May 26, 2005 - (Portland, IN 5/20/05)

USS Pueblo

By Eric Olsen

June 18, 2010 Updated Jun 12, 2007 at 6:15 AM EDT

The Bush Administration is debating whether to send food aid to North Korea this year, despite the country's unwillingness to discuss its nuclear weapons program.
The impasse is typical of a tense relationship between the two countries that almost led to war in the 1960's.

Tonight we visit one of the players in that historic event.

It sits on an obscure North Korean riverfront.

Its black nameplate, 'Pueblo', the only clue to its notorious past.

Nearly forty years ago, this converted World War II freighter was at the center of an international standoff that almost sparked a world war.

In January 1968, the USS Pueblo, loaded with hi-tech spy equipment, was cruising off the North Korean shore intercepting Korean and Russian communications.

On January 23rd, Korean gunboats surrounded the spyship and demanded its surrender.

When Pueblo Commander Captain Lloyd Bucher stalled for time to destroy classified material, the North Koreans fired on the ship.

Down in the radio room, Petty Officer Don Bailey was putting out an SOS on teletype to Washington.

Don Bailey, of the USS Pueblo says, "Sitting there on the teletype typing these messages and bullets coming through the bulkhead. Right through the side of the ship bouncing around...kicked my chair out down on my knees typing like this."

To save the lives of the crew, Captain Bucher surrendered his ship.

He and his 82-man crew were hauled off to a Korean prison camp.

In 1968, the Vietnam War was at its height and President Lyndon Johnson decided against military action against Korea, afraid it might spark a second Asian war.

Negotiations with North Korea for the prisoners release began immediately in Panmunjyong.

Bailey says, "If the meetings went well, they treated us halfway decent. If it went bad, then we caught hell until the next meeting...went all year that way."

Though the Pueblo crew were subjected to savage beatings, the North Koreans occasionally released photos of the crew to show they were well treated.

One Korean officer asked Captain Bucher why some of the soldiers extended their middle fingers.

Bucher told them it was the Hawaiian good luck sign.

The Koreans believed him until the photos were published in 'Time Magazine.'

Bailey says, "Well you could buy a 'Time Magazine' anywhere in the world and they explalined what that was. 'What happened?' That's when they broke out the two-by-fours, started beating us with two-by-fours. 'Time Magazine' about got us killed."

Don Bailey was beaten on his skull until it cracked.

Eleven months after their capture, the Pueblo crew was released after each man signed a confession and an apology.

Don Bailey was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and a Purple Heart, though his brush with history, he says, taught him to mistrust his own government...and taught him something about himself.

Bailey says, "I learned I was a hell of a lot better man that I thought I was. And you find that out in a situation like that you know. Do you think of yourself as a hero? No, why would I? I just happened to get caught in one of the bad ones. All I was doing was what I signed up to do. That don't make me a hero just makes me doing my job."

Today the USS Pueblo, still officially an American Navy ship, has become a North Korean tourist attraction...a rusting pawn in an iron curtain tug of war, remembered still in 21Country.

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