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USS Pueblo survivor presses for ship’s release

USS Pueblo at the Fatherland War of Liberation Museum, North Korea. (Wikimedia/Clay Gilliland)

Rick Rogala’s front teeth finally came out last year, and the dentist who replaced them with new chompers agreed the damage might well have been the residual result of what happened half a century ago in North Korea.

Rogala never saw the blow coming. Like his other fellow prisoners of war, the Sarasota resident had been ordered to sit motionless on a chair at the foot of his bed, keep his head bowed, and stare at the floor in penitence for pulling a fast one on the communist regime. Over the course of their nearly yearlong incarceration, a number of sailors — Rogala wasn’t one of them — had subtly extended their middle fingers while posing for ostensibly innocuous propaganda photos. “Newsweek” and “Time” magazines caught on and published the images to celebrate the Americans’ act of defiance.

Now, just weeks before Christmas 1968, their captors were furious.

With each month that passed, prospects for the release of 82 survivors of North Korea’s attack on the USS Pueblo seemed increasingly remote. There had been at least two false alarms. More ominously, their captors issued periodic threats that the “imperialist aggressors” would be executed at dawn. Conversely, on another occasion, the malnourished sailors were marched, one by one, into a room stocked with fresh fruit, which they were free to consume if only they would defect to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.

American cities on fire, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., catastrophe in Vietnam, bloody riots in Chicago — when on rare occasions the isolated hostages were fed kernels of truth by the DPRK’s indoctrination machinery, many refused to believe it. Meanwhile, back home, amid the awkward euphemisms of a spy operation gone bad, Rogala and his colleagues were being regarded not as prisoners of war, but as detainees. And the Navy brass was wondering if, by surrendering his ship without firing a shot, the skipper of the Pueblo was guilty of cowardice, maybe even treason.

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“It affects me to this day,” recalls Rogala of the events leading up to the most memorable Christmas reunion of his 71 years. “And to think that ship is still in North Korea — we need to get it back. When Trump met with (North Korean leader Kim Jong Un), I was yelling at the TV screen, ‘Ask him! Ask him!'”

On Jan. 23, 1968, Rogala and his colleagues became pawns in what the National Security Agency regarded as “one of the worst intelligence debacles in U.S. history,” according to a U.S. Naval Institute analysis. While eavesdropping on DPRK’s coastal defenses, the Pueblo was attacked in international waters by North Korean gunboats as its warplanes buzzed the slow-moving, 177-foot converted research vessel.

Unescorted by American naval or air power, Pueblo Captain Lloyd “Pete” Bucher attempted to evade the attackers for more than an hour as crewmen worked to destroy classified material. Its twin .50-caliber deck guns silent beneath frozen tarp, small arms still under wrap, Bucher surrendered the ship after the North Koreans opened fire, killing one sailor and wounding 10 others. Upon disembarking on the mainland at gunpoint, the blindfolded crew was paraded through the streets of Wonson before jeering, spitting mobs.

For the next 11 months, the Pueblo’s enlisted men were imprisoned, eight to a room, on the second floor of deserted barracks outside Pyongyang. Sustained by turnips, stale bread and gummy, bug-infested rice, Rogala lost 30 pounds. But he watched his heaviest shipmate slide from 280 to 190. Still, the officers, confined to solitary on the first floor, “bore the brunt of it,” he remembers. “They were beaten on a regular basis.”

Homecoming ‘beyond belief’

A mess-deck server aboard the ship, Rogala had little information to offer the North Koreans. But following the middle-finger salute photos, which the prisoners had assured their captors was a “Hawaiian good luck sign,” the entire crew paid the price. All were ordered to assume submissive poses in the beginning of what they would call Hell Week.

Sometime around 18 hours into his ordeal, the fatigued Chicago native was ordered to his feet by a guard. Gaze downcast, Rogala was stunned by a fist to his mouth that knocked him to the floor. Other guards began kicking him until he climbed into a stand. Unable to decipher what sounded like a question, Rogala answered “Yes,” and took another shot to the teeth that put him on the floor once more. The guards backed off and left him to collect his senses.

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Some three weeks later, the Pueblo crew was assembled, told America had apologized for its “crimes” against the DPRK, and that they would be released on Dec. 23. The next day, they were given clean clothes and herded into a three-bus caravan bound for the Korean demilitarized zone, where a truce had been signed in 1953.

By Christmas Eve, near the end of one of the darkest years in recent American history, flag-waving, Vietnam War-weary crowds lined up eight to 10 deep to cheer the Pueblo crew as they were bused from the San Diego airport to the Navy Medical Center for evaluation. Rogala’s parents, brother and sister spent Christmas Day together at the hospital. “All I can say is, the homecoming was just awesome,” he says, “beyond belief.”

But the assessment of damage to U.S. intelligence was severe, as the NSA estimated 80 percent of the secret documents and equipment had been compromised. And Bucher, infamous now as the first Navy commander to give up a ship without a fight, was unanimously recommended for a court martial by a board of inquiry.

The commander argued in his defense that the mission was ill-conceived for its lack of backup support and contingencies for disposing of classified material. He also contended the ship had inadequate armaments, and that returning fire would’ve been a futile gesture producing the deaths of the entire crew. Immediately upon his capture, Bucher, who died in 2004, was beaten and tortured for his initial refusal to sign a phony confession that he’d strayed into North Korean waters. He relented when informed that his men would be shot one by one.

In May 1969, Navy Secretary John Chafee declined to prosecute the Pueblo’s officers, saying there was enough blame to go around for everybody. “They have suffered enough,” he added. Public opinion strongly supported the decision.

‘A time of such sorrow’

But the question of recognition for the veterans lingered for decades.

“It’s a unique, unique story,” says Moe Moyer, a Vietnam-era veterans and POW activist from Lake Wales. “It’s one of those military things, where you’re on a classified mission and if you get caught, they kind of like to say we don’t know you. So this wasn’t your typical case. The Pueblo also had a couple of civilians aboard — spooks, for lack of a better word — and they were wired up, not gunned up.”

The Pueblo crew wasn’t officially granted POW status until 1990. The ensuing material benefit to veterans like Rogala was full access to military health care, including presumptive service-connected compensation for health issues, such as his post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

Moyer is chairman of the board of The Ride Home, a nonprofit that honors POWs each year at the National Prisoners of War Museum in Andersonville, Georgia. For perspective, he offers a reminder that since 1941, roughly 140,000 Americans have been imprisoned by enemy forces. Of that number, less than 20,000 are living today, he says. Furthermore, 82,000 Americans are classified as Missing In Action and “deserve to be buried on American soil.”

In 2016, The Ride Home hosted a reunion of three dozen Pueblo survivors. According to the ship’s website, 63 of its original 83 crewmen are alive today. Rogala’s efforts to bring the ship home — letters urging the White House and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, among others, to more vigorously champion the cause — have been in vain.

In the DPRK, where the vessel is a tourist attraction, a souvenir DVD proclaims, “Many years have passed since the Pueblo incident. But Pueblo, a witness to history and (a) trophy, will testify for century after century the crimes of aggression committed by U.S. imperialists against the Korean people.”

Fifty years later, Rogala recalls the lyrics he tried to remember to keep his sanity: The Beatles, Neil Diamond, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers. Mostly what he remembers is 21-year-old Petty Officer Duane Hodges, the last to leave the transport plane when it landed in San Diego.

“When his body came off in that wooden box …” Rogala pauses to let it pass. “It was a time of such sorrow.”

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© 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.