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N. Korea frees crew of U.S. spy ship Pueblo, December 23, 1968

December 23, 2008 |  6:00 pm


1968_1223_pueblo
   

Pueblo's Bittersweet Tribute

For Pete Bucher, captain of the spy ship, the years haven't erased the pain of his captivity--or his homecoming. Even medals and a ceremony did not come without a fight.

Saturday May 5, 1990

1968_0124_puebloBy RICHARD E. MEYER
TIMES STAFF WRITER

They beat Pete Bucher with gun butts. They kicked him with their boots. They threw him into walls.

"Sonabitchi criminal!" they yelled. "Goddamned liar! Spydog!"

They forced him to his knees. One put a pistol to his ear and cocked it. "Two minutes to sign, sonabitchi!" Quietly, he said: "I love you, Rose." He said it again. "I love you, Rose . . . " The pistol clicked.

A ploy, Pete Bucher realized, and he regained some composure. So they beat, kicked and hit him again with their gun butts, in his stomach, head, neck, groin and kidneys. He retched, urinated blood.

They took him to a cellar room. A South Korean spy hung from the wall by a leather strap, naked to the waist, a jagged bone protruding from one arm, teeth bitten through his lower lip, one eyeball hanging on his cheek and dark liquid running out of its socket. He twitched, frothed at the mouth.

Pete Bucher blacked out. When he came to, they told him they would take his crew, one by one, the youngest first--and they would kill each man in front of him.

"I'll sign," Pete Bucher said. And he put his name to a confession that he was indeed a spy--but a confession full of lies, as well.

Late that night, he broke through the ice on the slop bucket in his cell. He thrust his head inside.

He tried to drown.

Today, in San Diego, Lloyd Mark (Pete) Bucher and his crew from the spy ship Pueblo will get medals. Twenty-two years after their capture and 11-month imprisonment at the hands of North Korea, the Navy that tried to punish Bucher and some of his men after they were released will take part in formal ceremonies honoring them as prisoners of war.

The POW medals have not come easily. It took an act of Congress to get them. Pete Bucher knows well that many in the Navy would rather have seen him killed, shot to death in a battle at sea, than see him today being honored like this--and he knows too well that people still feel uncomfortable about questions reopened by this ceremony, by the capture of the Pueblo and by what happened next.

In a book, in articles and, most recently, in a long and reflective interview with The Times, Pete Bucher, in anger and occasionally in tears, has relived what happened to him and his 82 crewmen on the high seas in January of 1968, what happened while they were being held as American hostages in North Korea--and, finally, what happened when they came home. In the interview, he addressed a number of these difficult, longstanding questions.

Question: Why did you try to kill yourself?

Answer: I did it because when I was in submarines I had done all of the areas then currently in use by the Polaris missile submarines. . . . I worked for weeks on the coordinates of the areas they would be using. . . . Those areas were my product, and I really had sensitive stuff, and I mean a lot of stuff that you can't imagine . There were some lives at stake. . . .

They (the North Koreans) knew that I am a (former) submarine (officer). They've got my goddamn service record there (off the Pueblo), and they are going to start questioning me on stuff in there; and these Russians are going to come in here, and they won't have too much trouble breaking me down . . . . You know, they had shown me this guy, he is not going to live, this (South) Korean spy, and I couldn't believe that I had seen that. It was like a goddamn nightmare.

I thought : "If that happens to me, they are going to find out everything I know". . . I think : "I've got to get the hell out of here, because I won't be able to take what that poor bastard is taking down there (in the cellar.)" . . . So I went to my slop pail and thought : "I've got to get out of here" . . . and I made this attempt, and I could not do it.

He was an orphan from Father Edward J. Flanagan's Boys Town, where he had fallen in love with football, even nicknamed himself "Pete" after Pete Pihos, a college football hero. In time, he went to the University of Nebraska on a football scholarship, where he took to Shakespeare and to martinis and to a bit of hell-raising. And he fell in love again, this time with a lovely farm girl named Rose Rohling.

He and Rose were married and in time had two sons. He graduated with an ROTC commission in the Naval Reserve, became executive officer aboard the Ronquil--and qualified for a submarine of his own. But then he got bumped by a staff officer.

