir,” the chief engineer answered, smiling. “And we’re catching up
with some housekeeping in this nice
“Yeah, almost like the balmy winters on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks,”
A call from the bridge interrupted the conversation. Law reported an
unidentified vessel approaching from about eight miles away. Bucher told him to
call again if it got within five miles. The officers continued talking and
eating; there was no cause for alarm. The captain had tucked into his second
helping of meatloaf when the phone buzzed again. The alien craft was now five
miles out and closing rapidly.
Maybe this wasn’t such an ordinary day after
Bucher dropped his fork and hurried to the bridge. The air was noticeably
colder; the sun glowed weakly through wintry overcast. He focused the big eyes
on the incoming vessel and made a tentative identification: a submarine chaser,
flying a North Korean ensign and bearing down on the Pueblo
at flank speed.
The sight irritated the captain; leave it to these godless bastards to
interrupt his mid-day meal. He called for Schumacher and Steve Harris to join
him on the bridge. To reinforce the Pueblo’s façade as a research vessel,
Bucher told Tuck and Iredale to lower their Nansen bottles. Then he ordered his
signalman to hoist flags indicating oceanographic
The sub chaser kept coming. Bucher clambered down to the pilothouse to
recheck the Pueblo’s position. It
had drifted farther out, floating 15.9 miles from Ung Do. The captain returned
to the flying bridge with Harris, who studied the communist boat and flipped
through his identification book.
“She’s a Russian-built, modified SO-1 class submarine chaser,” the
lieutenant concluded, confirming Bucher’s ID. Modern versions of such craft, 138
feet in length, were armed with two 25-millimeter antiaircraft guns and four
16-inch torpedo tubes. This one also had a 57-millimeter deck
On its bow the
gunboat displayed the number 35.
“Get below,” Bucher told Harris, “and find out if your CTs can eavesdrop
on any talk with her base.”
Unbeknown to the captain, a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft at that moment
was flying about 50 nautical miles east of his position, listening to North
Korean military channels. The crew of the Air Force C-130 heard the North
Koreans dispatch several warships to intercept the Pueblo.
have approached the target here,” sub chaser No. 35 radioed as it sped
toward Bucher’s boat. “It is U.S. Did
you get it? It looks like it’s armed now… I think it’s a radar ship. It also has
radio antennas. It has a lot of antennas and, looking at the wavelength, I think
it’s a ship used for detecting
Bucher, clad only in a khaki shirt, trousers, and shower slippers, sent
below for his leather flight jacket and boots. He pulled a white ski cap with a
red tassel over his head and began to dictate a running account of No. 35’s
approach into a portable tape recorder, as Chuck Clark had done when the Banner was
The sub chaser
closed to 1,000 yards. Through his field glasses Bucher saw helmeted men manning
its guns. The captain ordered Lacy to replace Law as officer of the deck. So
far, the incident was nothing out of the ordinary, but Bucher wanted his most
experienced officer at his side if things got
He told Schumacher
to work up a situation report to keep Admiral Johnson in the loop. The captain
also ordered his enginemen to light off the twin diesels, in case he decided to
No. 35 came closer
and began circling the Pueblo. On
the second circuit, it ran up a signal flag: WHAT NATIONALITY? Bucher ordered
the American colors hoisted.
Ensign Harris, excited and apprehensive, joined the others on the upper
bridge. Bucher put him to work writing a narrative of communist actions in the
log. Harris climbed back down to the pilothouse, plopped into the padded
captain’s chair, and started scribbling.
Lacy sang out that three torpedo boats also were racing toward the Pueblo at better than 40 knots, their
rooster tails visible several miles
This was beginning to look like a full-blown harassment. Part of the Pueblo’s mission was to test the North
Koreans’ reaction to a ferret’s prolonged presence, and they certainly were
reacting. The captain told Murphy to check the Pueblo’s
position yet again; it was still nearly three miles outside the no-go
Closing to 500 yards, the sub chaser ran up an attention-getting set of
flags: HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE.
The message baffled Bucher. His ship already was stopped. What were these
idiots talking about? He told Murphy to look up the precise meaning of “heave
to” in a nautical dictionary, to make sure there were no nuances he didn’t know
about. There weren’t.
As the captain struggled to divine their intentions, the North Koreans
settled on their course of action:
will close down the radio, tie up the personnel, tow it, and enter port at
Wonsan,” one communist gunboat radioed. “We
are on the way to boarding.”
Hearing this, the Americans aboard the C-130 tried to alert Bucher. They
had no direct way to contact him so they radioed Kamiseya, urging that he be
informed immediately of the trap that was about to snap shut on him. But no
warning came from Japan.
Bucher dropped down the ladder again to the pilothouse. He wanted to
check his coordinates once more, to make absolutely sure of where he was. Radar
didn’t lie: the Pueblo was now 15.8
miles from the nearest shore. Murphy had plotted their position a half dozen
times; it was impossible that both he and the captain had been wrong over and
over again. Bucher hauled himself back up to the flying bridge and told his
signalman to raise another string of flags: I AM IN INTERNATIONAL
Schumacher hurried below to have the SITREP sent out. He entered the
crypto room, just off the SOD hut’s main compartment, and watched as CT Don
Bailey pounded out the message on the keyboard of an encoding machine. Steve
Harris suggested the report’s priority be upgraded to CRITIC, a designation that
would propel it ahead of other Navy traffic to the Pentagon, the National
Security Agency – and the White House.
