Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of the North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo, an incident that still rankles the top brass in the Navy and sparked a continuing debate about what went wrong on that fateful day and who was responsible.

Beyond the historical controversy, there's a determined group of men and their friends who want the ship back.

They are the Pueblo crew members, who hold deep feelings about their ship as well as the 11 months they endured as prisoners in North Korea.

The Pueblo, still a commissioned ship in the Navy, is docked on the Taedong River in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

While there have been discussions about repatriating the ship to the United States, no plans seem to be under way. The ship is described by its captors as an “armed spy ship of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces” and has reportedly attracted a quarter-million paying visitors.

The Pueblo is an 850-ton former Army cargo ship that had been transferred to the Navy in 1966. Its length is 176 feet, while her width is 32 feet. Propelled by twin General Motors diesel engines, its top speed is just under 13 knots. At the time of the incident, the ship had six commissioned officers and 75 enlisted men, plus two civilians classified as oceanographers.

Out of Options

It happened on a cold, stormy day in 1968 when the Pueblo was cruising slowly in the Sea of Japan off Wonsan, on the eastern edge of North Korea.

The ship's mission as a surveillance ship was to gather electronic and radio intelligence from North Korea.

The captain, the late Cmdr. Lloyd "Pete" Bucher, was operating under orders to stay in international waters at least 13 miles from the Korean shore. Shortly after noon, a North Korean subchaser roared toward the Pueblo at high speed and signaled the ship to identify its nationality.

The U.S. flag was raised just as three torpedo boats roared in from the coast and soon were joined by another torpedo boat and a second subchaser. 

Meanwhile, Soviet-built MIG aircraft threatened the U.S. vessel from the sky. The subchaser opened fire when Commander Bucher attempted to move farther out to sea. The commander immediately gave the order to destroy sensitive documents as they were ordered to head into port.

The subchaser fired again and one seaman, Duane Hodges, was killed while Commander Bucher and several others were wounded.

The Pueblo's only armaments were two 50-caliber machine guns of questionable operability, and these were locked under frozen tarps.

Despite his wounds, Commander Bucher remained in command and reluctantly made the decision to surrender, a choice that would bring scorn from a group of admirals who later would judge his actions in a court of inquiry.

But as crew member John Shingleton remembers the incident, Commander Bucher had no reasonable options available to him.

“He was out of options,” recalled Mr. Shingleton during a recent telephone interview.

Al Plucker, another crew member who lives in Colorado, says he believes that Commander Bucher saved all their lives.

Navy tradition sometimes calls for captains and their crews to "go down with the ship," but Mr. Plucker says, "If we had done what the Navy wanted us to do, we would have all died in icy waters."

As the ship was boarded and taken into port at Wonsan, the crew was bound, blindfolded, and beaten. When the ship docked, a crowd had gathered and cheered as they were paraded off the ship.

Ralph McClintock of Jericho, Vt., served as a communications specialist aboard the Pueblo and remembers the atmosphere when he was marched off the ship.

“It was like walking the plank. We were blindfolded and there was a Korean guard behind each man, pushing you forward with an AK-47 in your back. And the crowd was screaming bloody murder,” Mr. McClintock recalled.

North Korea claimed the Pueblo was in its territorial waters when captured, while the United States insisted the ship was in international waters — at least 12 miles from North Korea.

Harsh Conditions

The crew was imprisoned and spent nearly a year undergoing harsh treatment that included torture, forced confessions, and primitive living conditions.

Mr. Shingleton concedes today that they were given “about the same food that was supplied to the North Korean army, usually rice, turnips, and some fish.”

While the menu may have been similar to the North Korean army's, Mr. McClintock recalls the lack of quality of the prison food.

“The first meal we had was a little cup of watery turnip soup and a small hunk of bread and what we came to call ‘sewer trout.' This was fish with three horns, like a catfish. That was the section we got. The Korean Army got the good part,” he said.

When finally released, all of the men suffered from the effects of poor nutrition, torture, and beatings.

To gain the crew's release in December, 1968, the United States signed an apology for trespassing into North Korea's waters. This gave the North Koreans a face-saving reason to release the prisoners. However, the apology was repudiated immediately by the United States once the crew was safely out of North Korea.

Back in the United States, the Pueblo men were greeted as heroes. At the same time, all were debriefed about their experience before going their separate ways, some continuing in the service while others returned to civilian life.

The transition was more difficult for Commander Bucher, who faced a naval court of inquiry in San Diego, which recommended that he and another officer be court-martialed. This recommendation was overruled by Secretary of the Navy John H. Chafee, who stated that the two officers had suffered enough.

Commander Bucher served in the Navy until his retirement in 1973, though he never received another promotion or commanded another ship. He died in San Diego on Jan. 28, 2004.

Looking Back

Controversy still simmers about his actions on the day his ship was captured.

There are still critics who feel he could have taken more evasive actions to avoid his attackers. Commander Bucher also has been faulted for failing to destroy enough sensitive documents before the ship was seized. And a belief lingers that he should have resisted even if it meant that he and his crew would go down with the ship.

In his own book about the incident, Commander Bucher says, “That boils down to my being charged for refusing to order my men to commit suicide.”

It's also not clear why the North Koreans moved to capture a U.S. ship in a manner that could have provoked an attack from Air Force and Navy carrier planes in the area.

One claim is that the Soviet Union wanted the Koreans to capture a U.S. spy ship. It's believed by some that the Soviets were seeking a cryptographic machine to match up with a key provided by American spy John Anthony Walker, who later was arrested and convicted.

Will the Pueblo ever be returned to the United States? The North Koreans have held this out as a possibility if certain conditions are met.

It has been reported that this might be an agreement to have high-level talks in Pyongyang between North Korean officials and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but nothing has developed and other issues have made the Pueblo's fate a low priority.

But if the Pueblo ever comes home, her namesake city would like to berth her. Pueblo, Colo., has a monument honoring the ship and crew, and some community leaders believe it could be partly disassembled and taken to the Colorado city in sections, to be rebuilt in a special park created for that purpose.

Mel Barger, a retired business writer for a major Toledo glass company, is an occasional contributor to The Blade. He is the author of eight books including a history of the Navy's Tank Landing Ship. A Navy veteran of World War II, he served in five major landings in the Western Pacific.