Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo
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WINNER OF THE 2014 SAMUEL ELIOT MORISON AWARD FOR NAVAL LITERATURE
“I devoured Act of War the way I did Flyboys, Flags of Our Fathers and Lost in Shangri-la.” —Michael Connelly, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
In 1968, the small, dilapidated American spy ship USS Pueblo set out to pinpoint military radar stations along the coast of North Korea. Though packed with advanced electronic-surveillance equipment and classified intelligence documents, its crew, led by ex–submarine officer Pete Bucher, was made up mostly of untested young sailors.
On a frigid January morning, the Pueblo was challenged by a North Korean gunboat. When Bucher tried to escape, his ship was quickly surrounded by more boats, shelled and machine-gunned, forced to surrender, and taken prisoner. Less than forty-eight hours before the Pueblo’s capture, North Korean commandos had nearly succeeded in assassinating South Korea’s president. The two explosive incidents pushed Cold War tensions toward a flashpoint.
Based on extensive interviews and numerous government documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, Act of War tells the riveting saga of Bucher and his men as they struggled to survive merciless torture and horrendous living conditions set against the backdrop of an international powder keg.
Pyongyang railroad station, where they stepped onto a comfortable, well-heated train. Duty officers from the Country Club accompanied them. Glorious General stayed behind. The train rolled south all night, but most of its passengers were too keyed up to sleep. Murphy thought of his wife and children. Steve Harris tried to stretch out on his bunk, but his legs were stiff from malnutrition and his calves ached painfully. Bucher fretted that the communists might pull the plug on the repatriation
recommendations, he had to tread a narrow path between imposing too much punishment on Bucher—thereby infuriating a sympathetic press and public—and imposing too little, which would anger many old-line Navy officers. If he disciplined the captain but no one of higher rank, he’d doubtless be accused of scapegoating the easiest target. Sitting in his Pentagon office, with its sobering views of the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery, the fledgling secretary considered what to do.
of a communist hellhole, where God only knew what new torments awaited them. . . . Shuddering awake, Bucher would find his face moist with sweat. He’d slip out of bed, careful not to wake his sleeping spouse. Padding into the living room, he tuned the radio to a classical music station. In the blackness he listened to the calming melodies of Schubert and Mahler, sitting still as a statue until his panic subsided. Weighed down by physical and psychological troubles, he fell further behind
them had been at least partially disabled as a result of beatings and torture. Howard Bland—the young fireman whom the North Koreans threatened to execute as a way of pressuring Bucher to sign his first “confession”—had felt for years as if his heart were about to explode. John Mitchell, who’d served as Bucher’s prison orderly and courier, suffered back pain and excruciating migraines. Stu Russell, who’d gotten happily sloshed in the Gypsy Tea Room, endured terrifying nightmares. Ed Murphy
flying just 100 feet above the sea to avoid radar detection, roared over the Yorktown before it had a chance to scramble its own fighters. Russian bombers flew over the Enterprise and other U.S. warships as well, closely tailed by American jets. With so many hostile planes and ships jockeying for position, the odds of a miscalculation multiplied. Intercepted radio traffic indicated that North Korea had fully mobilized its armed forces. American troops in South Korea were brought to full alert