Full Steam Ahead: Rescue The USS Pueblo
By: Pat Dingle
The 12 months between April 1967 and April 1968 were the best of times and the worst of times of my four years in the Navy. It started with a murder and narcotics undercover assignment in Las Vegas while home from the Yorktown’s second full 10-11 month tour in the Gulf of Tonkin. My week long leave turned into a month assigned to the LV police, having been recruited by a detective who, as it turned out later, was also in the Chicago mafia. After a very narrow escape from getting knocked off myself, I returned to Long Beach and the Yorktown. I was an RD-3 and among the senior in OI Division and there’s nothing more useless to the Navy than a radarman in port. This time they did something about that. I was recruited by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) to be the first “Nark” in a pilot program to combat civilians selling dope to sailors. These were the best of times. Here I am, a 20-year-old sailor packing a gun, going all over the southern California map in civvies of the era on my motorcycle or ‘55 Chevy depending on my target, like a kid in a candy store only I couldn’t/wouldn’t ingest the candy. I’d only return to the Yorktown near paydays, and the Captain would personally arrange for me to be paid (He once told the Disbursing Officer to pay me whatever I wanted. I had to think hard for a minute about that temptation but then requested my regular pay) I had a room on base or at a bad guy’s pad. The Navy’s only request was for me to call every day or two to say I was alive and to come into ONI’s headquarters once a week or so and tell them what I was doing. Finally, it’s the Navy I thought I had joined over three years ago and that misunderstanding was rudely corrected on the first day of boot camp. All good things must come to an end, and my end with ONI came after a bad guy’s house was shot up, and ONI thought things were too hot for me to continue. Thus they returned me bruised but not broken to the Yorktown just as she deployed back to Westpac and Vietnam waters. It would be the last time for the USS Yorktown and I. It was early January 1968. The worst of times.
Our four destroyers formed up with us the day we left Long Beach. The following day we steamed off San Diego as our air squadrons landed aboard and we then steamed westward. There were about five of us E-4s who were equal in seniority in CIC and several E-5s and 6s who were also making their second deployment with us. A new Sr. Chief joined two others, and of course, there was a complete turnover of the seven or eight officers in OI Div. Captain Bennett was still in command of the Yorktown, and I don’t recall who the new Admiral was, too far above my pay grade. There were some new RD-3s and a shit load of new seamen, many who were reserves. I was a short timer due to be discharged in a few months and truth be told these many decades later, it showed. There was a clash between the new Sr. Chief and myself. Again, truth be told now, he won. I trained the new guys on the operation of CIC as did the other salty petty officers but coming off nearly a year as the lone ranger it didn’t come easy. The Yorktown drilled nearly every day as we steamed to Pearl for a few days of liberty then on to Japan, with more drills along the way, to replenish stores but I don’t recall any of this, done it too many times, and the drills were ingrained as were Pearl and ports in Japan. The thrill was gone. It was January 23, and we were approaching the southern Japanese Islands when the message was received telling us that USS Pueblo is under attack by North Koreans.
I can’t begin to describe what we felt upon hearing that the North Koreans were attacking one of our ships, but I’ll try. It was an outrage to the max. NOBODY FUCKS WITH ONE OF OUR SHIPS AND LIVES. The Yorktown and her escorts were ordered to make the best speed to the Pueblo’s location, about 15-20 hours away, and rescue her and the crew. Capt. Bennett first ordered the destroyers to come alongside for an underway replenishment to top off as we changed course to the Sea of Japan. Refueling UNREP, we made 32 knots throughout the cold night, passing through the Tsushima Straits with our radars turned off. That had never happened before during my years aboard. The reason was we didn’t want the enemy to pick up our radar signals and know we were coming. CIC went to GQ stations, and that’s about the time a few strange things happened. Our orders from the Commander Pacific Fleet, Pearl Harbor, were left out in the open for all of us in CIC to read. I’ll never forget them. The first read “Attack anything communist.” The second thing was moral shot sky high throughout the ship. Guys in the passageways, strangers, were giving high-fives. The crew was so pumped, we’re on our way full speed to kick ass. The ship was vibrating from making all those knots, and so were we. I guess it helped to know we were the closest military response and closing. The Yorktown was steaming at best speed to the sound of the guns. I’m sure it was the same aboard the destroyers. None of us could wait to get to the North Korean coast and kill those fucking commie bastards messing with the Pueblo. We didn’t know she’d been captured.
