USS Pueblo Captured By North Korea: Seized Navy Spy Ship Displayed On Armistice 60th Anniversary, 'Victory Day'

By Staff Reporter on July 25, 2013 4:56 PM EDT

USS Pueblo
North Korean four-star general Park In-ho (64), who participated in a battle to seize the United States' navy spy ship USS Pueblo in 1968, briefs visitors in front of the spy ship on a river in Pyongyang May 3, 2004. The spy ship was seized by the North Korean navy with 83 crew in 1968. The 82 survivors were freed after nearly a year of tense negotiations. About 300 South Korean workers completed on Monday a four-day trip to Pyongyang for an inter-Korean May Day celebration. (Photo: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won LJW/TW)

North Korea regards the USS Pueblo as the country's greatest Cold War prize. On Jan. 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo Navy spy ship was seized just off of North Korea's eastern coast. Today, the USS Pueblo is a restored centerpiece in North Korea's war museum. The American vessel will be displayed on Saturday for the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. 

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North Korea calls the armistice anniversary "Victory Day," a symbolic moment when the small country stood up against the military might of the United States. What's more, North Korea continues to challenge the U.S. as the communist state pushes forward nuclear weapons development intended to threaten American soil.

The USS Pueblo is the only U.S. Navy vessel currently held by a foreign government. The Navy ship was tasked to conduct surveillance missions at the time and lightly armed so as to not draw attention during its operations. However, it's civilian appearance eventually led to its capture as half a dozen enemy ships and MiG flighter jets providing air cover easily led to the ship's capture.

According to records, USS Pueblo Captain Cmdr. Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher ordered his crew to destroy top secret documents. However, the shredder aboard the Pueblo quickly became jammed. What's more, smoke quickly filled the ship as the crew tries to burn the paper in waste baskets. Finally, there were not enough weighted bags to throw all the secret material overboard.

One U.S. sailor was killed amid the incident. Three others were injured. In total, North Korea captured 82 Americans as prisoners.

Surviving crew members recalled the terrors of North Korea captivity:

"I got shot up in the original capture, so we were taken by bus and then train for an all-night journey to Pyongyang in North Korea, and then they put us in a place we called the barn," said Robert Chicca of Bonita, California. Chicca was a Marine Corps sergeant who served as a Korean linguist on the USS Pueblo. "We had fried turnips for breakfast, turnip soup for lunch, and fried turnips for dinner. ... There was never enough to eat, and personally I lost about 60 pounds over there."

The captured American spies were treated mercilessly as North Korean officers interrogated and severely beat the surviving crew members of USS Pueblo.

"The Koreans basically told us, they put stuff in front of us, they said you were here, you were spying, you will be shot as spies," said USS Pueblo survivor Earl Phares. "Everybody got the same amount of beatings in the beginning."

The capture of USS Pueblo quickly escalated as the U.S. dispatched more ships to the sea of Japan. In response, North Korea placed the members on board USS Pueblo before cameras to admit they have been spying. Defiant the crew members planted codes into the letters of confession and saved their middle fingers in the images. This resulted to further beating.

Eventually, U.S. chief negotiator Maj. Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward signed a statement acknowledging that the USS Pueblo, "illegally intruded into the territorial waters of North Korea" and extended an apology for acting against North Korea. Finally, the American hostages were released across a Demilitarized Zone only two days before Christmas. The crew of USS Pueblo were imprisoned in North Korea for 335 days.

To this day, the USS Pueblo remains listed as a commissioned U.S. Navy vessel. 

A strongly held principle within the navy has been "don't give up the ship." To this day, the surviving crew of the USS Pueblo intend to bring the ship home. However, strained relations between North Korea and the United States will likely prevent it from ever returning.

"I'll never give up, but I don't think it's ever coming back," said Earl Phares.

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