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Sears, Roebuck catalogue," said one former official”was sent on its way.
Two days later, a courier hand-carried it around to the various agencies
for final approval. At the Pentagon, Paul H. Nitze, the deputy secretary of
defense, signed off on it, and at the White House, the National Security
Council's secret 303 Committee, which reviews covert operations, gave
the Pueblo mission an okay. There were no comments and no
But at NSA, one analyst did have some concerns. A retired Navy chief
petty officer assigned to B Group, the section that analyzed Sigint from
Communist Asia, knew that North Korea had little tolerance for
electronic eavesdropping missions. Three years earlier, they had
attempted to blast an RB-47 Strato-Spy out of the air while it was flying
in international airspace about eighty miles east of the North Korean port
of Wonsan. This was the same area where the Pueblo was to loiter”only
much closer, about thirteen miles off the coast.

Codenamed Box Top, the RB-47 flight was a routine Peacetime
Airborne Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO) mission. It departed from
Yokota Air Base in Japan on April 28, 1965, and headed over the Sea of
Japan toward its target area. "We were about six hours into one of those

ho-hum missions on a leg heading toward Wonsan harbor, approximately
eighty nautical miles out," recalled one of the Ravens, First Lieutenant
George V. Back, "when the hours of boredom suddenly turned into the
seconds of terror." Raven One, Air Force Captain Robert C. Winters,
intercepted a very weak, unidentifiable airborne intercept (AI) signal that
he thought might have come from somewhere off his tail. "At
approximately the same time," said Back, "we received a message that
there were 'bogies' in the area. Neither the pilot nor the copilot observed
any aircraft and we continued the mission."
A short while later, Back, down in the cramped, windowless Sigint
spaces, intercepted a signal from a ground control radar and began
recording it. By then the plane was about thirty-five to forty miles off
Wonsan Harbor. "Suddenly the aircraft pitched nose down and began
losing altitude," he said. "The altimeter was reading about twenty-seven
thousand feet and unwinding." "They are shooting at us," yelled Henry E.
Dubuy, the co-pilot, over the intercom. "We are hit and going down."
Back began initiating the ejection process and depressurized the Raven
compartment. Next the co-pilot requested permission to fire. "Shoot the
bastard down," shouted Lieutenant Colonel Hobart D. Mattison, the pilot,
as he made repeated Mayday calls into his radio. He then asked for a
heading "to get the hell out of here."
"By this time," recalled Back, "all hell had broken loose. The pilot had
his hands full with the rapidly deteriorating airplane; the co-pilot was
trying to shoot the bastards visually; the navigator was trying to give the
pilot a heading; the Raven One was dumping chaff, and the second
MiG-17 was moving in for his gunnery practice." The two North Korean
MiG-17s came in shooting. "There was no warning, ID pass, or
intimidation," said Back, "just cannon fire." The planes were too close for
the RB-47's fire control radar to lock on to them.
By now the Strato-Spy was severely wounded. The hydraulic system
failed and fire was coming from the aft main tank. Two engines had also
been hit, and shrapnel from number three engine exploded into the
fuselage. Nevertheless, said Back, "both engines continued to operate but
number three vibrated like an old car with no universal joints."
Dubuy, the co-pilot, fired away at the MiGs but without tracers it was
hard to tell where he was shooting. The MiGs would dive down, then
quickly bring their nose up and attempt to rake the underside of the
plane with cannon fire. Down in the Raven compartment, Robert Winters
released a five-second burst of chaff during one of the firing passes,
hoping to throw off the MiG's radar. Dubuy watched as the MiG nearly
disappeared in the chaff cloud before breaking off. Finally the MiGs
began taking some fire. One suddenly turned completely vertical and
headed toward the sea, nose down. The other MiG headed back toward

As Colonel Mattison leveled out at 14,000 feet, the plane was still
trailing smoke. The aft wheel well bulkhead was blackened and nearly
buckled from the heat of the fire, and the aircraft was flying in a nose-
down attitude because of the loss of the aft main fuel tank. Mattison
assured the crew that he had the plane under control but told them to be
ready to bail out. Despite the heavy damage, the Strato-Spy made it back
to Yokota and hit hard on the runway. "We porpoised about eighty feet
back into the air where we nearly hit the fire suppression helicopter
flying above us," said Back. Once the plane had come to a stop, he
added, "we exited, dodging emergency equipment as we headed for the
edge of the runway."

