The Scissored Pueblo Record

“Two weeks ago, I visited personally with Commander Bucher and many members of the crew of the Pueblo. I was asked repeatedly by them: ‘Why wasn’t our call for help answered? We held out as long as we could, but help never came.’ That question has haunted me…” 1  

Rep. William Scherle (R – Iowa)
Congressional Record – House
January 28, 1969

Bill Streifer
Freelance Journalist

Not since the British boarded the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia in 1807 had an American Naval commander surrendered his ship in peacetime. The ship was the USS Pueblo, a 177-foot AGER-class Technical Research Ship (TRS) with a crew of 83 officers and men. The ship’s captain was Commander Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher, and his superior officer, with headquarters in Japan, was Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson. After eleven months of frequently brutal internment, the men were released on Christmas Eve 1968. As a condition for their release, however, the North Koreans required the U.S. to sign a formal statement “acknowledging the guilt of the United States.” 2

Following the crew’s return to the States, two investigations were conducted; one by the U.S. Navy and the other by Congress. The first, a Naval Court of Inquiry, amassed 3,392 pages of testimony. 3  At the conclusion of the Navy’s investigation, another was conducted by a “Special Subcommittee on the USS Pueblo,” House Committee on Armed Services, which produced volumes of additional testimony. 4  Both inquiries addressed two key questions: “Who is to blame?”—a question blazoned on the cover of the February 3, 1969 issue of Newsweek—and “Why weren’t fighter/bombers immediately sent into the area once Admiral Johnson received Commander Bucher’s initial distress call?” According to an in-depth report by three veteran Associated Press reporters—journalists who had interviewed Pueblo crewmen, historians, retired admirals, psychologists, Congressmen, and military experts—neither investigation told the whole story.5

The Court of Inquiry was called to order on January 20, 1969 by Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Jr. at the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado, California. 6  And for two months, a panel of five Admirals, assisted by prosecutors, military and civilian attorneys, heard testimony from 104 witnesses. 7  Except where otherwise noted, the testimony of Commander Bucher and that of Admiral Johnson below comes from Bernard Weinraub, the New York Times reporter who attended the Naval Court of Inquiry. 8  Other print journalists in attendance included correspondents from the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Newsweek, Time, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union, Scripps-Howard News Alliance, and the Washington Post. 9

Bucher, who presented the most detailed testimony of anyone over many days, 10 covered the time from when he assumed command of the Pueblo in Bremerton, Washington (State) until repatriation. 11  Bucher, who testified he didn’t have the power to resist, maintained he had surrendered the ship to save the lives of his crew. 12  Some in the press, however, believed Bucher’s testimony could be “a peril for the probers no less than the probed.” 13  A cartoon by Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, emphasized this last point.

During his first day of testimony, Bucher told the Court how the Navy had turned down his request for a “destruct system” (to destroy the top secret electronic and cryptographic equipment on board). and how he had made that request “at least two, perhaps three times.” Under questioning, Bucher also explained how he was told in Hawaii, on the way to Japan, how “the Navy had plans to react in the event of a general war. [So] it would not be likely that the Navy or Air Force would come to our assistance to save this ship…I did not tell this information to my officers or men, I did not want to cause any undue worry.”

Also interviewed was Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson, who had operational control of the Pueblo during its mission off the North Korean coast. As the highly-decorated Commander of Task Force 96, Johnson was responsible for two permanently assigned ships: the USS Pueblo and the USS Banner, the Pueblo’s sister ship. 14  At the time of the “Pueblo Incident,” Johnson was Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Japan, a post Bucher later described as “primarily a housekeeping command involving responsibility for U. S. Naval Shore Activities and small craft on the numerous islands of Japan and Okinawa.” 15  

With Bucher sitting a yard-and-a-half away, Admiral Johnson, white-haired and 61 years old, was grilled closely for two hours, “at times acidly.” Flanked by his civilian and military attorneys, Bucher, who appeared “wan and quite haggard,” listened as his former commander spoke. Breathing heavily, Bucher, who was seen biting his lip and blinked his eyes, sat with his hands tightly folded on the table in front of him as Admiral Johnson testified under oath how the U.S. lacked the forces—“no forces” under his command—needed to come to the aid of the Pueblo. But was that true?

As Admiral Johnson explained slowly, the “on call” forces available to aid the Pueblo were aircraft of the Fifth Air Force in Japan and vessels of the Seventh Fleet. “The Fifth Air Force reported a delay of two to three hours before they could have aircraft in the area,” he said, and “The [aircraft carrier] Enterprise was 600 miles from Wonsan [North Korea]. Its extreme range made it practically impossible to come to the assistance [of the Pueblo].”

