"I was always a keeper," Alvin Plucker says. "I tend to save everything."
And that's an understatement. In the basement of Plucker's spacious ranch house in LaSalle, Colorado, every bit of wall space and every flat surface is cluttered with memorabilia, much of it yellow with age. Clipped to a projector screen is a creased map of the eastern shoreline of North Korea, with lines tracing the route of the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering ship on which Plucker was a crewmember back in 1968. On a table under a pane of glass is a copy of North Korea's Pyongyang Times, an English-language newspaper, from February 1 of that year, describing the capture a few days earlier of the Pueblo, a so-called "Armed Spy Ship of U.S. Imperialist Aggressor Army." Hanging from a rod attached to the ceiling is the somber gray uniform that Plucker was forced to wear when he and the 81 other survivors of the Pueblo's capture were incarcerated as prisoners of war and tortured repeatedly. And tacked to the wall among other miscellanea is a bumpersticker declaring "REMEMBER THE PUEBLO" — part of the growing American outcry as months passed and the U.S. government seemed to have left the captives to their fate.
The 68-year-old Plucker is constantly collecting more materials for this room, constantly shifting how they're arranged. He's saving a part of history, keeping the memories alive.
And there, in a photo album on a side table, is documentation of what makes the Pueblo incident not just "one of the worst intelligence debacles in American history," as Act of War, a recent book on the subject, describes it, but one of the oddest episodes in the history of U.S. espionage. In photo after faded photo taken by their North Korean captors, Plucker and his fellow prisoners stare straight-faced at the camera — and give the world the finger.
On the cold, gray afternoon of January 23, 1968, eighteen days into the Pueblo's three-week mission, Plucker was just off duty and preparing to get some sleep when an announcement came over the intercom demanding that all hands get below deck: Four North Korean vessels — three torpedo boats and a larger submarine chaser — were closing in. Soon other North Korean ships appeared, and two North Korean fighter jets roared overhead. When the Pueblo signaled that it was conducting oceanographic research and raised an American flag, the North Koreans signaled the boat to stand down so it could be boarded. When the Pueblo instead attempted to escape, one of the North Korean ships opened fire, wounding the Pueblo's captain, Commander Lloyd Bucher, and several others. The cat-and-mouse game continued, with North Korean gunfire eventually killing Pueblo crewmember Duane Hodges and injuring many others.
The American ship was outnumbered and out of options. The vessel was minimally armed, and the closest U.S. military air support was hours away. So just before 3 p.m., the Pueblo surrendered, shutting down its two diesel engines. It was the first U.S. Navy ship to surrender during peacetime in 150 years. When North Korean officers boarded their prize, they found a trove of classified documents in various stages of hurried destruction.
The Pueblo wasn't an oceanographic vessel, the North Koreans realized. They'd captured a U.S. spy boat.
Plucker was the ship's quartermaster, responsible for maintaining the vessel's nautical charts and maps. Data-gathering and record maintenance suited Plucker, since he'd always been a collector. Growing up on a trout farm in southwestern Nebraska, he'd wander the plains for hours — partly to stay away from his violent father, partly to scout for arrowheads. But he couldn't always avoid his father's fury. When Plucker was eighteen, his father hit him so hard he left home for good, hitchhiking to Colorado Springs and eventually enlisting in the Navy. He figured that was his safest military option, since the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War. "All the Marines were getting shot up," he explains. "And I'd heard from a sailor about all the wild women."
Plucker saw action in the Navy, but mostly of a different sort. He was assigned as a quartermaster to the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier engaged in jet raids over Vietnam and recovery missions for downed helicopters. With two months left in his enlistment, Plucker received orders that he was being transferred to the USS Pueblo, a ship he'd never heard of — and when he flew to Washington state and saw it moored in Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, he could see why. "That thing was a piece of junk," he says of the 176-foot vessel, a light cargo ship that was then more than twenty years old. But that was the point: The ship was supposed to look as inconspicuous as possible, to conceal its real mission. The Pueblo was part of Operation Clickbeetle, the code name for a secret new Navy program that was turning old freighters into spy boats. Retrofitted with surveillance equipment, designated as AGER-2 (short for Auxiliary General Environmental Research) and sent across the Pacific with Plucker and 82 other crewmembers aboard, the Pueblo set off from a U.S. naval base in Japan on January 5, 1968, ostensibly to collect oceanographic data — but what it was really collecting was information on the Russian Navy and coded messages from North Korea.