Crew members of the USS Pueblo endured beatings, cruel torture and faked executions from their North Korean captors in 1968, but they said one of the worst parts was being starved with only turnips to eat, day after day.
“I weighed 180 pounds when we were captured and 130 pounds when they released us,” said Bob Chicca, a Marine assigned to the spy ship. “They did bad things to us, but one of the worst was those turnips. Turnips in grease and turnip soup.”
A crowd at the Center for American Values in Pueblo listened closely as Chicca and shipmate Don Peppard answered questions Wednesday about the 11 months the 82-man crew spent as prisoners.
Peppard, a Navy cryptographer, called North Korea “God-forsaken.”
“When the guards would see a crewman saying grace over his food, they’d demand to know what he was doing,” Peppard said. “When we explained he was thanking God for his food, they’d go crazy, telling us that God had nothing to do with it. They gave us that food.”
The USS Pueblo was seized by North Korea on Jan. 23, 1968, and the crew wasn’t released until Dec. 23 of that year. Their captors gave the crew members plenty of reasons to hate them during that time.
Chicca said he ultimately realized he had his revenge just by being released from the bleak, impoverished country.
“You see, we got to leave North Korea and they had to stay there,” he said, getting nods and laughter of agreement from his shipmates.
Food is always on the minds of starving men, they said. So having a shipmate draw a picture of a hamburger on a scrap of paper and put that next to the turnips could boost morale.
Did they lose heart as the months passed by?
Chicca said the crew was expecting some kind of massive U.S. attack in retaliation for their capture. President Lyndon Johnson pushed for negotiations instead.
“It took about six months for it to get through my thick head that (attack) wasn’t going to happen,” Chicca said. “But we never lost faith in our country.”
Another crew member stepped forward to say their motto in captivity was “God, country and Bucher” — referring to their skipper, Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, who was captured with them. He died in 2004.
After the crew was released, Bucher was sharply criticized by senior Navy officials for allowing the spy ship to be boarded and seized by the North Koreans. But his crew is quick
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to defend him, saying he probably saved their lives.
The USS Pueblo was a small freighter than had been refitted with topsecret electronic code and surveillance equipment. It had been sailing off North Korea for just a few weeks when it was attacked and seized.
Asked by a young boy what life at sea was like, Chicca laughed and noted that he was only supposed to be aboard the ship 30 days.
“You always see photos of the ship sailing in calm water but it was never calm out there,” he said. “The ship rolled and bobbed on the ocean like a cork. Our bunks even had three (safety) belts on them so we wouldn’t fall out.”
While the Center for American Values has photographs of 151 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the Pueblo crew members pointed to their shipmate who was killed, Duane Hodges, as a hero in their ranks.
Hodges had come on deck to help destroy secret papers and equipment and was mortally wounded by North Korean cannon fire.
“Duane didn’t have to be there helping us and it cost him his life,” Chicca said.
© 2018 The Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.)
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