More than a month after Iran captured two U.S. Navy patrol boats with ten sailors onboard January 12, there is still very little information on what transpired. Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain (Ariz-R), has given President Barack Obama an ultimatum: either provide details of an investigation by March 1 or he will subpoena the sailors to testify before Congress.
For old sailors like McCain, the incident could not help but trigger memories, almost half a century earlier, of the capture of USS Pueblo (AGER-2) by North Korea. But that crew’s reaction to the capture was much different than this crew’s was.
A signals intelligence-gathering vessel, Pueblo was deployed just off the coast of North Korea, in the Sea of Japan, to monitor communications within the Hermit Kingdom. Unfortunately, she was sent into harm’s way with little ability to defend herself against an attack.
That attack came January 23, 1968, after Pyongyang falsely alleged Pueblo had entered North Korean territorial waters, and opened fire on her without warning. The lightly armed—with only two 50-caliber guns wrapped in frozen tarps—and lightly armored intelligence ship, unable to return fire, endeavored to buy more time for rescuers who never came, by evading her attackers for 90-minutes.
Pueblo’s commanding officer, Commander Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, had been assured by his chain-of-command, should trouble occur, the Navy would immediately send help. Repeated flash messages for that assistance went unanswered.
No match for the four attacking North Korean gunboats and two strafing jet aircraft and having already lost one sailor, Bucher had to surrender. Boarded by the North Koreans, her surviving 82 crewmembers were taken captive. They remained in captivity as POWs, underfed and brutally treated, for eleven months.
Today, Pueblo remains in North Korean hands as an American trophy. Interestingly, the ship remains on the U.S. “active service” roll and apparently will continue as such until returned to the U.S. for deactivation.
The Navy has had a long and proud tradition of not giving up a ship without a fight. Accordingly, when the initial, spotty reports came in about Tehran’s capture of the two U.S. Navy boats, those of us who have proudly served assumed a superior Iranian naval force was involved—perhaps one or more of Iran’s 200-foot or 400-foot frigates or destroyers.
As more details emerged, however, it was shocking to learn an embarrassingly small Iranian naval force was involved. The two U.S. Navy gunboats with their three 50-caliber guns, numerous M-4 rifles and small arms—more firepower than Pueblo had—were fully capable of defending themselves against the Iranians, yet made no effort to do so.
Several questions now need answers.
The reasons given for the boats being off-course were faulty navigational equipment and/or mechanical failure. Which was it?
If both, were these failures suffered by both boats simultaneously?
If not, why did the operational boat fail to take the other in tow to ensure it remained in international waters?
Was there an effort made by the U.S. boats to call for assistance, or did both also suffer communications failures at the same time?
If calls went out, why did the Navy’s 5th Fleet fail to take action to rescue the boats and their crews?
What instructions were given to the crews concerning their actions should an incident such as this occur?
If there were no instructions given, why not, particularly in view of Iran’s previous history of seizing boats and their crews?
Why did the senior officer captured—a Navy lieutenant—freely offer an apology instead of demanding the rights international law accords to distressed vessels at sea and their crews?
The American public deserves answers to these questions and the detailed disclosure Senator McCain demands.
The lack of a defensive response in this case smacks too much of a repeat of Benghazi, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the three former Navy SEALs protecting him lost their lives as no assistance was forthcoming from higher command.
Iran’s international obligation to mariners in distress is not to arrest, interrogate and detain them. It is to render assistance, get them out of harm’s way, and return them safely to international waters to continue their transit.
Also in violation of international law, Tehran allegedly confiscated our sailors’ navigational equipment and radios—thus leaving them unsafe, i.e., without direction and communication. This violated maritime law mandating they be allowed all possible means to ensure a continued safe transit.
As if the passive actions of these sailors in failing to defend themselves were not embarrassing enough—and an affront to the courage of surviving Pueblo crewmen—we then had to suffer the further indignity of Secretary of State John Kerry thanking the Iranians for returning sailors they wrongly captured in the first place.
The images we saw on video of the American sailors on their knees, hands clasped behind their heads — a video in violation of rights accorded POWs if Iran considered them as such rather than distressed mariners — were very disconcerting.
Iran’s actions in this incident called for strong American leadership to demand our sailors safe return along with all their equipment, rather than issuing apologies in response to Tehran’s demands for same.
This administration’s lack of a strong response will long be perceived by the world community as a telling sign of an America lacking a backbone. Yet, while Iran’s actions in mistreating our sailors is a direct slap in our face, Obama and Kerry dismiss it, citing the sailors’ ultimate release as a direct result of their “smart diplomacy” at work. Meanwhile, Iran gives medals to those involved in the capture incident.
With Obama and Kerry’s smart diplomacy, we suffer fools, but not so gladly.