Remember the Pueblo

Questions abound in the case of the two ships and ten sailors captured by the IRGC in the Persian Gulf earlier this week. We can be grateful that the sailors have been released by Iran, but the groveling exhibited by the Obama administration is a matter of profound national embarrassment, which seems to be exactly what the Iranians intended. The administration, of course, prefers to present the matter as a triumph of diplomacy. ‘Twas a famous victory. Recalling the great Jeremiah Denton, Seth Lipsky writes:

It’s too soon to say how our sailors were treated when they were in the hands of the Iranians who seized them and held them overnight. It’s not too soon to say that it is nauseating to watch our state secretary, John Kerry, himself a former sailor, gushing thanks to the Iranian regime, over to which he is preparing to turn more than $100 billion as part the Iran deal. The spin the administration is putting on this incident is one of the most cynical exercises in memory.

Yesterday Secretary Carter asserted that the boats “stray[ed] accidentally into Iranian waters due to a navigation error.” An IBD editorial raises questions about the purported navigation error, but this is far from the only unanswered question.

IBD quotes Christopher Harmer, retired operations commander for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Harmer told CNN there was “no reason for a small vessel to be out that far and especially without escorting ships around it,” and “the Navy has to explain why you have small ships transiting 300 miles of open ocean.”

IBD notes that Iran claims the IRGC seized the boats’ GPS gear and that it revealed U.S. espionage: “As reported in Defense News, House Armed Services Committee member Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a Marine who served in the Iraq War, claimed there was no way the Iran military ‘didn’t reverse engineer, or look at and copy everything that they possibly could’ of the two commandeered boats’ high-tech equipment.”

Video released by the Iranians shows the sailors surrendering abjectly on their knees with their hands over their heads. In another video one of the sailors meekly extends his apology for their transgression. “It was a mistake, that was our fault, and we apologize for our mistake,” said the sailor, who was identified by the Iranian interviewer as “commander” of the crew detained Tuesday.

Seth Lipsky’s reservation to the contrary notwithstanding, Aaron MacLean takes up this aspect of the incident in the Washington Free Beacon column “Standard nautical malpractice.” He observes:

The bad news isn’t only at the top. There are so many unanswered questions about this incident, not least regarding the uncomfortable fact of one American sailor’s on-camera apology to his captors. When I was being trained as a Marine officer in Quantico in 2008, a similar incident had just occurred wherein Iran had taken 15 British naval personnel prisoner for almost two weeks. We studied the affair and I remember having the Armed Forces Code of Conduct, which we had to memorize, stressed by my instructors—who took a dim view of the performance of the Brits.

The Code includes passages like “I will never surrender of my own free will.” Those boats were sovereign American territory. Were the sailors ordered to give them up? The Code also includes the injunction to “evade answering further questions” beyond the usual name-and-rank stuff, and to “make no oral or written statements disloyal” to the serviceman’s country.

Regardless of the applicability or terms of the Code of Conduct, the spirit of resistance was conspicuous by its absence. What happened? As Seth writes, it’s too soon to answer the question, but it’s certainly not to soon to ask. We must insist that question be answered lest the question be suppressed in the service of the Obama administration’s continuing abasement of the United States.

I think back to the capture of the USS Pueblo. The case of the Pueblo seems to me to provide a useful contrast with the events to which we have just been witness. Because my memory of the events is so vague, I’ve taken the following accounts from the Wikipedia entries on the Pueblo and on LLoyd Bucher. I’ve also revisited Steve Hayward’s account of the events in the first volume of his Age of Reagan books.

While monitoring North Korea on January 23, 1968, the Pueblo came under attack by North Korean naval forces. North Koreans boarded the ship and took her to the port at Wonsan. For the next 11 months, Pueblo Commander Bucher and his crew were held as POWs by the North Koreans. Initially, they were treated relatively well, with good food and living accommodations. However, their treatment turned harsher when the North Koreans realized that crewmen were secretly giving them the finger, which they explained as being a “Hawaiian good luck sign,” in staged propaganda photos they had been taking of the crew. From then on they were regularly beaten by the North Koreans.

North Korean Propaganda Photograph of prisoners of USS Pueblo. Photo and explanation from the Time Magazine article that blew the Hawaiian Good Luck Sign secret. The soldiers were flipping the middle finger, as way to covertly protest their captivity in North Korea, and the propaganda on their treatment and guilt. The North Koreans for months photographed them without knowing the real meaning of flipping the middle finger, while the sailors explained that the sign meant good luck in Hawaii.

North Korean Propaganda Photograph of prisoners of USS Pueblo. Photo and explanation from the Time Magazine article that blew the Hawaiian Good Luck Sign secret. The soldiers were flipping the middle finger, as way to covertly protest their captivity in North Korea, and the propaganda on their treatment and guilt. The North Koreans for months photographed them without knowing the real meaning of flipping the middle finger, while the sailors explained that the sign meant good luck in Hawaii.

Bucher was psychologically tortured such as being put through a mock firing squad in an effort to make him confess. Eventually the Koreans threatened to execute his men in front of him, and Bucher relented and agreed to “confess to his and the crew’s transgression.” Bucher wrote the confession and the North Koreans verified the meaning of what he wrote, but failed to catch the pun when he said “We paean the North Korean state. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung.”

Following an apology, a written admission by the United States that the Pueblo had been spying, and an assurance that the United States would not spy in the future, the North Korean government decided to release the 82 remaining crew members. On December 23,1968, the crew was taken by buses to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) border with South Korea and ordered to walk south across the “Bridge of No Return.” Exactly 11 months after being taken prisoner, Bucher led the long line of crewmen, followed at the end by the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Ed Murphy, the last man across the bridge. The United States then retracted the ransom admission, apology, and assurance.

Following his release, Bucher was subjected to a court of inquiry by the Navy for having given up the Pueblo without a fight (as Steve Hayward notes at pages 181-182 of the first of his Age of Reagan books.) A court martial was recommended. Secretary of the Navy John Chafee then intervened on Bucher’s behalf to foreclose action against him. Bucher seems to have followed orders not to start any international incidents. Bucher continued his Navy career until retirement in the rank of Commander. The Pueblo, incidentally, remains in the hands of North Korea.

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