At Submarine Flotilla Seven in Japan, Pete Bucher had helped debrief the spy ship Banner, because its work meshed at times with covert submarine operations; and now the Navy was assigning him to become captain of the Pueblo, one of the Banner's sister ships. These were small surface vessels that steamed to communist countries, parked offshore and watched and listened. Much of the time, they worked for the National Security Agency, the nation's premier watcher and listener.

The Pueblo, too, was an orphan, mothballed after long service as an Army cargo carrier in World War II. The Navy had adopted her and towed her to its Bremerton, Wash., shipyard. As a cover, she had been designated an Auxiliary General Environmental Research ship, and now the Navy was outfitting her with electronic gear. A Navy crane hoisted an oblong shack onto her deck. It had a steel door with three locks. The combinations were changed as often as weekly.

Yard workers had no notion what the shack was. It was called the Special Operations Department--the SOD-Hut. But Lt. Cmdr. Pete Bucher was aware of the electronics it would contain. He knew what he and the Pueblo would be doing, and he realized that his tubby little ship needed more than a new paint job. These urgent needs forced Pete Bucher into a running battle with the U.S. Navy over his new vessel, to wit: Her two gray, six-cylinder diesel engines sounded like rock crushers. To keep them from losing power and letting his ship drift into unfriendly waters, he asked the Navy to overhaul them.

Request denied.

--Equipment for the SOD-Hut included several pieces of classified gear: a Mark 10 IFF transponder, two tuners and various rotors to send data in code. He asked the Navy to install explosives so the gear could be demolished during attack--to keep it out of enemy hands.

Request denied. Instead, the Navy issued fire axes and sledgehammers.

--Dozens of code books and other secret publications destined for the SOD-Hut were unlikely to be needed. He asked if he could leave some of them home.

Request denied.

--The Navy made some weighted bags and said his men could stuff the secret documents into the bags and throw them overboard if necessary to deny them to adversaries. But that was cumbersome. So he asked for a fuel-fed incinerator to burn them if he had to.

Request denied.

--For emergency burning, the Navy offered him half of an empty 50-gallon oil drum. He declined. He located some paper shredders. But shredders would destroy only one sheet at a time. So he took money from his allowance for crew comforts, and he purchased a commercial trash incinerator. The device was not fuel-fed--but it had to be better than an oil drum.

--The Navy ordered him to mount a 3-inch cannon on deck. It would have sunk the ship, or capsized her.

Order withdrawn.

--The Navy ordered him to install a pair of .50-caliber machine guns. He and his superior officer, Rear Adm. Frank L. Johnson, who was commander of U.S. naval forces in Japan, opposed it. The ship's mission was to conduct unarmed surveillance. The weapons would draw hostility; and then if any shooting started, they would hardly be large enough to be of much use.

At first, Johnson told Bucher to stow the guns below. But that would violate the spirit of the order. So he finally said to install them on the deck, but to keep them hidden under tarps.

--Pete Bucher asked the Navy to put a scuttling system on the Pueblo, so he could sink her if necessary to keep her from being captured.

Request denied.

--He tried in vain to find some TNT, primer cord and fuses. He finally located some thermite bombs. But Navy regulations forbade thermite bombs on board.

Instead, the Navy took his engineering officer below decks, pointed to two 15-inch sea valves and handed him, without intending to be funny, another sledgehammer.

Like her sister ship, the Banner, the Pueblo probably would be harassed as it parked on station to spy, the Navy told Pete Bucher. This meant a likelihood of some seagoing games of chicken. But if there was any unusual risk at all, briefers told him, his mission would be canceled. One told him, he recalls, that the Navy would retaliate against any forces that he could not handle by himself before help got there.

Stay at least 12 miles offshore, the internationally recognized boundary for territorial waters, the Navy said. There was unspoken reciprocity: So long as Soviet ships stayed beyond this country's 3-mile limit, they could spy all they wanted. Underlying the mission was an unspoken assumption: that Soviet allies would honor Soviet understandings.

During harassment, mind oceangoing rules of the road, the Navy said. Provoke no incidents. And above all, do not start a war.

The Navy promoted Pete Bucher to commander and said: Don't worry.

In 150 years, nobody had ever seized a U.S. ship on the high seas.

On Jan. 11, 1968, the Pueblo set sail.

