Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo by Jack Cheevers | Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

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

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by Jack Cheevers

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“I devoured Act of War the way I did Flyboys, Flags of our Fathers and Lost in Shangri-la.” —Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

In 1968, the small, dilapidated American spy ship USS Pueblo set out to pinpoint military radar stations


“I devoured Act of War the way I did Flyboys, Flags of our Fathers and Lost in Shangri-la.” —Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

In 1968, the small, dilapidated American spy ship USS Pueblo set out to pinpoint military radar stations along the coast of North Korea. Though packed with advanced electronic-surveillance equipment and classified intelligence documents, its crew, led by ex–submarine officer Pete Bucher, was made up mostly of untested young sailors.

On a frigid January morning, the Pueblo was challenged by a North Korean gunboat. When Bucher tried to escape, his ship was quickly surrounded by more boats, shelled and machine-gunned, forced to surrender, and taken prisoner. Less than forty-eight hours before the Pueblo’s capture, North Korean commandos had nearly succeeded in assassinating South Korea’s president. The two explosive incidents pushed Cold War tensions toward a flashpoint.

Based on extensive interviews and numerous government documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, Act of War tells the riveting saga of Bucher and his men as they struggled to survive merciless torture and horrendous living conditions set against the backdrop of an international powder keg.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1968 North Korea seized an American intelligence-gathering ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo, in international waters. Journalist Cheevers combines interviews with recently released government documents to tell the story of a slipshod operation that nearly led to the crew’s execution and a return to war footing with Korea. The Pueblo was meant to be unobtrusive, but the shabby, virtually unarmed cargo ship was packed with top-secret code machines and documents; dispatched to international waters off North Korea’s coast without the North Korean government’s knowledge and no more protection than “the centuries-old body of law and custom that guaranteed free passage on the high seas.” When the Pueblo was intercepted the commander prudently surrendered. The Johnson administration, concerned about “reactions in the court of public opinion,” merely mounted a diplomatic reply to this act of war. Meanwhile, the captured sailors were brutalized into signing an admission of spying—a “handy pretext to shoot them all.” Pyongyang demanded an unconditional apology, which the U.S. eventually signed, though that apology had been “prerepudiated”—disavowed in advance. The ship remains in North Korean hands; the released crew was eventually recognized as prisoners of war. Cheever’s account of “false assumptions, negligent planning..., excessive risk taking” is a useful reminder in today’s world of surveillance and diplomatic brinksmanship. (Dec.)
Library Journal
★ 11/15/2013
While spying off the coast of Wonsan on North Korea's east coast in 1968, the U.S.S. Pueblo, an aging and poorly equipped naval intelligence ship, was seized by North Korean forces. Cheevers supports the contention that the ship was still in international waters. One sailor died in the fight, and the rest of the crew were imprisoned for 11 months. Cheevers (former political reporter, Los Angeles Times) paints a vivid picture of the harrowing experiences the sailors faced before, during, and after their stint in a North Korean prison. Unlike the memoirs of Pueblo captain Lloyd M. Bucher (Bucher: My Story, with Mark Rascovich) and Edward R. Murphy Jr. (Second in Command, with Curt Gentry), Cheevers includes perspectives of multiple survivors as well as various military and government officials who were involved (Cheevers did interview Bucher before his death in 2004 and is sympathetic to Bucher's position). The author's access to personal interviews, large amounts of government documents, as well as news reports on the incident, allows readers to experience this event from the Pueblo's viewpoint and beyond. VERDICT Readers who appreciate intense accounts of survival against difficult circumstances will find this book enthralling. Those interested in naval history and the history of U.S.-North Korean relations will also enjoy it. It deserves a wide audience.—Joshua Wallace, South Texas Coll. Lib., McAllen
Kirkus Reviews
Readers who assume that North Korea's reputation as an international nut case is a recent development must read this painful account of its 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo and abuse of its crew. Former Los Angeles Times political reporter Cheevers has done meticulous research, including tracking down survivors of this half-forgotten outrage that made headlines at the time. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union stationed eavesdropping ships in international waters off each other's coasts. Both observed a gentleman's agreement to keep hands off, a sensible policy since a nation who attacked an enemy spy ship could expect retaliation on one of its own. Ignoring the fact North Korea had no spy ships was the first of many American blunders. As a vessel, the Pueblo was slow, feebly armed, and crammed with secret machines, manuals and documents. Suddenly attacked by multiple North Korean ships, the crew's frantic efforts destroyed only a fraction of this material, resulting in an intelligence bonanza for the captors. Then, the North Koreans tortured and brutally beat the prisoners. They were starved, refused medical care, forced to sign bizarre confessions, filmed and paraded in public. Emaciated and sick, the men returned after a year of maddening negotiations. They were acclaimed national heroes: a godsend that prevented the Navy from court martialing the captain and his staff for surrendering. "As we unleash spies and covert operations against a growing list of twenty-first-century adversaries," writes Cheevers, "we'd do well to remember the painful lessons of the Pueblo. Although the crew behaved reasonably well under terrible conditions, this is a story where dimwits and villains dominate, and Cheevers does a fine job of rescuing from obscurity a painful Cold War debacle.
From the Publisher
“I devoured Act of War the way I did Flyboys, Flags of our Fathers and Lost in Shangri-la.” —Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

“Comprehensive and compelling… a narrative as fascinating as any fictional spy story…  Act of War is likely to be the definitive account of the Pueblo incident.”—The Virginian–Pilot

“Outstanding and necessary.”—Booklist, starred review
Act of War is international in scope, well written, and an enjoyable read....highly recommended....[a] gripping account of personal service, tragedy, sacrifice, and perseverance of the crew that played out within the heightened international tensions of the Cold War.”Proceedings

“Jack Cheevers’s true account of the USS Pueblo will not only glue you to your seat, you’ll be stunned anyone survived at all.”—John Geoghegan, author of Operation Storm

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt



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.



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 dangerous job of eavesdropping on Soviet naval activities in the North Pacific; in the early sixties, he’d planned such missions for a Japan-based sub squadron. A voracious reader, he kept a set of Shakespeare’s works in his stateroom. He played chess with merciless speed and waded into barroom brawls with happy abandon; a friend aptly described him as an “intellectual barbarian.”

A taskmaster at sea, Bucher was a major-league drinker and party animal onshore. With his loud singing and even louder off-duty outfits, he was often the center of attention at officers’ clubs and wharfside dives alike. For all that, he was a surprisingly sensitive man, given to choking up in emotional moments. He preferred to be called by his boyhood nickname, Pete.

The captain loved the adventure and camaraderie of subs and longed to command one of his own. Instead, the Navy “surfaced” him—removed him from the submarine corps—and made him skipper of the Pueblo in 1966. Bucher was bitterly disappointed, but he resolved to do his best with the intelligence ship. Before long he realized how similar the Pueblo’s cruises would be to his old sub missions—a lone vessel patrolling a hostile coast for days or weeks at a time. The big difference was that now he’d travel on the surface.

Shortly after taking command of the Pueblo, Bucher flew to Washington, D.C., for ten days of classified briefings on his upcoming missions. Following a series of security checks, he was ushered into the Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters of the National Security Agency, the secretive government organization that monitored radio transmissions, telephone traffic, and radar signals worldwide. The NSA also developed the complex code machines used by the American military to send encrypted messages. In conjunction with the Navy, the NSA would assign the Pueblo specific eavesdropping targets. Bucher also paid a visit to the Naval Security Group, which ran the Navy’s own global network of electronic surveillance.

The Pueblo was to be home-ported in Japan, within cruising range of three potential wartime foes: the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. Bucher wouldn’t find out until later which nation he’d sail against first, though he suspected it was the USSR, which was doing its level best to discourage U.S. seaborne reconnaissance. When the first unarmed spy boat, the USS Banner, was sent out under Operation Clickbeetle, the Russians had tried to scare it away from their shores by playing hair-raising games of chicken. Soviet destroyers trained their guns on the Banner and raced directly at it, as if intending to ram, before veering away at the last moment. During night maneuvers at close quarters, they tried to blind the Banner’s skipper by aiming powerful searchlights at his bridge.

But Bucher’s briefers told him there was little chance that he and his vessel would actually be harmed. His best protection, they said, was the centuries-old body of international law and custom that guaranteed free passage on the high seas to ships of all nations. The Pueblo had a legal right to patrol foreign coasts as long as it didn’t violate territorial waters. While the United States enforced only a three-mile offshore limit, most communist nations claimed 12 miles. As a precaution, the Pueblo was ordered to stay at least 13 miles from land at all times. The captain also was advised that he could take comfort in a much older and far less civilized doctrine: an eye for an eye. Because if the Soviets were foolish enough to attack his vulnerable, solitary spy ship, the United States could just as easily go after one of theirs.

Bucher enjoyed his stay in Washington, but was unimpressed by the NSA bureaucrats, who struck him as “pipe-smoking characters” trying to act like Ivy League professors. As he wrote later, he couldn’t help but wonder whether any of these men had ever “enjoyed a wild Saturday night drunk, got into a good fight over a poker game, abandoned themselves to a hot extramarital affair, or, for that matter, brazenly run a stop light before the eyes of a traffic cop.”

His briefings finished, the captain departed for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, where he expected to oversee the finishing touches on the Pueblo’s metamorphosis from washed-up cargo hauler to cutting-edge intelligence platform.

