Thursday, January 24, 2008

Capture of USS Pueblo welded crew together

Wednesday 23 January 2008 at 20:21

by NC Sentinel

Pueblo Chieftain - Pueblo, CO, USA

Capture of USS Pueblo welded crew together

Surviving crew members wryly observe the 40th anniversary of the spy ship's capture by North Koreans.


It's that time of year when the telephone rings more often at Don Peppard's house in El Paso, Texas - reporters wanting the 70-year-old Navy veteran to remember for a moment what it was like 40 years ago in the icy waters off North Korea to be part of the most famous crew of Americans to ever be captured and tortured by an enemy.

"The media usually calls around the anniversary (of the USS Pueblo being seized) and anytime North Korea causes new problems," Peppard said in a soft-spoken, wry tone. "I guess people think we have some unique insight into North Koreans. Personally, it's not anything I like to dwell on."

The harrowing story of the USS Pueblo is a familiar one to readers of The Pueblo Chieftain because the little freighter that had been converted into a National Security Agency spy ship was named for the Steel City when it was commissioned by the Navy in 1967.

Packed with the most top-secret electronic eavesdropping equipment and code books, the Pueblo was cruising off the North Korean coast in January 1968, listening to North Korean radio signals while pretending to be an oceanographic research vessel - a ruse that didn't fool anyone.

On Jan. 23, the North Koreans changed the cat-and-mouse game. Instead of just shadowing the Pueblo, patrol boats circled the ship and opened fire with 20 mm cannons, demanding that then-Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd "Pete" Bucher stop the ship. Frantically radioing for U.S. air support, Bucher's crew began sledgehammering radio equipment and burning code manuals while Bucher kept the ship moving and out of reach for two hours. Seaman Duane Hodges, 21, was killed by shrapnel as he helped destroy code manuals. Other crew members, including Bucher, were wounded as well. The Pueblo only had two .50-caliber machine guns and the Navy - distancing itself from the NSA spy operation - had rejected Bucher's request for an automatic scuttling system that could quickly sink the ship.

So after two hours of taking fire, the Pueblo finally stopped running and North Korean soldiers came aboard, bludgeoning the crew and beginning 11 long months of brutal treatment for the 82 surviving Americans. Almost as painful was the stunning realization that no help ever came from U.S. aircraft carriers or bases in South Korea or Japan.

"The official government answer was that no warplanes were available in South Korea that were not armed with nuclear weapons," the craggy-faced Bucher recalled during a 1992 crew reunion in Pueblo. "But that was a bunch of crap. The USS Enterprise was fully armed and on its way back to Vietnam and its jets could have reached us in 15 minutes."

Bucher said the crew knew the dangers of being a spy ship. But the crew members had no idea they would be left alone in the Sea of Japan.

"It's true that we expected some kind of American reaction in the days right after being taken," Peppard said. After all, U.S. warplanes were bombing North Vietnam every day and were not far away. "But nothing happened and that was tough. Over time, I know some of the guys got pretty despondent, feeling like we'd been abandoned. But we tried to keep our morale up, especially the skipper (Bucher.)"

The "Pueblo incident" as it became known, raised the spectre of the U.S. opening a second war against North Korea as President Lyndon Johnson and top U.S. military leaders insisted that the seizure of the crew would not be tolerated. But a week after the seizure, the war in Vietnam exploded as Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers launched the Tet offensive, attacking dozens of South Vietnamese towns and U.S. bases the length of the country. As combat raged in South Vietnam, the Pueblo crisis was pushed further away from the front pages.

What happened to the crew during the 11 months of captivity is a story of torture and defiance - being beaten and having revolvers pressed against their heads, the hammers clicking on empty chambers, being forced to pose for many propaganda photographs and defying their captors by always posing with a raised middle finger, an insult they explained as a "Hawaiian good luck sign." It was a gesture of defiance they reveled in - until a Time magazine news story about their photographs explained the insult to their captors, who beat them savagely for a week in retaliation.

"I guess that's why the crew never cooperates with Time magazine to this day," 63-year-old Alvin Plucker explained last week from his Fort Lupton home. "I know the reporters who call from Time probably weren't even born when we were captured, but we went through Hell Week because of that magazine."

When the crew finally was released in December 1968, it came home to a grateful nation but a cold, disapproving Navy. Having survived beatings and mock executions, the crew was further demoralized to see the Navy launch an 80-day inquiry into how the ship was captured and a courts-martial of Bucher for not having sunk the vessel first. But public opinion was strongly behind the defiant crew and the Navy ultimately settled for giving Bucher a reprimand.

It was an attitude the crew has never forgotten.

"The Navy would have preferred the North Koreans just sunk us," Bucher said bluntly in an interview with The Chieftain.

Not the crew, though.

"He was like a father to us," Plucker said with emotion, noting that Bucher died in 2004. "If it hadn't been for the skipper, we would have all perished. If the Navy had had its way, we would have all gone to the bottom in freezing water. Bucher didn't let that happen. He saved his crew and that's what we'll always be - his crew."

Peppard, who is president of the Pueblo's crew association, agreed with that assessment.

"Pete was our inspiration in captivity. He was always the skipper to us. His resistance inspired us to resist," Peppard said, adding that there are 71 surviving crew members. "But there are guys who still can't deal with what happened, who feel such anger at how we were treated."

It took years for the crew to be given official respect from the Navy. The crew members finally were given Prisoner of War medals in 1995, but not until supporters had pressured Congress into pressuring the Pentagon. Those are medals the crew believed they more than deserved.

"I know of one fellow who was so upset by it all that when his medal arrived in the mail, he threw it in a canal," Plucker said.

Although their ordeal was 40 years ago, the crew points out that the Pueblo remains a sore point in U.S. relations with

North Korea. The sailors who served aboard her want the ship returned to the U.S. and, over the years, they have built a ground swell of support in Congress to push North Korea into returning the ship - which North Korea keeps tethered in a river near Pyongyang as a war trophy of the long struggle with the U.S.

Bucher wanted the ship recovered, as do many of the crew.

"Of course I want to see the ship returned," he said not long before his death. "It bothers the crew that North Korea is allowed to use our ship as a propaganda tool."

Plucker agreed.

"At the time we were prisoners, we just wanted to see the ship sunk wherever the North Koreans had put her," Plucker said. "Now, we'd like to see her returned. She's still commissioned by the U.S. Navy. Like I tell groups whenever I'm invited to talk about our experience - when we get the Pueblo back, my work will be done."

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