In response, Rear Admiral Marshall W. White, a member of the Court, learned forward and asked: “Then, when we add it up, we had [on call] forces that did not exist?” To which Johnson replied, “That’s correct…There were no forces made available to me under my operational control.” Moments later, Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Jr., who presided over the U.S. Navy’s investigation, challenged Johnson: “You have referred repeatedly to ‘on call.’ It is somewhat misleading since nothing was on call…It certainly didn’t take care of the situation we had, and therefore, I think it is suspect in its validity.”

During the Court of Inquiry’s second week, Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it would be impractical for a Congressional Committee to begin their investigation until the Navy had completed theirs, and that Senator John C. Stennis, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, shared his view. 16  Senator Byrd also thought it of utmost importance that all facts surrounding the capture and loss of the USS Pueblo be known; “But I am not convinced the American people have been given all the facts,” he said. “And, in one case at least, pertinent information has been removed from the permanent files of the Senate Armed Services Committee.” 17

Acknowledging there were many unanswered questions that went far beyond the scope of the Navy’s inquiry—involving both the U.S. Defense Department and foreign policy—Senator Byrd wanted to know why no effort was made to come to the aid of the Pueblo. He concluded his remarks with a request for unanimous consent that a recent editorial in the Staunton (Virginia) Leader, captioned, “Where Lies the Blame?” be entered into the Congressional Record. The editorial, Byrd said, addressed a question on everyone’s mind: “Why air support was not given the Pueblo immediately after Bucher radioed that he was being attacked.” 18  Despite the “availability” of dozens of aircraft in the area at their disposal, none arrived over North Korea in defense of the Pueblo—none from U.S. airbases in South Korea, Okinawa, or Japan. Zero.

Later, during hearings before the Special Subcommittee on the Pueblo Incident, General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had expended “thousands of man-hours” reconstructing the Pueblo mission, and the command and control aspects of the incident. 19  Wheeler, who said their investigations revealed that an immediate response by aircraft was simply not possible, based his conclusion on a combination of factors: the relative short time between the challenge to and the boarding of the Pueblo, the availability of friendly forces, the presence of hostile forces, the weather, and the onset of darkness:

When these factors were assessed against actual times of events associated with the incident—time of receipt of the information that the ship was under attack and force response time—it was apparent to all levels of command that the Pueblo could not be retrieved by any action prior to the time that the ship entered Wonsan Harbor— Gen. Wheeler, JCS

Despite the persuasiveness of General Wheeler’s statement, it now appears that U.S. forces were slightly less than ready. The seven U.S. aircraft located in South Korea, for example, were configured for classified missions. These F-4 Phantoms, supersonic jet interceptor and fighter-bombers, were directed to be downloaded and reconfigured for support of the Pueblo. 20  The Commander of the Fifth Air Force had advised the Commander in Chief of Pacific Air Forces that his aircraft had “no guns pods, mers [multiple ejection racks], pylons, or rails, only Sidewinder missiles” with which to arm the F-4s (in South Korea). In addition, other support aircraft could not reach the scene before dark. So while it is true these F-4s could have been sent aloft, Wheeler considered such action to be “very dangerous,” with MiGs airborne in the vicinity, since the U.S. aircraft lacked complete air-to-air weaponry.

Early reports from the Navy’s Court of Inquiry produced a surprising revelation. Apparently no one in the Naval chain of command had any idea that the Pueblo might possibly be attacked or seized. 21  Capt. Thomas Dwyer, who was in charge of Naval intelligence in Japan at the time of the Pueblo’s capture, testified in closed session that he did not know the North Koreans had publically warned the United States against such missions. 22  On January 6, 1968, five days before the Pueblo departed for North Korea, and again on January 11, the day the ship sailed, North Korean broadcasts warned against spy ships off their coast and said they were determined to take countermeasures. 23  The North Koreans were also well aware that the USS Banner (AGER-1), the Pueblo’s sister ship, had already spied along the coasts of North Korea and Soviet Union, near Vladivostok, sometimes dangerously close.

