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

By Jack Cheevers – Published by the Penguin Group, 2013

Act of War by Jack Cheevers

I just finished reading an excellent Cold War era naval history: Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo by Jack Cheevers. Cheevers has produced a riveting account of the USS Pueblo that was captured by North Korea in January 1968 off the shores of Wonson. 1968 proved to be a tumultuous year – in America and for the crew of the USS Pueblo.

The Cold War dominated United States foreign policy during the 1960s. It was not uncommon for both sides to seek intelligence about military operations. This was precisely the Pueblo’s mission – to collect intelligence on North Korea but remain in international waters. The Pueblo was led by a boisterous and outgoing leader – Commander Lloyd Bucher. The Pueblo was Bucher’s first command and he was eager to take the reins of his first command. Little did he know that he would become one of the most controversial figures in United States military history.

Cheevers described the physical characteristics of the Pueblo and the nature of its spy operations. He detailed the Pueblo’s imperfections and the attempts of Bucher to fix the Pueblo’s issues prior to the beginning of its mission. Commander Bucher is a central character in the book and Cheevers did a wonderful job describing the dynamics between Bucher and his officers and enlisted men.

Cheevers followed the progress of the Pueblo and its preparations while still stateside, to Hawaii, to Japan, and then finally to North Korea. There were parts of the Pueblo’s preparations that left Bucher ill at ease. There was a substantial amount of classified documents loaded onto the Pueblo, yet not enough destruction equipment to destroy the material in the case of communist attack. There was also a distinct lack of munitions on the Pueblo, and the two machine guns on board took significant time for the crew to enable. This became a problem when the Pueblo was surrounded by North Korean boats and MiG fighters, as the Pueblo did not have the firepower to defend itself. Another issue was naval support in the event of aggression – which obviously never came to the rescue of the Pueblo and its crew.

Cheevers, a former political reporter, spent a significant amount of the book detailing the political and diplomatic side of the Pueblo ordeal. Obviously the seizure of the Pueblo was an embarrassment to the United States, especially considering it was at the hands of North Korea and not a larger communist state like Russia or China. North Korea was adamant that in order for the release of the Puelbo’s crew, the United States needed to offer a full apology. Naturally North Korea wanted to use an apology for propaganda purposes. Almost the entire year of 1968 – from the capture of the Pueblo and its crew in January to their release in December – was spent in diplomatic lingo. Countless meetings between the United States and North Korea led to nothing but a diplomatic stalemate. Finally, after an agreement between the US and North Korea, the crew of the Pueblo was released on December 23, 1968.

When the crew arrived in San Diego, they were met by exuberant family members and live television cameras. They received a hero’s

Lloyd Bucher

welcome and reunited with family after an extremely difficult year. One sailor met his infant son for the first time. After arrival, the crew went to their next destination – the United States Naval Hospital at Balboa Park in San Diego. Most of the sailors needed medical attention for physical injuries sustained in North Korea. In addition to physical issues, the emotional and psychological health of the men needed attention.

However, their ordeal, especially for Bucher, was far from over. Bucher’s actions, specifically how he surrendered the Pueblo without firing a shot, were scrutinized by the Navy. Bucher’s actions were investigated by a Naval Court of Inquiry, headed by five Navy admirals. Their recommendation after the inquiry included a court martial for Bucher for five particular offenses. Nevertheless, with public opinion squarely on the side of Bucher and his crew, the top naval leaders realized that putting Bucher on trial was not a possibility. Bucher escaped a court martial and spent a few more years in the Navy before his retirement. Despite the criticism he received from the Navy, his crew stood behind him and credited his bravery as a key factor for survival despite brutal beatings and torture endured in a North Korean prison camp.

The Cold War era was an important part of American history, indeed, it spanned almost half of the twentieth century. As tensions increase yet again between the West and Russia, it is crucial to have an understanding of Cold War politics and key events. Act of War does just this and gives the reader an in depth glimpse into one important Cold War event and the effect it had on the people involved and United States foreign policy.  Act of War can be enjoyed by anyone interested in history – not just professional historians or Cold War enthusiasts. However, historians will find this book valuable as the book is rich with primary sources. The reader does not need an in depth knowledge of naval operations, nor do they need to be politically astute in order to enjoy this story of survival and perseverance.

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Book Review: Mayday Over Wichita

by Abigail Pfeiffer on October 30, 2013

DW Carter - Mayday Over Wichita

Recently I had the pleasure of reviewing a book for a classmate of mine from Norwich University. One year out of graduate school, and David Carter has published his first book….and the Norwich Family is very proud! It is so great to see former classmates from Norwich making a name for themselves in the history field.

Carter’s book, “Mayday Over Wichita: The Worst Military Aviation Disaster in Kansas History” is currently available on Amazon in print or kindle version.

I wrote my review of Carter’s book and posted it to Amazon. Since Google does not appreciate duplicate content, I decided not to post my review here. Please click here to read my review of “Mayday Over Wichita” on Amazon.

