USS Pueblo comes under attack
Jan. 23, 1968
The USS Pueblo, initially an Army general purpose supply vessel, was built in 1944. Although retired in 1954, it came back into service in 1966 under Operation Clickbeetle, a joint Naval Intelligence and National Security Agency, or NSA, effort. The operation involved converting cargo ships to spy vessels outfitted with state-of-the art equipment to intercept signals communications. The repairs involved creating a metal room known as the Sod Hut, where technicians operated the surveillance gear to intercept and gather sonar, radar and other types of signals communications. Clickbeetle was actually inspired by Soviet surveillance operations dating back to the late 1950s.
On Jan. 11, 1968, the Pueblo left Japan for its first mission and set off for the coast of North Korea. For two weeks, it operated relatively quietly outside North Korea, until one day North Korean ships surrounded it. Attempting to flee, the Pueblo was attacked which resulted in the death of one sailor. The spy ship surrendered and the remaining 82 crew members were taken prisoner by the North Koreans.
Prior to capture, the crew was unable to destroy the classified equipment and documents on the ship. Axes and sledgehammers proved useless against the metal-encased equipment, and the shredders and the incinerator for the documents were also worthless. As a backup plan, documents were put in weighted bags and thrown overboard, a futile exercise as the Pueblo operated off the coast.
While the Johnson administration’s report concluded that the damage was “not vital,” the administration quietly expressed sentiments that reflected otherwise. An intelligence estimate concluded that the Soviets had gained three to five years on the Americans in the race for communications technology. President Lyndon Johnson feared the Soviets would be able to catch up within a single year. Hours after the capture, a plane flew from Pyongyang to Moscow, carrying 790 pounds of cargo believed to be from the Pueblo. In addition, the NSA intercepted a transmission from North Korea to the Soviet Union containing a cryptographic guidebook from the ship. The KW7 code radio represented the greatest loss as it was the most sophisticated piece of equipment.
Source: Excerpt from an article by Mitchell Lerner, Professor of History at Ohio State University, “The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy.”