During that first night, word came in that the Pueblo had been boarded and taken to the Port of Wonsan. Our orders were to steam to an area close off that port. The order to shoot still stood. To a man, we were ready to do battle. As we approached our destination, more orders started coming in, “Only shoot if you can clearly identify your target,” a few hours later, on station, “Don’t shoot unless you’re attacked.” The word going around was we’re going to use our Marine detachment and a voluntary force of sailors to storm ashore and find the Pueblo’s crew. I looked high and low as did my shipmates for the guy with the clipboard taking names. Moral was still very high as was the outrage. More destroyers joined up with us. Every time a new American ship arrived we thought that’s it, we have enough now, let’s go in. Everyone was asking why are we waiting? I kept thinking of the captured crew and what must be happening to them. The weather and my Chief didn’t help matters. Like I said, we clashed when he first came aboard a month or two ago. We were prepared for the South China Sea, and pea coats worked for liberty in Japan during the winter, but this fucking freezing weather was something I’ve never experienced before. None of us had. We had foul weather gear of course, but that had the same warming effect as a t-shirt. CIC is always air conditioned. We turned it off. There’s fucking SNOW on the flight deck most days. My Chief wanted me to have a very responsible position during this time of conflict, away from CIC and him, so he put me in charge of the lookouts up on the open 07 deck. Now, remember, there were blizzards nearly every day, you couldn’t see the end of the flight deck. The slow burn I felt helped but not very damn much. My section stood watch seven on, five off, five on, seven off 24/7 for what turned out to be several months. I relieved one lookout at a time to go down below to CIC to warm up and get a cup of coffee. When all four had a break, I went down to CIC and got the latest intelligence reports. The Yorktown and task group steamed back and forth off the Port of Wonsan.
To say the situation was tense would be an understatement. The North Koreans had an air base five minutes away making us an immediate target if war breaks out. Attacking the Pueblo, we thought it had. We didn’t know what kind of Navy they had other than enough of a Navy to overcome one of our ships. During that first few days, word was the Enterprise, Ranger, and one other attack carrier was ordered up from Vietnam. We’d cling to any rumor that offered hope that we’ll go in and attack. Moral was still very high as a result. I understood the carriers are underway to Korea, then the Tet Offense began, and they were ordered back to Nam. More ships arrive and take station with us. Why the hell are we waiting? Nobody knew, and the rumors seem to become downgraded each long day, less action orientated, but in our heart of hearts, we knew they were just rumors anyway. But for now, that’s all we had. The forward and aft lookouts and I were allowed to move up to the enclosed 010 level located just under the radar antennas for humanitarian reasons. It was that or suffer frostbite. The 010 remained unchanged from 1943 when the Yorktown was built. It wasn’t anything more than a small space made of thick bulletproof steel with four slit portholes. It was the highest enclosed space on the island above the flight deck and just as cold as the flight deck, but it protected from the wind and blowing snow. We found a small electric heater somewhere and used that to take turns warming our hands through the gloves. Turn’s up, hands froze. This sucked. I had this tiny taste of understanding the hardships our ground troops went through during the Korean War after a month or so on the 07 and 010. My respects gentlemen.
I would go down the many ladders to CIC for hot coffee and the scuttlebutt; one was hot, one cold. The focus during this stage was all eyes on the jet bases and anything on the waters in between us and those commie bastards. We had our small detachment of A-4 Skyhawks ready to launch, and our two 5 inch guns were manned 24/7, but we depended on all the destroyers to protect the Yorktown during an attack. During my nearly four years aboard I’ve seen our guns fire once, off California, never came close to hitting the towed target sled. After learning all there was, I’d carry hot cups of coffee in a box up to my guys. It was always cold in the time it took to climb up there, and I climbed ladders like a monkey back then. During those days of blowing snow, the only duty we’d do is announce over the sound powered phones “Forward Aye.” “Aft Aye” every half hour when CIC asked for a report from us and the bridge. The rest of the time we’d just sit on the deck leaning back against the bulkhead and swap sea stories. As I was the one with two tours and E-4, I’d run my mouth more than the seamen boots on duty. I tried to regale them with exploits of on the beach, what’s it’s like in the Gulf of Tonkin, how important it is to pay strict attention to your scopes as lives depend on it etc. And of course the jokes of the day. Those were repeated so much we all had our responses down pat, no pun intended. Today I can only recall one of those guys. He was a reserve college kid and total introvert in his late teens. He never said a word. He’d just sit there with his hood pulled tight over his head looking out with those wide blue eyes like an owl. Now and then I’d fuck with him by telling some stories of dangerous areas in Hong Kong or Subic. When I realized this kid couldn’t cut it, I left him alone. Swashbuckler, he ain’t and within a few months, he was flown home as a mental case. I know that happened to three or four guys in CIC during our first two tours too. I understand today but didn’t back then; I lived for adventure the Navy provided. The capture of the USS Pueblo changed that mindset for me.
The USS Yorktown remained the command ship as the task force steamed back and forth in a fifty-mile long figure eight and in about the same miles from shore. Morale aboard began to plummet in the third week of this clusterfuck. The only thing we knew for sure was the Commies had our ship and crew a few minutes over the horizon. Even the top secret messages from Pearl dried up, meaning they weren’t being given out anymore for everyone in OI to read, just the select few. We were getting daily updates on the 7th Fleet’s actions taken because of the Tet Offence still underway, but that had little or no meaning to us. Our fight’s here but “they” won’t let us fight. Then we read the orders, the USS Enterprise and several other attack carriers are, for the second time, steaming north to join with us off North Korea. Morale had been going up and down like a yo-yo, and this news shot it up like a rocket. They’re not coming unless this is it. Again high-fives, the crew’s pumped, we’re going in for sure this time. Even the weather improved. Still fucking freezing but no blowing snow, just heavy wet fog. I took the lookouts down below to the exposed 07 for a change of pace over the next week and that helped matters. Any change helped matters. OI division was at GQ for a month now and would stay there for another month. I don’t know about the other divisions.
