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President Bush did “absolutely the right thing,” says Lloyd Bucher, when W. signed a letter that twice used the word “sorry” to describe his reaction to the death of the Chinese fighter pilot who bumped and critically damaged a U.S. Navy EP-3E over the South China Sea on April 1. The letter helped secure the release of the plane’s 24 crew members who were being held hostage on Hainan Island by the Chinese communist regime.
Bucher is in a unique position to have an opinion on this matter. Thirty-three years ago he served as commanding officer of the USS Pueblo when it was taken captive in international waters by the communist government of North Korea.
He and his crew were subjected to 11 months of imprisonment and torture before the U.S. government issued a pro forma “apology” that allowed them to come home.
“George W. Bush did a helluva job in terms of getting the crew of the P-3 out of China,” said Bucher, who retired from the U.S. Navy in 1973.
On Jan. 28, 1968, the Pueblo, Bucher’s intelligence-gathering ship, was approached by six North Korean vessels, including four torpedo boats. Like the U.S. Navy EP-3E forced earlier this year to land on Chinese territory, Bucher’s ship was 24 miles off the east coast of North Korea, in international territory, at the time of the North Korean approach. Like the EP-3E, the Pueblo carried sensitive electronic equipment and was lightly armed.
‘Ready, aim …’
Bucher, who is now 73 and lives in suburban San Diego, spoke with Human Events about the similarities between the experiences of the Pueblo crew and those of the Navy airmen recently held hostage this year in China. He contrasted what he considered Bush’s deft handling of his first major foreign policy crisis with the Johnson administration’s treatment of the incident a third of a century ago.
“To those who object to Bush’s saying ‘sorry’ twice,” Bucher said, “I say that they can interpret this any way they want, but the communists will use semantics any way they want for their own propaganda aims.” He pointed out that Bush’s statement was light years removed from the one the Johnson administration finally agreed to sign to bring the 82 surviving members of the Pueblo crew home on Dec. 24, 1968. (One member of the crew, Seaman Duane D. Hodges, was killed when the North Koreans attacked the U.S. ship.)
In the Pueblo incident, Bucher said, it became a case “of the U.S. getting down on its knees and kissing the communist boots.”
The text of the statement signed by Maj. Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward, chief American negotiator at 27 U.S.-North Korean sessions held at Panmunjom, confirms Bucher’s recollection. The U.S. “shoulders full responsibility and solemnly apologizes for the grave acts committed by the U.S. ship against” North Korea, it reads. The U.S. government, it said, “gives firm assurance that no U.S. ship will intrude again in the future into the territorial waters.”
The U.S. statement went on to acknowledge the “validity of the confessions” of the Pueblo crew and of evidence offered by North Korea “that the ship, which was seized by the self-defense measures of the naval force” of North Korea “had illegally intruded into the territorial waters” of North Korea. The United States also “earnestly requests,” said the statement, that North Korea “deal leniently with the former crew members of the U.S.S. Pueblo … taking into consideration the fact that these crew members have confessed honestly to their crimes.”
Prior to signing this trumped-up statement, Woodward read remarks of his own completely disavowing it.
“The paper which I am going to sign was prepared by the North Koreans and is at variance with the above position,” said Woodward, “but my signature will not and cannot alter the facts. I will sign the document to free the crew and only to free the crew.”
“And what the North Koreans did,” recalled Bucher, “was simply snip off the disavowal and use the U.S. apology for propaganda purposes.”
Explaining the U.S. “apology” at the time, then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, “Apparently the North Koreans believe there is propaganda value even in a worthless document which Gen. Woodward publicly labeled false before he signed it.”
In decrying the Johnson administration’s failure to arm the Pueblo with anything more than two .50-caliber machine guns or equip it with the proper machinery for destroying classified material in the event of capture (“I actually had to go out and buy my own paper incinerator!”), Bucher also recalled the sadistic physical and psychological torture he and his crew experienced during their captivity.
Interrogators struck Quartermaster Charles Law nearly 250 times with a board and “by fists to the head, groin, thighs and legs.” Less than two weeks before the crew was released, Radioman Lee Hayes was struck repeatedly over the head and shoulders with 5-foot boards.
Almost immediately upon his incarceration, Bucher was ordered by his captors to sign a confession that the Pueblo had violated North Korean territorial waters. This he refused to do – even when a gun was put to his head and he was placed before a firing squad, which abruptly stopped its procedure after “Ready, aim. …”
“But then I did sign it when they told me they would execute my crew before my eyes from the youngest to the oldest,” said Bucher. He then made a radio “confession” that was broadcast worldwide. But, to signal that he was “confessing” against his will, Bucher cleverly punned on and misused the word “paean” – a hymn of praise – in his broadcast.
“I deliberately mispronounced it,” he said. “I said, ‘We pee on the North Korean state, we pee on their great leader Kim Il Sung.’ The North Koreans never picked up on it.”
Similarly, when Pyongyang released a photo of smiling Pueblo crew members for American audiences, said Bucher, “[the communists] never noticed that several of them were also making an obscene gesture with their fingers. They had never seen the ‘Hawaiian good luck sign.'”
The Pueblo skipper also signaled his own election-year disgust with Democratic politicians at home in a letter to wife Rose, telling her of his hopes that “[columnist] William Buckley’s boys win in November.”
Bucher also strongly endorsed the Bush administration for its recent decision to enhance arms sales to Taiwan.
“It should be pretty standard to help our allies,” he said, “because we’re never going to live in a perfect world without potential enemies somewhere.”
Lately, Bucher has begun to speak out on a cause near and dear to him: return of the Pueblo, which has never been formally decommissioned as a U.S. ship. Much as the Chinese released the 24 airmen but held the EP-3E, the North Korean released the crew of the Pueblo but kept the intelligence ship for observation and propaganda purposes. But while China is now indicating it may send the Navy plane back (in boxes), North Korea, after three decades, is still holding the Pueblo in the harbor at Pyongyang.
Recalling how he saw the U.S. vessel while on a trip to North Korea as a House staffer a few years ago, Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said, “The Pueblo is today a tourist attraction. They drag it around the harbor on their regular ‘anti-U.S. imperialism celebration.'”
To its skipper, allowing the North Koreans to continue to use the Pueblo in such a manner is unconscionable – particularly at a time when the United States has begun to send oil and other needed supplies to that economically ravaged country.
“This is just another level of attack on us from a hostile regime that has never changed its ways,” he said. “If we are going to aid people like this, at the very least, we should insist that they return a ship that is still on the Navy rolls and is still sovereign U.S. property.”
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