Carter has been busy since the book release with book signings and other promotional events. Click here to watch an interview of Carter by a local Kansas TV station. If you want to learn more about the book, you can watch the book trailer on Youtube.

To keep up with Carter and news about the book, you can visit his Facebook page.

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Disappointed by the History Channel….yet again

by Abigail Pfeiffer on June 6, 2013

History Channel meme

Well, it appears that the History Channel has learned nothing from my scathing post about them a few years ago and the many comments backing up my position. Clearly they are not listening to their plethora of viewers (I would say fans, but at this point I would not claim to be a fan) who are BEGGING for them to quit with the shitty reality TV. At the very least, all we want is for them to honor important dates in history. Is that too much to ask? That does not include a Pawn Stars marathon on D-Day and Memorial Day.

Please join me in being majorly pissed off at the History Channel.  Yeah History Channel, we are looking at you and not liking what we are seeing.

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New Documentary About Vietnam War MIA

by Abigail Pfeiffer on April 30, 2013

Today a new documentary concerning an American MIA soldier from the Vietnam War is being premiered at the “Hot Docs” film festival in Toronto. The film focuses on Special Forces Green Beret Master Sgt. John Robertson. Robertson was listed as KIA after being shot down in Laos in 1968 during a classified mission. The film follows Tom Faunce, a Vietnam Veteran, as he attempts to prove Robertson’s identity. Robertson allegedly does not speak English anymore and has lived in Vietnam for the last 44 years. After the film’s release in Toronto, it will be released to American audiences in Washington D.C.

The subject of American soldiers left behind in Vietnam and Korea has proven to be a provocative issue, one that is not easily proven or dis proven. There have been countless sightings of American soldiers in Vietnam, Korea, and the Soviet Union. I recently read a memoir, Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor, in which the author indicated that he saw elderly American’s in the camp, which the reader can assume are POWs left behind during the Korean War.

Since this film is not yet released in the United States, I cannot comment on whether I believe that Robertson is actually Sgt. John Robertson. On one hand, it is hard to believe that the United States government knowingly left POWs behind, but it is possible that they did or they unknowingly left men behind who they presumed were KIA. The trailer for the film is below. Will you be watching?

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Medal of Honor to be given to Korean War POW

by Abigail Pfeiffer on March 14, 2013

Photo of Emil Kapaun as a First Lieutenant. Photo courtesy of http://www.army.mil

This week, the White House and President Obama announced that the Medal Of Honor, the highest award given for bravery during war, will be given posthumously  to Father Emil Joseph Kapaun for his bravery during battle at Unsan, North Korea and at his subsequent time in a North Korean POW camp.

Kapaun was captured in November 1950 at Unsan, North Korea. During this battle, several battalions of the 8th Cavalry Division were overrun by Chinese soldiers, and Kapaun’s courageous acts helping the wounded endeared him to the enlisted men and officers alike. In an article for the Wichita Eagle, Roy Wenzl wrote: “GIs saw Kapaun running from foxhole to foxhole, dragging wounded out, saying prayers over the dying, hearing confessions amid gunfire, ripping open shirts to look at wounds. Men screamed at him to escape, but he ignored them.”

Lt. Walt Mayo witnessed Kapaun run 300 yards outside the defensive perimeter to bring the wounded soldiers into the perimeter. During the battle, Kapaun focused on giving aid and comfort to the wounded along with the company doctors. The Chinese fired mortar rounds into the dugout that held the wounded, and eventually Kapaun decided to surrender and “appeal to Chinese humanity.”

Becoming a POW is never a positive scenario, but to be a POW of the Chinese and North Koreans in 1950-1951 was the worst of luck. The majority of prisoners who died in Communist POW camps during the Korean War died between 1950-1951. Mainly this was due to the intentional starvation of the prisoners.

During the freezing march to the prisoner camp,  Kapaun carried men who were too weak or wounded to walk. In addition, he encouraged others who were strong enough to carry the weaker men, who would be shot if they failed to keep up with the march. He earned the respect of the soldiers who recognized his strength and compassion.

While at the camp, Kapaun led men in stealing food, because he understood that in their situation it was “steal or starve.” When the death rates began increasing and men were dying from exposure and malnutrition, they could still count on Kapaun to offer hope and whatever help he could possibly give. He dug latrines, mediated disagreements between POWs, gave away his own food and clothing, and worked to increase camp morale.

One of the men who was in the POW camp with Kapaun noted that: “The miracle of Father Kapaun was not just that he patched leaky buckets

Capt. Kapaun (right),helps another soldier carry an exhausted troop off the battlefield early in the Korean War. Photo courtesy of www.army.mil

or stole food. It was that he rallied men to embrace life when life looked hopeless. When starvation inspired betrayals, Kapaun inspired brotherhood.”

Sadly, in spring 1951, Father Kapaun succumbed to a blood clot and died in May 1951 while still incarcerated as a POW. In death, he still inspired the men in camp to carry on and survive and he, and his legacy, have not been forgotten.

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