John F. Kennedy has his Bay of Pigs – Lyndon Johnson had the USS Pueblo

Written by Giovanni Vines

San Francisco, CA, July 1, 2023 -- “Pueblo: A Year of Crises in America”, a one-hour documentary by film industry veteran, Bill Lowe, is scheduled for its premiere this summer, 2023. It tells the painful, gut-wrenching story of the 83 U.S. Navy Sailors who were attacked, captured, and then brutally assaulted by the North Korean Navy while on an intelligence-gathering mission in international waters off the coast of North Korea in late January, 1968.

“Pueblo” is a must-see film for everyone who loves America and who appreciates the risks and sacrifices taken by the men and women who serve in our armed forces. It is a cautionary tale for today, with aggressive Chinese and Russian ships and jet fighters risking the safety of U.S. seamen and pilots operating legally in international waters and airspace.

“Pueblo” transports the viewer back to 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history. In many ways, the mission of the USS Pueblo was a perfect storm. In hindsight, it was doomed from its outset. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The story of the Pueblo is a tragic tale of a poorly-conceived military intelligence mission that lacked strategic planning and support!

But “Pueblo” goes far beyond the telling of the story of the ill-fated intelligence mission. Through interviews with surviving eye-witnesses, it tells the personal stories of many of the veterans involved who were captured and imprisoned in North Korea throughout 1968. As director Bill Lowe relays the Pueblo story, the viewer engages emotionally with the seamen.

Lowe ups the ante on realism by staging an action-packed reenactment of the North Korean attack on the USS Pueblo, filmed on location aboard the SS Jeramiah O’Brien. The segment includes 32 American and Korean actors and is enhanced with special effects and realistic CGI.

The captured crew endured unsanitary and brutal living conditions, starvation and beatings, threats and intimidation. One sailor died in the attack. The wounded received insufficient medical attention. Surgical operations were conducted without anesthetics. It was eleven months of pure hell.

The USS Pueblo incident could not have happened at a worse time. Weeks earlier, North Korea had sent a squad of assassins across the DMZ to assassinate the South Korean President. The U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War had been raging for years. Communist North Vietnam had the support of China, The Soviet Union and North Korea. U.S. military assets in the region were committed to Vietnam.

While under attack, the Pueblo crew was told; “help is on the way”. It wasn’t!  Later, Russian, Chinese, and Korean naval vessels stared down the U.S. Naval battle group that arrived to the area in support of the USS Pueblo. At one point, tensions rose so high that nuclear munitions were affixed to U.S. bombers and fighter jets.

Just seven days after the Pueblo was seized, North Vietnam launched their “Tet Offensive” throughout South Vietnam and the Pueblo story dropped out of the headlines. The crew and their fate were largely forgotten.

The capture of the Pueblo proved to be a propaganda bonanza for the North Koreans. They demanded that the Navy seamen all sign letters declaring that the Pueblo was operating illegally in Korean territorial waters. When the crew refused, the North Koreans announced to Commander Lloyd Bucher that they would begin killing the U.S. sailors, starting with the youngest. Bucher decided it wasn’t worth calling their bluff, so he ordered all of his men to sign the false statement.

After eleven agonizing months in captivity, the crew of the Pueblo was released by the North Koreans to the United States. Now their thoughts turned toward what they would face upon their arrival in the U.S.  The false statements they were coerced into signing by the North Korean guards ran afoul of military law. Would their actions be considered treasonous? Would they face court-martial? Would they be trading a Korean prison uniform for a U.S. prison uniform? To the Pueblo crew, their release looked like a no-win situation. Little thought was given to the possibility that their fellow countrymen would welcome them back with open arms.

“Pueblo, a Year of Crises in America” will make you angry, it will induce tears of joy; and it will cause you to pause and reflect on what it means to be an American.

On July 20, 2023, The Stillwater History Museum will host a screening of the film from 4:00 - 6:00 pm. Click here for more details.