Remember the Pueblo, Mr. President

North Korea released three U.S. hostages in the run-up to next month’s summit with President Trump. It should follow up by returning the USS Pueblo.

Sent to map North Korean radar stations in January 1968, the spy ship, whose top speed was 13 knots, was pursued by North Korean gunboats. Machine-gun fire and artillery shells raked the ship, wounding 10 sailors, one fatally. The former freighter was armed only with two machine guns, tied down under ice-covered tarps. Uncovering and loading the jam-prone guns, Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher later said, would have heightened the risk to his crew.

As the Pueblo desperately sought to evade capture, crewmen burned punch cards to keep secrets from the enemy, and smoke poured out of the vessel. Six fast gunboats swarmed in. A pair of MiG fighters circled overhead. Surrounded and outgunned, Bucher surrendered without firing a shot.

That saved the lives of all but one of 83 Americans aboard, including two civilian oceanographers. But Bucher’s decision was controversial. It was the first surrender of a U.S. Navy ship since 1807. Although many cards were burned, the loss of classified material “would dwarf anything in previous U.S. cryptologic history,” a 1992 National Security Agency report, classified until 2012, found. Some admirals publicly demanded a court-martial.

Seeing his crew beaten, starved and tortured over 11 months in captivity, Bucher repeatedly rallied them to persevere. When his captors sought propaganda photos, he led the men in raising their middle fingers—claiming it was the “Hawaiian good-luck sign.” Bucher’s last written confession is a masterpiece of double-talk, translating harmlessly into Korean while clear enough to any American:

“In summation, we who have been rotating upon the fickle finger of fate for such long languid months give our word to the Great Speckled Bird that we will heretofore in all sincerity cleanse ourselves of rottenness and vituperations. We solemnly await our return to our loved ones so that the fickle finger can be replaced by the rosy fingers of dawn and salvation. So help me, Hanna.”

Freed at last, the sailors landed in San Diego on Christmas Eve 1968 to cheers and cameras. Bucher had lost nearly half of his body weight. Though scarred by torture, hunger and disease, all the prisoners survived. Weeks later, Bucher faced a board of inquiry, which recommended a court-martial. The Navy secretary set it aside, wisely siding with public opinion that Bucher and his crew had suffered enough. Bucher died in 2004, praised by former shipmates.

Today the USS Pueblo is tied up at Pyongyang’s Victorious War Museum, a floating symbol of American defeat. Troupes of schoolchildren are trotted aboard to see strange artifacts of “Yankee imperialism.” Yet the North Koreans know that they have milked the ship of most of its propaganda value. They offered to return it in August 2005 in exchange for a meeting with a high-level U.S. official. Why not belatedly accept the offer?

Kim Jong Un

could close the wounds of the “Pueblo Incident” and transform the ship into a symbol of reconciliation. As for Mr. Trump, bringing the Pueblo home would be an accomplishment that has eluded nine presidents.

Mr. Miniter is CEO of the American Media Institute, a nonprofit news organization.


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