For more than 100 issues, this column has recounted inspirational incidents from our history in hopes that, as part of our heritage, they will not be forgotten. Sometimes, however, it is easier (or at least more palatable) to forget, and this is particularly true in the case of the loss of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2).
What makes this incident so painful to remember is that the Pueblo was not sunk in a sea battle, nor lost in a great typhoon. In fact, she is still afloat and is considered U.S. Navy property. The unpalatable part is that she resides in North Korea where she has been since her capture by its navy 44 years ago.
In January 1968, the Pueblo took station in international waters off the coast of North Korea to gather electronic intelligence. Lightly armed with only a pair of machine guns, she was hopelessly out-gunned when a North Korean subchaser and three P-4 patrol torpedo boats arrived—accompanied by two MiG fighters overhead—and demanded that the Pueblo “heave to or I will open fire.” The North Koreans did open fire and ultimately captured the ship. The crew was eventually released, but the ship herself to this day, is proudly displayed in North Korea as a trophy.
This incident became and remains one of great controversy, with heated debates over what alternative actions might have been taken before, during, and after the ship’s capture. Consensus has thus far been elusive and probably always will be. But two things are beyond debate and are appropriate for remembrance . . . lest we forget.
The first is that Fireman Duane Hodges lost his life in the service of his country. While attempting to jettison some of the ship’s many classified documents over the side, Hodges was hit by enemy fire as two of the patrol craft and the subchaser raked the American ship with 57–mm and machine gun fire. Hodges was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for rendering “invaluable assistance in the face of the intense fire.”
The second is that the Pueblo’s crew showed considerable courage in enduring 11 months of captivity that included the barbarities that had by then become a trademark of communist governments. Having suffered various forms of torture and maltreatment, a number of the crew took advantage of North Korean propaganda “photo ops” to extend their middle fingers in what they assured their captors was the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign,” but was obvious to much of the outside world as a commentary on their true feelings toward their captors. This act of defiance proved costly when Time magazine published one of the photos with a caption informing readers (as if they did not know) that the gesture was a “U.S. hand signal of obscene derisiveness and contempt,” proving the crewmen were not—as their captors were attempting to convey—“a contrite and cooperative lot.” Once informed that the gesture had nothing to do with Hawaii nor with good luck, the North Koreans began what the crew later dubbed “Hell Week,” in which a number of the men were beaten nearly to death.
Nowhere is such action called for in the Code of Conduct, yet these men stood up to their enemies in an unconventional and awe-inspiring way, proving—among many other things—that courage is not always found in the trigger finger.