Pue­blo crew re­unites

Ship­mates re­call 1968 N. Korea cap­ture of ship

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY WIL­SON RING

RJERICHO, Vt. alph McClin­tock ex­pected only a three-week mis­sion when he boarded the USS Pue­blo in Jan­uary 1968. In­stead, he and his ship­mates be­came pawns in a Cold War sideshow when North Korea cap­tured the Navy spy ship and im­pris­oned its 82 crew mem­bers. Some still suf­fer the phys­i­cal ef­fects of tor­ture or mal­nu­tri­tion they suf­fered in 11 months of cap­tiv­ity.

Mr. McClin­tock is proud of his ser­vice as a 24-year-old com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­ni­cian and the bonds he made with his crew mates, but that pride is tinged with bit­ter­ness.

“We were treated as he­roes when we got back, but what the Navy, the in­sti­tu­tion of the Navy re­ally wanted, in my opin­ion, is the Pue­blo to have sunk,” Mr. McClin­tock said at his Jeri­cho home. “When we came back, the Navy now has to look at it­self, and they don’t like to look at them­selves.”

On Sept. 10, 40 of the 69 sur­viv­ing crew mem­bers gath­ered in neigh­bor­ing Es­sex for a four-day re­union fea­tur­ing ex­hibits and speeches by ex­perts on U.S.-Korean re­la­tions.

Mr. McClin­tock, the host for the re­union, isn’t the only one who is dis­il­lu­sioned.

“I think the crew has al­ways wanted some­one in the Navy to stand up and say ‘Hey, you guys did a great job in a poorly con­ceived mis­sion without any backup,’ “ said Skip Schu­macher, 65, of St. Louis, a lieu­tenant ju­nior grade on the ship.

Their cap­ture was al­most over­shad­owed in a year that saw the Tet of­fen­sive in Viet­nam, the as­sas­si­na­tions of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and ri­ots at the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Chicago.

“This was a dif­fi­cult and hu­mil­i­at­ing event,” said Mitch Lerner, who teaches Amer­i­can diplo­matic his­tory at Ohio State Uni­ver­sity and wrote a book about the Pue­blo.

“It wasn’t just an Amer­i­can ship that was cap­tured. The crew was beaten and pub­licly hu­mil­i­ated, and the U.S. couldn’t do any­thing about it,” said Mr. Lerner, who will speak at the re­union.

The crew kept the mil­i­tary chain of com­mand alive and re­sisted their cap­tors. They planted de­fi­ant codes into forced let­ters of con­fes­sion and ex­tended their mid­dle fin­gers when North Kore­ans pho­tographed them and sent the im­ages around the world.

But when they came home, most of the young sailors ac­knowl­edged they gave the en­emy more than their names, ranks and se­rial num- bers. “They’ve been liv­ing with that all th­ese years,” Mr. Schu­macher said.

A Navy spokesman, Lt. j.g. Thomas Buck, said no ap­pro­pri­ate Navy of­fi­cial was avail­able to com­ment on the crit­i­cisms of the Navy’s han­dling of the Pue­blo in­ci­dent and its af­ter­math.

Mr. McClin­tock, then a ham ra­dio op­er­a­tor, vol­un­teered for the Pue­blo. He was ac­cus­tomed to the spy-ver­sus-spy cul­ture of the Cold War, when Amer­i­can and Soviet naval ves­sels shad­owed and oc­ca­sion­ally ha­rassed each other.

On Jan. 23, af­ter be­ing ha­rassed for a day, North Korean pa­trol boats opened fire on the Pue­blo. The U.S. says the Pue­blo was in in­ter­na­tional wa­ter; North Korea says it was in its ter­ri­tory.

One sailor was killed by the gun­fire.

Mr. Lerner said the mil­i­tary’s fail­ure to pro­tect the Pue­blo wasn’t sin­is­ter.

“The Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment and the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary as­sumed this ship would be safe be­cause the Sovi­ets did sim­i­lar things to us,” Mr. Lerner said. “No one stopped to think the Soviet Union and the North Kore­ans were not the same thing.”

As pris­on­ers, the en­listed men lived eight or so to a room while the of­fi­cers had pri­vate rooms.

“Your daily life is so bloody slow, it’s like the time you were awake, in­stead of 12 or 14 hours, it feels like it’s 40 hours. But when you go to sleep, it’s to­tal free­dom, sleep in- stantly, soundly, never wake up un­til the next morn­ing,” Mr. McClin­tock said. “That’s the free­dom, just ab­so­lute free­dom. The dreams are un­be­liev­able. You dream of the good things.”

Mr. Lerner said U.S. of­fi­cials re­al­ized mil­i­tary action would not have brought the crew home alive.

“The praise that [Pres­i­dent] Lyn­don John­son got for act­ing like a diplo­mat was re­ally sig­nif­i­cant,” Mr. Lerner said.

The crew was re­leased two days be­fore Christ­mas.

Soon af­ter, the Navy formed a board of in­quiry to in­ves­ti­gate the loss of the ship and each crew mem­ber was in­ter­viewed.

There was a rec­om­men­da­tion that the ship’s cap­tain, Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, face court­mar­tial for los­ing his ship even though he helped keep his crew to­gether dur­ing cap­tiv­ity. Se­nior Navy of­fi­cials nixed the court­mar­tial pro­posal.

“It was a fail­ure from beginning to end, and to blame the men of the Pue­blo and par­tic­u­larly the of­fi­cers was re­ally disin­gen­u­ous and de­spi­ca­ble,” Mr. Lerner said.

The Navy still lists the Pue­blo as a com­mis­sioned war­ship, even though it’s docked on the Tae­dong River in Py­ongyang where North Korea holds is up as a sym­bol of re­sis­tance to Amer­i­can ag­gres­sion. Mr. Lerner said there have been ne­go­ti­a­tions, some quite re­cent, to re­turn the ship.

Mr. McClin­tock, 65, looks for­ward to that day when the Pue­blo comes home, as a way to honor their ser­vice and Mr. Bucher, who died in 2004.

“Pete Bucher is buried in Fort Rosen­crans [Na­tional] Ceme­tery on Point Loma in San Diego. It looks out on San Diego Bay,” Mr. McClin­tock said. “Our dream is to see the USS Pue­blo sail into San Diego Bay.”


The USS Pue­blo was cap­tured by North Korean pa­trol boats who took it into Won­san.

Ralph McClin­tock, of Jeri­cho, Vt., was a 24-year-old com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­ni­cian when he served aboard the Navy spy ship.

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