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November 19, 2023

USS Pueblo POW’s Secret “Flipping the Bird” Gesture to North Korea Captors, 1968

U.S. POWs in North Korean repeatedly gave the middle finger to the photographer in every photo that was taken of them in 1968. When the Koreans realized the hand signal was always being used, they asked the prisoners what it meant. The POWs said it was good luck in Hawaiian.

The morning of January 23, 1968, North Korea attacked a US reconnaissance ship in international waters and captured its crew. They were held, severely tortured, and used for propaganda for 11 months. The Captain was repeatedly beaten, and threatened with execution. He repeated over and over “the Pueblo was in international waters.” He was driven at night to a building in Pyongyang where he was shown a human being hanging on a wall. The man had an eye dangling out of it’s socket, was bloodied and beaten savagely but, he was still alive. Captain Bucher was told “this is what we do to spies!” He repeated again “our ship was in international waters, I will not sign your god damned confession.” Finally, he was told that his crew would be executed one by one beginning with the youngest man if he did not confess. That crewman was brought in and a gun was placed to his head. The Captain finally relented.

In August 1968, eight sailors were photographed by the North Koreans where every sailor held up his middle finger, the meaning of which was not recognized by their captors. “We told them the finger was a Hawaiian good luck sign so they thought that was wonderful,” Lt. Schumacher remembered. “In two short movies shown in June, people on the street in London were shown giving the finger to the North Korean cameraman. It became obvious that these people did not know the meaning of this symbol of contempt, and that they were also unfamiliar with current western “culture,” or colloquialisms. In the coerced letters written to families, friends and political figures, and in subsequent “press” conferences the Pueblo men now attempted to use this knowledge as a means to discredit their captor’s propaganda efforts.”

This photo, distributed by North Korea’s central photo agency, shows the already hijacked USS Pueblo. According to the North Koreans, the US Navy ship was in North Korean waters. which the US and the crew of the Pueblo denied.

The first press conference to include Pueblo enlisted men was held August 13. It was for North Korean press only and was supposedly televised to the nation. An intentional press conference held September 12 was for the world press. It included a reporter named Lionel Martin from the New York Guardian. Both times innuendos and archaic Americanism language and idioms were inserted into the North Korean forced prepared statements to thwart their propaganda. The photography sessions were staged. The “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” was exhibited by many crew members in defiance and contempt.

One of the photograph was published on October 18, 1968 in Time Magazine who explained the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” as coded “F*** You” message. When North Korea read the magazine and saw they had been made fools of, they severely beat and tortured the U.S. prisoners. “The duty officers were asking about the finger gesture, what did it mean? What did it really mean. We stuck to our cover story, it was the Hawaiian Good Luck sign. This was buying time and we knew it, but not much... (They) were trying to ferret out the truth. The Robot began asking questions. Bucher passed on to Charlie Law that they were on to us. We had been victorious, we had ruined their propaganda efforts. The only problem was that they figured it out before we left town. Bucher warned the crew to prepare for the worst. Our treatment and food continued its down hill slide. We knew that if we weren’t out before winter hit, many of us would not be around for spring. Along with the fear of torture and pain was a very real fear of death.

“The first shoe fell on December 7. Room 13, the guys in that famous room photo with four out of eight guys giving the finger, were summoned before the Robot. After being questioned they were returned to their room. Shortly after a guard came and called out Berens, Bland, Layton and Goldman. Bland was the first to return. The Bear had beaten him, his face was red and swollen, one eye was nearly shut. Jim Layton returned next. Berens returned next, he too had been savaged by the Bear. Goldman was the last to return. A veteran of the Korean War whose service record listed service on a minesweeper that had mined Wonsan harbor, received extra attention, he had been beaten by the Possum. His face was bleeding, his lip was split and his ear was badly torn. All was quiet until Saturday afternoon, the General called and all hands meeting. We had not been sincere, we would be punished. The gloves were off.”