“We have a CRITIC tape already cut, Skip, if the captain wants to wake up
the president,” advised Harris.
Schumacher returned to the bridge to find the situation worsening. No. 35
was still circling, its guns aimed squarely at the American vessel. The three PT
boats continued to close at high speed, their torpedo tubes loaded and their
machineguns trained on the intelligence ship as they skimmed across the cold
Bucher was taken aback by how fast things were happening. Just 20 minutes
had elapsed since the sub chaser was first spotted. A pang of uneasiness shot
through him. He still didn’t think things were out of hand, but how far would
the communists go? Would he need to destroy his classified material? How long
would that take?
He turned to Lacy.
“Could we scuttle the ship quickly if we had to?” he
Lacy gave his
commander a searching look. “Not quickly, sir,” he replied. “About two hours to
flood the main engine room, after unbolting and disconnecting the saltwater
cooling intakes.” Then more time until inrushing seawater breached the bulkhead
of the auxiliary engine room and its accumulating weight began to pull the ship
With its engines
crippled and its hull filling with water, however, the Pueblo
would wallow helplessly. If American jets or warships showed up and attempted a
rescue, Bucher couldn’t maneuver. And what if his men had to abandon ship?
Their vessel carried a 26-foot whaleboat and more than enough life rafts for
everyone. But some sailors might spill overboard. The water temperature was 35
degrees, cold enough to kill a man in minutes. Would the North Koreans pick up
survivors or simply leave them adrift on the high seas in the dead of
Bucher called down
to the pilothouse for a depth sounding. “Thirty fathoms!” someone shouted back –
180 feet. The relatively shallow water increased the chances that North Korean
divers could recover classified material if the ship was deliberately
The captain noticed
some nervousness among his men. Though he rarely smoked, Tim Harris lit a
cigarette. Bucher knew it was important for him as their leader to act with
supreme confidence, to display not a trace of worry. But that was getting harder
to do with each passing minute. The torpedo boats arrived, zooming to within 150
feet of the Pueblo. The sleek craft
had a top speed of 50 knots, nearly four times faster than the spy
range No. 35 leveled its guns at the Pueblo. Bucher sent up a defiant flag
set: INTEND TO REMAIN IN THE AREA. He noticed his signalman trembling as he
tied in the pennants; whether from fear or the icy air, the captain couldn’t
tell. To buck up his men on the bridge Bucher loudly declared: “We’re not going
to let these sons of bitches bullshit
At that moment, two
MiG fighters roared overhead at about 1,500 feet. In the distance Bucher saw a
second sub chaser as well as a fourth PT boat sprinting toward
“Should we think
about going to general quarters, captain?” Lacy
A call to general quarters would
bring helmeted and battle-jacketed sailors running on deck to man the
machineguns. Bucher’s instructions were to avoid provoking the communists, to
deny them any pretext for inciting an international incident. So far, they’d
only tried to spook him. Bucher told Lacy he didn’t want to go to general
quarters just yet and watched as consternation spread across the engineering
officer’s face. He also ordered Schumacher to draft a second
No. 35 halted about
300 yards off the Pueblo’s starboard
bow. One of the torpedo boats motored over to the larger craft to discuss
matters. The two communist crews communicated by megaphone, their excited voices
clearly audible across the slow swells. Then, to the alarm of the Pueblo
officers, soldiers with AK-47 rifles began jumping from the sub chaser to the
PT. The torpedo boat reversed its engines and began backing toward the American
vessel. There was no mistaking the North Koreans’ intent to board the Pueblo.
It was about 1 p.m.
“I’ll be goddamned
if they’re going to get away with that!” Bucher burst
He shouted at
Schumacher to include the boarding attempt in his next
The North Koreans
obviously were prepared to go far beyond any harassment encountered by the Banner. Bucher yelled into the voice
tube: “All ahead one third!”
He called for Murphy
to give him the best course for the open sea. “Zero-eight-zero, sir!” came the
reply – away from the coast at an almost perpendicular
“Build up speed to
two thirds, then full,” the captain ordered. The Pueblo
would withdraw in a calm, dignified manner, not in
Black smoke and a
series of guttural coughs erupted from the stack. The Pueblo
began to move. As it did so, an anguished cry arose from the
“For God’s sake,
stop!” shrieked Tuck. His Nansen bottles were still in the water. As the ship
plowed forward, the containers came boiling to the surface in its
yelled back, “Get that damn gear up here because I’m leavin’ –
The backing PT boat
was nearly close enough for its soldiers to leap onto the Pueblo.
But the intelligence ship, gathering speed, churned past the communist vessel,
leaving the would-be boarding party behind. Two other torpedo boats began
cutting back and forth directly in front of the Pueblo,
trying to impede its escape.
For a few minutes it
looked like Bucher might break free. No. 35 lowered its HEAVE TO flags and
chugged along indecisively behind the Pueblo, gradually dropping back more
than 2,000 yards. But Bucher wasn’t convinced he’d get away. He passed word to
prepare for emergency destruction. Then he raised a new array of flags: THANK
YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION – I AM LEAVING THE AREA. The message struck
Schumacher as a bit flippant.
