On January 23, 1968, the US Navy intelligence ship USS Pueblo was gathering signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) in international waters off the North Korean coast. Within a matter of hours, the Pueblo and her crew would have their lives turned upside down and become players in an international drama.
The Pueblo began life as a cargo and passenger ship in 1944 and spent 20+ years as a logistics ship for the US Army before being transferred to the US Navy in 1966. Pueblo was then converted into an intelligence ship and deployed to the Pacific Ocean to monitor Soviet and North Korean activity in the region.
For reasons that still remain unclear, the North Koreans decided that the capture of the Pueblo would be either a propaganda or intelligence coup (or perhaps both) and thus deployed multiple subchasers, torpedo boats and even air assets to capture the Pueblo on the pretext of violating North Korea’s territorial waters. Faced with destruction or capture and no prospect of armed relief, Commander Lloyd Bucher ordered the destruction of all sensitive materials and submitted to the North Korean demand for surrender.
The crew and ship were then paraded before cameras multiple times as a propaganda tool. They were also subjected to physical and psychological torture, but, much like Admiral James Stockdale, refused to allow the North Koreans to defeat their spirit. In fact, the crew became even more famous for displaying the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” in photos taken of them by the North Koreans. Demonstrating the ineptness of the North Korean intelligence system, the photos were published because the North Koreans didn’t understand the meaning behind the gesture.
Eleven months after their capture, the officers and crew were released and returned to the United States. Today the Pueblo is the only active US naval warship in captivity. The North Koreans use the ship as a “museum ship” to further the propaganda campaign necessary to keep their own people in chains and transnational elites duped into thinking the North Korean regime is merely a victim of capitalistic bloodlust and excess. While tenuous diplomatic talks have occurred about the return of the vessel to US hands, none have been successful and the ship remains a pawn in North Korean diplomatic efforts.