The USS Pueblo set out for the chilly waters off North Korea that January day of 1968 on what should have been a routine mission of the Cold War: Carry out electronic surveillance of radar stations and watch for passing ships from the Soviet Union.

But as the Americans were skirting the North Korean coast, the communists swooped and captured the ship and its crew, pushing both nations close to war.

"There were lots of people crying for vengeance," said Jack Cheevers, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times whose book on the notorious incident was published this month. "Our government was under enormous pressure. People said it was an insult to our flag and that we needed to respond. It's something you could easily see happening today."

Cheevers spent more than a decade trawling through public records as he researched "Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo" (New American Library, $27.95, 448 pages). He also interviewed several crew members, including the ship's captain, Lloyd M. Bucher.

What Cheevers was not able to secure for his vivid and engaging account, despite trying, was help from the North Korean authorities.

"I sent a letter to Kim Jong Il, care of the central post office in Pyongyang," Cheevers said. "I really wasn't expecting a response. But then I got an email from a North Korean official at the United Nations, asking for more details."

After exchanging emails, Cheevers suggested they meet for dinner when the official stopped off on the West Coast when returning to North Korea. Shortly afterward, Washington accused Pyongyang of enriching uranium to produce nuclear weapons.

"I never heard from the official again," Cheevers said.

North Korea maintains the Pueblo was in its territorial waters when patrol and torpedo boats surrounded the vessel on Jan. 23, 1968. The United States says the Pueblo, a converted training ship based in Japan with minimum armament, was in international waters.

The confrontation stretched over several hours as the Americans attempted to maneuver away and escape. Sailor Duane Hodges was killed when the North Koreans opened fire. Shrapnel wounded 10 others, including Bucher.

The Americans attempted to destroy sensitive material before the North Koreans boarded, but 600 pounds of it fell into communist hands.

Bucher and the other 81 captured sailors were starved and routinely beaten over the next 11 months. The guards singled out Bucher for especially harsh treatment, including putting the captain before a mock firing squad, Cheevers said.

"He carried himself with a lot of authority," said the Oakland author, who conducted extensive interviews with the retired skipper before he died in January 2004 at age 76. "He had genuine charisma. He was a gregarious man. But he was an emotional man, too."

After the North Koreans threatened to execute his crew, Bucher "confessed" to spying.

What remains unknown is exactly why the North Koreans attacked the USS Pueblo. Cheevers believes the incident must be viewed against the tumultuous events of 1968.

Two days before the Pueblo was captured, communist commandos attempted to assassinate the South Korean president. And a week afterward, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, putting additional pressure on President Lyndon Johnson, just as diplomatic efforts were getting underway to free Bucher and his men.

"The administration was very worried that the Soviets were involved," Cheevers said. "They wanted to know, 'Was it deliberate?' 'Why did it happen?' 'What's the message they are trying to send?' "

Pyongyang released the Pueblo's crew the day before Christmas Eve in 1968. The men walked to freedom across the "Bridge of No Return" at the Military Demarcation Line with South Korea.

Now a floating tourist attraction in Pyongyang, the Pueblo remains a commissioned U.S. Navy ship.

A Navy Court of Inquiry recommended a court martial for Bucher over the loss of the vessel. But Navy Secretary John Chafee said the captain and his crew had suffered enough.

Bucher never expressed regrets about his actions, Cheevers said.

"I think Bucher felt he had been placed in a no-win situation," the author said. "He was trapped and completely outgunned, and it would have been futile to fight. And to his dying day, he believed he had made the right decision: to save the lives of his men."

Contact Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him at Twitter.com/peter_ hegarty.