Q. When you got to the North Korean coast, off Ung Do Island, and North Korean gunboats attacked the Pueblo, tell me about your dilemma: Surrender or fight? Your ship or your men?

A. No. It was never a question of "surrender or fight." It was never a question of surrender with me. I never outwardly gave any indication that we were surrendering. I never hauled down our colors.

I had already determined by radar that our dead-reckoning position was accurate. We were about 16 miles out from the nearest island, which you know, is another 25 miles from the . . . mainland. . . . I was taking a perpendicular exit from the coast. I am keeping everybody (in Japan) informed of what is going on. I told everybody (on the Pueblo) to prepare to initiate emergency destruction (of classified material), and I am thinking : "This is going to be a good (harassment) drill for our guys, and we'll get together at dinner time tonight and evaluate how well our people responded."

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! . . . And I got hit! . . . I thought : "Jesus Christ, (they're) serious!"

And I said : "Destroy classified material! All ahead full!"

I told Skip Schumacher (his operations officer) : "Get a message off, 'We are under attack . . . I need help, and I need it immediately!' "

Our .50-caliber machine guns were no match for their 57-millimeter cannons. Ours were under tarps. The tarps were frozen solid. The only way to get to them was across decks being raked by guns. . . .

We saw a couple of MIGs. One fired. I found out later that there were 25 MIG s up there . . . .

We abandoned the flying bridge and went into the wheelhouse . . . . Tim Harris (his supply officer) was just nervous as hell, and I didn't blame him, but he didn't smoke, you know, and he said : 'How about a cigarette, Captain?' And I said : 'Here, take the whole pack. . . .' Tim was smoking, and he was drawing on that cigarette so fast the ashes were just disappearing. . . . A goddamn shell comes through the port side window, and I could see it in midair, and it comes through the damn wheelhouse, and it goes this far (he indicates 3 inches) from Tim Harris' ear, and this shell explodes through the front window and goes on out and hits the ocean out there and exploded.

Jesus Christ! Tim doesn't even know! . . . He is still smoking!!

I am trying to ring the phone (to the SOD-Hut) to find out how destruction is going . . . but I'd picked up one phone and was ringing another one. . . .

We bring the ship to all stop. The shooting stops.

So I went below and went variously around the ship to see how the destruction was going.

Not well.

And I said: "Goddamnit, Steve (Harris, head of SOD-Hut detachment), get this . . . stuff over the side!"

And old Steve said : "Yes, sir." And he said : "They are shooting at our smoke."

And I said : "What . . . are you talking about?"

Dumb, stupidly, I had the ship ventilation shut down to protect watertight integrity; and having these guys burning stuff, the whole damn ship was filling up with smoke. . . .

Radio says to me : "There are F-105s on the way"

So I thought : "Hell, we are a long ways out here. Let's play like we are going to follow these guys, and our guys will get here in time, and we'll make a run for it." So I put her back up to one-third speed. . . .

I went below again to see (how the sledgehammering, axing, burning and jettisoning was going on--and brought Pueblo to another stop to buy more time.)

Bam! Bam! Bam! And (it) starts again.

And those guys who were down there got the brunt of it doing the destruction.

One guy got killed. He got blown apart. (Several others were wounded, one critically.) . . . When they start banging us, I am thinking, you know : "If my guys are gonna have a chance, there has got to be help from our side. We're going to probably lose some people here, but let's not throw them away by continuing to do something that isn't going to help us.

"It will hurt us in the long run, it'll hurt the country . It'll hurt everything if this whole thing becomes a total disaster and we lose everybody. Then they are going to go to war out here. (Then) what the hell is going to happen?

"These guys (his own men) have no way to defend themselves. And I am not going to have them killed for nothing. . . ."

I knew that we were going to be taken . . . I figured : " . . . they (U.S. planes) ain't never going to get here now." And it's pretty obvious that we were going to get boarded.

I had protest signals flying. There was somebody in the (Korean) boat who spoke English just a little bit, and I said : "I absolutely protest this and demand that you stay off of this ship," and the guy said : "F--- you, buster. We're coming."

And they did.

Overwhelmed by four P-4 torpedo boats, two SO-1 gunboats and a brace of MIGs, the Pueblo was taken into Wonsan harbor. A North Korean hauled her colors down.