The great yard was roaring with activity when he arrived in January 1967. Welders, pipe fitters, electricians, and other workers swarmed over sleek warships, readying them for action off Vietnam. But Bucher felt a stab of dismay when he spotted his new boat bobbing forlornly among much bigger and grander cruisers, missile frigates, and nuclear submarines. Dusted off from the Navy’s mothball fleet near San Francisco and towed north to Bremerton, the dilapidated old freighter had been subjected to months of hammering and drilling, yet its conversion was far from complete. Rust streaked its hull. Scaffolding, shipping crates, tools, and random wires clogged its decks. Bucher thought it resembled nothing so much as an abandoned derelict.

A small group of officers and enlisted men already had reported aboard to help civilian contractors build out the ship’s most important section, the Special Operations Department, or “SOD hut.” The claustrophobic hut, also known innocuously as “the research spaces,” housed the radar detectors, radio receivers, oscillators, spectrum analyzers, amplifiers, dosimeters, and four-channel demultiplexers that gave the Pueblo its purpose. Behind a triple-locked steel door, highly trained Navy communication technicians, or CTs, would operate the top secret eavesdropping hardware.

The amount of work still to be done stunned Bucher. Dozens of problems in the engine room, berthing areas, mess decks, and elsewhere needed to be fixed. With few sealable hatches between compartments, the ship’s watertight integrity was questionable. Its windlass, which raised and lowered the anchor, was unreliable, meaning that the Pueblo might drift helplessly into communist waters in the event of engine failure. Instead of an intercom to transmit orders from bridge to engine room, the skipper had to rely on an antiquated system of bells installed by the Army. A subsequent inspection by Navy experts counted no fewer than 462 mechanical and design deficiencies.

The captain began haunting shipyard managers, vociferously demanding improvements to the Pueblo’s operating equipment and living areas. He clashed so often with the superintendent that he was criticized in a fitness report as “overzealous.”

Part of the problem was that few people working on the spy ship had high enough security clearances to be told of its true function. They treated it according to its old designation as an auxiliary cargo ship, light, or AKL. An AKL carried a crew of 27, but the reconfigured surveillance vessel would bear 83 men, including 30 communication technicians. Bucher had to fight for more berths and better hygiene facilities for his unusually large crew. After long days of wrangling, he characteristically invited the shipyard boss to the officers’ club for conciliatory cocktails.

By June 2, the Pueblo finally was ready for sea trials in Puget Sound.

The first exercise involved the basic task of dropping anchor, but the anchor chain jumped off the faulty windlass. Next were maneuverability tests. Cruising in reverse, Bucher ordered left full rudder. That caused the cable connecting the rudder to the steering engine to snap, freezing the rudder in its turned position. The Pueblo could only sail in circles until Bucher made a humiliating call for a tugboat to tow his new ship home.

Three days later, the cable parted again. Grunting and cursing, Bucher’s men fitted a heavy cast-iron tiller to the rudder in order to manually turn it. The sight of men pulling mightily on ropes to swing the big tiller back and forth made one sailor wonder what it was like to be a galley slave in the fourth century B.C. But spare parts were no longer available for the steering engine, manufactured during World War II by a now-defunct Wisconsin elevator company, and the Navy decided the cost of replacing it was prohibitive. By the time the Pueblo completed its sea trials, the steering engine had failed 180 times.

Bucher knew his new ship was unlikely to ever be much more than a balky, patched-together tub. Yet he found himself developing a distinct affection for the Pueblo; it was his first command, after all. He also held many of his men in high regard, especially his taciturn chief engineer, Gene Lacy, a 36-year-old from Seattle who was fast becoming the captain’s best friend aboard.

Besides the fragile steering engine, Bucher worried about the large load of classified materials on board, and whether he’d be able to destroy it in an emergency. The Pueblo carried not only electronic surveillance gear and code machines but also hundreds of pounds of top secret paper: military plans, intelligence reports, repair and operating manuals for the encryption devices, and other sensitive documents.

Submarines he’d served on had crude but effective quick-destruction systems: dynamite canisters that could blow a hole in their hulls and send their secret contents to the bottom in minutes. But the Pueblo crew had only sledgehammers and fire axes to break up electronic devices. Documents could be fed into two small, sluggish shredders, burned in a 50-gallon drum, or torn up by hand and heaved overboard in weighted canvas bags. Busting up well-built machines and disposing of mounds of paper took time, however. If the ship lost propulsion near an unfriendly shore or ran aground in a storm, it might not be possible to get rid of everything in time. What if the Pueblo got stranded on, say, the Siberian coast? An impressive cache of national secrets easily could wind up in Soviet hands.

Bucher fired off a letter to his superiors, requesting, “in the strongest possible language,” a specially designed destruction system. The missive found its way to the office of the chief of naval operations, Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Navy’s highest-ranking uniformed official. Moorer’s office asked the Army whether putting explosives aboard its former freighter made sense. Many weeks later, Bucher was informed that such a system was too expensive.

Most of the captain’s other requested upgrades were denied as well. Acutely aware of the rising costs of the Vietnam War, the Navy slashed $1 million from the Pueblo’s $5.5 million makeover budget. When the bean counters turned down his requisition for a fuel-fed incinerator, an irritated Bucher went out and bought a smaller commercial model, dipping into the crew’s recreation fund for the $1,300 purchase price.

The need for rapid destruction was tragically underscored when Israeli jets and torpedo boats attacked a much larger intelligence ship, the USS Liberty, in the Mediterranean Sea during the Six-Day War of June 1967. A pair of Israeli fighters strafed the lightly armed Liberty with 30-millimeter cannon, shattering its bridge and badly wounding a number of officers. After the jets ran out of ammunition, two more swept in and dropped napalm. Crewmen screamed in pain, gaped at hemorrhaging wounds, and struggled to control spreading fires. In the research spaces, communication technicians worked feverishly to destroy secret equipment.

A trio of Israeli torpedo boats moved in to finish off the smoking, blood-smeared American vessel. One torpedo blew a forty-foot hole in the Liberty’s hull. The explosion killed a number of sailors outright; others, trapped in damaged compartments, drowned in terrifying darkness as seawater flooded in. A crewman later reported that an Israeli boat machine-gunned several of the Liberty’s life rafts in the water.

By the time the harrowing attack ended, 34 Americans lay dead or dying. Another 171 were wounded, many grievously. The Liberty’s skipper, William McGonagle, weakened by blood loss from a severe leg wound, calmly directed firefighting and damage-control efforts for the next 17 hours. With his compass ruined, McGonagle lay on his back on an open deck that night and navigated by the stars toward a dawn rendezvous with two U.S. destroyers racing to deliver medical aid; he subsequently was awarded the Medal of Honor. Israel’s government claimed its forces had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian warship shelling Israeli troops in the Sinai Peninsula. Although many crewmen and some top Navy officers believed the attack was deliberate, President Lyndon Johnson accepted Israel’s apology and indemnification.

Israeli gunfire had made it impossible for Liberty sailors to burn classified documents in a topside incinerator. Instead, they were forced to feed codes and other paper materials into fires lit in wastebaskets. Weighted ditch bags stuffed with thick manuals and other publications proved too heavy to throw overboard, and in any event the water was too shallow for jettisoning.

The destruction problem nagged at Bucher, but he couldn’t do much more about it. Several months behind schedule due to construction delays, he and his crew finally set sail in early September 1967 from Bremerton to the massive San Diego naval base, where the Pueblo was to undergo readiness tests. From there it would head for Hawaii to refuel before continuing on to its new home port of Yokosuka, near Tokyo.

Bucher also was concerned about his young crew’s lack of experience. About half of the men had never been to sea. The seamanship skills of his new executive officer, Lieutenant Edward R. Murphy Jr., didn’t impress him. Schumacher, though smart and capable, had been in the Navy only two years. The ship’s other ensign, 21-year-old Tim Harris, had been commissioned just four months before stepping aboard the Pueblo. Bucher viewed Lacy, the veteran chief engineer, as his only truly experienced, reliable officer.

By the time the Pueblo reached San Diego, the captain had made up his mind to teach his officers everything he could about ship handling.

A few days after pulling up to the pier in his Porsche, Schumacher was invited to demonstrate his stuff. He stood on the flying bridge as Bucher observed from a chair behind him. Calling commands to the helmsman in the pilothouse below, Schumacher managed to back away from the dock without incident and head for the busy San Diego ship channel. Then he tried to make what he thought was a slight course correction.

“Left five-degree rudder,” he ordered, and the Pueblo began turning to port. Within seconds, however, the ship had swerved not five degrees but 30—and was barreling straight toward a sandbar. Bucher leaped up and shouted a new bearing, averting a mortifying gaffe in full view of numerous Navy officers on nearby vessels. Schumacher expected a high-decibel reaming, but the captain quietly gave him back the conn.

“I guess that was a little unfair of me,” he told the chagrined ensign. “This ship’s got a rudder as large as a damn barn door. All you ever need to use for this kind of maneuvering is two- or three-degree rudder.”

