Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

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9780451466198: Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

WINNER OF THE 2014 SAMUEL ELIOT MORISON AWARD FOR NAVAL LITERATURE

In 1968, a small, dilapidated American spy ship set out on a dangerous mission: to pinpoint military radar stations along the coast of North Korea. Packed with advanced electronic-surveillance equipment and classified intelligence documents, the USS Pueblo was poorly armed and lacked backup by air or sea. Its crew, led by a charismatic, hard-drinking ex–submarine officer named Pete Bucher, was made up mostly of untested sailors in their teens and twenties.

On a frigid January morning while eavesdropping near the port of Wonsan, the Pueblo was challenged by a North Korean gunboat. When Bucher tried to escape, his ship was quickly surrounded by more patrol boats, shelled and machine-gunned, and forced to surrender. One American was killed and ten wounded, and Bucher and his young crew were taken prisoner by one of the world’s most aggressive and erratic totalitarian regimes.

Less than forty-eight hours before the Pueblo’s capture, North Korean commandos had nearly succeeded in assassinating South Korea’s president in downtown Seoul. Together, the two explosive incidents pushed Cold War tensions toward a flashpoint as both North and South Korea girded for war—with fifty thousand American soldiers caught between them. President Lyndon Johnson rushed U.S. combat ships and aircraft to reinforce South Korea, while secretly trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Act of War tells the riveting saga of Bucher and his men as they struggled to survive merciless torture and horrendous living conditions in North Korean prisons. Based on extensive interviews and numerous government documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, this book also reveals new details of Johnson’s high-risk gambit to prevent war from erupting on the Korean peninsula while his negotiators desperately tried to save the sailors from possible execution. A dramatic tale of human endurance against the backdrop of an international diplomatic poker game, Act of War offers lessons on the perils of covert intelligence operations as America finds itself confronting a host of twenty-first-century enemies.

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About the Author:

Jack Cheevers is a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

PROLOGUE

On an October day in 1952, a Soviet coast guard cutter eased its way toward a headless corpse floating off Yuri island, a small link in the Kuril archipelago that stretches from northern Japan to Siberia.

Clad in a black flight suit, the body was the earthly remains of a U.S. Air Force lieutenant named John R. Dunham. The 24-year-old officer had been navigating an RB-29 reconnaissance plane northeast of Japan’s Hokkaido island when two Soviet fighters opened fire. The lumbering, propeller-driven American aircraft caught fire and crashed into the sea; Dunham and seven other airmen perished. The Russians buried Dunham a few days later on Yuri without bothering to hold a ceremony or notify his next of kin.

The incident was just one of many Cold War run-ins—some of them fatal—between U.S. intelligence collectors and communist defenders. Starting in 1945, American planes, surface ships, and submarines skirted the borders of the USSR, China, North Korea, and various Eastern European nations, probing and analyzing their defenses.

The Sea of Japan was a hot spot in this little-known drama. U.S. planes monitored hundreds of miles of coastline running from Wonsan, a major North Korean port protected by scores of MiG fighters, to Vladivostok, headquarters of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, and farther north to Petropavlovsk, another important Russian naval station near the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Flying aboard lightly armed aircraft stuffed with eavesdropping equipment, specialists known as “ravens” tuned in on communist radio, Morse code, and radar emissions. Their planes usually stayed in international airspace, but occasionally they darted over the border, as if on a bombing run, to “spoof” communist air defenses. When alarmed ground commanders switched on antiaircraft radars, the ravens carefully noted their location and frequencies, crucial targeting data in the event of war. The American aircraft also recorded details of how Soviet jets were scrambled, and sniffed the atmosphere for telltale chemical traces of nuclear tests.

Soviet and North Korean fighters often were content simply to fly alongside, watching the watchers. But sometimes they reacted with lethal fury. Between 1950 and 1956, for instance, seven U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were shot down over the Sea of Japan, the Kurils, or near Siberia; at least 46 airmen were killed or listed as missing. (Another plane bearing 16 Americans disappeared in a typhoon.) Washington responded with sharply worded protests and more spy flights.

U.S. submarines, meanwhile, kept an eye on Soviet naval operations. Often prowling perilously close to shore, they taped distinctive propeller noises made by Russian subs, compiling an audio “library” that could identify any Soviet undersea boat anywhere in the world. American crews planted listening devices on the ocean floor to detect communist naval movements. They observed sea trials of the Russians’ new missile subs and measured the telemetry of ballistic rockets as they arced from launch sites in the USSR to splash down in the Pacific.

Aircraft and submarines were an expensive way to spy, however. They had the additional disadvantage of being able to stay on target for only relatively short periods. The Navy sometimes used destroyers for surveillance, but such missions took fighting ships away from more pressing duties.

