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POW Museum Honors Pueblo Crew – April 26, 2001

April 26, 2001

Copyright 2001 The Macon Telegraph
All Rights Reserved

April 26, 2001 Thursday HOME EDITION

LENGTH: 1062 words
BYLINE: Drew Brown, The Macon Telegraph
They were beaten, tortured and forced to undergo 11 months of humiliation at the hands of their North Korean captors 33 years ago.

Their own government did not consider them prisoners of war until 1989.

They’ve been regarded largely as an unfortunate footnote in the 50-year history of the Cold War.

But the sailors of the USS Pueblo remain confident that one day their country will give them the full recognition they deserve for their service.

And they say a ceremony to honor them Wednesday at the National Prisoner of War Museum has brought them one step closer to their goal.

“It’s the culmination of another effort to find proper recognition for men who served under really terrible conditions, with brutal treatment (and) very little food,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, the Pueblo’s skipper.

Outside the museum, Bucher, 73, of San Diego, Calif., and about a dozen other Pueblo crewmen unveiled a bronze plaque that commemorates their ordeal.

The crewmen and their skipper unveiled the plaque alongside similar ones erected by veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The memorial’s installment will help ensure that the Pueblo’s story is not forgotten, said Fred Boyles, superintendent of the Andersonville historic site.

“Forty percent of the visitors who came here last year were schoolchildren,” Boyles said. “And they don’t know a thing about the Pueblo. This is a place where they can learn that history. We can offer future generations the opportunity to learn this remarkable story.”

The USS Pueblo was conducting electronic surveillance in international waters Jan. 23, 1968, when North Korean gunboats and aircraft attacked the unarmed vessel.

The attack killed one crewman and wounded 13 others, two critically. The 82 surviving crewmen were seized and held 11 months before their release.

F. Carl “Skip” Schumacher, the Pueblo’s operations officer, said it soon became apparent that the crew would not be treated as conventional prisoners of war.

“It was clear they expected a military response,” the St. Louis resident said, referring to his captors. “But it became clear after three to five days that there would not be a military response. We realized we had become hostages.”

The North Koreans subjected the Pueblo crew to frequent beatings in the first few days. They were denied food, personal hygiene and medical care for the injured.

Steven Woelk, of McLouth, Kan., was the most critically injured of the crew, with severe shrapnel wounds. He was finally taken to a hospital and treated after two weeks of captivity. He spent 44 days in solitary confinement before he rejoined the rest of the crew.

He thinks of the experience often.

“I really can’t put it into words,” he said. “I look back on the experience and some of the things we did and went through. It was a tough time for us.”

The North Koreans subjected the crew to a punishing regime of interrogation and propaganda. Bucher realized that he and the crew had enormous value as hostages in the political drama being played out in negotiations for their release. He decided the men would do whatever they could to undermine the North Koreans’ propaganda efforts.

Bucher and the crew used American slang and Navy lingo to convey messages that would be understood at home, but not by their captors.

In a famous incident, crew members were photographed displaying a universal hand gesture that they told their captors was the “Hawaiian good luck” symbol.

In another incident, the crew issued statement in which they described how “we were all eager to pee on” North Korea, its people and leader Kim Il Sung, and the country’s army and navy, Bucher said.

They told their captors the phrase was one of affection. The statement was broadcast all over the world.

“It was a great happenstance to me,” Bucher said.

Eventually, the North Koreans caught on to what the Pueblo crew was up to and subjected them to a regimen of beatings so severe that the men still refer to it as “Hell Week.”

Despite the abuse, the crew felt a great measure and pride and redemption.

“The beatings that were the worst hurt the least because we knew that’s when we were getting their goat,” Bucher said.

The men credit Bucher for keeping them together as a crew during the long ordeal.

“I can honestly say if it were not for his leadership, we of the Pueblo would not be here today,” Schumacher said.

They say that Wednesday’s ceremony was a way of honoring him more than anything else.

“Bucher is still the soul of the crew,” said Bob Hill, of Salisbury, Md., a 19-year-old boatswain’s mate at the time of his captivity.

“There is a lot of love and respect there that will never go away.”

After their release Dec. 23, 1968, the Pueblo crew was awarded 12 medals for heroism during their captivity and 97 medals for individual resistance efforts. They were each awarded the Purple Heart for the beatings they underwent.

But the Navy considered a court martial for Bucher for allowing the Pueblo to fall into enemy hands. He was criticized for not resisting the attack, scuttling the ship or destroying more classified material.

Bucher said he actually pushed for a court martial in an effort to clear his name. But he thinks the Navy never intended to allow one to happen.

A trial would have revealed how the Navy brass, the Pentagon and the intelligence community all failed to act on indications that the Pueblo was at risk of attack, he said.

“There were some areas where they should have given us better support and they didn’t,” Bucher said. “They didn’t want that to come out.”

Bucher and crew members say the recent standoff between China and the United States over China’s detention of 24 Navy members of a damaged surveillance plane brought back poignant memories.

“I don’t think there was a heck of a lot else that could have been done in this instance,” he said.

Bucher said he is still angry at the way high-level mistakes which led to the Pueblo’s capture have been covered up or remain classified.

But he feels confident the full truth of the Pueblo incident will come out and that its crew will get their due.

“All that information is bound to come out,” he said. “But whether it comes out in my lifetime or not, I don’t know.”

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