Uncertainty Held Back U.S. Planes

By George C. Wilson

Washington Post Staff Writer

Washington Post, January 27, 1968

There were plenty of American planes on hand that could have come to the rescue of the Pueblo had commanders decided that was the right move, defense officials said last night. Fighters in Japan and Okinawa were not sent out, these officials said, because of the uncertainty of what had happened and unfavorable flying conditions.

The Pueblo was first approached by a North Korean patrol boat about 10 p.m. Monday. Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, her skipper, called for help about 11:45 p.m. when the North Koreans began boarding. The last message from the Pueblo was at 12:12 a.m. Although the United States had few fighters in South Korea, defense officials said there was a total of about 450 attack planes that could have reached the Pueblo in a hurry from bases in Japan and Okinawa.

Japanese spokesmen have said no planes could have taken off without their permission. But Washington sources said yesterday this was not a factor in the Pueblo case.       

It would have taken the North Koreans at least two hours to get the slow (12.2 knots top speed) Pueblo into the port of Wonsan from her position 26 miles outside it. Jets could have reached her from Japanese bases in less than an hour. Okinawa, about 900 miles from Wonsan, would have been a tighter squeak since flying time with a loaded fighter-bomber would have been close to two hours.

But as in the case of the attack on the U. S. spy ship Liberty during the Israeli-Arab war last year, field commanders were not sure what had happened to the Pueblo nor whether its hijacking was part of a larger North Korean campaign.

In the latter case, the officials argued, the military commanders would have had to risk taking on the North Korean air force.

Also, these officials said there were snow flurries and a low weather ceiling-hardly ideal flying conditions for fighters trying to shoot the Pueblo out of her predicament without sinking her in the process. 

 As for Bucher's handling of the situation, defense officials could find no faults. ... harassment of American ferret ships has been going on for more than a year, they said, so Bucher had no way to know until the boarding that the Pueblo predicament was different.      

A sister ship of the Pueblo, Banner had been harassed by 11 patrol boats for 2-1/2 hours at an undisclosed location in the Far East within the past 15 months these officials said.      

Defense officials stuck to the line that ferret ships, or any other kind, have a perfect right to sail on international waters. The United States does not intend to provide armed escorts, despite the fate of the Pueblo, according to these officials.

They said the United states could pick up 15 to 20 Soviet reconnaissance trawlers i none night if it wanted to.

The callup of 14, 787 air reservists signified the U. S. intention to assert this freedom of the seas, defense officials said.  

These officials did not express any alarm over what secrets the Communists might uncover as they sift through the Pueblo's eavesdropping equipment. The really critical material like codes, defense officials indicated, had been destroyed as the North Koreans came aboard Pueblo.