Faced with the same problems, the Soviets solved them by loading eavesdropping gear aboard fishing trawlers, inexpensive, harmless-looking vessels that could loiter in the same area for days or weeks on end. By 1965, almost three dozen trawlers were watching American nuclear subs coming and going from bases in South Carolina, Scotland, and Guam; studying the tactics of U.S. battle groups maneuvering on the high seas; and warning the North Vietnamese whenever Navy fighter-bombers lifted off from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The trawlers sometimes even tried to interfere with the carriers, cutting across their bows as they turned into the wind to launch planes. One Soviet boat, the Gidrofon, was involved in six “provocative incidents” in the South China Sea during a single month, December 1965. Another trawler nearly collided with an American destroyer off Long Island, New York, as the Russian captain rushed to recover a test missile fired from the atomic sub USS George Washington.

The United States soon began outfitting its own small, cheap spy ships under Operation Clickbeetle, a top secret Navy program to pack refurbished freighters with advanced electronics. Clickbeetle was the pet project of Dr. Eugene Fubini, an energetic, bushy-haired physicist who oversaw key Pentagon research initiatives in the early 1960s. Fubini believed the snooper boats could play an important role in keeping tabs on the Soviets’ rapidly expanding blue-water fleet, which was challenging the U.S. Navy’s supremacy in both the Pacific and the Mediterranean. He wanted up to 70 such vessels, although the Navy ultimately commissioned only three.

The most tragically famous of these was the USS Pueblo, which was attacked and captured by North Korean patrol boats in January 1968.

The loss of the Pueblo—which was jammed with sophisticated electronic surveillance gear, code machines, and top secret documents—turned out to be one of the worst intelligence debacles in American history. The ship’s seizure pushed the United States closer to armed conflict on the Korean peninsula than at any time since the Korean War in the early 1950s. And subsequent investigations by Congress and the Navy revealed appalling complacency and shortsightedness in the planning and execution of the Pueblo’s mission.

Nations spy on one another for a variety of reasons, some quite sensible. The most common one is the fundamental imperative of self-preservation: National leaders have a keen, if not mortal interest in knowing whether a rival state is getting ready to attack them or their allies. The main purpose of the Pueblo’s ill-starred voyage was to give the United States a clearer picture of North Korea’s ability to wage war. “Our knowledge about North Korean military capabilities is limited and may not be altogether reliable,” Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach wrote in a secret memo to President Lyndon Johnson. “Our limited intelligence makes it difficult to estimate the precise nature of the threat to South Korea.” That blind spot was particularly alarming, since 50,000 American troops were then stationed in South Korea as a bulwark against the aggressive north.

But intelligence gathering can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, acquiring reliable information about an enemy’s intentions and capabilities may have a calming effect on international relations. If Country A verifies that Country B is not, as rumored, massing troops on their common border, Country A is less likely to mobilize its own forces, thereby reducing the chances of war. Paradoxically, good spy work can also create dangerous volatility between states. Such was the case in 1962, when a U-2 aircraft photographed Soviet technicians installing long-range missiles in Cuba, leading the United States to impose a naval quarantine on the island and raising the fearsome specter of nuclear war between the two superpowers.

In some instances, the very act of spying can catalyze international tension, as the Pueblo episode demonstrates.

Then as now, North Korea was one of America’s most implacable enemies. In the late 1960s, it possessed one of the largest air forces in the communist world, along with a formidable army. Its Stalinist leaders were deeply committed to conquering South Korea. And with so many U.S. soldiers deployed in the south, Washington had ample reason to pursue additional information about what North Korea was up to.

Today, more than 45 years after the events described in this book, North Korea is still a dangerous threat to peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Its economy is a shambles and its citizens are impoverished and underfed. Its armed forces remain large and potent, and its new, 28-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un, seems bent on producing nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles needed to deliver them. The United States still conducts reconnaissance forays and North Korea still strives to fend them off. In 2003, four North Korean MiG jets tried to force down an unarmed RC-135 spy plane. Despite the risk of being attacked, the American aircrew resisted communist demands to land (one MiG pilot flew to within 50 feet of the RC-135 and gave hand signals for it to descend) and flew back to their base in Japan.

Why should the Pueblo’s sole mission, bungled so long ago, matter to us now? Without a doubt, unremitting surveillance by American ships, aircraft, satellites, and human agents around the globe has helped us better understand our foes’ strengths and weaknesses. For diplomats trying to preserve the peace, or military strategists trying to win a war, the importance of accurate, timely intelligence cannot be overstated. But snooping on other countries is inherently provocative. (Indeed, North Korea regarded the Pueblo’s activities as an “act of war.”) Since intelligence collection often carries the potential to set off an international crisis or even war, we as citizens must endeavor to restrain excessive risk taking and recklessness on the part of our professional watchers.

