By John A. Okonski, 51st Fighter Wing Historian
/ Published January 17, 2012
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- At approximately 1345 hours on 23 January 1968 (Korea Time), North Korean patrol boats seized the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence-gathering vessel, in international waters of the East Sea near Wonsan, North Korea. One USS Pueblo crewmember was killed in the boarding, with 82 taken POW, and later held captive for 11 months.
The seizure took place two days after a North Korean commando team attempted to assassinate Republic of Korea President Park Chung Hee in Seoul. These incidents only highlighted ongoing provocations by the North over the previous several years which had been known as the "Second Korean War."
The USS Pueblo seizure shocked the Free World with strong public sentiment in the US calling for firm retaliatory action against North Korea. However, the US was deeply involved in the South Vietnam conflict which required enormous amounts of military assets. Yet, the seizure served as a catalyst to strengthen US commitment to South Korea over the following months.
Once word was received by the civilian and military leadership in Washington DC that the USS Pueblo was boarded and seized by the NK forces, they immediately weighed their options in attempting a rescue and recovery of the crew and ship. Outright military action was considered, but deemed too risky. Complicating the situation was the beginning of the Battle of Khe Sanh in South Vietnam followed by the Tet Offensive at the end of the month. Concerned that military action would put the crew at risk, President Lyndon B. Johnson began a diplomatic campaign to free the men through the United Nations Security Council. However, he also ordered a buildup of USAF forces on the Peninsula on 26 January to include activation of Air National Guard (ANG) units.
When the USS Pueblo was taken, USAF combat forces on the Peninsula were limited to rotation of fighters to Osan and Kunsan ABs from bases in Japan. The fighters had been on special alert, and would not have provided immediate air coverage.
Within 2 hours after the USS Pueblo seizure, the Fifth Air Force commander, who was located at Fuchu AS, Japan, and had overall responsibility for operations for USAF activities on the Korean Peninsula, ordered the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing's (TFW) 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) with 34 F-105s to deploy from Kadena AB, Okinawa, to Osan AB, and the 475 TFW's 356 TFS with 14 F-4Cs to deploy from Misawa AB, Japan, to Kunsan AB. While partial deployment of both units occurred late on 23 January, the remainder of these elements arrived in South Korea on 29 January. The 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing's 82d Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS), based at Naha AB, Okinawa, also was tasked to deploy to South Korea. The squadron arrived at Suwon AB on 30 January with 22 F-102s. A fourth PACAF unit-- the 12 TFW's 558 TFS, based at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam--further was tasked to deploy, and arrived at Kunsan AB with 14 RF-4Cs on 4 February, and then moved to Taegu AB on 10 March.
Once the National Command Authorities decided upon a course of action, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) ordered a buildup of USAF forces in South Korea on 26 January while directing three naval carrier groups which had been dedicated to the conflict in South Vietnam to take stations off the coast of South Korea.
The USAF response to the USS Pueblo crisis was dubbed Operation COMBAT FOX. It became a two-phase operation with initial deployment by active duty units followed by Air Reserve (AFR) and Air National Guard (ANG) units. Initial deployment of more than 180 combat aircraft to South Korea and Okinawa came from units within PACAF, Tactical Air Command (TAC), Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Aerospace Defense Command (ADC).
The following TAC units deployed to South Korea: the 4 TFW, based at Seymour-Johnson AFB, North Carolina, deployed with three combat squadrons (334 TFS, 335 TFS, and 336 TFS) and 72 F-4Ds to Kunsan AB between 31 January and 4 February; the 363d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing's 19th Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron, from Shaw AFB, South Carolina, deployed with six EB-66s to Osan AB on 3 February. The squadron, however, moved to Taegu AB on 12 February to make room for the 4537th Electronic Warfare Squadron, Nellis AFB, Nevada, and its six specially-configured F-105 Wild Weasel aircraft which deployed to Osan AB by 4 February.
The JCS also directed that SAC deploy a squadron each of B-52s and KC-135As to Kadena AB. Strategic Air Command's 91st Bombardment Wing, Glasgow AFB, Montana, deployed its 322d Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron and 907th Air Refueling Squadron with 15 B-52Gs and 10 KC-135As to Kadena AB in early February.
Of note, ADC's 318 FIS, flying F-106s based at McChord AFB, Washington, deployed on 11 February with stops at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, and Naha AB, Okinawa. The squadron landed at Osan AB on 18 February., and was the first ADC unit ever to deploy overseas.
Aside from combat units being deployed, civil engineering Prime BEEF teams made up of personnel in the Continental United States (CONUS) rushed to South Korea to provide immediate facilities construction and support. Concurrently, HQ USAF activated the 557th Civil Engineering Squadron (Heavy Repair) (RED HORSE) in February 1968, quickly manned it with personnel from CONUS units, and provided them with special construction and weapons training before deployment to Osan AB by 24 March 1968. The 400-man squadron then sent detachments to four other bases (Suwon, Kunsan, Taegu, and Kwangju) to augment the PRIME BEEF teams in construction of facilities and quarters for approximately 8,000 TDY personnel.
To ensure that the deployment of combat and support units was accomplished safely and efficiently, HQ PACAF's 315th Air Division, based at Tachikawa AB, Japan, directed airlift operations for the contingency. Aside from its C-130 fleet, the division was augmented by the C-130-equipped 38th Tactical Airlift Squadron (TAS), Langley AFB, Virginia, and 779 TAS, Pope AFB, North Carolina for intra-theater airlift.
Military Airlift Command (MAC) supported the massive airlift operation of personnel and equipment with C-124s, C-133s, and C-141s at Osan, Kimpo, and Kunsan ABs. During the first three weeks of Operation COMBAT FOX, MAC aircraft moved 7,861 passengers and nearly 12,800 tons of cargo in 836 missions to Korea and Japan.
By the summer of 1968, most of the deployed units returned to their home bases as other active duty, AFR, and ANG units arrived in South Korea. When President Johnson approved the initial deployment on 26 January, he also signed mobilization orders for 12 ANG units of which two--the 127 TFS and 166 TFS--later deployed with F-100Cs to Kunsan AB in July 1968. Additionally, a number of AFR and ANG personnel deployed to each base to serve in base support activities.
As the USAF established its forces on the Korean Peninsula, negotiations between the United Nations Military Armistice Commission and North Korea continued at Panmunjom through the year. Eleven months after the seizure, North Korea repatriated the USS Pueblo crew and one set of remains to the US through Panmunjom on 23 December 1968. The ship remained in the Wonson Harbor, North Korea (The ship later was transported to Pyongyang in 1999). It is the only active duty USN ship to be held in captivity by a hostile foreign power. Operation COMBAT FOX wound down by early 1969 after the release of the crew; however, rotational deployments of combat units to South Korea continued indefinitely.
What seemed like a weak and indecisive response to the USS Pueblo seizure, in reality, was a signal to North Korea that US military forces would be brought to bear against any designs to invade the Republic of Korea. Headquarters Fifth Air Force had been aware of the Pueblo mission, but it had not been a part of any contingency planning; yet, it still responded almost immediately to deter any further provocations by North Korea. The crisis further engendered a renewed commitment by the US to strengthen not only the USAF on the Peninsula, but also those of the ROK Air Force. The USAF fighter deployments continued after Operation COMBAT FOX, and eventually led to the permanent basing of the 3 TFW at Kunsan AB on 15 March 1971.