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Reflections on the USS Pueblo Incident

By Bev Barr Special to BCC

Medina resident Nevin Marr was fishing in Orlando, Florida January 24, 1968, the morning after the attack and capture of the USS Pueblo. At the time, Marr worked for Lear Singular, Inc., which contracted with the US military for a wide variety of skilled work, and the Department of War was making immediate preparations to rescue the USS Pueblo crew.
Marr recalls the telephone conversation that morning that he received from his boss (who was in Oklahoma City at the time).
“‘I want you in Tokyo Monday morning.’”
Marr protested a bit and said he wasn’t sure if that was even possible. ‘What about my car?” “What about my boat?” “I don’t know where my passport is.” But his boss had figured out the logistical details beforehand. He told him, ‘Shaky Johnson was on his way to Florida. Give him your keys and he’ll drive your car to your parent’s house in Sherman, Texas. Get ready. Your flight leaves about an hour after Shaky gets in. You’ll report in at Ogden, Utah first, for familiarization, then on to Tokyo.”
So Marr and a large team of people modified airplanes with a system that greatly increased the survivability of pilots. The “Rah Ha” system took control away from the pilot when it detected a ground to air missile had zeroed-in on the plane.
Marr and his team finished the modifications sooner than expected, in part because Marr was extremely focused on getting help to the POWs. He kept asking himself, “How fast can we rescue these guys?” But when all of the modifications were said and done, a political decision for political reasons was made to not proceed with the rescue and to pursue negotiations instead. Marr was just sick about it.
For the last 49 years, Marr has wondered and worried about the crew of the USS Pueblo. One day, just a few months ago, Marr was at the VFW in Kerrville having a beer when a man walked in wearing a USS Pueblo Navy cap. Marr initiated a conversation and introduced himself to local resident, Don Peppard.
Don Peppard retired from the Navy after 22 years of service, and he often wears his USS Pueblo Navy cap. Peppard said that he thinks that few people remember the USS Pueblo Incident; at least very few people acknowledge it. But for the former POWs who served aboard the Pueblo, 11 months in 1968 are unforgettable. The crisis forged lasting friendships among the crew, and their courage is a testament to a rare combination of patriotic camaraderie and irrepressible humor.
The USS Pueblo was a signal intelligence ship – a spy ship converted from a WWII lightweight cargo ship. Almost 50 years ago, the North Koreans attacked and captured the vessel along with its crew. The Pueblo is still commissioned as a US Navy vessel, but these days it is a tourist attraction and resides in North Korea as part of the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum — an atrocities museum. Visitors tour the “code room” and scrutinize artifacts of the crew. But in the 1960’s, the USS Pueblo was the second of several ships converted for the purpose of gathering intelligence for the National Security Agency (NSA). It was designed to eavesdrop on radio traffic in various forms, specifically that of North Korea. The “spooks” on board the Pueblo also conducted surveillance of the Soviet Union’s naval activity in Tsushima Strait.
On Saturday, Jan. 20, the Pueblo was in the international waters of the Sea of Japan when a North Korean submarine chaser passed within 4,000 yards of the ship. A couple of days later, Jan. 22, two North Korean fishing trawlers passed within a mere 30 yards of the vessel – close enough for the North Koreans to get a very good look at the ship.
The next day, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, a submarine chaser approached the Pueblo again, and demanded to know the crew’s nationality. The crew responded by raising the US Flag. Events escalated quickly after that. The North Koreans shouted demands that were incomprehensible to the crewmembers. The two linguists on board were not prepared to translate rapid-fire shouts and demands. It soon became clear that the North Koreans intended to board the ship. The Pueblo crew responded by maneuvering the ship away from the chaser, and the North Koreans reacted by firing warning shots. About the same time, three torpedo boats showed up.
“We were prepared for a certain amount of harassment,” said Peppard, “but when they started firing at us, well … we weren’t prepared for that. That was different.”
Before leaving Sasebo, Japan, for this deployment, two .50-caliber machine guns had been mounted on the ship, but the guns were kept covered by a tarp so as not to be conspicuous to the purpose of the mission. The night before the attack was very cold, and the tarps and guns were frozen solid. There was no way for the crew to defend themselves.
“There was no way to fire back. The most formidable weapon we had was the cook’s biscuits,” Peppard joked.