Schumacher began to like his rambunctious boss more and more. Bucher enjoyed playing with ideas and seemed curious about almost everything. When the Pueblo paused on its way to San Diego for a weekend liberty in San Francisco, he took the fun-loving Tim Harris to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to check out the hippies and their Summer of Love. The skipper could talk knowledgeably about anything from the prospects of the San Diego Chargers to U.S. naval tactics in Vietnam to the novels of Lawrence Durrell. Schumacher subscribed to Esquire and National Review, which turned out to be two of Bucher’s favorite magazines.

Schumacher also appreciated his new commander’s directness and informal submariner’s ways. If the captain had a question about radio communications, he went straight to the radio operator for an answer, bypassing—and sometimes angering—the man’s immediate supervisor, usually a senior petty officer. Although he was a demon about enforcing spit-and-polish rules while his ship was in port, the skipper didn’t much care what his men wore at sea. Bucher himself was a bit of a slob, showing up for work in shabby khakis and a tatty straw hat, or for lunch in the wardroom in a T-shirt and flip-flops.

Like many men who’d served beneath the waves, Bucher enjoyed being a little different. One manifestation of that trait was his adoption of a theme song for the Pueblo: “The Lonely Bull,” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The melancholy, Spanish-accented tune blared from the ship’s loudspeakers whenever it entered or left port, much to the amusement of onlookers. Many Navy ships had their own insignias and letterhead, but not their own song. The captain, however, considered “The Lonely Bull” a morale booster; it gave his men something special to take pride in. He also felt the song’s title reflected the Pueblo’s unique charter as a solitary sentinel on the immense gray wilderness of the sea.

His casual clothes and eccentric flourishes aside, Bucher was a demanding leader. He set high standards and vocally enforced them. To Schumacher, he seemed to possess an amazingly detailed knowledge of his vessel’s mechanical innards. He didn’t view the Pueblo as just another career stepping-stone, as some officers might, but rather as a serious assignment to be executed well for its own sake.

Despite his devotion to running a tight ship, the captain had no problem with his men cutting loose now and then. Indeed, Bucher, himself a former enlisted man and connoisseur of good times, often led the pack. When he, Lacy, and Harris hit the beach for drinks after work, Schumacher could barely keep up.

At an officers’ club or civilian bar, the gregarious captain was marvelous company, singing and telling jokes and attracting knots of revelers, male and female alike. “You’d get a couple of nice-looking babes walk into the place, and inside of three minutes he’d have ’em smoking and joking and laughing,” Schumacher recalled in an interview 35 years later. “He’d start telling his corny jokes; he was really something.”

Bucher particularly enjoyed the companionship of Lacy, who of all his officers most closely matched him in age and Navy tenure.

Schumacher was drinking with Bucher at the starchy Admiral Kidd Club in San Diego one day when the captain issued a typically unorthodox summons for Lacy to join them. Bucher lunged onto the terrace and, with no warning to the high-ranking brass tippling around him, unleashed an ear-piercing, double-fingered whistle in the direction of the Pueblo, tied up nearby. When he had the attention of the ship’s watch, he began rapidly flapping and windmilling his arms, as if he were trying to take off and fly. Other officers stared at him, transfixed. Bucher was signaling in semaphore for Lacy to come ashore. The chief engineer showed up a few minutes later.

Reserved and self-assured, Lacy had enlisted out of high school and spent so much time amid pounding pistons and screeching drive shafts that he was partially deaf. He’d served on a variety of ships, including Navy icebreakers, and had seen action in the Korean War. With his chiseled face, brush-cut dark hair, and dignified bearing, he was often mistaken for a captain himself. Though he was a tough disciplinarian, his fairness earned him the respect of the men under him in the engine room.

Bucher bonded further with the engineering officer when they conspired to steal a large painting of a nude woman that adorned the submarine officers’ club in San Diego.

The generously endowed beauty, enticingly supine, hung behind the bar at the Ballast Tank, a small, lively hangout that rang with the shouts and good-natured taunts of many of Bucher’s old sub mates. One slow night, Bucher, Lacy, and Harris played pool at the club as they waited for the right moment. When the bartender went to collect empty glasses in the next room, Bucher followed and delayed him with small talk. As Lacy distracted other customers, Harris vaulted the bar, grabbed the nude, and scampered out a side door. He deposited the booty in his car trunk and sauntered back into the club as if nothing had happened. The bartender somehow failed to notice the glaringly empty spot above a row of bottles, and the grinning thieves slipped away undetected.

Bucher displayed the prize in the Pueblo’s wardroom and encouraged everyone from officers to mess cooks to come in and savor it. The Ballast Tank, meanwhile, buzzed with theories about the identities of the malefactors who’d lifted the beloved nude; sitting at the bar again, Bucher gleefully speculated about various suspects. When he learned that Navy criminal investigators were on the case, the painting discreetly reappeared in the submariners’ haunt.

The Great Naked Art Heist endeared the captain to many in his crew. But after witnessing his reaction when the shore patrol arrested three of his men, some sailors were ready to run him for Congress.

The three, all young communication technicians, had seen a movie in downtown San Diego and were looking for a bar to knock back a few beers in before calling it a night. A shore patrol truck pulled up and a policeman accused them of being drunk. Despite their denials, they were hauled to the SP station and booked for violating a Navy rule against wearing “inappropriate clothing” off duty—specifically, jeans and sport shirts.

Late that night, the trio returned to the Pueblo. Their sleeping captain was roused and informed of his men’s misfortune. Bucher thought back to his enlisted days, when overly aggressive cops had often ruined a good night out. Furious, he gathered up the three CTs along with Ensign Harris and drove to the police station.

The duty officer, a lieutenant junior grade, was clearly displeased at being confronted by an angry superior in the middle of the night. When he pulled out a thick manual and quoted the regulation under which the sailors had been picked up, Bucher began loudly chewing him out. The captain noted that the regulation also prohibited wearing Bermuda shorts in public places. Yet he’d seen high-ranking officers in such attire at the post exchange; why weren’t admirals getting busted along with swabbies? Bucher demanded that the lieutenant get his boss on the phone.

The hapless SP man eyed Bucher as if he were from another planet. “It’s zero two ten, sir,” he said, using the military time for 2:10 a.m. “The district shore patrol commander is at home, asleep.”

“I know what goddamn time it is, mister!” Bucher exploded. “I took the trouble to leave my ship in the middle of the night and come down here to deal with the harassment of my crew. So get your CO on the line right now!”

The outranked lieutenant had no choice but to call. When the drowsy police commander answered, Bucher snatched the phone and gave him a tart summary of the evening’s events. The SP chief replied that he resented being awakened at such a grim hour over a “trifling” matter; Bucher barked that the unjustified detention of his men was a serious issue to him and hung up.

Still fuming, the captain later banged out a letter of complaint to the admiral in charge of the Eleventh Naval District, which encompassed the San Diego base. Almost immediately, he was ordered to report to the admiral’s chief of staff.

The staff chief, a grizzled senior captain, told Bucher he’d been put on report after the outraged SP commander raised a ruckus. Bucher emphatically restated his belief that his men had been hassled for no good reason. “If they’d gotten drunk and broken up some joint, I’d personally bust them,” he said. “But for wearing Levi’s and loud shirts?”

The senior officer regarded him carefully. The shore patrol duty officer, he said, had reported that Bucher was inebriated when he barged into police headquarters.

“Negative, sir!” snapped Bucher, although some of the sailors with him that night might have disagreed.

The senior captain drummed his fingers thoughtfully on his desk. “Well, all right,” he said finally. “I can sympathize with your grievance. But on the other hand, we can’t compromise discipline by ignoring a dress regulation that does not suit us.” He promised to relate their discussion to the admiral, and he hoped the matter would end there. He closed by urging Bucher to “show a little more discretion in the future.”

Bucher told no one on the Pueblo about being called on the carpet. His sailors had their own sources, however, and found out. They were astonished that he’d stuck his neck out so far for enlisted men. Most officers would never risk such a potentially career-damaging clash with higher-ups. “When he stood up for us like that,” said one of the arrestees, “we figured we had the captain of all captains.” The episode convinced Schumacher of something else: that on some deep psychological level Bucher, who’d grown up as an orphan, viewed his men as the brothers he never had.

The sailors, meanwhile, threw themselves into preparing for the readiness tests.

Navy crews had to pass tests that applied to all ships as well as those designed for their particular type. But again there was a complication with the Pueblo: nothing in the voluminous training books covered drills for this new kind of spy ship. As a result, training officers treated the vessel like the freighter it once was. They wanted the crew to demonstrate proficiency in taking aboard stores and transferring them to other ships while under way.

For the same reason, the sailors received no training in maneuvers with particular relevance to the Pueblo, like coping with Soviet harassment. Bucher approached the admiral in charge of training with his dilemma, but even he had never been informed of the Pueblo’s actual purpose and offered little help in tailoring special exercises.

Nor were there any tests designed specifically for communication technicians working in the all-important SOD hut, a 20-foot-long, ten-foot-wide metal bread box that sat on the main deck forward of the bridge.

Flooded with cold fluorescent light, the hut was manned 24 hours a day. The CTs sat back-to-back along a narrow aisle, working on floor-to-ceiling racks of gadgets. Most of the men were in their twenties, and much brighter than the average enlistee. Twenty-two-year-old Peter Langenberg, for example, had dropped out of Princeton because he was bored. Like Schumacher, the polite, slightly built Langenberg hailed from St. Louis and had joined the Navy to avoid getting drafted into the Army. Schooled as a Russian translator, he previously was attached to the top secret Kamiseya communication station in Japan, where his job was to monitor Soviet navy radio traffic.