General Charles H. Bonesteel III, Commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, often referred to Kim Il-sung, the founder and leader of North Korea, as a “megalomaniac.” A perceptive student of his North Korean adversaries, Bonesteel said he would never try to guess what Kim would do next. Admiral Johnson agreed. At the Court of Inquiry, Johnson had testified that the seizure was “highly improbable,” which he defined as: “in effect, there is almost no chance of this happening.” 24

Admiral Johnson, a “key witness,” said the feasibility of such an attack was “dependent to a large degree on the safety provided by the time-honored recognition of the freedom of the seas. This had gone on for over 150 years. No public vessel had been seized in all that time. This was a very excellent precedent on which to base the safety of any one individual ship.” In other words, one could never have predicted that such an attack would occur. “I was not too concerned with the security and safety of these AGER [Auxiliary, General Environmental Research] ships,” Johnson said. Speaking with a tremor, he assured the Court, and Commander Bucher and his crew, that had he been convinced the Pueblo was in jeopardy, he would have never sent the ship on that mission without protection. 25

As the former Commander of Naval Forces in Japan, Johnson was responsible for the mission and operations of the Pueblo as well as for Commander Bucher’s final briefing before he and his crew set off on their ill-fated mission. Recounting the moments after the Pueblo was seized, Johnson said he was called to the telephone of the Sanno Hotel in Tokyo. He said he was attending a “tropical cyclone conference” for the Pacific Command at the time. “It was an unclassified phone and the details were sketchy,” he said. Admiral Johnson’s Chief of Staff told him the Pueblo was in trouble, adding, “They may be gone.” Immediately, Johnson took an Army helicopter to his headquarters in Yokosuka. “I was advised that the 5th Air Force had been requested to provide air support” and that “no request had been made to the Commander of the 7th Fleet because no forces were so positioned,” the Admiral recalled. “I told the staff they had taken [the] proper action.” 26  

At one point, Johnson told the Court that the only planes available within a “reasonable distance” from the North Korean coast were Air Force units on Okinawa and possibly in South Korea. When Rear Admiral Edward E. Grimm asked Johnson about the availability of planes in Japan. Johnson replied: “Under the status of forces [agreement], we’re not permitted to use military forces based in Japan to go out on combat missions against unfriendly forces…to do so requires prior consultation with the Government of Japan.” When Grimm asked if there were any communications with the Commander in Chief, Pacific [CINCPAC] in Hawaii during the incident, Johnson said, “I believe the first call was about 2:20 to CINCPAC, and I was advised that the Fifth Air Force reported delay of possibly about three hours before they could have aircraft in the area.”

While the Naval Court of Inquiry was underway, Senator Byrd said he had the opportunity to review the testimony of then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and General Earl G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, given on February 1, 1968; that’s one week after the North Korean seizure of the Pueblo. During the Committee’s questioning of McNamara and Wheeler, Byrd said the following question was raised: “Why were no aircraft sent in support of the Pueblo?” 27  General Wheeler said the Navy had requested assistance, but the final decision not to intervene was made by the Commander of the Fifth Air Force in Japan, since the aircraft in the area were under his control. Though no aircraft were ever sent, Wheeler said there were “combat-ready” U.S. aircraft in “substantial numbers” at bases in Japan, only 40 minutes flying time from the Pueblo. 28

Indicative of the public’s difficulty in obtaining an answer to this and other questions, Byrd cited a personal experience from those same hearings. Byrd had brought to the attention of Secretary of Defense McNamara the widely-publicized statement by a high Japanese official that U.S. aircraft in Japan could not be sent to the aid of the Pueblo without the consent of the Japanese Government. And when Byrd asked McNamara to comment on the accuracy of that statement, the Secretary responded. 29

Later, however, when the official transcript was sent to the Defense Department, Byrd noticed that his question to McNamara and McNamara’s response were part of the testimony that “could not be made public because of its diplomatic sensitivity.” When Byrd learned of this a few weeks later, he protested the censorship. The reason I raise the question now,” Byrd said, “is that in studying…the complete testimony in the Committee files—the Committee’s permanent copy—I find that I put ten questions to Secretary McNamara, and that one of the ten including his reply has been entirely scissored out of the report by the Department of Defense.” 30

When Byrd asked the Committee clerk to comment, he said it was the only time during his more than two decades [22 years] with the Committee that he knew of material having been deleted by scissors from the “permanent” Committee report. The normal procedure, the Committee clerk said, was to mark in red those portions of the testimony that could not be published. But the report itself remained as a permanent file in the Committee vault. “As it is,” Byrd said, “the Secretary’s reply to an apparently significant and vital question is written on air, unavailable for Committee study as it attempts to piece together the tangled facts of the Pueblo Incident.” Well aware that security deletions were necessary at times and justified, and it was important that all military information, all information that could be of value and of importance to the enemy, be deleted from any testimony before it was released to the public, 31  Byrd added this:

But nothing can justify keeping this information from the review of the Congressional Committee charged with that responsibility. I feel it is important also that the public be given all information that it can appropriately be given without giving aid and comfort to the enemy. I feel the Congress and the American people are entitled to more facts than have been made available up to now. Therefore, I urge a full hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee at the conclusion of the Navy’s own inquiry. This hearing should not be limited to the facts of the Pueblo case, but it should be also consider the broader questions which that incident has raised. 32  

 Senator Byrd then asked unanimous consent to have printed in the Extension of Remarks an editorial titled, “The Scissored Pueblo Record.” There being no objection, the editorial was ordered to be printed in the Congressional Record. “In an expression of his concern over the Pueblo affair,” the editorial said Byrd had “cited an incidental example of bureaucratic arrogance…which disturbed him greatly.” While questioning certain of the Pentagon’s specific censorship judgments, Byrd freely acknowledged the need to prevent some items of testimony from getting into press accounts, and that these were usually accomplished by red marks which the Defense censors put beside those portions of a report which were not to be made public after a closed-door hearing. But cutting the matter from the report entirely and leaving such a Pentagon-doctored file as the Committee’s permanent record of crucial testimony? 33

Calling the Senator’s angry comment “fully justified,” the editorial said the cutting of the report “a dangerous assumption of authority.” Senator Byrd is “entirely right in calling the Pentagon’s hand on it, and the censors ought to be put on full notice that any such tampering with the records will not be tolerated.” 34


Footnotes

  1. Rep. William Scherle (R-IA). “Scherle Calls for Bipartisan Probe of ‘Pueblo’ Incident,” Cong. Rec. (Jan. 28, 1969), H1995.
  2. “Inquiry Into The USS Pueblo and EC-121 Plane Incidents,” Report of the Special Subcommittee on The U.S.S. Pueblo of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 91st Congress, 1st Session, July 28, 1969, p. 1629. [Approved for Release by the NSA on Sept. 14, 2012
  3. Sid Moody, Jules Loh, Richard E. Meyer. “USS Pueblo: The Ship That Went Out in the Cold” (AP), Evening Capital (Special Supplement), Nov. 3, 1969.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. http://www.usspueblo.org/Court_of_Inquiry/Court_of_Inquiry.html
  7. Goldstein, Richard. “Vice Adm. Harold G. Bowen Jr. Dies at 87,” New York Times, Sept. 3, 2000, p. 40.
  8. Weinraub, Bernard. “Admiral Says He Lacked Forces to Rescue Pueblo,” New York Times, Jan. 30, 1969, p. 1.
  9. Becker, Alfred Albert. “Reporting the USS Pueblo Court of Inquiry: U.S. Press Performance of the Requirements,” Master of Arts (Journalism), University of Wisconsin, 1971.
  10. http://www.usspueblo.org/Court_of_Inquiry/Court_of_Inquiry.html
  11. Ibid.
  12. Goldstein, Richard. “Vice Adm. Harold G. Bowen Jr. Dies at 87,” New York Times, Sept. 3, 2000, p. 40.
  13. “Explosive Issue: A Peril for the Probers No Less than the Probed,” Denver Post, Jan. 22, 1969 (editorial page), p. 20; accompanying the article in the Denver Post was a cartoon by Patrick Oliphant.
  14. Bucher, Lloyd M. with Mark Rascovich, “Bucher: My Story,” Doubleday, 1970, p. 126.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr. (D-VA). “The Facts of the ‘Pueblo’ Case,” Cong. Rec. (Jan. 29, 1969), S2165-6.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. General Wheeler’s testimony and refutation are from “Inquiry Into The USS Pueblo and EC-121 Plane Incidents,” pp. 1668-9.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-IL). “Why the Surprise at ‘Pueblo’ Seizure?”, Cong. Rec. (Feb. 5, 1969), E2879.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Halloran, Richard. “Why the Surprise at ‘Pueblo’ Seizure,” Washington Post, Feb. 2, 1969, p. 34 in Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-IL). “Why the Surprise at ‘Pueblo’ Seizure?”, Cong. Rec. (Feb. 5, 1969), E2879.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr. (D-VA). “The Facts of the ‘Pueblo’ Case,” Cong. Rec. (Jan. 29, 1969), S2165-6.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.

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