The USS Pueblo Strikes Back

Conflict: Korean War

On January 28, 1968, the spy ship USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea. For eleven months the men on board were held prisoner, threatened, and used as much as possible for publicity and propaganda. Their captors would force them to play games and pose for pictures so that the outside world would believe they were treated fairly, even having fun. But the men found their own way to get back at those who used them daily.

Men of the USS Pueblo. The man second from the right on the bottom row and the man standing in the top right covertly demonstrate the “Hawaiian Good Luck” sign

In their own personal acts of rebellion, men from the USS Pueblo would pose with middle fingers outstretched, flipping off the cameras and their North Korean captors. When asked about it, the men replied that it was a Hawaiian sign meaning “good luck.” The Koreans allowed it.

This wasn’t their only form of resistance. Commander Lloyd Bucher, in command of the Pueblo, was told to write confessions and apologies as another form of propaganda. He refused, even when put under the stress of standing before a fake firing squad, who said, “Ready!… Aim!…” before putting down their weapons without shooting. When their captors told Bucher that his crew would be executed one by one, youngest to oldest, he finally relented. But he had his own tricks up his sleeve; Bucher speckled insults and absurdities throughout his confessions, despite the knowledge that discovery of his interference would lead to more torture. Among the paragraphs that he wrote under careful supervision can be found sentences like these:

“I…swear the following account to be true on the sacred honor of the Great Speckled Bird. “

“…we had traversed Operation Areas Mars, Venus, and Pluto, so named because like the planets, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is really far out.”

“We…know that neither the frequency nor the distances of these transgressions into the territorial waters of this sovereign peace-loving nation matter because penetration however slight is sufficient to complete the act.” (Direct reference to definition of rape from the Uniform Code of Military Justice.)

“We paean the North Korean state, we paean their great leader Kim Il Sung.”

Of course, what the Koreans didn’t realize is that the word “paean,” literally meaning “hymn of praise,” was meant as a pun since Bucher pronounced it “pee on.”

Time Magazine cover featuring Cmdr. Bucher and a story of the USS Pueblo‘s resistance, Feb 1968

In February, 1968, Time Magazine published a story featuring a photo of the USS Pueblo men in a propaganda photo. The photo included several men flipping off the camera, as was their habit, and explained fully what the sign actually meant and how they used it to humiliate the Koreans—and they didn’t even know it.

Photo and explanation from the Time Magazine article that blew the Hawaiian Good Luck Sign secret

Of course, once the North Koreans holding the men prisoner finally saw the article some ten months later, they knew exactly what was going on—and they weren’t happy about it. For the week following the discovery that the “Hawaiian Good Luck” sign was no such thing, the men were beaten ruthlessly for their insincerity with fists, feet, and wooden boards. For the men of the Pueblo, this week was known as “Hell Week.”

Finally, the United States offered an apology, a written confession that the ship had indeed been spying, and a promise that no U.S. ship would ever spy again, and the eighty-two Pueblo men were released. After the last man had walked over “the Bridge of No Return” into South Korea, the U.S. verbally retracted the admissions and apologies.

The following is an audio clip explaining the USS Pueblos story and includes clips of Bucher’s confessions and men describing their captivity:

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If you’re interested in learning more about the USS Pueblo and the experiences of the men in North Korea, check out this website. For more on the confessions of Cmdr. Bucher, this site is an interesting source, or there is more information about the “Hawaiian Good Luck” sign here. You can also find articles in Fold3′s newspapers about the Pueblo and the U.S. reaction to its eleven-month imprisonment by searching “USS Pueblo” in the search box or clicking here, here, or here.