In order to be effective, clandestine reconnaissance missions must, of course, be clandestine. Risk-to-reward ratios can’t exactly be debated in public before such operations are set in motion. In our democracy, we depend on Congress—especially members of the House and Senate intelligence committees—to provide close and continuous scrutiny of the nation’s spy agencies. (The news media occasionally reveal details of intelligence operations, although usually after the fact.) Congressional oversight isn’t always as robust as it should be, however. Members of Congress had little, if any, advance knowledge of how much risk was involved in the Pueblo’s doomed journey to the Sea of Japan. It was only later that investigators uncovered the false assumptions, negligent planning, and embarrassingly inadequate equipment that culminated in the vessel’s capture and set the stage for a dangerous showdown between the United States and North Korea.

As we unleash spies and covert operations against a growing list of twenty-first-century adversaries, we’d do well to remember the painful lessons of the Pueblo.

CHAPTER 1

SPIES AHOY

The strange little ship lay at the far end of the pier, rolling gently in the morning chop. Ensign F. Carl Schumacher stared at it from the bucket seat of his Porsche, then got out and walked down the dock, brimming with anticipation.

Schumacher didn’t know much about the diminutive boat that was to be his new home. It certainly stood out from the vast gray warships cruising majestically through San Diego Bay, many of them bound, in that autumn of 1967, for the Vietnam War. Just 176 feet long, the USS Pueblo was smaller than some Navy tugboats. With no deck guns and a poky top speed of 13 knots, it was unfit for serious combat at sea. Indeed, the canvas awning that shaded its afterdeck made the Pueblo look more like a tramp steamer than a naval vessel, with one curious difference: Its topsides bristled with tall antennae, swaying in the breeze like giant fishing rods.

Though Schumacher hadn’t been told yet, the Pueblo was an electronic intelligence collector—a spy ship—newly outfitted to eavesdrop on military installations along communist coastlines in the Far East. Before its conversion to seagoing ferret, the Pueblo had been an Army cargo ship, hauling food and supplies to remote South Pacific island bases after World War II. Given its lowly pedigree, some of its crewmen jokingly compared it to the USS Reluctant, the down-at-the-heels Navy freighter in the movie Mister Roberts.

“Skip” Schumacher was 24 years old, a bright, perceptive Missourian who relished arguing about philosophy and trading humorous barbs with relatives and friends. Slim and blond, he had a sly smile, an unexpectedly deep voice, and a young man’s studiedly cynical facade. The son of an affluent St. Louis insurance broker, he’d had a privileged youth, attending a local prep school and a private college, Trinity, in Connecticut. After graduating, he signed on as a Navy officer candidate, mostly to make sure he didn’t get drafted into the Army and shot up in some Indochinese rice paddy.

His first sea assignment had been aboard a refrigeration ship that delivered food and beer to the busy aircraft carrier crews at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was safe, dull duty, and Schumacher wanted a bit more adventure. When his transfer orders to the Pueblo arrived, he immediately tried to find out what sort of boat it was. Nobody seemed to know, and, mysteriously, it wasn’t listed in the Navy directory of ships. Several weeks later, Schumacher got a letter from the Pueblo’s executive officer, telling him only that the vessel was to conduct “oceanographic research” in the Sea of Japan. That was the spy ship’s cover story. For its public commissioning ceremony in Bremerton, Washington, the Navy had gone so far as to bring in a local college professor to extol the Pueblo’s anticipated contributions to helping mankind extract more food from the sea.

Seeing it now for the first time, Schumacher wondered whether the Pueblo could even stay upright in a storm. He’d never seen a Navy ship so small that its gangplank led down from the dock rather than up. Nonetheless, he saluted its American flag, marched over the gangway, and presented his orders to a petty officer.

Schumacher was taken on a tour of the ship and then to lunch in the wardroom. As he sat down, conversation among the other officers fell off; that usually happened when a new face appeared in officer country.

The lull didn’t last long.

The Pueblo’s captain burst into the compartment like a sudden clap of thunder over a calm sea. Tough, charismatic, and cheerfully profane, Commander Lloyd M. Bucher had just turned 40. His arms bulged with muscle and his eyes shone with intelligence and a touch of mischievousness. He had a handsome, square-jawed face, an easy grin, and a bullhorn of a voice that could stop a belowdecks fistfight cold. To Schumacher, the skipper’s presence seemed to electrify the very air around him.

Even seated Bucher had a dynamic quality. While one big hand shoveled food into his mouth, the other switched on a tape player mounted in the bulkhead, filling the wardroom with the rollicking ballads of Johnny Cash. Schumacher was introduced and the captain’s right hand shot out in greeting. “Glad to have you,” he boomed. “Where’d you come from?” Badly intimidated by his new boss, the young ensign stammered a few words of personal history.

Bucher was an ex–submarine officer, a superb navigator and ship handler. In the late 1950s, he’d served aboard subs with the delicate and dan...

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