Shipping & Shipbuilding News -  21 April 2007 - The Brightest Maritime Daily

By an an anonymous photographer (source: WikipedIa) the USS PUEBLO in Pyongyang

USS PUEBLO off San Diego in 1967 (USN Photo)

Saturday feature: Old flag for an old spy ship
It seems straightforward, but it may not be as simple as a US senator thinks

It's a story that is intriguing, fascinating and may get even more so.

On January 23rd 1968 the USS PUEBLO, a small naval vessel, veteran of WW2 was conducting surveillance of Soviet activity and gathering signals intelligence from the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (North Korea) in the Tsushima Straits. She was intercepted by a North Korean naval vessel and ordered to stand down or be fired upon. After attempting to get away from her aggressor, the PUEBLO was chased by the vessel along with torpedo boats, joined later by two MiG fighters and and more North Korean vessels.

Very much like the recent dispute involving Iran and the UK, the North Koreans claimed the vessel had strayed into their waters, whilst the US maintained the ship was within a nautical mile of the limits. And like the more recent debacle, no help was forthcoming for the hapless American crew, as the US command did not want to escalate the situation by sending in firepower to challenge the vessels attacking PUEBLO.

She was captured and ordered to follow her captors into North Korean waters but she stopped and was then fired upon, resulting in the death of her fireman apprentice, Duane Hodges. Again she was boarded and her crew allegedly tied up and beaten. Once inside Korean waters she was boarded again, but this time by high ranking officials and she was taken into port at Wonsan.

Her crew were subjected to becoming PoWs and their treatment was reported as very bad. Accused of spying the commander of PUEBLO was forced to make a statement admitting the US were spying on North Korea following torture and threats to shoot his crew in front of him.

Eventually the crew were released and returned home, but the North Koreans held onto the vessel and she remains in their hands to this day, reportedly now at Pyongyang. Captain Bucher died on January 28th 2004 in San Diego.

The ship is now very much a tourist attraction, with visitors being shown round it and told the story of its capture. In 2005 the DPRK offered to return the vessel, but only if a prominent US official were to go to Pyongyang for talks. The US however, responded the return of the old ship was of low priority.

Now though, 63 years after her launch date, a US senator, Wayne Allard, wants to get the ship back and is prepared to do a deal with North Korea. Give us our ship, and we'll give you a 19th Century battle flag, he says.

Senator Allard demands the ship should be returned home in a resolution he has tabled (actually, this is the second time he has tabled it, he did before in 2005) and has written to Condoleeza Rice suggesting she look into a possible exchange.

The huge yellow battle flag was captured way back in 1871 during a battle at Kanghwa Island after confusion over US naval intentions. The US simply wanted to trade with Seoul but her vessels were fired upon nonetheless. The flag is currently on display at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and the senator believes it affords an opportunity for the two countries to do a face saving swap.

“In speaking with some of my constituents, I believe there may be merit to the idea of an exchange of General Uh Je-yeon’s flag for the U.S.S. Pueblo,” said Allard. “The U.S.S. Pueblo remains a commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, despite the fact that it continues to be held by the North Koreans in violation of International Law. It belongs to the United States Navy and we should pursue all possible options to return her to a rightful resting place.”

Astute readers will of course have seen a certain flaw in the proposal, in that Seoul and Kanghwa Island are in South Korea, but the senator is convinced that the return of the flag will be of value to the North Koreans nonetheless. However Ju Dong Chan, the North's chief envoy stormed out of talks between the two Koreas last week (talks about aid and nuclear disarmament) and when asked about the return of the PUEBLO by the South's envoy before the talks began he is reported to have retorted, "Return? What do you mean by return? It is such an important thing." (The vessel is often used as 'an educational' tool in showing how America conducts foreign policy - Ed)

So the senator's offer may be of some import to the South, but it seems to cut no ice with the North, who look likely to hang onto it until they get a bargain they want.

History of the USS PUEBLO:

Shipbuilders: Kewaunee Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Kewaunee, Wisconsin
Launched: 16th April 1944
Initial role: US Army cargo ship FS-344

Transferred to USN in 1966
13th May 1967: Designated AGER-2 and converted to intelligence gathering ship


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