There was a certain amount of tension between the regular sailors and the CTs, sealed inside their special chamber like some secretive priesthood. The whiz kids wore their own arm patch—a quill crossed with a lightning bolt—and refused to let ordinary seamen through their triple-locked door or to discuss anything that went on behind it. That bugged Bucher, who, though cleared to know the lock combinations, preferred to pound on the door with his fist until someone inside opened it.

The officer in charge of the CTs was Lieutenant Stephen R. Harris, a Harvard graduate and fluent Russian linguist. Harris had been given responsibility for the SOD hut despite his relatively youthful age of 29. With his beaklike nose, incipient double chin, and self-effacing manner, the lieutenant seemed more like a shy academic than a naval officer. The only child of two Boston-area schoolteachers, he loved the romantic concertos of Rachmaninoff and belonged to a club devoted to preserving electric streetcars. He seemed to write a letter every night to his new wife, a lovely blond secretary named Esther. A devout Presbyterian and born-again Christian, Harris had met her through her brother, a fellow member of the Officers’ Christian Union.

Bucher instinctively liked Steve Harris, even though the CT commander was unlike any Navy officer he’d ever met.

The crewmen passed their readiness exams and, on the misty morning of November 6, 1967, the spy ship cast off for Hawaii, its loudspeakers streaming “The Lonely Bull.”

Going back to sea thrilled Bucher. He was enjoying his two young ensigns, especially Schumacher, who, with his natural competence and irreverence, was proving to be an excellent shipmate. Despite its mechanical problems, the Pueblo handled well at sea, although it had a small ship’s tendency to roll and buck. But good weather prevailed, and Bucher relished all the sensations of an ocean passage: the satisfying whump of the bow plowing into gray rollers, the reassuring throb of Lacy’s two diesel main engines, the mouthwatering smell of pork chops frying in the galley.

Not everyone found the trip as pleasurable.

Some CTs got so seasick they wondered whether they’d live to see the sunrise. Even veterans remarked how roughly the ship sailed, shuddering from bow to transom as it bashed into wave after wave. In the forward berthing compartment, enlisted men tried to get some sleep on bunks stacked three and four high amid the fusty odor of never-quite-clean bodies and clothes. About two feet of headroom separated each bunk. Gulping Dramamine but unable to keep his food down, Langenberg wedged himself into his rack and just tried to endure. “I was seasick the whole time,” he recalled. “To get horizontal was wonderful. You just kind of lie there and moan and wish you were dead.”

The crew also had to deal with the dysfunctional steering engine, which was now dying an average of two times per four-hour watch. Most Navy ships had hydraulic steering; the Pueblo’s was electromechanical. An entry in the ship’s deck log for November 12 demonstrated the persistence of the problem:

0825 [8:25 a.m.]: Lost electrical steering, all engines stop. 0826: Regained electrical steering, all ahead full. 0829: Lost electrical steering. 0830: All stop. 0833: Shifted to manual steering. 0834: All ahead standard, shifted to electrical steering. 0839: All ahead full. 0909: Lost electrical steering, all stop. 0910: Shifted to manual steering. 0910: Regained electrical steering. 0911: All ahead standard. 0913: All ahead full. 0914: Lost electrical steering, all stop.

In spite of its fitful steering, the ship reached Pearl Harbor eight days after leaving San Diego. Bucher tied up at the submarine base; old sub buddies, he figured, were probably lurking at the local officers’ club. He spent several hours making sure the Pueblo and its intractable steering engine received priority at the repair yard. Later he paid a visit to the headquarters of the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet—CINCPACFLT, in Navy acronym-ese.

Bucher still hadn’t been told the target of the Pueblo’s first mission, so he paid a call on an old friend, Lieutenant Commander Erv Easton, now serving on the CINCPACFLT intelligence staff. Bucher was headed for North Korea, not the USSR, said Easton, and the voyage was rated low-risk. The Pueblo’s sister ferret, the USS Banner, had transited the North Korean coast a couple of times without incident, and Easton promised to give the captain copies of its mission reports. Bucher, he said, should consider his maiden trip a shakedown cruise, a chance to make sure his surveillance gear worked and give his crew a taste of what to expect on more serious outings in the future.

Bucher knew little about North Korea other than that it’d started the Korean War 17 years earlier and possessed only a bathtub navy of patrol boats, sub chasers, and a handful of aging Soviet-built subs. The idea of such a fourth-rate country attacking a commissioned ship of the mighty United States Navy, he believed, was absurdly far-fetched. Yet he wanted to know what the Navy planned to do if the impossible somehow happened. Easton didn’t know, so he passed Bucher on to Captain George Cassell, CINCPACFLT’s assistant chief of staff for operations. Bucher asked Cassell how the Navy would react if the North Koreans went beyond Soviet-style harassment and started shooting. What if they tried to capture his ship on the high seas?

The odds of that happening were extremely long, Cassell replied. The Banner had had no trouble off North Korea and neither would the Pueblo. But in the highly unlikely event that he did come under attack, Bucher was on his own. The Navy simply didn’t have enough combat ships to give him immediate relief, although help would be sent as soon as possible. And if the Navy didn’t get to the Pueblo in time, Cassell promised, a retaliatory hammer would come down hard on North Korea within 24 hours.

“Contingency plans for such an occurrence,” he said, “are written and approved.” In other words, the Pueblo was expendable, but the Navy would swiftly avenge it.

Festooned with antennae, the Pueblo attracted plenty of attention at Pearl Harbor, and Bucher invited aboard any and all officers with a role in its mission. To preserve its cover story, the Navy called it an “auxiliary general environmental research” ship, or AGER, a designation few Navy officers recognized. Between briefings and tours of the vessel, though, Bucher wanted to make sure his officers and men got time off to enjoy the delights of Hawaii. In fact, he was eager to hit the beachfront bars and nightclubs of Waikiki himself.

On their first evening in port, the officers all went to a club that featured the entertainer Don Ho and luscious Tahitian dancers. The men tossed 20 bucks apiece into a food-and-drinks kitty. But the money ran out by the end of the first show, and Lieutenant Murphy was perturbed at having to kick in more. Bucher ignored him, and the wardroom had a fine time. Tim Harris lost his shoes after a bout of hula dancing, and Bucher and Lacy didn’t get back to the Pueblo until five a.m. Despite his pique, Murphy covered for his captain later that morning when some CINCPACFLT bigwigs showed up to inspect the Pueblo and Bucher couldn’t seem to rouse himself from bed.

The tireless skipper hit the beach again that night with Lacy, Tim Harris, and about 25 enlistees and petty officers. Unlike many commissioned officers, Bucher made no effort to maintain an attitude of authoritarian aloofness toward the lower ranks. He didn’t think downing a few brews with his men in some dive undermined good shipboard order and discipline; on the contrary, such comradely elbow-bending just might foster loyalty and make the ship run better. Whatever respect the swabbies had for him, he believed, depended on his abilities as a wise leader and problem solver—not on how often he struck heroic solo poses on the bridge. If big-ship officers subscribed to the notion that familiarity bred contempt, Bucher thought familiarity aboard smaller vessels—such as subs and crowded little spy boats—was unavoidable.

After three days, the Honolulu yard workers emerged from the Pueblo’s bowels, weary and defeated, saying they could do no more to patch up the steering engine. Bucher would have to hope for the best on the next leg of his trip and make permanent repairs in Yokosuka. On the afternoon of November 18, the ship pulled away from its dock at Pearl and headed north and west.

The steering engine failed yet again on the second day out. Sailors were still losing their lunches over the side, and the ship’s limited hygiene facilities compounded their misery. For a crew of 83 there were only four shower stalls and six washbasins. The head in the first-class petty officers’ compartment continually backed up, spitting feces and urine on the deck. (The men nicknamed it “the shooter.”) The air belowdecks was rank; by the end of the tropical days, the broiling bunk areas reeked.

Bucher stopped midocean for a “swim call,” a tradition popular with sub crews on lengthy patrols. His sailors loved it. They pulled on trunks and jumped off the low-slung well deck into the water. Then some horseplay began, with bigger men throwing in smaller ones. Someone shoved Langenberg off the deck. He landed on top of radioman John Mullin, who shrieked in pain.

The ship’s veteran corpsman, Herman “Doc” Baldridge, thought Mullin’s back might be broken. But the Pueblo had no doctor or proper sick bay, and Baldridge couldn’t do much beyond giving the injured man painkillers. Bucher radioed Pearl Harbor for advice and was told to rendezvous with a destroyer tender, the USS Samuel Gompers, which was on the same course to Japan and rapidly catching up with him. The Gompers carried doctors, X-ray equipment, and other trappings of a small hospital.

