Ill-fated local ship still held hostage by North Korea

Bill Barker of Shelton is a proud Navy veteran, retired U.S. Postal Service worker and graduate of The Evergreen State College in Olympia.
Bill Barker of Shelton is a proud Navy veteran, retired U.S. Postal Service worker and graduate of The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Courtesy

Fifty years ago this week, on Jan. 23, 1968, perhaps the strangest sports story ever published on the front page of any paper in America appeared in the night sports final edition of the The Seattle Times.

It was a UPI story with a big, bold headline: “N. Koreans Board, Capture U.S. Vessel on High Seas.”

My first impression was: Well, that doesn’t sound very sporting of the North Koreans. And of course, it wasn’t.

I read this half-century-old, unsportsmanlike sea story last week at the Shelton Library while researching my own story on this particular vessel, none other than the ill-fated Navy intelligence ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2).

While some people might know something about the Pueblo Incident, most don’t realize the ship’s deep connection to the Puget Sound region. For while the hijacking occurred way across the Pacific off the eastern shore of North Korea, less than a year earlier it had been here in our own South Salish Sea.

At the storied Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, an old Army World War II cargo ship was successfully transformed into the Pueblo.

At the time she and her 83-man crew were hijacked by the KORCOMS (Korean Communists), I was living clear on the other side of the continent, in Bayonne, New Jersey. I was a 17-year-old junior at good ol’ Bayonne High, working after school at Al & Jean’s Deli.

I’m pretty sure it was Al & Jean’s where I first heard about the Pueblo Incident; Al always had his store radio on during business hours. And even though I was far more interested in girls at the time, I still couldn’t completely tune out the occasional radio newscasts.

Well, 1968 was certainly no slouch of a news year for America. The Vietnam War was still steaming away, hot and heavy. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, followed by Robert F. Kennedy in June.

And then with the chaos in Chicago in August at the Democratic National Convention, most Americans were duly converted into fervent supplicants, sincerely praying no more bad news would hit our national fan for the rest of that troublesome year.

Naturally I wanted to help my country in those turbulent times. My solution: I joined the Navy in 1969, after successfully escaping ... er, I mean graduating from ... good ol’ Bayonne High.

Long story short: In 1976, I somehow surfaced from my seven-year stint in the submarine service back into civilian life in Bremerton, at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the very birthplace of the ill-fated Pueblo I’d first heard about as a boy!

The North Koreans never apologized for hijacking the Pueblo and brutalizing her crew for 11 months before releasing them just before Christmas 1968. But they kept the Pueblo, and are now using her as a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.

With Dictator Kim 3.0 presently threatening millions on mainland America with thermonukes, the plight of the Pueblo is once again being swamped by even bigger and badder “breaking news.”

Still, before Armageddon fully breaks out on the Korean peninsula, this old sub sailor prays to read about America making the Hermit Kingdom one last earnest peace offering, perhaps to be reported in papers around our great land in the following succinct way:

“N. Koreans lose tourist attraction, U.S. Navy decommissions Pueblo with cruise missile.”

Who knows? But stay tuned. And keep praying. And remembering the Pueblo.

Bill Barker is a Shelton resident, faithful TNT reader and letter writer, and occasional columnist. Reach him by email at billsnorthwest2002@yahoo.com