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Behind the Scenes
By this time I was lobbying the ONI and the CNO for the Navy to kill Pete any way they could, including an attack that would either extricate the Pueblo crew or cause Pete's death. It's not easy to advocate a shipmate’s death while, at the same time, you are trying to comfort his distraught wife! At exactly the same time Pete was desperately trying to commit suicide…for the same reason I wanted him dead.
For more than three years Pete had been the Operations Officer for the Commander, Submarine Flotilla Seven, in Yokosuka, Japan. In that capacity he had personally run every covert submarine operation in the Pacific for several years.
Most people do not realize that every minute of every day there are dozens of American submarines covertly running intelligence operations, occasionally inside the territorial waters of foreign nations that are considered "unfriendly."
As the Operations Officer of a submarine, I had the opportunity to go into a small briefing room with my Commanding Officer and Executive Officer while Pete briefed us as to where we were to submerge our submarine for the next two months to photograph and make audio recordings. It was in the same room that my CO and XO met with Pete when we returned with our photographs and recordings. Additionally, intelligence units were on board and they had even more very special information. Pete had briefed and debriefed scores of such operations. He was much more important an intelligence capture than was the Pueblo or any information on the Pueblo. If the North Koreans broke him, and the confessions indicated that he had indeed been tortured beyond his capacity to resist, they could then extract the information on many covert submarine missions.
Even though Pete was a friend, the national security called for him to pay the ultimate price, and quickly. Pete, for his part, tried to drown himself in a bucket of his own human waste…but he lost consciousness. He and the bucket fell over…and Pete was revived by the North Koreans.
Fortunately, I was wrong. The North Koreans had indeed forced Pete to sign the confession after several days of repeated torture, but they were not sufficiently sophisticated to ask the right questions to get more information. And when they did ask good questions, the North Koreans were not sophisticated enough to understand the answers, especially if the answer was that "It goes into the computer." Since the Koreans did not even have a word for computer, the crew learned early to obfuscate any answers they wanted to by referring to the computer.
Actually, because of an internal fight within the Korean government and competition among their services, the Pueblo crew was interrogated by members of the Army Intelligence who did not even understand naval terminology. They were successfully confused by the Pueblo crew almost at will, and the much-more-sophisticated Soviet Intelligence wanted no part of the controversy, thus never interrogated the crew. I am certain that the Soviets did get a look at all the publications and the radio equipment aboard, although there was little in radio equipment that could not have been purchased on the open market by a person with a large pocketbook. The Soviets did get our KW Crypto machine, and that proved to be a great loss when traitorous John Walker subsequently supplied them with the necessary key codes.
The North Koreans were so unsophisticated that they would interrogate the crewmembers by asking them to identify the "true" names of ships whose photographs were printed in slick-cover Naval publications like All Hands magazine. The North Koreans would not believe that the United States would actually print the correct name with the photograph of a ship!
Actually, the beatings and torture did not break Pete to sign the confession. Something even more devastating made Pete sign.
The North Koreans took Pete to see a captured South Korean agent. They had tortured the agent, hanging in chains on a wall, to the point that one arm had been broken and the bone was protruding, one eye had been popped out of the socket and was laying on the poor man’s cheek, and his pain was so severe that he had chewed through his own lower lip which was attached by a thread. The man was still alive and moaning.
The North Koreans then dragged Pete's beaten body back to the interrogation room and told him that they respected his ability to suffer pain, but that they were through playing with him. They threatened to bring his crew before him immediately and simply execute them one at a time with a pistol, starting with the youngest, who was 17 years old. Having seen what the North Koreans were capable of doing, Pete was convinced that they were not fooling about the systematic execution of his crew.
The North Koreans then told Pete that they expected that he would eventually sign - possibly after ten or twenty executions - but that eventually he would sign. They told Pete that if he too believed that he would not be able to withstand the entire crews' death before him, then he had better sign now. Pete did not think he could last all the way, so rather than lose ten men and eventually sign, he, very rationally I believe, signed immediately.
Back in San Diego, we were continuing our work.