The sunshine and smooth seas gradually disappeared as the Pueblo plodded on in the volatile North Pacific. A gray curtain of rainsqualls on the horizon drew closer and thickened into a steady downpour. The skies darkened and the wind accelerated, heralding a storm. Visibility dropped to a few miles. The Pueblo jerked and heaved even more violently than usual; Mullin, strapped to his bunk, groaned in distress. Finally, the Gompers appeared on the Pueblo’s radar screen. Thirty minutes later, the big tender broke into view through the driving rain, its signal lights flashing:




Bucher took the conn, silently praying that the steering engine wouldn’t quit again. Just in case, he stationed a team on the fantail, the men ready to spring into action with ropes and iron tiller. As rain and flying spume pelted him on the open bridge, the skipper edged closer to the Gompers’s downwind flank, watching intently as the bigger ship swayed ponderously alongside him.

The destroyer tender launched its whaleboat, which puttered close enough for an agile physician to leap across the last few feet of churning sea onto the Pueblo’s rain-slick well deck. He hurried below, examined Mullin, and confirmed Baldridge’s diagnosis. Although it was risky to transfer the radioman in the storm, he had to be taken to the Gompers for treatment.

There was no way to safely deposit Mullin in the Gompers’s bucking whaleboat. Instead, he was lashed to a stretcher and placed in the Pueblo’s motor launch. Bucher had only a handful of men who were even halfway qualified to lower the boat into the water and maneuver it over to the Gompers in such rough conditions. But he had no choice. He gave Ensign Harris command of the launch, and then spurred the Pueblo a little nearer to the protective bulk of the Gompers. Harris and his crew managed to plop into the sea without capsizing. They beelined for the Gompers, which quickly and expertly winched up their boat and its patient.

The drama wasn’t over: Harris still had to get back to the Pueblo. As he and his men approached the ship, a sudden squall engulfed them. They could barely see in the heavy rain. They banged into the hull and had to back off. They tried again, only to be waved away by sailors on deck. On the third try Harris and his men made it. They were hoisted back on board, soaked to the bone and freezing, but proud of their deliverance of an ailing shipmate.

The Gompers sped off into the squall line and disappeared.

Bucher treated every man who’d been in the launch or out on deck to a two-ounce bottle of brandy. The grog, according to one sailor, “boosted morale about 600 percent.”

After two weeks at sea, Bucher was generally satisfied with the way his crew was shaping up, with one notable exception: Ed Murphy, his executive officer.

Tall and owlish behind horn-rimmed glasses, Murphy came across as a strictly-by-the-book type. His black shoes gleamed, a gold clip firmly secured his tie, and his shirtsleeves were rolled all the way down. A devout Christian Scientist, the 30-year-old lieutenant was a teetotaler who also didn’t smoke or drink coffee. His job as the Pueblo’s number two officer was to ensure that the captain’s orders were carried out quickly and efficiently. But after working with him only a few months, Bucher regarded his deputy as a bungler and a stuffed shirt.

The son of a general-store proprietor, Murphy had grown up in the lumber town of Arcata in Northern California’s redwood country. After college, he enrolled in officer candidate school in Newport, Rhode Island. Posted to a fleet oiler, he later served on a destroyer as assistant navigator, earning good fitness reports.

Murphy liked the Navy and wanted to make it his career. In 1964, he was assigned, as a full-fledged navigator, to a guided missile destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf. By then his father had died and his mother was trying to run the family store herself. That became more and more difficult as her health deteriorated. In 1965, Murphy made a difficult decision to put his shipboard career on hold and got a humanitarian transfer to a small Navy shore facility near Arcata. During off hours, he helped his mother get the store ready to sell.

Murphy might be straitlaced, but he had mettle. Walking along the beach near the base one winter morning, he and another lieutenant spotted a foundering crab boat getting knocked to pieces in heavy surf. At first the officers thought the vessel was abandoned. Coming closer, they saw three men aboard. Murphy and his colleague plunged into the frigid ocean, swam to the boat, and hauled the crabbers to shore. For risking their lives, both officers were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

From his first moments aboard the Pueblo, however, Murphy rubbed Bucher the wrong way. The lieutenant prissily turned down a cup of coffee, saying, “I never use it, thank you,” as if he’d been offered a bowl of opium. When the wardroom retired that afternoon to the Bremerton officers’ club to toast the new executive officer with martinis, Murphy sipped a ginger ale and left early.

Bucher believed that compatibility was as important as competence among officers on a small ship. Murphy certainly wasn’t very compatible with the captain’s style of hard work and boozy hard play. To Bucher, the XO seemed unable to cope with his paperwork or carry out shipboard policies. Nor did he join the other officers in their frequent beer-and-bull sessions after work. He seemed preoccupied with his family, especially his mother’s ongoing difficulties with the store.

More and more, the exec found himself cut out of the wardroom loop. In port, Bucher often made decisions about ship’s business while out on the town with his more convivial officers. Murphy didn’t find out until he tried to give someone an order later, only to be told, “The captain said we weren’t going to do that.”

Bucher also regularly embarrassed Murphy by dressing him down—“chewing ass,” the captain called it—within earshot of others. Murphy felt his boss was obsessed with his refusal to consume alcohol, seeing it as a sign that the executive officer regarded himself as morally superior. Murphy considered that ridiculous; he was simply living the tenets of his faith, not turning up his nose at anyone else.

How to run the ship was another source of friction between the two men. Murphy disliked the skipper’s tendency to act as if the Pueblo were a submarine instead of a surface vessel. He referred to the flying bridge as the “conning tower” and the crew’s mess area as the “after battery.” Murphy approved of some of Bucher’s sub-style practices, such as the midafternoon “soup down,” which let the men put something hot in their stomachs before going on the four-to-eight-p.m. watch. But the captain, a confirmed night owl, also canceled reveille, routinely held on surface ships but not on subs, whose crews can’t usually be lined up on deck for head counts. Murphy thought eliminating reveille made it more difficult to get the Pueblo’s men up for morning work details.

Bucher’s vexation with his second in command peaked just before Thanksgiving, as the ship snorted and churned its way toward Japan.

Murphy had been aware for some time that the cooks were using bourbon and wine to prepare some meals. Thinking Bucher was trying to bait him, the exec said nothing. Before setting sail, the skipper had tripled the Pueblo’s alcohol allowance. Murphy didn’t question that; nor did he complain of the frequency with which liquor was broken out for nonmedicinal purposes. What Bucher and the others drank was their business.

Shortly before the holiday, the officers were chatting in the wardroom when Tim Harris suggested that the mincemeat pies be laced with brandy. Suspecting a trap, Murphy didn’t object. Then Schumacher piped up, asking what the lieutenant thought should be done. Murphy, a big fan of mincemeat, peered through his glasses and said perhaps a compromise was in order. All the holiday pies could be spiked save one, for those who might want a nonalcoholic dessert.

“Hell, no!” Bucher roared. “We’ll put brandy in all the pies, and that’s that!”

On Thanksgiving, Murphy took a pass on the mincemeat.

In the final week of its voyage, the Pueblo ran into gale-force winds and mountainous seas. It rolled as much as 50 degrees, so far over that Bucher feared a fatal capsize. Pots, pans, and plates flew every which way in the galley; green-gilled CTs pressed themselves tighter into their bunks. In spite of all the trouble with the steering engine, the main engines functioned flawlessly. The ship crawled up and over row after row of towering graybeards.

Finally, on December 1, the main Japanese island of Honshu appeared. The Pueblo rounded Cape Nojima and cruised past the long headland that protects the entrance to Tokyo Bay. Darkness had fallen by the time the storm-lashed ferret entered the Yokosuka channel, bound for its new home. Every man not on duty came out on deck, gazing eagerly at the bright lights of shore.

Bucher felt a flush of satisfaction at having finished his first sea journey as a commander. He had many sub buddies in Yokosuka and he was determined to impress them by gliding to a perfect stop at his designated dock. But he blew it, chugging right past the berth. Realizing his error, he threw the twin diesels into reverse. The steering engine chose that moment to quit completely. Since he didn’t dare approach the dock with only rope-and-tiller steering, the skipper had to call for a tug.

As the spy ship was nursed into its slot, Bucher saw some familiar faces gathered under the pier lights.

They were laughing at him.



Five days before Christmas, the USS Banner—the first spy ship sent out under Operation Clickbeetle—returned to Yokosuka from its latest patrol and tied up next to the Pueblo. After several weeks at sea the Banner’s unshaven crew looked like tired pirates. Bucher and his men soon would replace them in the wintry Sea of Japan.

Like its sister a onetime freighter, the Banner had ferried coconuts, pigs, and pregnant women around the Mariana Islands for years. In 1965, workmen at Bremerton converted it into a spy platform in just seven weeks—so fast that one Navy officer observed that it had been “literally put together like a plate of hash.”

The Banner’s first commander was Lieutenant Bob Bishop, a South Carolinian who seemed to possess a sixth sense for extricating himself from white-knuckle situations. His inaugural mission was intended to gauge the Soviets’ reaction to the presence of a lone unarmed intelligence vessel near their shores. And the communists weren’t shy about demonstrating their displeasure.

Their destroyers and patrol boats tried to drive off Bishop by speeding straight at the Banner and swerving away moments before a collision. The harassment didn’t faze the American skipper, but the horrendous weather did. After 20 hours of plowing into a Siberian storm, he realized the Banner had been pushed two miles backward. The storm left so much ice on the ship’s topsides that Bishop worried it might turn turtle.