It was one of those moments that stays with you for the remainder of your life. It was midday, visibility about 5,000 yards then a wall of fog in which you couldn’t see your outstretched hand. Our surface radar was reporting the CPA (closest point of approach) every few minutes, she’s minutes out, and I’m on duty on the 07 level. The USS Enterprise came bow first out of the fog on our forward starboard side and kept coming, sliding past us about 4,000 yards out. Jesus H. Christ, I’ve never seen a ship that big. And as a carrier sailor, I thought the Yorktown was huge. I’d seen photos of the Enterprise of course and her box-like superstructure signature. But seeing her coming out of the fog like that was surreal. I took one of the binoculars away from a lookout and looking higher than our 07, focused on her attack aircraft on the flight deck, starboard side, couldn’t see her port side. I couldn’t take my eyes away, but the relative speed of two ships passing in the fog did within a few moments. Moments that would forever more be with me. I never saw the USS Enterprise again. The Enterprise and the other attack carrier that came, can’t now recall, let’s call it the fog of war, with their escorts, are on the scene with us. I knew it’s for real, payback time. No more waiting, slash and burn upon landing, we’re going to get our Pueblo and crew back. Why else would they send the two other carriers and ships? It’s High Noon right? Moral aboard the Yorktown now peaked, every man aboard was convinced the waiting was over. The weeks of freezing throughout every compartment forgotten. Our blood’s up as is our fighting spirit, it’s only a matter of hours or days at most. This is why we drilled, why we had two full tours in the Gulf of Tonkin. I’m in CIC more than my duty station up topside. I have to know from the vast number of Intel sources there, that and I’m one of the most experienced on any station. I belong with my shipmates, not the boots on lookout. Besides, we can’t see shit past a matter of yards. Such was my attitude; the new Chief had one too. Whenever he left the Chief’s mess to drop in CIC and caught me in there, he’d chew my ass. I’d reply just getting coffee for my guys Chief. He couldn’t bust me for that, but we both knew, everyone knew. The cat and mouse game played out 24/7, and I’m no fucking mouse. I’m a 20-year-old war-seasoned salty sailor wanting to do the job for which I am trained. Our other Chief, a great guy I respected named Sorrel made Chief after two years with us. He’d try to help me with my frustration, and I appreciated that, but after serving as the lone ranger with ONI and my natural nature, well it was hard. I didn’t act ignorant or do anything a good E-4 doesn’t do to circumvent his Chief, it’s only natural to forget the Chief was once an E-4 and knows what I’m thinking and doing before I do. Thinking of nothing but the Pueblo’s crew, the fucking Chief, the fucking freezing weather, the fucking waiting weeks for the fight, the fucking Navy that just extended this short timer’s enlistment, it was a perfect storm for this fucking fighting PO-3 as well as most of my shipmates. Attack the bastards, and we’re OK with all this and a lot more. It was the perfect storm about to get worse.
It wasn’t long, perhaps a week, before the USS Enterprise and the other carrier or two and their ships left for Nam. We’re alone again, the Yorktown and some destroyers, steaming in that goddamn fifty-mile figure eight offshore. This is where we came in over a month ago. I don’t have the words to describe the betrayal I, we, felt. How could the United States do this to the Pueblo’s crew? It was incomprehensible. It was unforgivable. My shipmates felt so too. It was so fucked I quit. The truth is I have no memory whatsoever of the next few months. I know from old shipmates in recent years that we steamed off North Korea for a few weeks more, did another stint in the Gulf of Tonkin, made port in Subic and I have no memory of any of that. Fuck it. The only thing I recall is in mid-April something happened to a propeller shaft while steaming in the Gulf and the joke going around was that we’d hit a rock. I was due for discharge on April 24th, the day before my 21st birthday, but had been extended like so many others. We had to make way to Yokosuka for dry dock repairs, but I didn’t give a shit. It was the worst of times.
My next and last story picks up from there with an ending you can’t make up and one that’s never left me if triggered by a certain song of the era. Fast forward a few months and due to my experiences in the Navy, taking off alone to parts unknown in foreign lands described in prior stories, ONI, hearing men die in CIC, all that my Navy was in 1964-68, all three years eleven months and three weeks, a kiddie cruiser. I became a street cop, one of a handful, in the blue-collar ghetto mobbed up end of Las Vegas in time for the start of riots, Black Panthers, SDS, snipers, and ambushes. Burning of draft cards, something I never had, wasn’t old enough. I found my fight after all. It was the best of times.
PS I followed the Pueblo’s story over the years the same as all of you, and we know the reason why it happened, The Rat-Bastard Traitor Walker Family and the USSR’s need for an updated U.S.Navy cryptograph machine. Any thoughts on this “Incident”?