The defection of a South Korean crew and internment of a US ship and sailors in the spring of 1949
On display at Pyongyang’s Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is the USS Pueblo, the American intelligence ship captured by the North Korean navy in 1968. The story of the Pueblo’s capture and the 336 day internment of the navy ship’s crew are well-known. However, the Pueblo was not the first incident of an American ship and group of American sailors interned in North Korea. The first incident happened less than one year after the foundation of the DPRK and before the outbreak of the Korean War.
On May 29, 1949 the SS Kimball R. Smith, registered out of Mobile, Alabama, sailed into Nampo harbour. The ship was one of five ‘Baltic Coaster’, a type of shallow-hulled coastal transport, on loan from the US government to South Korea as part of the American Mission in Korea (AMIK). The Kimball R Smith was being used for training purposes when the South Korean crew mutinied and defected to the north. On board were two American merchant mariners, Captain Alfred T. Meschter and Chief Engineer Albert C. Willis, who had been assigned to train the crew.
A North Korean news reel entitled ‘The Transport Ship Smith Patriotically Enters the North’ recorded the arrival of the ship in Nampo harbour and celebrations put on for the South Korean crew in the city centre. See from 02:20-05:35 in the clip below:
The news reel itself dates from after October 1949 as it includes the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. It shows the grand welcome for the South Korean sailors as they disembark the ship and are taken by bus to a celebration in the city centre. The reel does not show the American mariners.
Meschter and Willis were detained in North Korea for 81 days until their release at the 38th parallel to John J. Muccio, the first American Ambassador to South Korea (source). At the time, as today, the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Meschter continued to serve with AMIK in Korea and volunteered to stay behind and operate the Port of Pusan during the Battle of the Pusan Perimeter (source).
The SS Kimball R Smith, undoubtedly renamed, was used in North Korean service during the Korean War. It is unclear if the ship was destroyed during the war or later scrapped.
Despite the fanfare for the ship's arrival in Nampo in 1949, the story of the mutiny is largely unknown in comparison to the stories of the capture of the USS Pueblo and the destruction of the SS General Sherman in 1866. As is normally the case in the United States, the history of the merchant marine is largely eclipsed by that of the navy and the story of the SS Kimball R Smith remains a minor footnote in the history books.
If anyone knows more details of the story of the SS Kimball R Smith and its crew, both Korean and American, we would be interested in hearing from you. Please send us an e-mail to info [at] koryogroup.com