How the seizure of a US spy ship by North Korea nearly sparked nuclear war
Updated 9:38 AM ET, Wed August 8, 2018
"This is it, they're taking us out here to kill us," Stu Russell thought as he trudged through the snow in the middle of the night into a dark forest.
Russell was one of 83 Americans held captive inside North Korea, following the seizure of the USS Pueblo spy ship in international waters, on January 23, 1968.
For weeks they were kept in a sparse, freezing-cold building they nicknamed "the Barn." It had no running water and was infested with rats and bed bugs. Inside, the men were denied sleep, forced into stress positions, whipped and beaten. Their officers, particularly Lloyd Bucher, the ship's commander, came in for vicious punishments, as their interrogators demanded they sign "confessions" stating they were illegally spying in North Korean territorial waters when they were captured.
Like today, 1968 was a period of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The war that led to the division of the country had only stopped 15 years earlier and bloody skirmishes were still common.
The crew were terrified of the North Koreans. During one interrogation, after Petty Officer Donald McClarren refused to sign a confession, his guard pulled out a gun, put it to McClarren's head and pulled the trigger. The unloaded weapon clicked, and McClarren passed out.
Mock executions like this were routine, as were beatings which seemed like they would never end.
That night in the forest, as Russell shivered and slipped on the icy ground, he became ever more convinced the end had come.
The seizure of the Pueblo remains one of the most embarrassing incidents in US military history, the first hijacking of a naval vessel since the Civil War, 153 years earlier.
The incident -- reconstructed here from top secret diplomatic cables; CIA, NSA and State Department reports; and interviews with and testimonies from the crew -- raised tensions in the region to near breaking point. Fifty years on, it remains the closest the world came to a second Korean War, one that cables show US generals were prepared to use nuclear weapons to fight, and could have sucked in both the Soviet Union and China.
That the Pueblo's seizure did not result in war was the result of months of careful diplomatic negotiations between North Korea and the US, held in near secret at Panmunjom, the so-called "truce village" on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
As those negotiations dragged on, the crew of the Pueblo were beaten, tortured, and forced to sign increasingly ludicrous confessions, even as they fretted they would face further punishment on return to the US. If they ever got back.
It was a lousy mission from the start.
After leaving the Japanese port of Sasebo on January 11, the crew of the Pueblo had to deal with equipment failure, frigid weather that meant ice had to be constantly chipped off instruments, and rough seas. When the crew wasn't vomiting from seasickness, they were bored and listless.
Most had little to do as the spy ship's instruments listened in on North Korean communications from international waters, taking special care not to cross the 19-kilometer (12 mile) maritime border claimed by Pyongyang.
Things finally picked up on January 22, when two North Korean fishing ships circled the Pueblo, their decks packed with people straining for a look at the American ship, some holding binoculars and cameras.
Russell was the ship's cook, he came out from the galley to look at the North Koreans. Going to bed that night, he remembers how he remarked "that was pretty exciting today," only to have a more senior sailor smile and tell him "just wait until tomorrow."
He was back in the galley preparing dinner when the North Koreans returned, this time in force.
A heavily-armed subchaser circled the Pueblo and hoisted signal flags: "Heave to, or I will open fire."
The Pueblo responded that it was in international waters as an urgent message was sent warning naval command in the Japanese port of Kamiseya a potential crisis was unfolding.
Four smaller torpedo boats soon joined the subchaser and began circling the Pueblo as two MiG fighter jets flew by overhead. Bucher's ship was hopelessly outgunned, but he was in international waters and he knew other US ships had experienced this type of harassment and escaped unscathed.
As one of the North Korean ships approached the Pueblo with an armed boarding party on its deck, Bucher ordered the helmsman to head out to open sea at full speed.
Russell was outside the comms room when one of the officers inside, seeing him standing there, ran out and pulled him to the floor, screaming the North Koreans were about to open fire.
All four torpedo ships raked the Pueblo with machine guns as the subchaser pumped 57mm shells into the Pueblo's forward masts, knocking out its antennas and sending shrapnel spraying across the deck.
"We need help," radio operator Don Bailey told Kamiseya. "We are holding emergency destruction. We need support. SOS SOS SOS. Please send assistance."
The Pueblo's upper cabins filled with smoke as the crew frantically burned the classified documents on board and smashed equipment with hammers and axes.
Bucher had ordered the ship to follow the subchaser, but seeing there was still a "fantastic amount of paper" to destroy, he told the helmsman to stop, to buy more time. The North Korean ship quickly fired two salvos into the Pueblo's upper deck, seriously wounding two sailors.
Bucher entered the comms room and dictated a message to Kamiseya: "Have been requested to follow into Wonsan, have three wounded and one man with leg blown off, have not used any weapons."
"How about some help, these guys mean business," he continued. "Do not intend to offer any resistance."
As the Pueblo was being towed into Wonsan, its crew blindfolded and bound, Washington went into full blown crisis mode. Confusion reigned over why so little reaction had been taken by US forces in the Pacific once they realized the Pueblo was under attack.