With that incident and others clearly in mind, the Navy chief in B
Group went down to the operation managers in K Group. "This young
fellow had a message drafted," said Gene Sheck of K-12, "that said, 'Boy,
you people have got to be complete blithering idiots to put that ship off
North Korea, because all kinds of bad things are going to happen.
Therefore cancel it.' It had very strong [language], not the kind of political
message you'd ever get out of the building." An official from K Group
therefore rewrote the message, the first warning message Sheck had ever
sent out:

The following information is provided to aid in your
assessment of CINCPAC's [Commander-in-Chief, Pacific]
estimate of risk:
1. The North Korean Air Force has been extremely
sensitive to peripheral reconnaissance flights in the area
since early 1965. (This sensitivity was emphasized on April
28, 1965, when a U.S. Air Force RB-47 was fired on and
severely damaged 35 to 40 nautical miles from the coast.)
2. The North Korean Air Force has assumed an
additional role of naval support since late 1966.
3. The North Korean Navy reacts to any ROK [Republic of
Korea] naval vessel or ROK fishing vessel near the North
Korean coast line.
4. Internationally recognized boundaries as they relate to
airborne activities are generally not honored by North Korea
on the East Coast of North Korea. But there is no [Sigint]
evidence of provocative harassing activities by North Korean
vessels beyond 12 nautical miles from the coast.
The above is provided to aid in evaluating the
requirements for ship protective measures and is not

intended to reflect adversely on CINCPACFLT [Commander-
in-Chief, Pacific Fleet] deployment proposal.

Marshall Carter approved the message and at 10:28 that Friday night
it rattled onto a cipher machine at the Defense Intelligence Agency's
Signal Office in the Pentagon. There a clerk routed it up to the War
Room, where a watch officer sent a copy to the chief of the JCS's Joint
Reconnaissance Center, Brigadier General Ralph Steakley.
"This was the first voyage in which we were having a vessel linger for a
long period of time near North Korean waters," Carter recalled. "It
therefore was a special mission as we saw it. We knew that she was going
to stay in international waters. We had no evidence that the North
Koreans at sea had ever interfered with or had any intentions to interfere
with a U.S. vessel outside of their acknowledged territorial waters.
Nevertheless, our people felt that even though all of this information was
already available in intelligence community reports it would be helpful if
we summed them up and gave them to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for
whatever use they might make of them or assistance in evaluating this
particular mission."
Had NSA wished, it could have called off the entire mission. But
because this first Pueblo operation was being run solely by the Navy,
officials were reluctant to use their big foot. "NSA has a pretty strong
voice," said Sheck. "If NSA had gone out with a message or a position on
that book [the monthly reconnaissance schedule] in that time frame, I'm
sure the mission probably would not have gone. . . . There have been a
few cases where NSA has done that. An airborne mission that might
provoke the director of NSA to say, 'We don't want to do that.'... But
nobody did that. Even this message is a little wishy-washy, because of
the position NSA's in. It was a Navy patrol proposed by Navy people in
response to Navy tasking, and we were an outsider saying, 'You really
ought to look at that again, guys. If that's what you want, think about
On January 2, 1968, after the New Year's holiday, General Steakley
found his copy of the warning message when he returned to his office.
But rather than immediately bringing it to the attention of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, DIA, and the 303 Committee, which had only a few days
earlier approved the mission, he buried it. First he changed its NSA
designation from "action"”which would have required someone to
actually do something about it”to "information," which basically meant
"You might find this interesting." Then, instead of sending it back to the
people who had just signed off on the mission, he pushed it routinely on
its way to the office of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, in Hawaii. At
CINCPAC headquarters, the message was first confused with the Pueblo

