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Nevada Air Guard Pueblo activation nears 50th anniversary

Newspaper clippings during the Nevada Air National Guard's 18-month activation in 1968-1969 after North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, followed the story with keen interest and front page coverage in Reno, Nev..

Newspaper clippings during the Nevada Air National Guard's 18-month activation in 1968-1969 after North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, followed the story with keen interest and front page coverage in Reno, Nev..

Nevada Air National Guard Base -- News of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test launch last week represents the latest chapter in a complex, 64-year armed truce that included a sudden activation of the Nevada Air National Guard nearly half century ago.

In 1968, more than 600 airmen of Reno’s 152nd Reconnaissance Group activated on one-day notice for activation; many deployed near the demilitarized zone in South Korea. Reno news media closely followed the activation that according to editorials “jolted” northern Nevada and received criticism from leaders in state government and the Nevada National Guard, all while the nation entered the high-water mark of the late-1960s protest era.

Sudden activation
The military phrase “hurry up and wait” aptly described the uncertainty in the air on Jan. 26, 1968 at the Nevada Air National Guard Base in Reno.
Notified the day before, Nevada Air Guardsmen reported to the base in Reno at the direction of President Lyndon Johnson, who activated more than 14,000 Air Force and Navy reservists from around the nation following North Korea’s capture of the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy research vessel with a crew of 83 sailors.

“There are going to be a lot of questions and we don’t have a lot of answers,” 152nd Reconnaissance Group Commander Col. James Dalzell was quoted in newspaper reports telling his 650 airmen on the first day of the activation.

The airmen represented a wide swath of people in northern Nevada, including teachers, lawyers, journalists, construction foremen and college students. All immediately left their jobs and classes to report for duty.

“We were in limbo,” said Ed Pearce, a veteran broadcast reporter for KOLO 8 News Now in Reno who worked at the Nevada State Journal in 1968 and served as a photo interpreter for the reconnaissance unit. “It was not an easy limbo to be in. Most of us had to walk away from our civilian jobs and salaries.”

Retired Col. Chris Anastassatos, a senior airman at the time, was driving up Lake Street to register for classes at the University of Nevada, Reno when he got word of the activation. 

“My stock broker was in the Guard, so I went over there and said, ‘Hey what’s going on?’ Anastassatos said. “He said we were called to active duty. It was really exciting, to tell you the truth.”

Pearce and other airmen described the sudden activation as jarring, but admitted their experience was not nearly as bad as the crew aboard the Pueblo, who were tortured and released 11 months after the seizure in December 1968. Today the ship remains one of the North Korea’s most prized war trophies docked at its “Victorious War Museum.”

The ship’s capture came two weeks after a failed assassination plot of South Korea’s president. Earlier that month, North Korean infiltrators broke through the demilitarized zone and moved near the entrance of South Korea’s Blue House where the nation’s president, Park Chung-hee, lived. The plot failed when South Korean police killed all but two of the infiltrators. 

While the U.S. said the ship remained in international waters 15 miles off the nearest land, North Korea disagreed and surrounded the ship with a handful of aircraft carriers holding Soviet-manufactured fighter jets. One U.S. sailor was killed by machine gun fire during the capture. Meanwhile, North Korea backed the North Vietnamese in Southeast Asia, and the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War occurred a week after the Pueblo capture. The Cold War was hot in 1968. 

Reservists called to active duty
For five months after the ship’s capture, the airmen worked at the base in Reno. In June, more than half of the Reno airmen moved to Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base outside Kansas City, Missouri. The remaining airmen deployed to various locations around the world, including Japan, South Korea and Panama. The 152nd Combat Support Squadron was assigned to the Fifth Air Force from August 1968 to May 1969 as the main U.S. Air Force support organization at South Korea’s Suwon Air Base. During the activation, some Nevada airmen were within 50 miles of the demilitarized zone.

When Nevadans arrived at the base in South Korea, they were briefed on the difference between an “armed truce” and a “peace treaty.” As one Nevada airmen wrote home: “Vietnam is a deadly, loud war. Korea is yet a cold war and quieter, much quieter. Too quiet some of us think.”

Throughout the activation, local papers in Reno ran front-page headlines and even included re-occurring columns from those deployed.

The crisis remains the most protested activation in Nevada National Guard history and even Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt was quoted as saying it was a “colossal mistake,” largely because he and Nevada National Guard leadership protested what they alleged was the federal government’s inability to lay out a specific mission and frustrations from how the activation split up, or “cut into bits,” the unit’s operation and support elements. Today, splitting up units has become common in the National Guard, but it was not as common in 1968. 

Additionally, two Nevada Air Guardsmen died during the activation. Airman Douglas J. Gaeta Jr., a maintainer from Crystal Bay, died when he fell working from a ladder connected to one of the unit’s F-101 aircraft. On Feb. 28, 1969, three months before the end of the activation, Lt. Col. Mervin Johnson, a co-pilot who flew missions in Japan and Korea earlier in the activation, lost his life during a takeoff crash in Denver, Colorado. He had been reassigned to Missouri after his serving overseas. 

The vessel’s capture and subsequent activation of reservists that followed receives relatively little historical recognition today, especially in comparison to other headlines of that year, including the Tet Offensive, assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 1968 presidential election that saw Richard Nixon win that year’s presidential election.

But even with its relative obscurity in the history books the stalemate continues a half century after the Pueblo’s capture — nearly seven decades after the Korean War — and remains a great consternation among many world leaders.