The Navy wanted Operation Clickbeetle focused on the USSR, its biggest maritime rival. But when it became clear, after half a dozen voyages, that the Banner was acquiring high-quality intelligence, the National Security Agency began lobbying for the ship’s itinerary to be broadened to include China and North Korea. Navy officials objected, saying that doing so would negate Clickbeetle’s central premise: that American ferrets would be protected by the gentlemen’s agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union that neither would harm the other’s boats for fear of reciprocal action. China and North Korea were bound by no such constraints. They possessed only coast-hugging navies incapable of ranging far enough from shore to eavesdrop on foreign adversaries. Thus they had less to lose by going after American snoopers. But the NSA prevailed in the debate.

Bishop faced his most alarming harassment in December 1966, when six Chinese gunboats surrounded the Banner off Shanghai. Each of the 60-foot patrol boats had a machine gun on its forward deck, manned and pointed at the American ship. The Chinese vessels apparently doubled as fishing boats, since all had lines running from their masts with fish drying on them. Their pilothouses bore the same painted slogan: “Chairman Mao is the envy of our hearts.” Bishop turned and headed back to sea at full speed; the communists trailed along for a while but made no move to stop him.

Lieutenant Commander Charles Clark, another surfaced submariner, succeeded Bishop in 1967. Clark had been friends with Bucher at sub school in the mid-1950s and promised to keep him informed about his experiences on the Banner.

In a series of vivid letters to Bucher while he was in Bremerton, Clark told of furious storms, dangerous icing on his superstructure, and Russian patrol boats coming at him with guns manned and signal flags warning: HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE. On Clark’s first trip, to Vladivostok, a Soviet destroyer tailgated him at night, beaming a searchlight into the Banner’s pilothouse and making Clark feel like he was “on a freeway in a go-cart with a Greyhound bus roaring up” from behind. For several nights in a row, a second destroyer steaming at 30 knots slashed past him with just 50 yards to spare. But, like Bishop, the pipe-smoking Clark had a finely calibrated sense of danger, always wriggling out of bad situations before they spun out of control.

A favorite trick of Clark’s was to act as if he didn’t understand a communist captain’s signal flags. During the summer of 1967, the Banner encountered several Chinese patrol boats in the East China Sea. Though they weren’t communicating with standard international shapes, the Chinese obviously wanted Clark to stop.

“They were flying all kinds of signals that we had reason to believe meant it was going to be serious,” remembered his former executive officer, Dick Fredlund. “They kept signaling us and we kept signaling back, ‘We don’t know what you’re saying’; ‘Would you please repeat that?’; ‘Isn’t it a nice day?’ That kind of stuff.” Clark kept it up until he was safely away from the Chinese.

After the Banner’s pre-Christmas arrival in Yokosuka, Bucher pumped Clark for more details of his experiences. Clark had tape-recorded some of the confrontations, and Bucher listened to the tension-filled audio in the Banner skipper’s stateroom. Bucher was particularly impressed by one episode in which both of the Banner’s main engines suddenly quit, leaving the ferret drifting helplessly as Chinese boats circled. A Navy destroyer 400 miles away started toward the Banner, and U.S. jets were alerted in case Clark came under attack. But his engineers managed to get the diesels going again, and the spy ship slipped away.

Interestingly, while the Chinese and Russians always sent out combat ships in an effort to intimidate Clark, the North Koreans hadn’t reacted on the two occasions when the Banner transited their coast.

Clark’s briefings made Bucher think harassment was just part of the game. It’d be nerve-racking but no worse than that. The Pueblo captain was more concerned by Clark’s accounts of erratic radio contact with his home base. Communication nulls caused by atmospheric disturbances were all too common in the Sea of Japan. It had once taken the Banner more than 24 hours to lock on an open circuit—a delay that could spell disaster in an emergency.

Bucher’s preoccupation with his upcoming mission, however, soon gave way to Yuletide merrymaking.

On Christmas Day he and his crew threw a party for some Japanese orphans, complete with cake, ice cream, and Donald Duck cartoons. Quartermaster Charles Law, a burly 26-year-old who’d emerged as a leader among the enlisted men, played Santa Claus to perfection.

A few days later, Bucher organized a spirited “wetting down” party at the Yokosuka officers’ club to celebrate his promotion to full commander, which had come through several months earlier. He invited his men, their wives or girlfriends, officers from every sub in port, and a host of others to join him at the club, gaily decorated for the season in red, green, and gold. With typical flair, Bucher seeded the floor with 300 balloons, forcing guests to weave and trip hilariously among them. The grinning skipper wore yellow trousers, a candy-striped sport coat over a red vest, a bow tie, and a straw boater. A button on his lapel read, “POETS,” which stood for “Piss on Everything, Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

Expertly holding a martini glass and a cigarette in one hand, Bucher lined up his five officers by the piano and led them in vigorous song:

“Here’s to the Pueblo, she sure is a swell ship,

Here’s to the Pueblo, she sure is a peach.

Boom-yakle-yakle; boom-yakle-yakle; boom-yakle-yakle . . .”

Lieutenant Steve Harris did a crazy dance amid the balloons, popping several with a cigar. Even Murphy seemed to enjoy himself. Watching the whole scene, Schumacher, himself recently promoted to lieutenant junior grade, marveled at his boss’s bottomless appetite for life.

As he got to know him better, Schumacher began to think the skipper’s hunger for human contact was rooted in his childhood, a period of his life so bleak it could have been conjured by Charles Dickens.

Born in 1927 in Pocatello, Idaho, he was adopted as an infant by Austin and Mary Bucher, who ran a local restaurant. Two years later, Mary died of uterine cancer and Austin, a Great War veteran and heavy drinker, went to prison for bootlegging. The toddler lived for a time with his grandparents on a small farm outside town, but they lost their land in the Depression. In 1933, they packed young Lloyd (he hadn’t yet acquired his nickname), two other relatives, and their suitcases into a creaky sedan and headed for the promised land of California.

The clan settled in Long Beach, where the boy caught his first sight of what would become his life’s passion, the Pacific Ocean. Bucher’s grandparents got jobs managing motor-court apartments; his grandfather tried to supplement their meager income by selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. The old couple had brought a supply of wheat from their farm, and they and the boy often boiled it for breakfast and dinner. Eventually Bucher’s grandfather fell ill and quit his sales job, and his grandmother decided they could no longer afford to raise Lloyd. At age seven, he was put aboard a train by himself and sent back to his adoptive father in Idaho.

By then paroled, Austin Bucher had lost his restaurant and moved into a shack by the Snake River with half a dozen other hard-drinking vagrants. The men played endless card games, brought in women for sex, and rustled sheep from nearby farms. They taught Lloyd card tricks, but weren’t at all happy about having a kid in their midst. At night, the boy often slept in a firewood bin outside the shack without benefit of blankets. He wasn’t enrolled in school and spent much of his time running around with a gang of other vagabond children.

After several months, his dad was again imprisoned and the shack’s remaining denizens evicted Lloyd. At a time when he should’ve been attending second grade, he had neither parents nor a home. To survive, he fished in the Snake and foraged in restaurant garbage cans. On cold nights he’d find a back alley and crawl into a flimsy shelter made of cardboard boxes. Sympathetic cops sometimes bought him a meal or took him to the town jail so he at least had a warm bed.

Soon he was arrested for trying to steal fishhooks from a five-and-dime store. He wound up in a Mormon orphanage in Boise, where other kids teased him mercilessly for being a “cat licker”—a Catholic. Yearning for his grandmother and the smell of salt water in Long Beach, he ran away but was quickly nabbed. At the behest of a well-to-do Catholic woman on the orphanage’s board, he was sent in 1938 to a Catholic children’s home in northern Idaho.

Bucher felt safer and happier there than he ever had in his life. For three years he thrived at the wilderness mission school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. He helped milk the mission’s cows and shuck its corn. He devoured the adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rafael Sabatini, author of such stirring maritime classics as Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk.

One day Bucher read an article about the movie Boys Town, starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. It told of the famous Omaha, Nebraska, home for abandoned and abused boys founded by a lanky Irish priest, Edward J. Flanagan. Besides being a bookworm, Bucher also was an aspiring athlete, and Boys Town boasted an excellent football team. The boy wrote to Father Flanagan, pleading for admittance. By the summer of 1941 he was on a train for Omaha.

Then 14, Bucher dove into the “City of Little Men” with the gusto and ebullience that were becoming his trademarks. He sang in the Boys Town choir and served as captain of the school’s cadet corps, organized after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He did well in subjects he liked—math, science, and geography—and not so well in those he didn’t, such as grammar and Latin. He made friends easily, as he was to do throughout his life. He read everything he got his hands on and began to envision a career in the Navy.

His favorite extracurricular activity was the football team. Though he stood only five-ten and weighed less than 160 pounds, he played tackle regularly from his sophomore year on, impressing his coach with his intelligence and hard work. Bucher and his teammates traveled by train from one end of the country to the other, going up against powerhouse squads from public as well as parochial high schools, often before huge crowds. It was during this time that the boy shed his given first name and adopted the nickname “Pete” in honor of his idol, All-America end Pete Pihos of Indiana University.

At the start of Bucher’s senior year, in 1945, his peers elected the popular footballer mayor of Boys Town, a top school honor. But someone spotted him kissing an usherette at a local movie theater and informed Father Flanagan, who criticized Bucher for “irresponsibility” and stripped him of his title. Angry and embarrassed, Bucher asked the priest to sign papers so he could enlist in the Navy as a minor. Flanagan obliged and, just eight months short of graduation, Bucher dropped out, hitchhiked to San Diego, and entered boot camp.

