Remember the Pueblo; the North Koreans sure do

In this photo released by the U.S. Navy, crew members of the USS Pueblo hold up their hands in captivity in North Korea in 1968.
In this photo released by the U.S. Navy, crew members of the USS Pueblo hold up their hands in captivity in North Korea in 1968.

The winter of 1968 was a very bad time for the United States: The My Lai massacre. The Battle of Khe Sanh. The Tet offensive.

Amid all that, North Korea seized an American spy ship, the USS Pueblo. If you are old enough to remember where you were when you first heard “Hey Jude,” or if you actually know the words to “Love is Blue,” then you do not have to be told the significance of the loss of the Pueblo. You also do not have to go to to identify Lloyd Bucher.

U.S. Navy Commander Bucher, who died nine years ago, was the captain of the Pueblo. The ship was no prize, except to the North Koreans, adept then as now in transforming the symbolic into the dramatic.

There were demands for the court martial of Commander Bucher, who, against maritime doctrine, gave up the ship, though the Navy finally acknowledged he might have been more canny than cowardly.

We are examining the seizure of the Pueblo only because of another anniversary — the 60 years that have passed since the signing of the armistice that ended the most forgotten of American wars, the Korean conflict. President Obama had the good grace the other day to offer a crisp little commemoration, saying that the veterans of that war “deserved better,” which they did and do.

But in Pyongyang, where a 30-year-old ruler is outdoing his progenitors in the ludicrous, the festivities were more lavish, the rhetoric more ridiculous, and the ballistic missiles planted on mobile launchers more menacing.

That 60-year commemoration was extended when the North Koreans unveiled the Pueblo, smartly freshened with a new coat of paint for a new star turn on the global stage. It’s the centerpiece of the country’s Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Unspoken is the torture endured by the men of the Pueblo. They thought they were going to be shot at dawn the day after they reached land. One remembered an interrogator clicking a gun at his head. Another never recovered from the frantic kicking he received.

The men of the Pueblo — one died in the incident — eventually were given medals as prisoners of war. That was only after they suffered 335 days of captivity and a daunting diet that consisted mostly of turnips. Gov. Ronald Reagan of California greeted the crew members when they returned.

So did a naval court of inquiry. Commander Bucher was charged with failing to resist the intruders, for allowing the North Koreans to search his ship, for insufficiently destroying classified information, and with following his North Korean captors into port, among other departures from naval law and custom.

Secretary of the Navy John Chafee dismissed the charges in 1969, noting that the crew had been abused and tortured.

The 67 who remain alive would like to see the ship — the only commissioned Navy vehicle in captivity — back home, maybe in San Diego, maybe in Pueblo, Colo., the city and county for which the onetime light-cargo ship was named in 1944.

At the time, the Pueblo incident revived ancient debates about duty and responsibility, about the burden of giving orders and the difficulty of carrying them out.

Today, the Pueblo incident stirs ancient debates about war and remembrance. Sadly, we know plenty about war, but not terribly much about remembrance.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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