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The men in the photos look a little bored and awkward, maybe uncomfortable or even tense.

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The more you know about the photos, the more you read into them. But without context, what you see is young men assembled in rows for a formal group photo, staring into the camera or glumly off to the side. It could be a group photo of colleagues or a social club—a hum-drum setup.

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It was and the United States was solidly mired in the Cold War, spying on the Soviet Union and its allies and being spied upon in return. The U. Pueblo was a Navy intelligence ship whose cover was collecting oceanographic data of the 83 crewmen there were two civilian oceanographers aboardbut its actual duty was collecting intelligence on Russia and North Korea. On January 23, —just 18 days into its first mission—the Pueblo was approached by a North Korean vessel near the port of Wonsan.

The vessel asked them their nationality, and the Pueblo hoisted the American flag. They were told to slow and prepare to be boarded; the Pueblo crew responded that they were But the situation quickly grew dire—three more North Korean boats appeared, and fighter jets flew overhead.

The North Korean ship opened fire on the Pueblo, killing one of the crew and wounding others. The Pueblo was barely armed; rather than fight back they began to frantically burn and dump documents, smashing equipment with axes and hammers. The ship was boarded and the crew taken captive.

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Bedsheets were cut up into blindfolds; they were tied up, punched, kicked, and prodded with bayonets. Soon they were being sped toward North Korea.

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It was the beginning of what would be a day ordeal. The crew has written extensively about their experiences, much of it collected on a website maintained by the U. Pueblo Veterans Association. Upon arriving in North Korea, the Pueblo crew was marched past a hostile public to buses with covered windows that ferried them to a train, also with covered windows.

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The train carried them to Pyongyang, where they were displayed for the waiting press before being taken to the first of two compounds where they would live for nearly a year. Russell recalled a day when he and a few other men were transported to a shed out in the woods where they were told they would take a bath.

Thoughts of World War II gas chambers fresh in his mind, Russell tried to come to terms with his impending death. As the crew suffered, cut off from outside contact, the public panicked. Washington demanded the return of the ship and its crew, North Korea rebuffed such requests, insisting the boat had been in North Korean waters.

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Johnson to deploy the military, if necessary, to retrieve the men. The public bristled, they felt the men had been abandoned. A group of citizens calling themselves the Remember the Pueblo Committee gave speeches, churned out bumper stickers, and tried to keep the media interested in the captives.

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Meanwhile, North Korean officials were launching a media campaign of their own. They filmed and photographed the men for propaganda—even putting them through the bizarre experience of re-enacting their own capture for North Korean cameras, to be distributed as propaganda. They were forced to participate in staged press conferences, where they performed exercise routines before an audience. They were made to false confessions and write letters to family declaring their support for North Korea. Occasionally, the men were the audience.

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One day in June, the group was assembled to watch propaganda films. In both films, something extraordinary happened: Someone flipped the cameraman off.

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You see it in a shot of three bored looking men, two of them casually propping their he up by clearly extended middle fingers. In a group shot of the men seated in two rows, as if for a school photo, a man in the front looks directly into the camera, his hands folded in his lap, and his top middle finger popped out. In fact it was just one of several methods they had for coping with their plight through jokes. The finger was part of a larger campaign that included embedding in-jokes in forced confessions and letters home, giving their captors mocking nicknames, and even a bawdy poem.

For that little period of time, we were in charge of our own lives. During this especially bleak period, the men had no way to know they were actually close to going home.

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On December 23,U. Satisfied, North Korea released the prisoners, who arrived back in the states on Christmas Eve. 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.

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One thing that did not return with the crew was the U. Follow us on Twitter to get the latest on the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook to get the latest on the world's hidden wonders.

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Atlas Obscura and our trusted partners use technology such as cookies on our website to personalisesupport social media features, and analyse our traffic. Please click below to consent to the use of this technology while browsing our site. To learn more or withdraw consent, please visit our cookie policy. Want to see fewer ? Become a Member. The captured crew of the U. Pueblo in October Crew members of the U. Pueblo at a press conference in North Korea, after their ship was captured.

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