The torpedo boats
kept playing porpoise just ten yards ahead. Schumacher jotted down his new
situation report, describing the boarding attempt. Bucher pounded the
lieutenant’s back, shouting, “Get it going, get it going! Hurry up, goddamn
Astern, the lagging
sub chaser again ran up HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE. The gunboat speeded up, rapidly
regaining ground it had lost. Filled with dread, Schumacher departed again for
the SOD hut to transmit his report.
saw us and they keep running away,” No. 35 radioed its base.
“Shall I shoot them?”
to present the smallest possible target, Bucher ordered his helmsman to come
right 10 degrees. The sub chaser easily countered that move, pouring on more
speed and turning outside the Pueblo
to give its gunners a broadside shot. Bucher called for another 10-degree turn
to the right. No. 35 accelerated and angled further outside. The MiGs made
another pass, thundering low over the Pueblo.
Suddenly, all four
PT boats veered away.
Bucher realized that
if he kept turning right, he’d soon be heading back toward North Korea. As he
contemplated what to do next, a blood-chilling sound rolled across the
Ba – ROOOM! Ba --
ROOOM! Ba – ROOOM!
whistled over the Pueblo and cut
harmlessly into the sea. But one round cracked into a radar mast, spraying
Bucher and two sailors on the open flying bridge with
The skipper fell to
the deck. A metal splinter had drilled into his rectum; white-hot pain stabbed
his bowels. He almost fainted, but a surge of adrenalin mixed with rage revived
him. Moments later, he heard the angry hammering of machinegun bullets on the
superstructure as the torpedo boats opened
“Commence emergency destruction!” Bucher shouted. Shrapnel had hit his
signalman and his phone talker, too, but neither was seriously hurt. Law popped
up on the bridge, checking for injuries. Assured that everyone was okay, he
turned and unleashed a furious barrage of profanities at the communist
Bucher resisted a powerful urge to shoot back. He figured that would be
futile: the Pueblo’s paltry
armaments were no match for six combat ships and two jets. Even one sub chaser,
sitting beyond the range of the Pueblo’s weapons, could chop the spy
boat into scrap metal with its deck cannon. In a fire fight at closer quarters,
American gunners would have to run across exposed decks, pry off frozen
tarpaulins, and wrench open ammo boxes before they could bring the two
.50-calibers into action. With no protective shields, the gun mounts were
vulnerable to enemy fire from several directions. Ordering men to the
machineguns in such circumstances, the captain believed, was tantamount to
ordering them to their deaths.
“Set a modified general quarters!” Bucher yelled into the voice tube.
“Nobody to expose themselves topside!” With any luck, his men would stay off the
outside decks and no one would get killed
In the crypto room, Steve Harris and CT Bailey searched frantically for
the precut CRITIC tape. Another CT, Jim Layton, shoved Bailey out of his chair
and banged out a message by hand:
SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS.
SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SHIP POSITION 39-34N, 127-54E. SOS.
SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS. SOS.
OUR POSITION 39-34N, 127-54E. WE ARE HOLDING EMERGENCY DESTRUCTION. WE NEED
HELP. WE ARE HOLDING EMERGENCY DESTRUCTION. WE NEED SUPPORT. SOS. SOS. SOS.
PLEASE SEND ASSISTANCE PLEASE SEND ASSISTANCE PLEASE SEND ASSISTANCE PLEASE SEND
ASSISTANCE SOS SOS SOS WE ARE BEING
In his haste Layton
had gotten ahead of events; no one had boarded, at least not yet. The MiGs made
another screaming pass. Whether as a warning or by accident, the lead pilot
fired a missile that zipped into the sea several miles away. But it was clear
the fighters were armed and ready to back up their comrades on the
35 fired a second, more accurate cannon salvo. Shells ripped into the Pueblo’s
masts and rigging, making peculiar popping sounds and producing another
dangerous shower of shrapnel. Other projectiles slammed into the smokestack and
superstructure. At the same time, the PT boats blasted away with machineguns,
stitching the pilothouse and flying bridge from both
“Clear the bridge!”
Bucher shouted. Law, the signalman, and the phone talker jumped off the deck,
landing in a heap outside the pilothouse. The captain attempted a more dignified
descent on the ladder, but dropped down quickly when bullets spattered the steel
walls just inches away. He noticed that the PT boat firing at him had uncovered
one of its torpedo tubes and trained it out for a close-in
The pilothouse was a
shambles. Its portside windows were blown out; glass shards littered the floor.
With the exception of Lacy, who was still standing, Bucher found the entire
watch hugging the deck for protection against the deadly hail of shells and
bullets. When the communist machineguns paused, the captain yelled: “Everybody
on your feet!”
Ten or 12 men stood
up. Helmsman Ron Berens, who’d been steering the ship from a crouch, was the
first to his feet, muttering angrily. Tim Harris, who’d thrown himself out of
the captain’s chair, got up and resumed writing his narrative. Bucher noticed
that the only one who didn’t rise was Murphy. The executive officer stayed on
his hands and knees, glasses askew. It looked like he’d been trying to stick his
head under a radiator.
“But sir, they’re
still shooting at us!” he pleaded.
“No kidding, Ed!”