approval message, which arrived at about the same time, and then
ignored because of the "information" tag.
An earlier "action" copy had also been sent to the Chief of Naval
Operations, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, but because the DIA Signal
Office mistakenly attached the wrong designator, it wound up in limbo
and was lost for the next month.
There was still one last chance for NSA's warning message to have an
impact. One copy had been passed through back channels to the head of
the Naval Security Group in Washington. When Captain Ralph E. Cook
saw the "action" priority tag, he assumed that the matter would be
debated among senior officials in Hawaii, among them his own
representative, Navy Captain Everett B. (Pete) Gladding. Nevertheless, he
passed a copy on to Gladding to give him a heads-up.
With rosy cheeks and a web belt that stretched wide around his
middle, Gladding looked more like Santa Glaus than an electronic spy.
As director of the Naval Security Group, Pacific, he managed a broad
range of signals intelligence missions, including those involving the
Banner and the Pueblo. Located behind a cipher-locked door on the top
floor of the old U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor, his offices
were close to the World War II codebreaking center. And as in the
disastrous series of events that led to the devastating attack on Pearl
Harbor, once again a warning message was lost or ignored and men
would be put in peril. Although Gladding later denied ever having
received the message, other officers said he did get it. In any case, rather
than NSA's warning, the approval with its "minimal risk" advisory was
sent from Hawaii to Japan, and the Pueblo made preparations to get
under way.
The highly secret operations order instructed the Pueblo to:

• Determine the nature and extent of naval activity [in the]
vicinity of North Korean ports of Chongjin, Song) in, Mayang Do
and Wonsan.
• Sample electronic environment of East Coast North Korea,
with emphasis on intercept/fixing of coastal radars.
• Intercept and conduct surveillance of Soviet naval units.
• Determine Korcom [Korean Communist] and Soviet reaction
respectively to an overt intelligence collector operating near
Korcom periphery and actively conducting surveillance of USSR
naval units.
• Evaluate USS Pueblo's (AGER-2) capabilities as a naval
intelligence collection and tactical surveillance ship.

• Report any deployment of Korcom/Soviet units which may be
indicative of pending hostilities or offensive actions against U.S.

Finally, the order added: "Estimate of risk: Minimal."
Lieutenant Stephen Harris, in charge of the signals intelligence
operation on the ship, was disappointed when he read the Pueblo's
operational order a few weeks before departure. "I was very upset when
we found out we were going to North Korea," he said, "because we were
configured to cruise off the [Soviet Union's] Kamchatka Peninsula . . .
primarily Vladivostok and secondarily Petropavlovsk. That's where we
were supposed to be going, and that's where all the training for our guys
came from. And then to find out we were going to North Korea, I thought
what a waste ... It was our first mission and somebody thought, Well,
this will give these guys a chance to learn how to do it. Well, we had all
done this before.
"Supposedly our inventory of intelligence information on North Korea
was not very current so they thought, Well, here's a chance to update
that. But it just caused no end of trouble for us, I mean even before we
got under way, because I had a bunch of Russian linguists on board. We
had to get these two Marines from [the naval listening post at] Kamiseya
who, they knew about ten words of Korean [Hongul] between the two of
them. . . . They were good guys but they had not been really seasoned in
the language and this type of collection."

"Answer all bells," shouted the officer of the deck. "Single up." In the
pilothouse, Boatswain's Mate Second Class Ronald L. Berens held the
ship's wheel in his two hands and gently turned it to port. Heavy, low-
hanging clouds seemed to merge with the gray seas on the morning of
January 5, 1968, as the Pueblo slipped away from her berth. Over the
loudspeaker came the sounds of a guitar”Herb Alpert and the Tijuana
Brass playing "The Lonely Bull," adopted by Commander Bucher as the
ship's theme song. It would be the most prescient act of the entire
voyage. As the Pueblo disappeared over the horizon, the North Korean
volcano began to erupt.
One of the Sigint technicians, Earl M. Kisler, later began a long poem:

Out of Japan on the fifth of Jan.
The Pueblo came a-steamin'.
Round Kyushu's toe, past Sasebo,
You could hear the captain a-screamin',

"XO!" he said,
"Full speed ahead! We've got us some spyin' to do!
Timmy, be sharp!" Then with Charley Law's
Away like a turtle we flew.

For several months now, Pyongyang KCNA International had been
broadcasting frequent warnings in English about U.S. "espionage boats"
penetrating North Korean territorial waters. These messages had been
picked up by the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service. "It [the


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