“In June, we were taken to the Club for yet another film. Unlike the usual fare of feature films of the war movie, labor hero genre, we were shown two short subjects. One was a film about the DPRK soccer team's visit to the play-offs in London. The other was about a US service man’s body being returned to the UN side at Panmunjom by the DPRK. Two different subjects, but one common action united the two films. The film about the soccer team began with the North Korean team arriving in London and driving through the streets in a bus festooned with flags of the DPRK. As the bus drove down the street one proper English gentleman complete with derby and umbrella spotted the bus and flipped it off! The man must have been a Korean War vet and he was giving the bus the finger.

“Whoever was taking the pictures zoomed in on it. A murmur went through the crew; the KORCOMs didn’t know what the finger meant. This was further demonstrated in the second film in which a US Navy Officer flipped off the cameraman. They left it in. We now had a weapon! Back in our rooms we were elated, this was one more thing we could use to discredit the propaganda we were being forced to grind out. Several crew members expressed caution, but the general attitude was use it. We had been captured, but we never surrendered. Damn the Koreans, full fingers ahead. The finger became an integral part of our anti-propaganda campaign. Any time a camera appeared, so did the fingers. A concern grew among us that sooner or later the Koreans would notice this and ask questions. It was decided that if the question was raised, the answer was to be that the finger was a gesture known as the Hawaiian Good Luck sign, a variation of the Hang Loose gesture. In late August one of the duty officers asked about the finger and seemed to be accepting of the explanation, but most of us realized that our zeal to ruin their propaganda would come back to haunt us, eventually.”

On December 23, 1968, U.S. officials finally agreed to sign a “confession” declaring that the Pueblo had trespassed in North Korean waters, although they did so only after formally stating that they didn’t believe in the statement they were signing. Satisfied, North Korea released the prisoners, who arrived back in the states on Christmas Eve.

The crew’s relief from their ordeal was brief. A weeks-long Naval inquiry was held to investigate charges that the men had surrendered without a fight and failed to destroy classified documents aboard the Pueblo. Crewmen wept during the inquiry as they testified about the abuses suffered while held captive. Finally, the navy dismissed the case. Crew members were eventually awarded medals, including 10 men who received the Purple Heart.

One thing that did not return with the crew was the USS. Pueblo. It still resides in North Korea, where it’s a tourist attraction at the Victorious War Museum in Pyongyang.

On December 23, 1968, all hostages are released and cross the famous “Bridge of No Return” in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. A cameraman captures the historical scene and then distributes cigarettes. Just a few hours earlier, a senior US general had apologized in writing to North Korea and described the hostages’ previous confessions as accurate. The US government will soon take all of this back.

Some men of the crew arrive at the airport in Seoul, South Korea. From there we went back to the USA. After arriving in San Diego, the men were still not really free and could not celebrate Christmas together with their loved ones. The men were immediately intensively questioned and examined by US specialists.

Lloyd Bucher, here on his return from North Korea at Christmas 1968, soon came under fire in the USA for giving up the Pueblo without a fight. He later justified himself by having an “overwhelming feeling” of “taking revenge and shooting back.” But given North Korea's superiority, this would have been “suicide.” In 1969, an investigative commission made up of five US Navy admirals called for Bucher to be brought before a military court; however, this recommendation was overruled. The controversial ex-captain retired to California in old age, painted a lot, grew avocados and died in 2004 at the age of 76.

The US sailor Duane Hodges died as a result of a serious injury he sustained in combat during the hijacking of the USS Pueblo. With the release of the 82 prisoners, the USA also had to confirm to North Korea that it had received a body.

Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy could not and did not want to miss the return of the USS Pueblo hostages on December 24, 1968 in the Californian coastal city of San Diego. Reagan was still governor of California at the time, and the return at Christmas provided beautiful.

The USS Pueblo, which was hijacked in 1968, has been in the hands of the communist Kim dynasty for 50 years now. The US reconnaissance ship was initially brought to the port of Wonsan. In 1998, the North Koreans sailed it in disguise around the Korean Peninsula into the port of the capital Pyongyang. There the Pueblo serves as a patriotic museum.


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