Bucher rejoined angrily. “So get off your ass and start acting like my
When Murphy failed
to move fast enough, the captain gave him a sharp kick in the rear end. (The
executive officer later denied getting booted, saying that while he and others
were crouched or prone for protection, they kept doing their
With a ragged
semblance of order restored in the pilothouse, Bucher decided to call Steve
Harris to make sure emergency destruction was underway. The captain grabbed the
secure phone to the SOD hut and vigorously cranked the growler. No one answered.
Bucher cranked again – no response. “Goddamn it, answer the fucking phones!” he
spat. Then he realized he’d picked up the wrong handset. The mistake rattled
him. Was he cracking under pressure? He switched phones and Harris’ voice came
is in progress, captain, and our communications are open with Kamiseya,” the
lieutenant said. Despite his confident report, Harris sounded
surprising in view of the situation in the hut. Eight to 10 CTs were desperately
trying to annihilate classified electronics with sledgehammers and fire axes;
the cramped compartment rang with the clang and crunch of metal striking metal.
Just outside the security door, other sailors were hurriedly trying to burn
secret papers in wastebaskets. But with the ship’s portholes dogged shut and its
ventilation system turned off, smoke from the fires swirled into the hut. CTs
coughed and gagged and dropped to the deck, gasping for
instruments were sensitive but solidly built; sledgehammers bounced off their
steel cases. A sledge handle broke in one CT’s hands; another man nearly brained
himself when his hammer ricocheted back from an unyielding metal
In the crypto room,
Don Bailey asked another CT to relieve him so he could burn his code lists.
Turning around, he found Lieutenant Harris on his knees,
“I’m going to have to get busy and destroy this gear, sir,” Bailey said
as evenly as he could. “You’re going to have to get out of the way.” Harris got
to his feet and departed.
In the pilothouse, Bucher peered through blown-out windows. The Pueblo
was still lumbering toward the open sea at top speed. But the gunboats matched
its 13 knots effortlessly, almost mockingly. Schumacher and others were doing
their best to torch classified documents in the small, pitifully inadequate
incinerator behind the smokestack. Bucher told them to take cover under the
nearby whaleboat if enemy gunners got too close. “But,” he added urgently, “keep
that stuff burning, burning, burning!”
Lacy reappeared after conferring with damage-control parties below. His
face was ashen, but he reported the ship intact except for some minor hits to
the hull above the waterline.
“Okay, Gene,” Bucher said. “We’re still afloat and underway. We’ll keep
trying to bull our way through.”
The sub chaser’s cannon boomed again. A shell flew through one empty
window frame and out another, missing Lacy and Tim Harris by inches. Bucher and
the others hit the deck. More shells burst around them. What happened next was
to become the subject of bitter dispute between the captain and
In Bucher’s telling, he struggled to his feet after the barrage ended and
was met with “a wild-eyed look” from Lacy.
“Are you going to stop this son-of-a-bitch or not?” the chief engineer
yelled, according to Bucher.
The captain claimed that with no specific command from him, Lacy then
racked the annunciator to ALL STOP. Lacy would later insist Bucher told him to
In any event, enginemen below immediately rang answering bells. The
diesel engines abruptly halted; the ship decelerated
Bucher turned his back on Lacy and walked to the starboard wing of the
pilothouse. What the hell was he supposed to do now? If he kept running, the
North Koreans could blast the Pueblo
to splinters and kill any number of good men. Then, despite the bloody
sacrifice, the communists would commandeer his ship and its classified treasures
The firing ceased as the ferret coasted to a stop. Bucher stood on the
wing, temporarily paralyzed. A PT boat bobbed 40 yards off his starboard
quarter, its gunners staring impassively at him through their
Bucher felt utterly
alone. His first mission as a commander had turned into a disaster. The
comforting mantra that international law would shield him on the high seas, so
often repeated by Navy brass, had been exposed as a foolish illusion. The Pueblo’s inability to defend itself,
its lack of a rapid destruction system, the absence of air or sea forces to
protect it – all the faulty assumptions and half-measures and corner-cutting had
caught up with the captain and his men with a
Smoke from burning secrets billowed from the Pueblo’s
flanks and topside incinerator. Bucher wondered if the North Koreans had quit
shooting because they thought they’d disabled his ship. Four of his five
officers were with him in the pilothouse, but no one offered any advice about
what to do.
The skipper looked at each man in turn. Lacy stood by the annunciator,
staring out a window and rubbing his hands as if they’d been burned when he rang
ALL STOP. Schumacher and Tim Harris seemed to be pleading silently for something
more important to do than burn paper or write log entries. Murphy swayed
unsteadily next to a dead
Bucher was trapped. The communists were in a position to board the Pueblo at any moment. The only thing
that mattered now was keeping classified documents and equipment out of their
hands. The captain decided to play for
“Everybody not needed to work the ship will bear a hand at burning –
everybody!” he told his officers. “What can’t be burned goes over the side.
Never mind the shallow water. Now
More signal flags rose on the lead sub chaser: FOLLOW ME – I HAVE A PILOT
ABOARD. Bucher ignored the demand. He headed for the SOD hut to inspect the
The scene there appalled him. Smoke filled the passageway outside the
hut. Men coughed, cursed, and stumbled around in the choking gloom. The deck
just inside the security door was covered with publications and files that had
been dumped there to be fed into the wastebasket fires. Steve Harris and his CTs
had flattened themselves on the floor during the last salvo and hadn’t budged
even though the shelling was over. Bucher spotted the lieutenant wedged behind a
rack of radio receivers.