By Pete Bucher's account, his crew had managed to smash or to throw overboard all of her secret gear--including the secret rotors used for code. But she carried so many secret documents--and had such poor means of destroying them--that many fell into North Korean hands.

Pete Bucher and his men, including the wounded and the body of Duane Hodges, the crewman killed at the height of the attack, ended up at Pyongyang, in a building with thick concrete walls. They called it The Barn. Bucher and some officers were put into isolation cells. Most crewmen were thrown into four-man cells, some 12. A North Korean doctor operated on the worst of the wounded--beneath a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, without anesthesia.

For individual and group confessions, the North Koreans beat and kicked the crewmen mercilessly, stripped them to their shorts, then beat and kicked them more, until their shorts were soaked red with blood. Guards put square table legs behind their knees; made them squat until they lost all feeling below their thighs; tied their hands; forced them to hold a chair above their heads--and when they could hold the chair no longer and it fell, the guards clubbed them and made them run across the floor on their knees again and again, until their legs were bloody.

They beat one man until he begged to be shot. One guard liked to place his machine-gun muzzle between the crewmen's eyes and fiddle with the safety.

Some of the men prayed for nuclear retaliation, even though they knew they would be at ground zero.

In addition to their spy confessions, Pete Bucher and his men admitted falsely to intruding into North Korea's territorial waters and said they had tried to provoke war. The North Koreans staged propaganda press conferences, where the crewmen told the world about their "crimes" and "misdeeds."

But they sent signals to discredit what they were doing. Bucher was the inspiration: One day he flashed his middle finger in a guard's face and told him it was "an Hawaiian good luck sign." His crew caught on. They flashed "the Hawaiian good luck sign" in their propaganda performances. They filled their admissions with ridicule about what they were saying:

"I was to be trained by none other than Commander Buzz Sawyer. . . .

"(Before leaving for North Korea) I visited the kingpin of all provocateurs, including spies, none other than Fleet General Barney Google . . .

"(With regards to a friend) Garba Gefollows"--garbage follows.

Bucher's favorite was a confession he wrote, trusting that the North Koreans would find in their English-language dictionaries that an obscure noun he was using as a verb meant nothing more than a song of praise--and that Americans back home would read the word phonetically: "We not only want to paean the North Korean government," Bucher wrote in blissful rhapsody, "but to paean the North Korean people as well."

At last, the North Koreans thought, Bucher and his men seemed to be cooperating. And in return, they eased up on the torture.

They moved Pete Bucher and his crew to better quarters.

But then one day, the North Koreans got back one of their propaganda pictures, published abroad. It showed some of the crewmen offering Hawaiian good luck.

The caption said: "The Navy has made fools of (North Korea)."

So began hell week.

They beat one man for 16 hours, used the chair and the table legs for another five hours and beat him again for 15 hours more.

They broke a second man's jaw.

They beat a third man for 39 hours straight--hundreds of blows with a pole two inches thick. And when it broke, they beat him with the pieces. And when those broke, they came up with still another pole, and it was twice as thick.

Q. What's worst when you're being held hostage?

A. The real problems, I think, are not the beatings so much as the degradation that we went through. Being made to crawl, you know, and being spit on. . . . Hearing people yelling, knowing I'm the commanding officer and I can't do a thing for them, and I just got to thinking : "The goddamn government has forgotten that we're over here. How can that be? Why isn't there some kind of a raid here to get us out of this place? Why isn't something happening?" And I let myself get down. This is your mind kicking you in the butt. . . . You have to let your spirit control your mind. Your soul has to drive you, and you've got to tell your mind to knock it off. . . . And here comes down the passageway, having been beaten to hell, a guy named (Earl) Kisler, and his head is like a basketball, he's been beaten so bad. I looked at him and I just . . . He is on his hands and knees. He's crawling, you know, they've got him crawling, and he turns his face to me. I was just overwhelmed at what they had done to this guy, and he gives me this grin, see, with the blood all in his mouth, and he gives me this thumbs up (tears come to Pete Bucher's eyes and he stops, then tries to continue).

I just can hardly talk about it (he stops again and fights for control).

I just thought . . . (Pete Bucher breaks down , and he cries) .

I thought : "I'll never let the bastards get me down again."

The planes never came: Not from the nuclear carrier Enterprise--whose commander had said four of its F-4s probably could have reached the Pueblo before the North Koreans put her ashore at Wonsan; not from other carriers in the region; not from South Korea nor from U.S. bases there.