The product of rigidly controlled institutions for much of his young life, Bucher did well in the service. He trained as a quartermaster, honing his navigation and signaling skills aboard a supply ship in the Pacific. But the war had ended and the humdrum routine of enlisted life eventually began to bore him; he realized he’d made a mistake by not staying at Boys Town until he graduated. He wrote to a former teacher, asking for another chance. In 1946, he was granted a diploma after completing his remaining coursework by mail.

The Navy discharged him the following year and, after working as a bartender in Idaho and a farmhand in Oregon, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska in 1948. He joined a fraternity and lettered in freshman football.

On a blind date in the spring of 1949 he met Rose Rohling, a shy, pretty Missouri farm girl with silky brown hair and a brilliant smile. A devout Catholic, the 20-year-old Rose was a telephone switchboard operator in Omaha. After a summer of picnics, hand-holding, and long drives past fields fragrant with ripening wheat, Bucher had fallen hopelessly in love.

The couple married 15 days before the Korean War broke out in June 1950. The Navy recalled Bucher, but let him stay in college on the condition that he join the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps and serve two years of active duty after graduation. In 1953, he finished his studies with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, an associate degree in geology, and some credits toward a master’s in micropaleontology.

Commissioned that year as a reserve ensign, he was assigned to the USS Mount McKinley, a communications ship. He found Navy life much more agreeable as an officer and, about a year after reentering the service, applied for submarine school. A sub assignment, he knew, would be accompanied by hazardous-duty pay. And with a wife and, by then, two young sons in tow, he needed the money.

In 1955, Bucher moved to New London, Connecticut, for training. His neighbor and fellow classmate turned out to be Chuck Clark, future commander of the Banner. The two young officers became friends, sometimes getting together with their wives for an evening of charades.

But there was little time for such diversions, given the intensity of the classes. Students were expected to know how to operate every piece of equipment on a sub, how to troubleshoot electrical problems, and how to outwit and kill Russian captains. After graduating in the middle of his class, Bucher was detailed to the USS Besugo, a World War II–era diesel sub home-ported in San Diego.

Elevated to lieutenant, he enjoyed the challenge of navigating huge expanses of ocean. He also savored the adrenaline rush of spy missions. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he served on three subs that engaged in surveillance of communist naval operations.

Bucher’s boats sat silently outside Vladivostok harbor, watching for Soviet warships putting to sea in telltale formations that would signal the start of World War III. He and his comrades monitored Soviet torpedo tests and antisubmarine warfare exercises. When a Russian sub fired a test missile, Bucher’s vessel radioed a one-letter code to another American submarine waiting near the splashdown site. The latter would then measure the telemetry and photograph the rocket as it zoomed downrange and plunged into the Pacific. In one particularly tense operation, Bucher’s boat landed an agent on an empty North Korean beach.

His submarine career took him all over the Western Pacific. He visited Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and Tasmania. His crewmen generally ranged in age from 18 to mid-30s, and after weeks or months at sea, they were more than ready for a good time ashore in some of the Far East’s most exotic ports. Among their favorite stops were the notorious red-light districts in Olongapo, near the big U.S. naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, and Kaohsiung, a Taiwanese port known for its government-inspected brothels.

Officers gravitated to the nearest officers’ club, drinking and laughing long into the night. “Some of those parties were real down and outers,” Bucher remembered. “If you didn’t limit yourself to two or three drinks, you’d be there till four in the morning, singing songs. We’d be chasing women around. And the nurses! The nurses were round-heels, those Navy nurses. It wasn’t that you didn’t love your wife, ’cause you did. It was just that your hormones were raging. Some of the guys out there were real straight arrows. I admired them.”

In 1964, Bucher was posted to Submarine Flotilla Seven, composed of half a dozen spy subs based in Yokosuka, the hub of Navy underwater surveillance operations in the Far East. As the squadron’s assistant operations officer, he helped plan sub missions in conjunction with the National Security Agency and the Naval Security Group.

Bucher’s boisterousness was on full display in Japan. At one party he downed 13 martinis and dumped a pitcher of water over his boss’s head. “I’d jump on top of a table and start leading everyone in song,” he recalled. “And I knew damn near every song that had ever been written.”

Bucher’s zest for life, superb navigation skills, and strong work ethic won him many friends and admirers. He knew as much if not more about Western Pacific sub operations than anyone in the Navy. In his two and a half years on the SUBFLOTSEVEN staff, his fitness reports were consistently excellent. But not everyone thought he was ready to command a sub.

“Pete Bucher was—I’m trying to choose my words carefully here—a good guy, a life-of-the-party sort of fellow,” said one former superior who, even decades later, didn’t want to be named. “In the wardroom he was always quick with jokes and things like that. But he wasn’t a submarine commander.

“I never had the confidence with him that I had with some of the other officers. I just wasn’t sure about his professional abilities—naval, technical, leave it at that. Just running a submarine. A submarine is the only vessel where one man can cause the loss of the boat. On a carrier, a cruiser, a battleship, whatever, it takes a lot of men screwing up to cause a loss. . . . It’s probably a defect in my character, but Pete Bucher was a little too free and easy and all that—devil-may-care—for my taste as a submarine captain. I wanted officers that had their head screwed on right.”

By 1966, Bucher was in line to get his own sub. But there were 35 other qualified officers and only 17 available boats. Bucher ranked 20th on the list of candidates, and the Bureau of Naval Personnel informed him that he wouldn’t get his dream job.

The Navy captain in Washington, D.C., who’d made the ruling, Lando Zech, soon began to hear from some of Bucher’s former bosses, including two captains and an admiral. All thought Zech had made a bad call. Zech couldn’t reverse his decision, but he strongly recommended that Bucher be given command of the next available surface ship.

That turned out to be the Pueblo. And now, back in Yokosuka, Bucher made ready for his first mission, although most of his men still didn’t know where they were headed.

The captain was determined to get the steering engine fixed once and for all. Navy mechanics examined it and agreed it was outmoded. But they noted its similarity to the Banner’s, and the other ferret hadn’t had much trouble while under way. Again, Bucher would have to make do.

In some ways, however, the Navy bent over backward to help him. The Pueblo’s main engines were completely overhauled. To Murphy’s chagrin, Bucher got a Lucite windscreen installed on the flying bridge to protect deck officers from the elements. Murphy thought the barrier was another ridiculous attempt to run the Pueblo like a submarine, by giving it a faux conning tower. But the skipper felt the uppermost deck gave the best visibility, and Schumacher and Tim Harris were grateful for the added comfort while on watch.

The man behind the Navy’s solicitude was the Pueblo’s new operational commander, Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson. The genial, white-haired Johnson was an ex–destroyer captain and holder of numerous medals, including several for bravery in World War II. Not long after the Pueblo arrived in Yokosuka, Bucher paid a call on Johnson, whose title was Commander, Naval Forces, Japan, or COMNAVFORJAPAN. The admiral was responsible for ensuring that the Pueblo was ready for sea. He also was tasked with protecting the spy boat during its voyage—even though he had no dedicated air or sea forces with which to do that, as Bucher was to discover. His grand-sounding title aside, Johnson was in charge mostly of Navy shore stations and small craft scattered throughout Japan and Okinawa. The only oceangoing ships under his direct command were the Pueblo and the Banner.

After the Israeli assault on the Liberty, the Navy decreed that all ships, including AGERs, be armed. When Bucher discovered that a three-inch deck gun was to be mounted on the Pueblo, he “almost threw a fit.” Such a heavy piece of ordnance, he believed, could capsize his little vessel the first time it fired. Navy officials relented and decided to arm the Pueblo with three .50-caliber machine guns instead. But Admiral Johnson didn’t approve of even the lighter weapons. Their presence, he felt, destroyed the logic that the spy boats’ best protection was their very lack of armament. And in a real fight, the machine guns weren’t powerful enough to hold off anything larger than an armed junk. An enemy equipped with a single deck cannon could pound the Pueblo to pieces from thousands of yards away with no fear of ever being hit by .50-caliber slugs.

Bucher agreed with Johnson’s analysis. Originally, the Pueblo carried only a handful of small arms: Thompson submachine guns, rifles, .45-caliber pistols, and some fragmentation grenades for use against enemy swimmers. Its lone gunner’s mate had no experience with heavy machine guns.

The Navy eventually delivered only two machine guns, and neither had an armored shield to protect gunners from enemy fire. Bucher mounted one weapon on a railing on the starboard side of the bow and the other near the stern.

While it foisted unwanted weapons on Bucher, the Navy also kept adding to his pile of classified documents, with more paper accumulating each time the ship reported to a new command. CINCPACFLT had contributed to the stash, and so did COMNAVFORJAPAN. Someone forgot the Pueblo was no longer a cargo ship and sent it an AKL’s allotment of intelligence publications. Somebody else screwed up and delivered documents intended for a converted escort carrier.