The skipper yelled at Harris and his CTs to stand up. “The shooting has
stopped, so get off your asses and get on with the destruction down
Harris pulled himself out from the radio rack. His face was gray, and he
coughed and wheezed as he spoke.
“Yessir, captain – we’re getting it done!” he exclaimed. He started
yanking open file drawers and dumping their contents on the deck. To Bucher he
seemed dazed, on the brink of panic.
The CTs scrambled to their feet and resumed the frenzied destruction. One
of them delivered a staggering blow to an electronic instrument with a
sledgehammer, but couldn’t stave it in. Other men tore apart heavy bindings and
stuffed chunks of paper into ditch bags to be heaved over the
Bucher hurried over
to the two Marine translators, who were listening in on radio transmissions from
the North Korean boats.
“Well, what about
it?” he demanded. “Haven’t you guys been able to make out anything they’re
saying out there?”
The Marines shook
their heads in dismay.
his way into the crypto room. He was about to dictate another communiqué to
Japan when Lacy called. The North Koreans were insisting that the Pueblo
follow them, the engineer reported. The captain lurched out of the hut,
trusting Harris to finish wrecking everything in
Back in the
pilothouse, Bucher saw North Korean sailors angrily pointing at No. 35’s FOLLOW
ME flags. He wanted to keep stalling without getting hit with a prodding barrage
of cannon shells, so he rang up ALL AHEAD ONE-THIRD. Inching along at four knots
might give his men enough time to polish off the classified material before they
entered communist waters. Also, there still was a chance that the cavalry – Navy
destroyers or Air Force fighters – would show up. But if anyone was coming,
they’d better get there soon. The North Koreans clearly meant to capture
Bucher’s ship, not merely board it, and force it into
swung around in a wide arc and fell in behind the sub
Bucher told Murphy
to get rid of all navigation records: charts, logs, loran fixes. The bridge was
a blur of activity as sailors unearthed an astounding amount of paper that had
to be done away with. The skipper joined in, shuttling publications to the
incinerator outside. Smoke poured from the little furnace, but it could handle
only three pounds of paper at a time, and only loose sheets at that. Thick
manuals had to be torn into separate pages, one by one. Paper piled up far
faster than it could be consumed. The ship had two shredders, but they were
capable of chewing up only an eight-inch stack of documents every 15 minutes.
And if the men in the pilothouse were having this much trouble, what was
happening in the SOD hut, which held 50 times as much of this stuff? Bucher
decided to stop the ship if necessary to buy more time – even if it meant
getting shot up again.
“Captain, they are
signaling us to put on more speed,” Lacy called
“To hell with ‘em!”
Bucher shouted back. He went to the starboard wing, where he saw North Koreans
on the nearest PT boat gesturing at him to hurry up. The commander shrugged his
shoulders, feigning incomprehension. The communists held their fire.
remembered he had classified materials in his stateroom and went below to
eye-stinging haze he saw dark figures setting fire to stacks of paper that kept
arriving from the seemingly inexhaustible supply in the SOD hut. More than half
of the crew seemed to be crammed into the mess deck and adjoining passageways.
Some men were actively getting rid of classified materials, but others stood
around, unsure what to do.
buttonholed a sailor to come with him to his quarters. He threw open the door
and his small cabin immediately filled with smoke. He groped for some
confidential publications, his Navy records, and letters and photographs from
his wife. He ripped up everything and passed out the pieces to be burned. Then
he told the crewman to toss his personal side arms, a Ruger .22-caliber pistol
and a .38-caliber pistol, into the sea. He’d be damned if he’d let the commies
get their hands on his cherished guns.
Bucher made his way
back toward the pilothouse. He noted with grim satisfaction that two safes near
his stateroom that had contained codes were open and empty. Secret papers still
were being thrown into fires or packed into ditch bags; the sound of
sledgehammers bashing electronics was audible throughout the Pueblo.
With more time, the captain thought with faint optimism, maybe, just maybe they
could get rid of everything. He rang up ALL
No. 35 reacted swiftly, sending a long salvo of shells crashing into the
American vessel. At the same time, the torpedo boats opened up again with
machineguns. Chunks of metal ricocheted all over the spy ship. The sub chaser’s
gunners rammed in another clip and five more shells thudded into the Pueblo’s
thin steel walls.
“All ahead one-third!” Bucher yelled. It was senseless to sit dead in the
water while the North Koreans cut him to pieces. The shooting stopped as soon as
the ship started moving again. Muffled shouts rose from below. A sailor with a
headset turned to the captain: “Sir, there are casualties reported from Damage
Control Two! One… two men hit!”
once again into the smoke-shrouded interior. Exploding shells had badly damaged
the mess deck and stateroom areas. The captain headed for a passageway leading
to the SOD hut. As he opened a hatch, something with the heft and moistness of a
small steak plopped onto his shoulder: a slab of human
A shell had sliced
through the steel outer wall into a corridor where several men were burning
papers. The result was carnage. Blood and pieces of flesh were splattered on the
walls and deck; crumpled, half-burned papers were everywhere. Amid the mess lay
a 20-year-old fireman, Duane Hodges, his eyes glazed and his head lolling. The
projectile had struck him in the groin, all but shearing off his right leg.