I called Dave Lee at Time Magazine and suggested that it would be a fine gesture if the magazine would give Rose the original painting used for their upcoming cover so that she could give it to Pete on his eventual return. He thought that was a great idea, and said he would call the New York office and suggest it to them. At the same time he said he had to apologize to us for the painting which was to be on the cover of the issue that was coming out that very day. It did not have the "scrambled eggs" on the bill of the cap that a Commander in the Navy deserved. I laughed and suggested that he tender that apology to Pete when he returned, but suggested that probably Pete would think that small oversight was not very important in the great scheme of things.
Dave called back in about two minutes and said that New York loved the idea. Usually they keep all original art for a traveling art gallery that they use for public relations, but in this case they were pleased to make the offer. We were pleased also. Overjoyed, in fact.
Dave also said that there were some small errors in the article - for instance, the article said that Pete was 40 years old. Since Pete was actually 38, Dave offered to make Pete 36 in the next article - so Time would be accurate, at least on average.
Dave told me that the quickest way to get a copy of the Time issue was to drive to San Diego International Airport, and that the issue should be there.
I drove directly to the airport and bought three copies of Time Magazine, then drove to Lefty's Pizza Parlor to order a pizza. It was early in the day so I was the only one in the place. The owner saw the copies of Time and asked if I knew Cdr. Bucher. I said yes, that in fact the pizza he was fixing was to be eaten by Cdr. Bucher's wife, Rose. We talked about Pete for a few minutes. When the pizza was ready, I pulled out my wallet, but the owner refused the payment. "I am a retired Chief Bosun Mate. I feel like this is going to be eaten by the wife of a shipmate. We’ve been talking about nothing else but the Commander for a week. I can't take your money." There literally were tears in his eyes. In mine, too. I told him I would love to pay the bill, but that I too would prefer to be able to tell Rose that he had made such a beautiful offer.
That afternoon we had a phone call from Capt. Hill who told us that Washington was pleased with the Time Magazine story. That must have made him choke.
Also that afternoon we had our first phone call from the Lady's Home Journal. They wanted to bid on Rose's story and that which was to eventually chronicle Rose's story. We told them that Rose would be represented by attorney E. Miles Harvey and that Miles would call them soon.
The State Department and the Navy Department soon counseled Rose to let the subject lie. That seemed a good idea to us because Rose was exhausted.
Then a series of interesting events took place.
We started receiving phone calls from women whose husbands, sons and fathers had been taken captive during the Korean War. They all told the same story: The State Department and their service branch had asked them to make no comment to the press about their loved ones who had not been returned to the U.S. when the war was over. The loved ones had all "done their patriotic duty" and been quiet, believing that the government would not fail them. In some cases they stayed quiet for months and in some cases for years. Their loved ones were never repatriated, and they never will be. The Communist nations have a history of retaining their captives and denying that they are there. After years of denials, some came home. --
When it occurred to the loved ones that silence was not getting anywhere, they started to go to their local press representatives, only to find that the press considered the possible retention of some captives by the North Koreans to be an "old story." There is nothing in the world as old as an old story to the press. Further, no individual's name could be attached to the old Korean War captives. No one had a personality. We had one. One that everyone in the U.S. knew. But we couldn't wait too long to act because at some point it would become an "old story." We decided to give diplomacy a chance. A thirty-day chance.
If we had known exactly how Pete and the crew were being treated, and how ineffective our government was going to be, we would not have waited thirty minutes. Or thirty seconds.
But people in the State Department like George Ball, the Assistant Secretary of State, were making public statements that the men would be back in a week. To this day we do not know whether Ball believed what he was saying.
I think it was a case of political damage control. Lyndon Johnson was in deep political trouble with the Vietnamese War and he needed another major embarrassment like he needed an extra set of elbows.
Had anyone known the truth, that the U.S.S. Enterprise was within easy striking distance of the ships and the MIG fighter attacking the Pueblo, but that the Enterprise elected not to launch, it would have shaken the Presidency. Someone would have called for an investigation.