Now the Pueblo groaned under the weight of a small mountain of secret papers. They overflowed the storage lockers, forcing the communication technicians to stack the excess in passageways. Some of the documents—such as instructions on routing mail—probably didn’t merit a “secret” stamp. But others were highly sensitive, including a report on the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence collection program and a memo outlining the fleet’s electronic warfare policy. Also on board was a copy of the North Korean “electronic order of battle,” indicating the location and frequencies of all known radar and radio stations. If war broke out, that document would guide U.S. jets and warships as they tried to knock out or jam critical enemy defenses.

In addition to all the classified paper, the Pueblo carried several types of top secret code machines. One was the KW-7, a compact device that transmitted encrypted messages between Navy ships and shore stations at a rate of more than 50 words per minute. The KW-7 was the workhorse of U.S. military communications, widely used by Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine units from Vietnam to Germany. Another machine, the KWR-37, deciphered “fleet broadcast” messages sent to all U.S. warships around the clock. Each mechanism came with a special set of codes to operate it.

Bucher requested permission to offload part of this extraordinary cache, to make sure it never fell into enemy hands. Admiral Johnson consented, but the Pueblo still was left with a large quantity of classified documents and at least a dozen code machines—and no fast, reliable means of getting rid of them in an emergency.

Bucher began scouring Yokosuka for submarine-style dynamite canisters. The Naval Ordnance Facility on Azuma Island had none, so he contacted old friends at SUBFLOTSEVEN to see if he could take some TNT from a sub rotating back to the States. No luck. He talked to Chuck Clark, who opposed bringing explosives on the Banner. Bucher finally gave up, lest Admiral Johnson conclude he was more interested in blowing up his ship than in executing his mission.

Even as the captain grappled with these and other problems, his relationship with the man he should’ve been relying on most for help—Murphy—continued to deteriorate.

The executive officer’s pregnant wife and toddler son had arrived in Japan in mid-December, and Bucher thought he was attending to his duties even less diligently than usual. For one thing, the ship’s office, which Murphy oversaw, was a mess, with paperwork backing up despite the best efforts of the Pueblo’s affable yeoman, Armando “Army” Canales.

Bucher was tired of having to hunt down Murphy whenever he needed him, and had concluded that his deputy simply wasn’t up to the job. The captain thought about relieving Murphy of duty but procrastinated, knowing such a drastic move would destroy the younger man’s career. He felt he owed Murphy at least one trip to the Sea of Japan to prove himself. Nevertheless, Bucher drafted a letter requesting Murphy’s replacement. He showed it to the exec and told him to shape up, or else.

The tension between the two officers subsided somewhat in early January 1968, as the Pueblo’s departure date neared. Several new CTs came aboard at the last minute, as did two civilian oceanographers; they and their water-sampling equipment substantiated the cover story that the Pueblo was merely engaged in scientific surveys.

Among the late arrivals was Robert Hammond, a wiry 22-year-old Marine sergeant with piercing eyes who was supposed to serve as a Korean translator on the voyage.

He reported aboard along with another Marine sergeant trained in Korean, Bob Chicca. The two noncoms were to listen in on North Korean voice communications around the clock and tell Bucher if any aggressive moves were made against his ship. But both men had told superiors at the Kamiseya communication facility, their normal duty station, that they hadn’t used their Korean since 1965, had forgotten much of it, and would be of little use to Bucher. Chicca still understood a little of the language, but only when it was spoken slowly. The sergeants’ protests were to no avail, however. With the Pueblo scheduled to sail only a few days later, there was no time to replace them.

Scuttlebutt about the ostensible linguists spread quickly, with more and more crewmen figuring out their true destination.

On the morning of January 4, Bucher, Murphy, Steve Harris, and Schumacher caught a ride to Admiral Johnson’s headquarters for a presail briefing. The admiral’s intelligence staff provided a long-range weather report and pointed out North Korean coastal defenses on a map. They discussed recent clashes between communist and allied troops in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, as well as North Korea’s aggressive harassment of South Korean fishing boats north of the seaward extension of the DMZ. North Korean patrol craft probably would pester the Pueblo, they said, but nothing more.

As he had in Hawaii, Bucher asked what kind of help he could expect if he was attacked. The briefers confirmed that no Navy warships would be close enough to bail him out. Should he use his new machine guns against a boarding party? Definitely, said Captain Thomas Dwyer, Johnson’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence. If the communists kept coming, should he destroy his classified materials? Yes again.

Admiral Johnson appeared toward the end of the briefing. He reiterated his opposition to arming the AGERs, telling Bucher such action “could lead to trouble for you for which you are not prepared.” He urged the skipper to “keep your guns covered and pointed down, or, better yet, stow them belowdecks.”

Bucher had invited Chuck Clark to the briefing, and the Banner skipper said he intended to keep his guns belowdecks. After the meeting, Bucher argued with Clark about hiding his weapons. If the Navy’s top leaders wanted spy boats armed, then so be it. Bucher said his guns would stay on their mounts, visible to the North Koreans and ready for action.

“If those bastards come out after me,” he pledged fiercely, “they’re not going to get me.”

The next morning, Johnson personally inspected the Pueblo. He cast a wary eye on Bucher’s .50-calibers, draped with heavy canvas tarpaulins.

“Remember, you’re not going out there to start a war, Captain,” he said. “Make sure you keep them covered and don’t use them in any provocative way at all. It doesn’t take much to set those damned communists off and start an international incident. That’s the last thing we want!”



The Pueblo began backing out of its berth shortly after nine a.m. on January 5, 1968.

Bucher perched proudly on the flying bridge; directly below him in the pilothouse, Schumacher called orders to the helmsman. Some of the skipper’s sub buddies had gathered in the wardroom earlier that morning to toast his departure with eggnog, and now they were waving good-bye from the dock. Bucher serenaded them with “The Lonely Bull.”

The captain had decided against taking the northern route, over the top of Hokkaido island, because of winter storms. Instead, the Pueblo would head southwest, sailing around Kyushu at the bottom of the Japanese archipelago. Bucher then would turn north, top off his tanks at the port of Sasebo, and continue through the Tsushima Strait toward North Korea.

Within hours of leaving Yokosuka, the Pueblo’s officers noticed the rapidly alternating swells and troughs of a “young sea,” the harbinger of a newborn storm. The weather deteriorated abruptly. The sun fled behind menacing dark clouds and the air temperature plummeted. Freezing salt spray whipped the faces of sailors mopping the open decks. The winds rose; the sea began to heave.

The Pueblo pitched and rolled madly as the storm overtook it. Over and over, the little ship staggered up the face of an oncoming wave, toppled over its crest, and slewed crazily down its back. Steering became so difficult that a second helmsman had to be summoned to help the first control the wheel. High winds and steep waves pushed the boat so far over that the railings on its main deck disappeared in the foaming water. The inclinometer recorded rolls of up to 57 degrees.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“I devoured Act of War the way I did Flyboys, Flags of our Fathers and Lost in Shangri-la.” —Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

“Comprehensive and compelling… a narrative as fascinating as any fictional spy story…  Act of War is likely to be the definitive account of the Pueblo incident.”—The Virginian–Pilot

“Outstanding and necessary.”—Booklist, starred review
Act of War is international in scope, well written, and an enjoyable read....highly recommended....[a] gripping account of personal service, tragedy, sacrifice, and perseverance of the crew that played out within the heightened international tensions of the Cold War.”—Proceedings

“Jack Cheevers’s true account of the USS Pueblo will not only glue you to your seat, you’ll be stunned anyone survived at all.”—John Geoghegan, author of Operation Storm

Meet the Author

Jack Cheevers is a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He and his wife, Kathleen Matz, live in Oakland, California.

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Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a former Navy CT this book was a homerun, was well written and held my interest till the end. Recommended
TheresasXfiles More than 1 year ago
Even though it was 380 pages i could hardly put it down and read it in just over ten days. An exceptionally objective and candid look into the Korean aspect of the cold war.  as a gen-xer i really had no idea re all the issues that  LBJ was encountering. my respect for him went up a few notches for him getting us through that season without another war.  
Ross1 More than 1 year ago
If you think you know the story of the USS Pueblo and her crew, think again...then read this book. It's well written and full of the details that make the story come alive. Given today's situation in North Korea, it's also a timely reminder of what this regime is capable of.
DanWilsonGa More than 1 year ago
I've followed the story of the USS Pueblo since I was 14. I found it fascinating. The very idea a punk country like North Korea could seize  an American Naval vessel in international waters, hold the crew hostage, then keep the ship after the crews release is appalling. "An Act of War" explained things I never knew such as the political situation in Korea at the time and what was going on in the White House at the time. I always faulted the Navy for the disaster, sending an unarmed ship off the coast of such a hostile country. Turning down request for document detraction equipment, not having a way to quickly scuttle the ship to name a few. In conversation with friends over the years, I've had several who said the Captain should have fought it out to the last man. Obviously, they didn't have a family member in the crew. So the question arises, would the intelligence that was  lost be worth the 83 lives of the crew? Another rhetorical question is why is John Walker still breathing? We as a nation are too easy on those who would destroy us from within. After reading "An Act of War" and getting an idea of the cost of the intelligence loss, I'm a little easier on the Navy now      
efm More than 1 year ago
Well written account of Pueblo Incident,engaging.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Poorly written, very hard to follow, pushing a very clear agenda much like the author's other works.  I love Naval History and this was one of the worst naval historical books I have read. Wish I could get my money back.