Intestines oozed from his blown-apart abdomen; his penis and testicles were
gone. Doc Baldridge was trying unsuccessfully to stanch the gush of
The sight of the
dying sailor shocked Bucher. “You’d better amputate that leg!” he urged
“Then he’ll only
bleed to death faster, sir,” the corpsman
Other men had been
hit, too. Another fireman, 19-year-old Steve Woelk, leaned against a wall, a
dazed look on his face as bloodstains spread across the front of his pants.
Sergeant Chicca was bleeding copiously from a thigh
The captain picked
his way to the SOD hut. CTs were still bashing and burning at a frenetic pace,
but a large amount of paper remained. Two mattress covers stuffed with documents
that Bucher had seen earlier had never been jettisoned. Steve Harris was ripping
apart publications with spasmodic bursts of energy, his face flushed and grim.
The skipper again ordered everything dumped overboard. Then he hurried into the
crypto room, where he found CT Bailey bent anxiously over the teletype as it
spat out a message from Kamiseya:
LAST WE GOT FROM YOU
WAS “ARE YOU SENDING ASSIT.” PLEASE ADVISE WHAT KEY LISTS YOU HAVE LEFT AND IF
IT APPEARS THAT YOUR COMM SPACES WILL BE
“Key lists” was Navy
jargon for monthly lists of codes; Kamiseya wanted to know if the North Koreans
were likely to get hold of the Pueblo’s. The captain told Bailey to be
ready to send a reply. But Bailey was too nervous and another CT, Don McClarren,
had to sit in for him. McClarren typed furiously as Bucher
HAVE O KEY LISTS
LEFT AND THIS ONLY ONE HAVE, HAVE BEEN REQUESTED FOLLOW INTO WONSAN, HAVE THREE
WOUNDED AND ONE MAN WITH LEG BLOWN OFF, HAVE NOT USED ANY WEAPONS NOR UNCOVERED
50 CAL. MAC … DESTROYING ALL KEY LISTS AND AS MUCH ELEC EQUIPT AS POSSIBLE. HOW
ABOUT SOME HELP, THESE GUYS MEAN BUSINESS. HAVE SUSTAINED SMALL WOUND IN RECTUM,
DO NOT INTEND TO OFFER ANY RESISTANCE.
officer came on the circuit to overrule Bucher’s plan or give him fresh orders.
The only reply was from the Kamiseya teletype
ROGER, ROGER. WE
DOING ALL WE CAN. CAPT HERE AND CNFJ (COMNAVFORJAPAN) ON HOTLINE. LAST I GOT WAS
AIR FORCE GOING HELP YOU WITH SOME AIRCRAFT BUT CAN’T REALLY SAY AS CNFJ
COORDINATING WITH I PRESUME KOREA FOR SOME F-105. THIS UNOFFICIAL BUT I THINK
THAT WHAT WILL HAPPEN.
operator was trying to encourage him, suggesting that F-105 fighter-bombers
might be headed his way, but Bucher figured the odds of rescue were getting
longer by the minute. He hurried out of the crypto
On his way back to
the pilothouse, the captain kicked several fittings in frustration and swore at
the torpedo boats shadowing the Pueblo. The air had turned bitingly
cold; Bucher estimated the temperature at
In the pilothouse, a
radioman was smashing electronic gear with a hammer. Tim Harris noted the
captain’s return in his narrative and then looked up imploringly. Bucher gave
him a wry smile.
“Okay, Tim,” he
said. “Now put down there that the captain orders the narrative log destroyed –
and destroy it!”
Harris did so with
relish, shredding his report and tossing the pieces out a window like confetti.
Bucher noticed a long stream of paper fragments floating in the Pueblo’s
wake – and a PT boat churning heedlessly through the top-secret
Steve Harris called
from the hut, asking permission to inform Kamiseya that he was unable to destroy
all classified publications. Bucher angrily demanded to know what would be
compromised. “Mostly technical pubs and such,” said Harris, his voice trailing
off. The captain said to send the message if he had to, but to keep destroying
at full tilt.
Minutes later, No.
35 signaled the Pueblo to stop. A
torpedo boat powered in alongside, a squad of armed boarders ready on deck. The
other communist ships trained their guns on the Pueblo.
Bucher reluctantly told Lacy to ring ALL
was trying to burn the papers Duane Hodges had been holding when he was wounded,
but they were soggy with blood. The lieutenant was nauseated and angered by the
sight of his comrades’ flesh and blood smearing the passageway. Where were those
goddamn American jets? Wasn’t any help coming? Would the Navy just stand by and
let these commie pricks shoot them to pieces and steal their ship in broad
admiringly as CT Peter Langenberg, the Princeton dropout, came down the corridor
with a bag of papers over his shoulder. Blood streamed from behind his right
ear; the same shell that struck Hodges had wounded Langenberg. Undaunted, the CT
calmly walked to the exposed outer railing and heaved the bag over the side,
then went back for another one.
