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North Korea to put captured US spy ship on display

Friday - 7/26/2013, 3:12am  ET

FILE - In this undated file photo from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Navy USS Pueblo sails underway at sea. The ship is North Korea’s greatest Cold War prize, a potent symbol of how the country has stood up to the great power of the United States, once in an all-out ground war and now with its push to develop the nuclear weapons and the sophisticated missiles it needs to threaten the U.S. mainland. (AP Photo/USN, File)

ERIC TALMADGE
Associated Press

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- If there was ever any doubt about what happened to the only U.S. Navy ship that is being held by a foreign government, North Korea has cleared it up. It's in Pyongyang. And it looks like it's here to stay.

With a fresh coat of paint and a new home along the Pothong River, the USS Pueblo, a spy ship seized off North Korea's east coast in the late 1960s, is expected to be unveiled this week as the centerpiece of a renovated war museum to commemorate what North Korea calls "Victory Day," the 60th anniversary this Saturday of the signing of the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War.

The ship is North Korea's greatest Cold War prize. The government hopes the Pueblo will be a potent symbol of how the country has stood up to the great power of the United States, once in an all-out ground war and now with its push to develop the nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles it needs to threaten the U.S. mainland.

Many of the crew who served on the vessel, then spent 11 months in captivity in North Korea, want to bring the Pueblo home. Throughout its history, they argue, the Navy's motto has been "don't give up the ship." The Pueblo, in fact, is still listed as a commissioned U.S. Navy vessel.

But with relations generally fluctuating in a narrow band between bad to dangerously bad, the United States has made little effort to get back its ship. At times, outsiders weren't even sure where North Korea was keeping the ship or what it planned to do with it.

Requests for interviews with the captain of one of the North Korean ships involved in the attack were denied, and no officials would discuss their plans for it before the formal unveiling.

The Pueblo's capture is a painful reminder of miscalculation and confusion, as well as the unresolved hostilities that keep the two countries in a seemingly permanent state of distrust and preparation for another clash, despite the truce that ended the 1950-1953 war.

Already more than 40 years old and only lightly armed so it wouldn't look conspicuous or threatening as it carried out its intelligence missions, the USS Pueblo was attacked and easily captured on Jan. 23, 1968.

Surrounded by a half dozen enemy ships with MiG fighter jets providing air cover, the crew was unable to put up much of a fight. It scrambled to destroy intelligence materials, but soon discovered it wasn't well prepared for even that.

A shredder aboard the Pueblo quickly became jammed with the piles of papers anxious crew members shoved into it. They tried burning the documents in waste baskets, but smoke quickly filled the cabins. And there were not enough weighted bags to toss all the secret material overboard.

One U.S. sailor was killed when the ship was strafed by machine gun fire and boarded. The remaining 82, including three injured, were taken prisoner. The North Koreans sailed the Pueblo to the port of Wonsan.

For the survivors, that's when the real ordeal began.

"I got shot up in the original capture, so we were taken by bus and then train for an all-night journey to Pyongyang in North Korea, and then they put us in a place we called the barn," said Robert Chicca of Bonita, Calif., a Marine Corps sergeant who served as a Korean linguist on the Pueblo. "We had fried turnips for breakfast, turnip soup for lunch, and fried turnips for dinner. ... There was never enough to eat, and personally, I lost about 60 pounds over there."

Although the ship was conducting intelligence operations, crew members say that most of them had little useful information for the North Koreans. That, according to the crew, didn't stop them from being beaten severely during interrogations.

"The Koreans basically told us, they put stuff in front of us, they said you were here, you were spying, you will be shot as spies," said Earl Phares from Ontario, Calif., who was cleaning up after the noon meal in the galley when the attack began. "Everybody got the same amount of beatings in the beginning."

North Korea said the ship had entered its territorial waters, though the U.S. maintained it was in international waters 15 miles off the nearest land.

The incident quickly escalated. The U.S., deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, sent several aircraft carriers to the Sea of Japan and demanded the captives be released. Just days before the attack, North Korean commandos had launched an assassination attempt on South Korea's President Park Chung-hee at his residence.

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