Nobody, least of all the Navy, authorized any kind of a mission to save the Pueblo, any attempt to rescue her crew or any effort to retaliate against North Korea for taking an American ship, killing a crewman and torturing 82 other Americans while holding all of them, including the injured, in prison for nearly a year.

The United States finally gained freedom for Pete Bucher and his men by doing exactly what he and his crew had done: confessing--even to lies--then discrediting the admission of any wrongdoing.

The confession was signed by the senior U.S. negotiator at Panmunjom. He was far too formal to offer Hawaiian good luck.

He simply stated that his confession was false.

North Korea accepted it.

When Pete Bucher and his men and the body of Duane Hodges returned home, the Navy ordered Bucher, all of the surviving crewman and others involved in their fate to testify at a Court of Inquiry. For eight weeks, they were questioned about the loss of the Pueblo and whether her captain and crew had violated the U.S. military Code of Conduct, which forbids anyone taken captive to tell more than name, military rank and serial number.

The only admiral in the Pueblo chain of command who was called to account was Frank Johnson, who had told Bucher to cover his guns.

Despite testimony about Pete Bucher's difficulty with the Navy at the Bremerton shipyard, nobody summoned any of the top brass responsible for outfitting his ship. Despite evidence that the Pueblo's mission should have been re-evaluated, perhaps even canceled, nobody summoned the Pacific Fleet commander, or any top officers from the Pentagon, or anybody at the National Security Agency or the State Department.

In the end, the Court of Inquiry said that Pete Bucher and Steve Harris should be court-martialed and that the Pueblo's executive officer admonished--for their roles in permitting the ship to be seized and failing to complete destruction of classified material. Johnson was to be reprimanded, along with a captain subordinate to, among others, the commander of the Pacific Fleet.

But the Pacific Fleet commander, to whom the court reported, ordered that both the Bucher and the Harris court-martials be changed to reprimands. He toned down Johnson's reprimand. And he vetoed action against the captain who was partially under his own command. Finally, on May 9, 1969, the secretary of the Navy stepped in. He said he wanted nobody to be punished.

Everybody, he decided, had suffered enough.

Q. Did the Navy oppose the POW medals?

A. They said attorneys for the Department of Defense (DOD) made the decision that my men were not eligible. Well, attorneys make decisions based on what somebody tells them to do. . . . It may have originated at the Navy side. Who knows? You could never pin that down. . . . It's not just the medals. There are benefits that you are assured, which are associated with medical care in VA hospitals, if you are certified as a POW. . . . You never quite relinquish the responsibility you have for people who had problems created for them while they were in your service, and we've got some of these kids that are 100% disabled. Half of them have some disability. . . . These guys got in that situation by (being beaten) over and over in that goddamn North Korea. . . .

I was furious about (being denied the medals) . . . I wrote to the chief of Naval Operations last year . . . and the chief of Naval Operations sent me back a letter saying they're not going to fight with DOD. . . . I wrote to (Sen. Pete) Wilson (R-Calif.) Never had an answer. I had an answer back from (Sen . Alan) Cranston (D-Calif.), but nothing was ever done.

Q. What about the rest of the California delegation?

A. Nothing got done. It was a congressman from Massachusetts (Rep. Nicholas Mavroules, D-Mass.), who is chairman of an Armed Services subcommittee, who had hearings. I got three guys from the crew, and we testified. The Navy sent over Vice Adm . (J.M.) Boorda, the chief of Naval personnel, and he gave a statement in strong support. Mavroules put in a bill and got it passed, and the President signed it in December.

Then we get this letter from the Navy with a form to fill out for the medal. And I said : "Now these bastards are going to send it out in a plain brown envelope." When they gave it to the rest of the POWs, there was an incredible ceremony, and all. . . .

I don't know why the government doesn't bring the guys out here and pay their expenses. The government has responsibility to these men. I don't give up my responsibility for what happened to these men under my command, and I don't think the government should, either....

But we're getting it done ourselves--a ceremony out here (with contributions from supporters for plane tickets and some free lodging). In some ways, it's best, you know, that way.

You're not having to kiss somebody's ass.

Times researcher Nina Green contributed to this story.
 

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