A moment later
Bucher hustled past Schumacher into his cabin. The lieutenant followed and found
him sitting on his bunk, jaws grinding in frustration. The captain pulled on his
arctic boots and stood up. He adjusted his new commander’s hat on his head.
Schumacher realized he was dressing to surrender. The two officers said nothing;
Schumacher was afraid he’d burst into tears if he tried to speak. He looked on
sadly as Bucher left to meet the boarding
At about that time
Lacy’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker: “Now hear this! All hands are
reminded of our Code of Conduct. Say nothing to the enemy besides your name,
rank, and serial number!”
The North Koreans on
the PT boat tried to throw a rope onto the Pueblo’s
stern but missed. They succeeded on the second try, and a swabbie mechanically
tied the line to a bitt. A deathly silence descended over both craft. About 10
soldiers hefting automatic rifles with fixed bayonets swarmed over the side,
followed by two officers in green uniforms with red-and-gold
One of the officers
strode toward Bucher, his pistol pointed at the captain’s
first situation report reached the Navy’s mightiest warship at 2:30 p.m. By
coincidence, the USS Enterprise had
departed Sasebo that same day and was about 500 miles south of Wonsan in the
East China Sea. But no one aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier had ever
heard of the spy boat. Nor did they know what it was doing so close to North
was the flagship of Admiral Horace Epes, who called for a ship identification
manual to look up the Pueblo. The
admiral plotted its position and how far away it was. He asked his
meteorologist what time darkness would fall on Wonsan and what the weather was
like there. Then he called for a status report on his strike aircraft and how
long they needed to get airborne.
On the crowded
flight deck, crewmen began clearing takeoff
Escorted by a guided
missile frigate, the huge carrier – nearly as long as four football fields – was
bound for the Gulf of Tonkin, from which its 59 fighter-bombers would resume
pounding North Vietnam. Normally, most of the jets would be on the hangar deck
while the carrier was in transit. But today they were packed together on the
flight deck; the hangar deck below had been emptied so the crew could play
basketball and watch movies while docked in
Epes controlled the
air wing, but the carrier itself was commanded by Captain Kent Lee, a forceful
South Carolinian who’d flown carrier planes in World War II and the Korean War.
With a master’s degree in nuclear physics, Lee had leapfrogged a number of more
senior officers to become, at 44, boss of the Enterprise,
the Navy’s most prestigious sea
Despite their close
working relationship and similar career arcs, Lee didn’t like Epes. Lee viewed
his superior as a poor air commander and a “creature-comfort admiral” – too
attached to perks like fresh tablecloths, polished silverware, and new drapes in
his flag quarters. Nor did Lee think much of the admiral’s habit of leaving
strict instructions that he not be disturbed while he watched a movie in his
stateroom every night.
When Lee wasn’t needed on the bridge, he enjoyed drinking coffee and
swapping sea stories with a fellow captain, Frank Ault, who formerly commanded
the carrier USS Coral Sea off
Vietnam. Ault was now Epes’ chief of staff, but he was no more a fan of the
admiral than Lee. Epes didn’t seem to know a lot about the carrier’s nuclear
dynamics, which Ault and Lee frequently had to explain to him. Ault also
regarded his boss as indecisive.
Now Epes was faced with a very tough decision. Another message came in
from the Pueblo. With North Koreans
firing at and trying to board it, the surveillance vessel clearly needed
On its way to Japan,
the carrier had been enveloped by a typhoon that damaged a number of jets.
Mechanics were working on them, but only 35 aircraft were now flyable. About
three hours would be needed to fuel and arm them, brief their pilots, and get
them over the Wonsan area. In the carrier’s war room, Epes and Ault gathered all
available intelligence on the port city’s air defenses, which appeared to be
strong. Any attacking planes would have to run a gauntlet of 14 antiaircraft
batteries, two surface-to-air missile sites, and as many as 75 MiG
Epes considered his
options. By the time any sizeable group of his jets reached the Pueblo,
it would be dark – sunset was at 5:41 p.m. – and the spy ship probably would be
in Wonsan harbor. Epes stood to lose a significant number of aircraft, maybe
even enough to render the carrier and its 5,500 crewmen vulnerable to
counterattack by North Korean planes.
If many American pilots were killed, or the carrier damaged or even sunk,
the pressure on the United States to retaliate would be tremendous. If it did
so, the communists might then execute the Pueblo
crew. Where would the escalation end? And all this over a rinky-dink
surveillance ship which hadn’t directly asked the Enterprise
Epes didn’t want to jeopardize his flagship. He didn’t want to do
something that might entangle his country in another Far East war. At 3:06 p.m.,
his cautious approach was confirmed by higher authority. A message from Admiral
William F. Bringle, commander of the Seventh Fleet, told him to take “no overt
action until further informed.” The decision was final: no rescue attempt would
be mounted from the carrier.
At Fuchu Air Station, north of Tokyo, the man who controlled all
land-based American combat jets in Northeast Asia was furiously working the
Air Force Lieutenant General Seth McKee was determined to help the Pueblo. He sat at a phone-strewn table
in a glass-walled war room, flanked by a dozen members of his battle staff, all
of them making call after call. McKee commanded the Fifth Air Force, comprising
all U.S. military planes in Japan, South Korea, and
He knew he didn’t
have much time. Minutes earlier, an aide had handed him a copy of the Pueblo’s
rescue plea. Like the officers of the Enterprise, the general had never heard
of the spy ship, although he knew his fighters had been alerted that they might
have to protect the Banner on a
couple of its 16 missions.
