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Naval Court of Inquiry
The Court of Inquiry was called to order January 20, 1969 by Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Jr. at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, CA. Counsel to the Court was Captain William G. Newsome and Cdr William Clemons, assistant counsel. Cdr. Bucher’s counsels included E. Miles Harvey, a civilian attorney and USN Reserve Captain along with Captain Keys, USN. Cdr. Bucher presented the most detailed testimony of anyone over many days, covering the time from when he assumed command in Bremerton, WA, until repatriation. All the USS PUEBLO officers, petty officers, civilian oceanographers and enlisted men were called to testify.
Cdr. Bucher described the condition of the Pueblo when he arrived at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington in January 1967. He recommended that a destruction system be installed for the ship’s electronic and cryptographic areas. He stated that the ship’s telephone system permitted use by too many persons simultaneously and that scuttling the ship would have taken 2.5 hours. While in port in Pearl Harbor he was told if a situation developed that was worse than harassment, assistance may not arrive as soon as desired, but retaliatory plans existed. When in Japan two .50-caliber machine guns and three gun mount postions were installed.
In Cdr. Bucher’s further testimony he discussed Pueblo’s trip from Sasebo to the operational area, navigational procedures, oceanographic operations, observation by North Korean fishing trawlers, the attempt to send a radio message, and specifically denied the 17 intrusions into territorial waters claimed by the North Korean propaganda. He then presented details of the seizure of Pueblo by the naval forces of the North Korean Peoples Army. See Pueblo Incident Attacked Subsection for details. Counsel for the court asked Cdr. Bucher questions about his decisions, power to resist, and the destruction of classified materials while Pueblo was under attack.
After he stated that the North Koreans had boarded Pueblo, he was told by counsel for the court that he was suspected of violating Navy Regulations, Article 0730. He was asked by the North Koreans what his mission was and said he responded that it was performing oceanographic research and the electromagnetic study of sunspots. The North Koreans accused him of spying, asked if the crew belonged to the CIA, and asked if he were trying to start another war between the U. S. and North Korea. He was told that he and his men were civilian espionage agents and would be tried and shot.
Court of Inquiry opening
January 20, 1969
At his press conference on January 13 Captain William Newsome, Counsel to the Court, had said that the Code of Conduct was "inapplicable" to the Pueblo crew. Now, on February 20, he declared, "It's become obvious that the code is applicable in this situation. . . . One of the tasks of the court is to examine the code to see whether or not it meets our present needs, to see whether or not it's adequate under all circumstances, to see whether we can propose any revisions to it. We have an excellent vehicle for doing that right now." (Trevor Armbrister: A Matter of Accountability)
Why was the Navy reversing its position? " We have had long and learned dissertations from other sources," Captain Newsome replied. Which sources? No comment. What had happened, in fact, was that the Navy had simply decided to protect its flank. The original plan to call fifteen or twenty witnesses during the court's final phase clearly wouldn't suffice. Someone might complain later that he had not been given a chance to testify openly. So the decision had been made: Every member of the crew would have his day in court. And if this additional testimony shed any new light on the Code of Conduct, well, that would be all to the good. (Trevor Armbrister: A Matter of Accountability)
January 13, 1969
US Navy Press Conference held prior to the start of the Court of Inquiry.
January 20, 1969
Court of Inquiry opens
Since January 20 the court had met for more than two hundred hours to hear one hundred and four witnesses (eighty-one in open session) provide 3,392 single-spaced, legal-sized pages of testimony. The admirals had flown to Norfolk, Virginia, to inspect Pueblo's sister ship, Palm Beach. To be sure, they had not dug into "all the facts and circumstances" surrounding the incident. They had not summoned shipyard officials from Bremerton or the Commander, Service Force, Pacific Fleet, Rear Admiral Edwin B. Hooper, from Hawaii, or even the former Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, who was living in retirement in San Diego. Nor had they solicited testimony from anyone at the Naval Ships Systems Command, or the National Security Agency, or the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "These agencies were simply beyond my cognizance," Admiral Bowen remembers. "I didn't have the horsepower to take on the entire U.S. Government." He and his colleagues had assumed from the beginning-correctly, as it turned out Congress would probe into the "why" of the Pueblo affair, that their job was simply to determine what happened. (Armbrister)
So now they began the arduous task of adding it all together: the facts, opinions and recommendations which they would have to submit to the convening authority, Admiral John J. Hyland, in Honolulu. There had been conflicts in the testimony, of course: the number of bags of documents jettisoned over the side; the actual state of the sea at the time of the seizure; the various estimates as to how long it would have taken to remove the tarps from the machine guns and open fire. What seemed surprising, though-given the capriciousness of human nature and the fact that all of this had happened more than a year before-was there were so very few significant discrepancies.
…"Their allegiance to each other was remarkable," one admiral says. "It outweighed any other considerations."
March 15, 1969
Court of Inquiry grinds to a close
Secretary of the Navy official findings
"The major factor which led to the PUEBLO's lonely confrontation by unanticipatedly bold and hostile forces was the sudden collapse of a premise which had been assumed at every level of responsibility and upon which every other aspect of the mission had been based -- freedom of the high seas. At that particular point in history, the common confidence in the historic inviolability of a sovereign ship on the high seas in peacetime was shown to have been misplaced. The consequences must in fairness be borne by all, rather than by one or two individuals whom circumstances had placed closer to the crucial event."
(John H. Chafee, Secretary of the Navy, May 6, 1969)
[The previous was paraphrased and extracted verbatim from selected available documents (Armbrister and the Press Releases of the USS PUEBLO Command Information Bureau, U. S. Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado California).
Cdr Bucher and his attorneys
Lt. S. Harris & Cdr Bucher
leave Court of Inquiry
All photos below are Official USN photos
Counsel for the Court
Court Admirals along with Mr. Harvey visit USS PALM BEACH (AGER-3) at Norfolk, Naval base. They examine recently installed 20mm gun mounts.
Press Coverage was intense
Newsweek cover Feb. 2, 1969
Testimony by an expert on
"Law of the Seas"
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In