USS Pueblo, an 850-ton environmental research ship, was built at Kewaunee, Wisconsin, in 1944 as the the U.S. Army cargo ship FP-344. She was transferred to the Navy in April 1966 and renamed Pueblo. Initially designated a light cargo ship (AKL-44), she soon began conversion to a research ship and was redesignated AGER-2 shortly before commissioning in May 1967. Following training operations off the U.S. west coast, in November 1967 Pueblo departed for the Far East to undertake electronic intelligence collection and other duties.
The Pueblo, a tiny World War II-vintage supply ship newly reconditioned for spy service, sailed out of its home port of Yokosuka, Japan, on Jan. 5, 1968. After a brief stop at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, the ship braved frigid temperatures and stormy seas for its maiden mission in the Sea of Japan, in international water about 15 miles off the coast of North Korea.
The USS Pueblo was part of Operation Clickbeetle, the code-name for electronic and radio intelligence gathering by small non-combatant naval ships that operated close to potential enemies. The USS Pueblo had been tasked to collect signals intelligence in the Sea of Japan using the “cover” of conducting hydrographic research.
Shortly after the operation got under way, the North Korean navy reacted with surprise and precision. On 23 January 1968, while off Wonsan, North Korea, Pueblo was attacked by local forces and seized. Four North Korean torpedo boats circled the Pueblo and ordered it to follow them into port. Commander Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, the Pueblo’s commanding officer tried to steer the ship farther out to sea, but the North Koreans opened fire, killing one crew member.
Commander Bucher, armed only with a few .50-caliber machine guns aboard his slow vessel, surrendered the Pueblo after stalling his pursuers for sixty-five minutes. Inadequate destruction equipment and too much unnecessary classified material on board led to an intelligence coup for North Korea.
The defensive cover that was to have been provided by the Navy and the Air Force in response to calls from the Pueblo never came. The Navy and the Johnson administration missed all the indications and warnings that such a fate could befall the Pueblo, even after recognizing that the Pyongyang regime had violated the demilitarized zone more than fifty times, ambushed U.S and allied ground forces, attempted to assassinate the president of the Republic of Korea (with a secondary target to be the American embassy), and in the preceding nine months seized twenty South Korean fishing vessels for “entering North Korean territorial waters.”
The other eighty-two men on board were taken prisoner. The North Koreans contended that the ship had violated their territorial waters, a claim vigorously denied by the United States. After eleven months in captivity, often under inhumane conditions, Pueblo’s crew were repatriated on 23 December 1968. The ship was retained by North Korea, though she is still the property of the U.S. Navy. She was exhibited at Wonsan and Hungham for three decades and before becoming a museum in the Taedong River near Ssuk Islet at Pyongyang, the North Korean capital city. The location had been the site where the American trading ship, the General Sherman, has been set on fire by the local population in 1866.
The vessel was moved in October 1999 to Nampo just before the vist of US presidential evnoy James Kelly to the capital.