I found out six months after the seizure when Captain Frank Ault, the Chief of Staff of the Air Group embarked on the Enterprise, called me one day. Would I come to his home in Point Loma where he was stopping over enroute to a new assignment in the Pentagon? He swore me to secrecy, a vow I now feel is overtaken by history, and told me his story.
Captain Ault said that when the Pueblo was seized, the Enterprise was one day west of the Port of Sasebo. The Staff of the Air Group looked at the "Order of Battle" of the North Koreans near the Port of Wonson, where the Pueblo was being towed, and it showed the North Koreans had 600 MIG fighters. Old fighters, it is true, but so many more than the number of operational planes available to launch from the Enterprise, that the staff feared that all Enterprise planes could be lost and possibly even the Enterprise herself if the MIGs decided to attack.
The staff decision, according to Captain Ault, was based on the theory that if the Koreans had planned to capture the Pueblo, then they would be ready for the Enterprise planes. It all happened so quickly that the staff did not know, and in fact no operational people know today, whether the seizure was premeditated.
Pete does not believe that the seizure was premeditated. The lack of preparation of facilities, interpreters, and Naval Intelligence officers all indicate to him that it was a spur-of-the-moment seizure of what the North Koreans may have originally thought was a South Korean vessel.
Captain Ault said he owed me the information, even though I was considered by then to be a loose cannon. He said that he would do things his way, which he described as "quietly sticking a knife in the back of the bastards as they walk down dark halls" while troublemakers like me were storming the ramparts - but he thought we were both necessary. I judged that he now thought that the decision not to launch was not as brilliant as it seemed on the day it was made. Some historian may well explore that decision.
I never heard from the good Captain again, at least officially. I believe that he was responsible for anonymous annotated excerpts from the Congressional Record and other less public documents that we received over the next year. Many of the annotations had information that was obviously from Pentagon sources, the writing was in military jargon, the envelopes were from the Pentagon, and we did not know anyone else who might assist us in any way. We had friends in the CNO office, but they were both overtly and covertly neutral. I hope Capt. Ault did get some of the Naval Officers at the Pentagon who are listed as male, but who should use the women's head.
At the time, there was nothing that the anonymous information could do for me or for Pete, except to convince me still further, even without complete information, that the Pueblo had been left, as the famous Watergate saying went, "twisting slowly, slowly in the wind."
In later testimony before the Congressional Committee, Captain Ault's boss, Admiral Epes, replied a bit more obscurely to the question of why he did not launch. He said that he had never heard of the Pueblo - which was probably true. Indeed, many operational commanders had never been informed about the Pueblo or her missions.
After stating that he checked the charts of his carrier group’s position, the position of the Pueblo, and the Korean Order of Battle, he was asked by Congressman Otis Pike, the Chairman of the subcommittee hearing the testimony, "Was any other action taken aboard the Enterprise to go to the aid of the Pueblo?"
Admiral Epes: "We got out all the intelligence material we had on board with respect to North Korea, the charts, the Order of Battle and so forth, and we got an estimate from the Meteorologist of what the weather was, and the time of darkness." (According to Capt. Ault, the "Order of Battle" was the deciding factor. The Enterprise was 510 miles from the Pueblo, and 35 various aircraft that could be armed were available.)
Mr. Pike: "Did you transmit any of this information to the pilots of the ready aircraft?"
Admiral Epes: "No sir, not at that time."
Mr. Pike: "Nobody began briefing the pilots?"
Admiral Epes: "No sir."
Fewer than 30 seconds later, General Wheeler, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was remarking that the Commander of the 5th Air Force was called upon by COMNAVFORJAPAN to aid the Pueblo, rather than calling upon the Enterprise.
Congressman Pike said, bitterly, "I don't blame him for that."
As we shall soon see, General McKee, Commander of the 5th Air Force, was the only person who did anything except treat the seizure as a spectator sport.
Obviously, I don’t have any proof that the USS Enterprise could have, and should have come to the aid of the Pueblo - but I have enough information to warrant an investigation by historians and by the U.S. Navy. The fateful attack on the U.S.S. Liberty is not the only major Naval incident that needs a full and public airing.
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Last modified: March 27, 2011