by Stu Russell
The PUEBLO crew was not a happy crew. The mission was known in general,
but was never admitted. It was a small ship with an oversize crew and a
Naval Security Group detachment which was "separate". On January 9, 1967,
Steve Ellis and I landed in SeaTac Airport, got our duffel bags and hailed a
taxi to the ferry building in downtown Seattle. After catching the ferry, we
arrived in Bremerton after 10:00 in the evening. We were directed to Building 433,
where we were told to grab a bunk and finish check-in in the morning. We found
a cubicle with two empty beds and stored our gear. Two guys returning from the
base movie came in and introduced themselves. They were Bob Hill, an 18 year
old sub school drop-out and Jay Maggard, an ex-paratrooper. Jay enlisted in the
Navy while recovering from a head injury he had suffered in an auto accident.
They had arrived that day and were assigned to the PUEBLO, but hadn't seen the ship yet. We agreed that after Ellis and I finished processing in we would meet them and go see the ship together. After breakfast they took off and Steve and I headed to the hospital via a base bus. I asked one of the dock workers at the bus stop if he had heard of the PUEBLO and if so, if he knew anything about it. He said it was tied up at Pier Nine and asked why we wanted to know, were we assigned to it or what? When we told him it was our new duty station, he responded that we must have really pissed someone off to pull duty like that. He said that from what he'd heard, it would be at sea most of the time and would rarely be in port. The PUEBLO would be operating in the Bering Straight area... our country's response to Russian trawlers, but we would be spying on the Russians.
Ellis and I rode to the hospital in silence. So much for it being a secret. It was a gloomy group that headed toward Pier Nine. The USS PUEBLO (AKL-44) was not a pretty ship to look at, and there were two of her type, as the PALM BEACH was directly ahead. We looked down at them as they lay next to the pier. With the various shades of zinc chromate and rust preventive paint on the hull and decks and the numerous tubes, pipes and hoses running over, through and on her, the PUEBLO looked more like someone in an intensive care unit than a ship of the line. No one said anything as we stared at this thing the Defense Department expected us to sail across the Pacific. They were both small, squat and ugly. Even after nine months of work in the shipyard, they would remain objects to be ridiculed by the crews. As prospective deck apes, the four of us had no idea what our part would be in the PUEBLO's mission. She was a spy ship, but that really didn't register. We climbed the ladder for our first visit to the USS PUEBLO by going down the ramp and across a barge. We wandered through the spaces that had lights and power and saw that there was still much work to do before the ship could be commissioned as part of the Pacific Fleet. The four of us, having finished a quick inspection of her 179 foot length, trudged off to find the rest of the crew.
We found Charlie Law, Quartermaster First Class, with Firemen Richard Arnold and Ed Bland in the yard snack bar. The seven of us, plus Chief Warrant Officer Lacy, were the sum total of the crew at this point. Charlie Law established his authority quickly without the need of chevrons. Law is the kind of man that impresses you with a presence that exceeds his physical being, and in Charlie's case he was a large man to begin with. He was a sailor first and foremost and made no bones about it. I don't recall anyone ever telling him a lifer joke. Charlie told us that our temporary office was in Building 50 (the oldest structure in the ship yard) and that we were expected to operate as a ship's crew, despite the fact that there wasn't much to do yet. Other officers and crew would be arriving soon and we would begin the process of preparing the ship for its commissioning. Charlie had no idea of the size of its crew, the number of officers, its purpose, mission or operating area...only that he heard that we should be in Japan in early spring. The enlisted crewmembers of the ship would operate in an informational vacuum for the next year. Except for what that one yard worker told us, none of us at our level ever learned anything more about the ship. In fact, we would eventually learn upon our return that our mission was so secret that our Captain, once he was on board, had a difficult time getting the ship outfitted and prepared because he couldn't tell anyone in the shipyard why he needed things. One can well imagine how all of this appeared to those of us peons at the bottom of the information chain. We were on a ship that would, at some time, go somewhere, to do something, for someone.
During the coming months, we came to accept all the strange goings-on as normal and not think about it too much. By the nineteenth we found out that we had a sister ship, she was the USS BANNER. The BANNER was stationed in Japan but so far had not operated south of Okinawa. Until Bucher (the new Captain) arrived, our schedule was up at 0630, breakfast at 0645, report to Building 50 until 1100, break for lunch, return to Building 50 at 1300 and knock off at 1530, and dinner at 1700. Bucher arrived on the thirty-first. We didn't have to wait long until his impact was felt, as the next day we had an all-hands meeting in which he explained that the schedule was 0800 to 1600, period. He further instructed us that we were not to discuss the ship's mission with anyone. We were not even to speculate about it amongst ourselves. It was an oceanographic survey ship and that was all anyone had to know.. Everything allocated to the ship was being stored in a warehouse until we moved on board. When we saw all of the foul weather gear, we had our first real clue of where we would be going. Foul weather jackets, intermediate cold weather gear, a King Kong look-alike outfit for extreme cold, thermal underwear, thermal socks, gloves, masks, boots, extra heavy boots, real cold weather boots and a supply of compasses that all pointed south. If Santa was going to visit us he would have to fly north to do it.
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at Commissioning during retrofit