Colorado History

Colorado Senate President Calls on North Korea to Return USS Pueblo

The USS Pueblo in Puget Sound during a trial run in 1967.
U.S. Navy
The USS Pueblo in Puget Sound during a trial run in 1967.
While the White House is trying to curtail North Korea's nuclear weapons program, Colorado's state legislature is attempting to negotiate with the isolated Communist nation on another deal.

Today, July 25, Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia signed a proclamation calling on the government of North Korea to return the USS Pueblo, the Navy spy ship that the North Korean military captured in 1968. The ship has sat in North Korean waters ever since it was seized during the height of the Vietnam War. Garcia's proclamation also declared January 23, the day the Pueblo was captured, as USS Pueblo Day.

“While we continue to demand the return of this ship from the Republic of North Korea, I am proud to designate a day to honor the courage of the crew who were captured and remember such an important symbol of strength and pride for both our Navy and the American people," Garcia said in a statement.

Named after Colorado's ninth most-populous city — Navy ships are usually named after states or cities, even though they're not linked directly to their namesake — the Pueblo was cruising off the coast of North Korea to spy on radio signals and spot radar emission locations on a cold, gray day in January 1968. La Salle resident Alvin Plucker, who was one of the 83 original crew members, told Westword in February that the Navy didn't expect the Pueblo to run into any issues during its three-week trip. "The mission was minimal risk," he said.

But the innocuous mission quickly turned into a disaster, as North Korean fighter jets and gun boats swarmed the ship. The Pueblo's captain, Lloyd Bucher, tried to flee, but the gunboats were too fast. After nineteen-year-old Duane Hodges was killed by gunfire, Bucher made the decision that every Navy officer dreads: He turned off the ship's engines and surrendered.

North Korean soldiers then boarded the ship and captured the crew. For the next eleven months, the Navy seamen sat in prison, where they were sometimes tortured. The crew says it survived by using humor — and the middle finger — to make their imprisonment tolerable.

In December 1968, a breakthrough in negotiations finally brought the American soldiers home, just in time for Christmas. But their ship didn't return with them.

The USS Pueblo now operates as an exhibit in North Korea's Victorious War Museum in Pyongyang. Tourists and North Koreans alike are able to visit the Pueblo and snap photos in the ship, whose capture remains one blight among many in relations between the East Asian country and the U.S.

Colorado's politicians have been pushing for the return of the Pueblo for years; every legislative session, the General Assembly passes a resolution calling for the Pueblo to come home. In February, Congressman Scott Tipton, a Republican whose district includes Pueblo, sent a letter to President Donald Trump before his second summit with Kim Jong-un.

"The time has come for the Pueblo to return home to the United States," Tipton wrote. (Those negotiations didn't result in the Pueblo coming home — or much in terms of limiting the nuclear weapons program of North Korea, for that matter.)

If the ship is eventually returned, it may end up in Pueblo. Plucker told us in February that there are plans to anchor the ship on the section of the Arkansas River that runs through town. "In order to get this cloud away, we've got to get the ship back," he said.