Instead, the crew continued to maneuver the Pueblo as best they could so that Peppard and other crewmembers could destroy as many classified documents as possible. Meanwhile two MiG-21 fighter jets, another torpedo boat, and another submarine chaser joined the chase.
Peppard burned some documents in a trashcan by his desk. Other documents were placed in weighted trash bags, but the water was shallow enough that the North Koreans could have retrieved the bags. So the crew tacked this way and that, maneuvering the boat toward deeper waters, buying time in order to destroy classified documents.
The top speed for the Pueblo was only 12.5 knots, but the crew kept the North Koreans from boarding for two hours. Then, the North Koreans opened fire with a canon and machine guns, killing one crewmember. The North Koreans boarded the ship and captured the crew.
The crew were blindfolded, their wrists bound together, and elbows tied close to their bodies. When they arrived at the shore and disembarked at a port in Wonsan, they were met by an angry-sounding and hateful crowd. Peppard was punched in the face, knocked down and beaten – along with the rest of the crew.
Still blindfolded, it seemed to Peppard that the crowd was perhaps forcibly removed and the crew was split into two groups. Peppard was part of a group that was taken into a building and told, “You have broken our laws, now you will be punished by our laws.” At that point, Peppard was pretty sure he was about to be executed. But it proved to be only the first of many times the North Koreans threatened the lives of the crew.
The POWs spent 6 weeks in a building in the city where they were repeatedly told that they would have a trial and then be shot. (Obviously, the trial would have had no bearing on the judgment or punishment.) Reporters friendly with the Communist agenda were invited to a press conference. According to Peppard, the only reporter from the United States at the press conference worked for a communist newspaper.
The prisoners were moved to a dilapidated building in the countryside near Pyongyang for the remainder of their captivity. They survived on very little food. Their daily menu consisted of a half piece of bread and three bowls of broth made from boiled radishes. Occasionally, the captors provided them with a bit of apple or a tiny little bit of fish, which the prisoners nicknamed “sewer trout”.
The North Koreans had one overriding objective and that was to get the Americans to sign a confession — a confession that was provided by the North Koreans. They demanded an apology, an admission that Americans were spying and that the vessel was in North Korean territorial waters, and an assurance that Americans would never spy on North Korea again. (According to Peppard and other reliable sources, the official position of the United States is that the USS Pueblo stayed within the international waters and did not violate North Korean territorial waters.)
As a means of achieving a confession, the North Koreans tortured the crew both physically and psychologically. But the crew consistently resisted and they refused to be used as puppets of Communist propaganda. For instance, once at a press conference, a photograph was taken with the prisoners flipping the middle finger. The North Koreans asked what it meant. The sailors had the guts to say it was a Hawaiian Good Luck Sign. Eventually the North Koreans learned that the prisoners had fooled them and retaliated with what came to be known as “Hell Week” — a solid week of physical torture.
On another occasion, Peppard and his roommate Ron Berens were beaten alternately for a 48 hours. The guards forced each to watch the other beaten in an attempt to coerce a confession as a means of stopping the beating of the other. The guards were unrelenting in their effort to get crew members to confess and their tactics intensified over time, but the crew was uncompromised and steadfast in its resolve.
One of Peppard’s most miserable nights followed a day of interrogation that ended with the guard telling him, “You. The typewriter. You will be shot in the morning.”
In the end, the confession that the North Koreans drafted was signed, but it followed an oral statement that clearly communicated that the signing of the document was being done only to secure the release of the prisoners.
On Dec. 23, 1968, the negotiators reached an agreement and the 82 surviving crewmen walked from North Korea into South Korea. They were home in time for Christmas.
Just a couple of months later, Pat Boone and John Wayne presented the crew with a USS Pueblo ship’s plaque. As Peppard tells it, Bob Hope very much wanted to present the plaques to the crew and he cancelled a trip to another part of the globe in order to be available to attend the ceremony. But military leaders told Bob Hope he couldn’t come, ostensibly because the crew was still in the process of being debriefed. So why, you might ask, did Pat Boone and John Wayne have the honor of presenting the plaques? According to Peppard, who relays the story with a bit of a chuckle, “Nobody had the guts to tell John Wayne he couldn’t.”