- - Monday, February 10, 2014

ACT OF WAR: LYNDON JOHNSON, NORTH KOREA AND THE CAPTURE OF THE SPY SHIP PUEBLO
By Jack Cheever
NAL Caliber, $27.95, 448 pages

I was a high school student in 1968 eagerly waiting for my 17th birthday in 1969 so I could enlist in the U.S. Navy when the USS Pueblo was captured by the North Koreans. I recall that I was angry with the communists for taking the Pueblo, and I was especially angry with President Johnson for doing so little to rescue the ship and the crew.

Reading Jack Cheever’s “Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo” rekindled my earlier anger — and then some.

Mr. Cheever’s book recounts the famous Cold War drama in January 1968 when a 176-foot electronic intelligence ship, equipped with tall antennae rather than top guns, and manned by a youthful crew of 83, was captured by North Korean patrol boats off the coast of Wonsan.

When the Pueblo’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, tried to sail away, the spy ship was pursued by the patrol boats. The patrol boats opened fire with shells and machinegun fire, killing one American sailor and wounding 10 others. Bucher felt he had no choice but to heave to and allow the North Koreans to board the Pueblo. The North Koreans took the crew prisoner and took control of the U.S. spy ship.

“Act of War” goes on to tell the horrific story of the crew’s brutal treatment by North Korea and the crew’s heroic — and humorous — efforts to survive while resisting the communists as much as possible.

Mr. Cheever describes Bucher as an ex-submarine officer and a superb navigator and ship handler. He was a voracious reader and chess player as well as a heavy drinker, party animal and barroom brawler. A friend called him an “intellectual barbarian.”

Bucher was not a novice to the world of intelligence. He served aboard submarines that eavesdropped on the Soviet Navy. Although he hoped for command of a submarine, he was assigned to command the Pueblo. In conjunction with the Navy, the National Security Agency (NSA) assigned specific eavesdropping targets.

The Pueblo, described by one Navy officer as looking like the supply ship in the film “Mr. Roberts,” was to be home-ported in Japan, within cruising range of three potential wartime foes: the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. Prior to taking command, Bucher’s briefers at the NSA and the Navy Security Group told him not to worry about the ship being harmed. His best protection, they said, was the centuries-old body of international law and custom that guaranteed free passage on the high seas.

They were wrong.

Mr. Cheever gives the reader a seat back along the wall in the White House meetings held in response to the hijacking.

“Gathered now in the Cabinet Room, LBJ and his men tried to fathom the meaning of the seizure and devise a suitable response,” Mr. Cheever writes. “They faced a minefield of dangerous unknowns. Why had North Korea grabbed the spy ship in the first place? Were the Russians involved in planning or executing the operation? Now that the North Koreans had the vessel and crew, what were they likely to do?” CIA Director Richard Helms saw Moscow’s fingerprints on the hijacking. He believed the Soviets had colluded with North Korea to divert Washington’s attention from Vietnam … . More ominously, a Romanian source had told the CIA that the North Koreans wanted to open a ‘second front’ on the Korean peninsula to tie up U.S. forces that otherwise could be deployed to Vietnam.”

“This is a very serious matter,” Helms told the president.

Mr. Cheever later quotes LBJ adviser Clark Clifford as saying that although he felt sorry for the ship and crew, he didn’t think it was worth a resumption of the Korean War.

Mr. Cheever also informs us that less than 48 hours before the Pueblo’s capture, North Korean commandos had attempted to assassinate South Korea’s president in Seoul. The assassination attempt and the taking of the Pueblo had the North and South Koreans poised for war with each other, which would draw the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea into the conflict.

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