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USS Pueblo crew back for 50th anniversary reunion

Docked on the Taedong River in Pyongyang, DPRK (North Korea). The USS Pueblo was a US spy ship that was captured off the coast of North Korea in 1968 and is now used as a museum. (John Pavelka/Flickr)

They comprise one of the most famous crews in the U.S Navy’s history and they have returned to Pueblo this week for the 50th anniversary of the terrible year they spent as often-tortured prisoners in North Korea.

It’s always been a painful moment in American history. The USS Pueblo was a small spy ship— 83 crew members — sailing off the coast of North Korea on a wintry Jan. 23, 1968, eavesdropping on North Korean radio traffic.

That was the day North Korean torpedo boats attacked it, encircling the ship and demanding it halt and be boarded.

For two hours, Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher refused to stop the ship while the crew did their best to burn, sledge-hammer and destroy the top-secret code materials and electronics on board.

After being raked by cannon fire, Bucher finally stopped the ship. One crewman, Duane Hodges, already had been killed. Others were wounded.

And so it began, the 11-month ordeal known to Americans as the “Pueblo Incident” in which the crew was beaten, tortured and forced to pose for propaganda photos while the U.S. negotiators tried to get the North Koreans to release them. That finally happened on Dec. 23 that year.

More than 40 surviving crew members and their families are expected here this week — back in the city they enjoy, the city for which their ship was named.

“Pueblo remembers and always treats us well,” said 71-year-old Alvin Plucker, who helped navigate the ship and now lives in La Salle, Colo.

Plucker said this visit will be the sixth time the crew has reunited here.

Don Peppard, 81, worked in the ship’s code office and said it took 18 years for the crew to have its first reunion because there were so many raw, ugly feelings connected to their imprisonment and torture.

“Some of the guys never wanted to look back at what we went through, but I’ve always found that talking about it helps,” said Peppard, who lives in Kerrville, Texas.

“The Navy would have been happier if we’d all gone down with the ship,” is how Plucker puts it.

And that’s a sentiment their commander shared on many occasions. Pete Bucher, who died in 2004, was blunt about it.

During a 1992 reunion here, he was quick to list the many ways the Navy had failed to provide essential equipment, such as an automatic scuttling system to sink the ship quickly. Or an incinerator to destroy manuals and papers.

“We were out there alone,” Bucher said, without Navy escort or help because the ship was working for the National Security Agency. “We weren’t even assigned to a Navy unit.”

Also, the USS Pueblo only had two .50 caliber machine guns to defend it, and they were under ice-covered tarps. During a Navy inquiry after the crew’s release, Bucher said any crew member that had tried to man those guns would have been killed by North Korean gunfire.

When Bucher was radioing for help that day, Air Force fighters were scrambled from Japan but called off.

“Officially, there weren’t any planes available to help us, but that was a bunch of crap,” he said.

“That still sticks in my craw,” Peppard confirmed Monday.

His crew has always been grateful Bucher didn’t force the North Koreans to shoot the ship into pieces.

“He saved our lives,” Plucker said.

There have been books written and movies made about the crew’s long ordeal as prisoners. Fake firing squads and beatings. Especially the code boys. Famously, whenever the crew was photographed for propaganda purposes, they all managed to raise a middle finger at the camera in defiance.

“We told the North Koreans it was a Hawaiian good-luck symbol,” Plucker laughed. “Until they found out the truth and then they really went to work on us. We called that ‘Hell Week’.”

When the crew was finally released, they didn’t come home to a hero’s welcome. The Navy was angry that Bucher had surrendered the ship and its top-secret equipment. A board of inquiry recommended he be court-martialed.

That was too much for Congress and the American public, who believed the crew had endured too much already. Bucher was promoted, not courtmartialed. But it wasn’t until 1995 and an act of Congress that the 82 survivors were awarded Prisoner of War medals.

But 50 years is a long time and Peppard said the national memory concerning the USS Pueblo is fading.

“I wear my hat all the time, just to see how many people recognize what it is and what the USS Pueblo was about,” he said. “Not many do. But sometimes young people come up to me and ask about it, which is always a nice surprise.”

Like other crew members, Peppard doesn’t think much of North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un. He said that regime always protects itself, regardless of what the leader says.

“He’s just like his father and grandfather before him,” Peppard said. “You can’t trust him.”

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© 2018 The Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.)

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