McKee fired question after question at his staff. On the other side of
the glass was a command center, where airmen posted markers on wall maps showing
the positions of American and hostile aircraft in the region. It was like a
scene from an old movie about RAF Bomber
The 51-year-old general spoke very rapidly, in clipped but precisely
worded sentences accented with the rich drawl of his native Arkansas. After
nearly 30 years in the Air Force, he was accustomed to crises. During World War
II, he’d flown 69 combat missions over Europe in a P-38 Lightning, downing two
enemy aircraft. He flew cover for the Normandy landings during the bloody
Armageddon of D-Day. During the Battle of the Bulge, he commanded an air base in
Belgium that lay directly in the path of advancing German
So far, he was having little luck scrounging up combat-ready planes for
the Pueblo. McKee had jurisdiction
over two Marine fighter squadrons at Iwakuni air base in Japan, just 375 miles –
less than an hour’s flight – from Wonsan. But only four planes were available
there, and their ground crews needed three hours just to load ammunition. Two
other American bases in Japan were switching to modern F-4 Phantoms from older
fighters and none of the new aircraft could be ready to fly in less than
McKee also was in
charge of American air units in South Korea. But with the Vietnam War sucking up
planes from bases everywhere, the only ones in South Korea were six Phantoms,
configured for nuclear bombs, which were part of the Pentagon’s global standby
network of aircraft, submarines, and intercontinental missiles that would rain
atomic destruction on the USSR in the event of war. McKee ordered the Phantoms
reloaded with conventional 3,000-pound bombs. But that would take several hours,
and the jets still had no air-to-air guns or missiles to fight MiGs. Even
properly armed, a handful of Phantoms wouldn’t stand much chance against dozens
of MiGs, many of which, McKee knew from intelligence, already were in the air.
There was another possibility. The South Korean Air Force consisted of
more than 200 combat aircraft, some located at Osan air base near Seoul, only 25
minutes by air from Wonsan. McKee told a subordinate to check on their
availability through U.S. Army General Charles Bonesteel, an eyepatch-wearing
former Rhodes Scholar who commanded all United Nations forces in South Korea,
including that country’s air force.
But Bonesteel had no intention of further inflaming a South Korean public
already angry and frightened over the Blue House raid. To many southerners, the
outrageous attempt to kill their president represented a dramatic escalation of
their long-running blood feud with the north that could only be answered with
massive retaliation, even invasion. The Pueblo hijacking, Bonesteel believed,
would only intensify that sentiment. And if multiple southern pilots died while
trying to rescue the ship, the resulting public rage might be just enough to tip
South Korea into war. Since many South Korean jets were aging, U.S.-built F-86s,
no match for North Korea’s advanced MiGs, southern casualties indeed could be
heavy. Bonesteel passed word that South Korean planes were off limits in any
attempt to save the Pueblo.
McKee moved down his
list of prospects. He knew the Enterprise and its fighters might be
close enough to help. So he placed a call to Honolulu, trying to reach a good
friend, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief of all U.S. forces in
the Pacific. McKee had a novel proposition for Sharp: that he, an Air Force
general, be given operational control of the Enterprise,
the Navy’s most prized asset. Then McKee himself could order carrier planes into
the air. But Sharp was in Vietnam conferring with army commanders there. A
deputy took McKee’s call and flatly refused his
That left McKee only
one card to play: his F-105 fighter-bombers at Kadena Air Force base on Okinawa,
more than 1,100 miles from Wonsan.
Air Force Major John Wright was in his wing commander’s office at Kadena
when the call came in.
The wing boss picked up the phone and sat bolt upright. “Yessir,” he
said. “Nosir. Yessir.” A pause. “Yessir, I know where it is. Yessir, we can get
planes over there right away.” A couple more “yessirs” and he hung up, cursing
“Do you know that someone stole a Navy ship?” he asked
“What kind of ship?”
“I don’t know, but the goddamn Navy just got one of their ships
The caller had been McKee, who wanted as many fighters as possible sent
aloft as soon as possible. They were to fly to Osan air base, refuel, and
immediately take off to attack the North Korean gunboats herding the Pueblo.
The wing commander put Wright in charge of the
Texan quickly assembled several other officers from the 18th Tactical Fighter
Wing to go over their available aircraft. A maintenance officer made a few hasty
calls and said he could pull together a dozen F-105s. Half of them were airborne
in training exercises. Several more were being repaired. Wright decided to
launch the planes in pairs, as fast as they could be readied. The major and his
wingman would bring up the rear.
The first two F-105s
blasted off from Okinawa at 4:11 p.m., afterburners punching them into the sky
with a deafening roar.
In his war room outside Tokyo, McKee received the liftoff news with mixed
emotions. Time was running out for the Pueblo. The Okinawa jets needed roughly
two and a half hours to get to where the ship was believed to be. But with a
refueling stop at Osan, McKee’s pilots had little, if any, chance of reaching
Bucher and his men before nightfall, when a rescue attack was no longer
“Those poor bastards,” the general muttered to no one in particular.
“What’s happening to them?”