Harold Bowen, 87, Admiral Who Led Inquiry of Pueblo Incident
By Richard Goldstein , September 3, 2000
Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen Jr., who presided over the Navy's investigation into one of the most wrenching episodes in its history -- the seizure of the electronic surveillance ship Pueblo by North Korea -- died on Aug. 17 at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 87.
The son of an admiral, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a combat veteran of two wars, Bowen was steeped in Navy traditions, foremost among them: "Don't give up the ship."
Notwithstanding Capt. James Lawrence's time-honored rallying cry in the War of 1812, the Pueblo was given up by its skipper, Cmdr. Lloyd M. Bucher, without firing a shot when it came under attack on Jan. 23, 1968, off the North Korean coast.
While operating in international waters and, according to the U.S. government, monitoring coastal radar stations and submarine movements, the Pueblo was fired upon by North Korean boats. With only two machine guns for defense, 10 crewmen wounded and one killed, Bucher allowed his ship to be boarded and taken to the port of Wonsan.
The 82 surviving crewmen were taken captive and classified documents were seized despite a frantic effort by the Pueblo's crew to destroy all secret materials. The crewmen were held for 11 months, subjected to beatings, then released when a U.S. general in Korea, acting on behalf of the Pentagon, signed a confession, which he at the same time repudiated, stating that the Pueblo had been spying inside North Korean territorial waters.
Bowen was president of a naval court of inquiry that held two months of hearings on the Pueblo affair in Coronado, Calif., in the winter of 1969. The panel of five admirals heard testimony from 104 witnesses, including Bucher, who maintained "we did not have the power to resist" and said he had surrendered the ship to save the lives of his crew.
The Bowen panel recommended unanimously that Bucher undergo a general court-martial -- the most serious form of military trial -- to face charges arising from the loss of his ship and classified documents. It also recommended disciplinary action against two other officers on the Pueblo and two officers in the Navy's Pacific command.
In May 1969, Navy Secretary John H. Chafee ruled that no one would be punished. He said that the Pueblo officers "have suffered enough" and that the inability to anticipate the attack reflected a general failure in the Navy command.
When he presided over the inquiry, Harold Gardiner Bowen Jr. was commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet's Anti-submarine Warfare Force, having spent more than three decades in the Navy.
He was born in Annapolis, Md., graduated from the Naval Academy in 1933, fourth in his class, and received a master's degree in metallurgical engineering in 1942 from the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He served as a gunnery officer on a cruiser and commander of a destroyer in the South Pacific during World War II, then commanded a destroyer division in the Korean War.
Bowen was deputy chief of naval operations for research and development from 1965 to 1967, when he was promoted to vice admiral. He received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.
Bowen retired from the Navy in 1972, then served as president of an intelligence analysis company and as an industrial consultant in electrical wire and cable technology.
He is survived by three daughters, Constance Bowen-Camp, of Mountain View, Calif., Kathryn Wilder, of Soquel, Calif., and Charlotte Phelps, of Denver; and six grandchildren.
A few months after the court of inquiry made its recommendations, Bowen reflected on the Pueblo case from his headquarters in Hawaii.
"That man could have been the greatest hero in the U.S. Navy," Bowen said of Bucher. "But he let government property get away. When the captain fails, the system fails. It opens up seams all the way to the top.
"For a commanding officer to do anything other than guard his ship with his life is indefensible. I'll admit it takes guts; that's what you gotta have. The thought of saving his crew is interesting, humane, but it had nothing at all to do with the job he was assigned to do. Tradition? Yes. The reason it's tradition is that most people have done it."
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov