Ill-fated Pueblo spy mission still haunts crew 34 years later
By STEVE LIEWER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 27, 2002
A wintry chill settled over the deck of the Navy’s smallest warship, a cold complement to the snow-capped peaks poking up from the North Korean peninsula 15 miles to the west.
Jan. 23, 1968, dawned sunny and clear. It was one of the few pleasant sailing days for the 83 men of the USS Pueblo since the ship left its home port of Yokosuka, Japan, 18 days earlier. The top-heavy ship had been bobbing like a cork atop giant swells that sickened even the saltiest of Navy seadogs. The crowded crew quarters stank of sweat and vomit.
Almost no one, inside or outside the Navy, had heard of the Pueblo as it trolled off Wonson that morning. A supply ship of World War II vintage, it recently had been refurbished for a new mission. Officially it would serve as an oceanographic research vessel — but its decks bristled with antennae, and a secret 10- by 30-foot room carved out of the former cargo hold had been jammed with cryptographic equipment and listening gear.
The USS Pueblo was a nest of spooks.
By the evening of Jan. 23, the ship’s name would blare in headlines around the world, and one sailor would die from North Korean gunfire.
Over the next 11 months, the Pueblo’s crew would suffer countless beatings and death threats at the hands of the North Koreans who had seized the ship and held the men prisoner. The United States would be humiliated into apologizing for an intrusion the ship did not commit in order to secure the sailors’ release.
Thirty-four years have passed, and the "Pueblo Incident" has faded from the public’s memory. For the crew, though, forgetting a year of hell has not been that simple. They must live with the physical scars, the mental pain of knowing they confessed to phony "crimes" under torture, and the Navy’s crude attempt to scapegoat them when they returned.
"A lot of these guys had tough times. They’re still having tough times," said Lloyd "Pete" Bucher, the ship’s commander and still the crew’s spiritual leader, in an interview last year at his home near San Diego. "My whole existence has been trying to bring honor to the crew."
The crash-landing in China this summer of a Navy EP-3 aircraft on an eavesdropping mission remarkably similar to the Pueblo’s showed that secret operations still can put American servicemembers in harm’s way. That the United States secured the EP-3 crew’s release, unharmed, in a relatively short time shows how far the government has come in handling hostage crises.
Its capture by the North Korean navy was only the last in a series of misfortunes that plagued the Pueblo during its short service.
In the mid-1960s, the Navy agreed to convert several mothballed supply ships into listening posts to carry out electronic intelligence-gathering missions for the super-secret National Security Agency under a program called Operation Clickbeetle. The ships were an answer to the Russian and Chinese "fishing trawlers" that patrolled outside U.S. territorial waters, listening and provoking, to learn about the other side’s radar and radio transmission capabilities.
The Pueblo and its sister ship, the Palm Beach, may have impressed the Navy’s higher-ups, but they hardly impressed the sailors who first saw them under renovation in Bremerton, Wash. The two ships were labeled AGER (for Auxiliary, General, Environmental Research).
"I spotted in the rain-splattered basin the unmistakable ugly shape of (the Pueblo and Palm Beach), made even uglier by their molding green blotches of anti-corrosion paint with running sores of bleeding rust," Bucher wrote in his 1969 autobiography, "Bucher: My Story." "They both looked like abandoned derelicts compared with the other great warships being serviced in the yard."
Bucher was an orphan who graduated from Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska before enlisting in the Navy in 1946. Later he became an officer and, at 39, arrived at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to assume his first command on Jan. 29, 1967.
The new captain was a combative charger who wanted the best for his stepchild of a ship, and he didn’t worry about whom he offended to get it. He pushed his growing crew to 12-hour shifts, then 15½-hour workdays to get Pueblo ready for its commissioning in late spring.
Bucher argued frequently with Pueblo’s shipyard superintendent, and with his own chain of command. Along with most of the crew, no one at the shipyard knew why the ship was being refurbished. Different commands handed down conflicting orders, leaving the crew to sort things out.
Still, after weeks of frantic effort, the ship was ready for commissioning May 13. A monsignor from Boys Town traveled to Bremerton to give the Pueblo his blessing.
You’d have thought he’d delivered a curse.
Just a few days later, the Navy communications technicians who had been working in the Special Operations Detachment crypto room — not-so-affectionately dubbed the "SOD-Hut" — discovered that all of the equipment had been installed upside-down due to poor planning by the ship’s designers. It would take two months and $500,000 to fix the mistake.
"Right from the beginning, it seemed like it was ill-fated," said James Kell, one of the Pueblo’s CTs, in an interview at his suburban San Diego home last year.
Conflicts cropped up while the Pueblo was in the yard that would flare up again later. Bucher collided often with Lt. Stephen Harris, the young officer in charge of the SOD-Hut and the 28 communications technicians who worked there. They worked for a separate chain of command that ultimately led to the NSA, and it rankled the captain to have this large and secretive group of sailors outside of his authority.
The CTs also clashed with the Pueblo sailors. They had little to do until the ship reached its still-secret destination except to play Monopoly and cards while the regular sailors worked.
"Prior to the commissioning they started showing up in ones and twos, God’s gift to the Navy," wrote Edward "Stu" Russell, a Navy seaman at the time, in an article on the USS Pueblo Veterans Association’s Web site at www.usspueblo.org.
"These guys were normal people, but the Navy had pumped them up so much that they were above doing any kind of work aboard the ship other than the secret stuff they did inside their special hiding place. Naturally, this led to quite a bit of friction between the ship’s company and the detachment."
Eventually, the horror of captivity would heal this rift. But it would not change the oil-and-water animosity between Bucher and his executive officer, Lt. Edward Murphy, who joined the Pueblo crew May 5. Bucher was old Navy, a charismatic, hot-tempered, brash officer. He was a self-described "sailor’s sailor" who drove his men hard and liked to drink with them afterward.
Murphy could hardly have been more different. Quiet and sensitive, he wouldn’t drink beer or coffee in keeping with the principles of his Christian Science religion. Sometimes he would join the other six Pueblo officers in their after-hours revelry, but he never quite fit in.
"From the looks of him, you guys had better mend your wicked ways and shape up," Bucher told the other officers with a wink after their first meeting with Murphy.
Murphy never approved of Bucher’s swashbuckling regime or his tendency to throw the Navy rulebook out the window.
"The Navy trained us one way, he trained us another, and there was just mass, mass confusion," said Murphy, today a tour bus driver who lives just a few miles from Bucher in suburban San Diego.
Underway at last
The Navy had planned to send the AGERs out unarmed in keeping with their oceanographic research cover assignment. Then less than a month after the Pueblo and the Palm Beach were commissioned, waves of Israeli fighter jets attacked the U.S. spy ship USS Liberty for several hours as it idled off the Gaza Strip during the Six Day War, killing 34 sailors and injuring 75. The Israelis claimed the assault was an accident and later paid reparations to the United States.
After that, the U.S. chief of Naval operations ordered cannons installed on the decks of the AGERs. Bucher agreed they should be armed, but he thought those guns far too big for a little ship like the Pueblo.
"If they’d have put it on the deck of the Pueblo, it would have sunk us," he said. Besides, each would require a five-man crew and take weeks to install.
Bucher substituted two lighter .50-caliber machine guns mounted fore and aft, both heavily exposed positions. They were covered with canvas that later was often covered with thick sheets of ice when Pueblo steamed through the wintry Sea of Japan. He suspected they would prove useless in an emergency, but he could hardly imagine needing to shoot them. He considered the Israeli attack a freakish accident. Who would risk the wrath of the United States by attacking a peaceful ship in international waters?
The Navy vetoed Bucher’s requests for watertight hatches and a destruction system so the ship could be scuttled quickly if it fell into enemy hands. All of these would come back to haunt the crew.
On Pueblo’s first trial run, the ship’s rudder froze. Sailors swarmed aft to rig an emergency steering mechanism, sparing the ship the indignity of a tow back into port on its maiden voyage. The problem recurred without warning on nearly every trip. The trouble lay in the engine that controlled the steering mechanism; it had been manufactured during World War II by an elevator company long since defunct.
Bucher concluded it could not be fixed without another costly, time-eating repair, and the crew grew adept at fixing it while underway. The steering broke down 180 times during trials, he estimated, and 70 more times while the ship crossed the Pacific that fall. It wasn’t fixed until mechanics at the Ship Repair Facility in Yokosuka solved the problem six months later.
The Pueblo received its final certification Sept. 5, with a less-than-ringing endorsement of its seaworthiness.
"Deficiencies exist in the ship that substantially reduce her fitness for naval service, but are not of such magnitude to warrant retrial of the ship," said the Board of Inspection and Survey in its report.
The crew finally went to sea — many of them for the first time — with a cruise to San Diego for underway training. Then on Nov. 6, with the Pueblo’s theme song, Herb Alpert’s "Lonely Bull," playing over the ship’s intercom, the vessel started off on its long trans-Pacific cruise.
West of Hawaii, the ship steamed through a ferocious north Pacific storm. Bucher said the top-heavy Pueblo frequently rolled more than 45 degrees. He worried that sometime it might not recover.
After seven stormy days, the Pueblo steamed into the calm of Tokyo Bay the evening of Dec. 1. A tug escorted it to the dock at Yokosuka Naval Base, which became its new home, its steering engine having failed one final time in Truman Bay.
Yokosuka, 30 miles south of Tokyo, has been the Navy’s Far East headquarters since the end of World War II. Today it is a sedate and prosperous seaport of 438,000 residents, but in the late 1960s it served as the Navy’s wildest, seediest liberty port north of Manila. Packs of drunken sailors would stagger from bar to bar, looking for booze and babes.
The place seemed tailor-made for Bucher’s work-hard, party-hard crew, cooped up for so long in a tight space.
At night they prowled Yokosuka’s bars and brothels, but in the daytime Bucher worked them hard. The steering needed fixing, the guns needed installing, the ship needed supplying, and the CTs needed to brush up their skills. The crew fought frequent hangovers to get the jobs done.
During the Pueblo’s stay in Yokosuka, another AGER assigned to the port pulled in alongside. The USS Banner, its crew haggard and bearded, had just returned from an eavesdropping mission in the Sea of Japan.
The Banner had frequently been harassed by Soviet or Chinese destroyers when it neared the coastlines of those countries, though it had never been bothered by the North Koreans. Frequently the hostile warships would maneuver as if to ram it, Bucher said, or hoist a signal flag that said "Heave to or I will fire" with guns ready to shoot. Though it suffered steering and engine problems similar to those of the Pueblo, it got out of every scrape.
"We were finally able to talk to someone about what it was like to be on station," wrote Russell, who worked in the Pueblo’s supply office. "What was extremely disconcerting, none of them would say much about what they did. They bragged some about being hassled by the Russians and made it sound like they had gone out on a shopping spree and just missed being mugged."
The canny Japanese mechanics at the Yokosuka Ship Repair Facility had succeeded in fixing the troublesome little engine that powered the Pueblo’s steering, a feat that had eluded technicians in Bremerton, San Francisco, San Diego and Pearl Harbor. A plastic windscreen had been installed over the "flying bridge" so Bucher would be less exposed to the elements when he commanded from topside.
Bucher hadn’t solved some of his other problems, though. He continued to badger his superiors for a destruction mechanism for his ship, but they took little interest. After all, the Banner had completed 16 missions, and it had never required scuttling or document destruction. Bucher considered stocking the ship with Thermite, an incendiary device that is very difficult to extinguish. But he rejected its use as too dangerous because of its instability. The last thing he needed was an accidental fire at sea.
For the job of document destruction, Pueblo also was ill-prepared. The Navy had issued two small paper-shredders capable of munching about 1,000 pages an hour. The sailors had to feed them by hand, five sheets at a time. Bucher also installed a 50-gallon incinerator on the deck. It could easily burn the daily accumulation classified materials, but it would take many hours, perhaps days, to burn the ton or so of secret papers and manuals the Navy had placed aboard.
Bucher finally quit fighting the indifferent Navy bureaucracy. This was his first ship command, and he feared his superiors would label him as paranoid and unfit for command if he seemed obsessed with the means of destroying his own ship.
Later, he admitted, he wished he had fought harder.
With the Pueblo scheduled to shove off Jan. 5, the ship picked up its last few crew members. Among them were two civilian government oceanographers, Dunnie "Friar" Tuck and Harry Iredale, who set up an on-board lab and planned to conduct research in keeping with Pueblo’s cover assignment.
James Kell, then a 31-year-old chief petty officer, came aboard two days before the ship set sail. He and his wife, Pat, had lived in Japan for 18 months while he had been assigned to the communications station at Kamiseya, Japan, not far from Yokosuka. He took the Pueblo assignment in place of another chief the Navy was transferring elsewhere.
Two Marines also joined the Pueblo at the last minute, Sgt. Robert Hammond, then 22, and Sgt. Bob Chicca, 24. They had become good friends as their military careers had followed parallel tracks.
They had spent a year together in communications intelligence school, then volunteered for language school in 1965. Both spent 16 weeks studying Korean at Monterey, Calif., then were sent down the coast to Camp Pendleton. Hammond served a tour in Vietnam — which Chicca envied — before they both landed at Kamiseya.
Chicca had been there 18 months when his command assigned the two to the Pueblo to monitor and translate Korean radio communications. They were stunned. Their short Korean courses had hardly prepared them to translate military jargon, and their language skills had grown rusty with 2½ years of disuse.
"When I found out what they wanted us to do, I knew we couldn’t do it," Chicca said last year in an interview at his home in Chula Vista, Calif. "If we were the best they had, it was a sorry sight."
Hammond and Chicca protested to their own superiors and to Bucher that they weren’t prepared to handle the assignment. Bucher was furious, but he didn’t believe he could delay his mission yet again to wait for better translators.
The ship and crew shoved off for Sasebo, Japan, as planned Jan. 5, and sailed straight into a western Pacific storm that wouldn’t let up. This one blew so hard, it sickened nearly everyone on board.
"We again experienced frightening steep rolls which left the ship hanging with her lee railings under before staggering back on her keel, where she barely paused before whipping over on her opposite beam ends," Bucher wrote in his book. "Those who felt they had developed immunity after the Pacific crossing were soon retching with less-hardy shipmates."
Chicca and Hammond alternated 12-hour duty shifts. They worked in a section of the SOD-Hut that essentially was a long hallway, 10 people crammed in an area three feet wide and 20 feet long.
"You’d sort of jam your feet on one side, your back on the other and tried not to get seasick," Chicca said.
The storm stayed with them and worsened as they rounded the southern tip of Kyushu towards Sasebo, the other major Navy port in Japan. Bucher ordered the Pueblo to take shelter behind an island. After the gale lessened slightly, the ship ventured out again. He gave Murphy, the chief navigator, a ferocious tongue-lashing after the ship nearly smashed into some rocks in the middle of the night, the latest in a long string of nasty confrontations.
The Pueblo limped into Sasebo on Jan. 9, and the planned 12-hour visit stretched to two days so the crew could clean up and make repairs. Their final night in port, Bucher, Murphy and three of the officers stayed out nearly till dawn playing poker in a bar. At 6 a.m. Jan. 11, "Lonely Bull" crackled one last time over the ship’s loudspeaker as the ship bid sayonara to Japan.
The Pueblo hugged the Japanese shoreline as it slipped through the Tsushima Straits dividing Japan from China, carefully avoiding two Soviet navy ships nearby.
It could not, however, avoid the winter storms that bedevil the Sea of Japan. Temperatures stayed well below freezing. Bucher constantly fought the build-up of ice on the ship’s deck and superstructure.
The Pueblo’s assignment, Bucher said, was to steam up to the Soviet Union-North Korea border, then slowly head south about 15 miles offshore while the CTs listened for UHF radio signals and recorded them. They hoped to intercept military communications and learn about radar positions.
"My job was to take the ship safely to wherever the spooks wanted to go," Bucher said. It would stay in the area until Jan. 27, then return to Sasebo for a two-week break.
Bucher and Murphy’s relationship continued to deteriorate. Bucher considered Murphy unreliable, a poor administrator and navigator who constantly made excuses for his lapses. Murphy considered Bucher erratic and unprofessional. He thought the captain’s frequent lapses from Navy policy put the ship and crew in danger, and he says he discussed with Harris, the SOD-Hut commander, the possibility of requesting that Bucher be relieved of command.
But despite the storms and the internal conflict, the Pueblo’s mission had been uneventful. No hostile ships appeared to have spotted it until the evening of Jan. 21, when two North Korean fishing boats approached them and passed within 20 yards. Bucher summoned the ship’s photographer, Petty Officer 1st Class Lawrence Mack, and the boats took pictures of one another.
After the encounter, the Pueblo broke its two-week radio silence and reported the contact to Kamiseya.
"We knew we were detected," Kell said. "There are no ‘innocent’ fishing trawlers over there."
Shortly before noon on Jan. 23, Bucher sat down to a lunch of meatloaf, succotash, mashed potatoes and gravy when Law, the ship’s quartermaster, called down to the wardroom. He told Bucher that a vessel was eight miles away, approaching quickly from the south. Before the captain could finish his second helping, the intruder had cut that distance in half. The ship lay 15.8 miles from the nearest land.
Bucher climbed up to the flying bridge, wearing a ski mask against the cold. He saw a heavily armed submarine chaser — built for speed like a cigarette boat, but larger — flying the North Korean flag and circling within 100 yards.
Word spread around the ship, and many of the crew climbed topside to see the excitement.
"It was like watching a movie, where everyone’s behind their guns looking at you," Chicca said. "The wrong end of a lot of firepower."
Bucher quickly sent them below, fearing it would give away the Pueblo’s true mission. He ordered Law and another sailor to hoist the American flag. He ordered Ensign Tim Harris, the ship’s junior officer, to keep a running account, with illustrations, of the encounter. And he brought out Tuck and Iredale, the oceanographers, to sample water temperatures in hopes of reinforcing the alleged nature of their visit.
The North Koreans weren’t biting.
They hoisted a signal flag that said "Heave to (stop), or I will fire." That sent Bucher into a fit of cursing, since the ship already was stopped.
In response, he raised flags stating "I am hydrographic."
Chicca, below in the SOD-hut, summoned Hammond to help him listen to the subchaser’s radio communications, but they could make out only a word or two. Another CT, Petty Officer 1st Class Don Bailey, called Kamiseya and asked them to keep the line open. Steve Harris called the pilothouse to see if the CTs should start destroying documents and crypto gear. Not yet, Bucher said, since the encounter seemed like nothing more than harassment.
Soon three torpedo boats joined the hunt, and the Pueblo, which hadn’t been moving, found itself surrounded by hostile forces with guns manned. They were so close, they could see the Korean faces scowling under their fur caps.
"It wasn’t until we saw the other ships coming over the horizon that we thought they might be serious," Chicca said.
Bucher saw what looked like a boarding party, with helmets, vests and rifles with bayonets, transferring from one ship to another. Two MiG fighters swooped low over the ship.
Although the Pueblo drifted legally in international waters, Bucher decided it was time to move on. He hoisted flags that said, "Thank you for your consideration. I am now departing the area." The ship headed out to sea at its modest maximum cruising speed of 13 knots.
For a short while it seemed this might work. Then the other boats caught up — by now there were five — and one of them began zigzagging in front of the Pueblo’s bow.
Suddenly machine-gun fire raked the bridge and the pilothouse, shattering the safety windows. Everyone hit the deck; several people, including Bucher, suffered shrapnel wounds.
Bucher then gave the order to begin destroying documents and equipment down in the SOD-hut.
"Until they actually opened fire, there wasn’t any thought anything like this could happen," Chicca said. "Then everything changed."
With the ship surrounded by six heavily armed boats, two MiGs overhead, no way to scuttle his ship, and his two paltry machine guns heavily exposed and under sheets of iced-over canvas, Bucher reluctantly decided to follow the Koreans to shore.
He ordered the ship to move as slowly as possible, then went below to clear classified materials out of his own stateroom and check on document destruction in the SOD-hut.
The CTs had begun frantically destroying things, but the two paper shredders couldn’t come close to keeping up. Several sailors took documents to the incinerator on deck, but that was far too slow, too.
"I just sort of dumped myself into it," Chicca said. "We started burning everything. All we had were trash cans and matches. We didn’t have any of the right equipment."
Other sailors grabbed fire axes and sledgehammers to go after the crypto gear. They found it had been built to take a beating.
"The sledgehammer just bounced off the glass," Chicca said.
Thick, black smoke filled the passageways, making it difficult to see or to breathe. The heat burned the paint off the walls and, Chicca realized later, most of the hair from his head and face.
Chicca was working next to Fireman Duane Hodges, 21, who worked in another part of the ship but pitched in to help with the destruction. The ship had slowed to a stop again as Bucher attempted to gain more time to get rid of documents.
Suddenly, an explosion rocked the passageway. The North Koreans had started firing their cannons, and a shell had exploded next to Chicca. He looked at Hodges. The shell had blown his leg nearly off, and he was bleeding badly. Chicca, too, had been injured in the leg, but not nearly as badly.
"Duane probably ended up saving my life," he said, quietly. "He got between me and the bulkhead. It was a huge explosion."
Their shipmates took Hodges, Chicca and several other men less seriously wounded to a makeshift hospital on the mess decks, where a corpsman cared for them as best he could. Chicca was laid on the deck of Murphy’s stateroom and covered with a blanket.
When he had quizzed his superiors ashore, Bucher had repeatedly been assured that air support would be rushed in time of danger. He still expected U.S. fighters to swoop down at any moment and blow away his attackers. He ordered the ship to move ahead slowly.
The Koreans furiously waved the ship toward shore, but Bucher shrugged his shoulders as if he didn’t understand. By now the ship had become a frenzy of fire and shredding, with sailors on the bridge ripping pages from manuals and passing them to the incinerator, bucket-brigade style. Camera gear, officers’ sidearms and machine tools all got hurled over the side. When it became clear the burning and shredding couldn’t destroy everything, sailors began filling mattress covers with papers and tossing them into the sea as well.
Finally one of the patrol boats pulled in front of the Pueblo and raised a flag ordering it to stop. Bucher complied, and told the crew to prepare to receive a boarding party.
The Korean troops boarded about 2:50 p.m. and demanded at gunpoint that Bucher take them around the ship. He showed them all of the spaces, including the SOD-hut. He was dismayed to find out how many classified documents hadn’t been burned or shredded. A Korean officer asked through a translator, "What were you doing in here, burning your secret orders?"
"Oh, just making ice cream," Bucher responded flippantly. The colonel responded with a swift kick that sent him sprawling.
The Koreans ordered the Pueblo sailors to the well deck, where they were tied up, blindfolded, and told to keep quiet. The guards freely kicked them and jabbed them with their weapons, and some pillaged the men’s personal lockers.
Shortly afterward the guards herded the men below decks to the berthing area for the journey to Wonson. Petty Officer 1st Class Herman Baldridge, the corpsman, had been left to care for Hodges and Fireman Steven Woelk, who had also been injured. Hodges bled to death before they reached port.
The last message from Kamiseya had said, "Some birds winging your way," and crew members still hoped to hear the roar of U.S. fighter jets coming to their rescue at any moment.
As the shadows lengthened, that hope died. Although four American aircraft carriers steamed within an hour’s flying time, and two of them — the Enterprise and the Oriskany — had put their pilots on alert, the Navy never sent any assistance. The Air Force did scramble jets from Okinawa, but they were too far away to help.
The men were on their own.
The Pueblo docked near Wonson, where a mob of North Koreans had been assembled to greet it. Marched bound and blindfolded down a crude gangplank, the U.S. crew members could hear the crowd jeering and feel the spit raining down on them.
Chicca, suffering from his leg injury, nearly didn’t make it ashore.
"They started dragging us off the ship," he recalled. "Someone, in English, said ‘Jump,’ so I jumped. I fell between the deck and the boat. There was nothing there."
Some guards grabbed him and pulled him ashore, and he marched with the others to a waiting room. After a while, they were loaded onto a bus, where guards searched them and stole wallets, rings, watches — anything that looked interesting. They singled out two Filipino sailors and one Mexican-American for rough treatment, accusing them of being South Korean spies and threatening them with summary trials and execution.
Late that evening, the crew boarded a train. The men fidgeted on the hard seats in the unheated train. Guards forced them to sit up straight through the all-night ride, and whacked anyone who didn’t. They pulled some sailors into a separate car for beatings.
About 6 a.m., they got off the train in a city they surmised was Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where another angry mob of citizens and journalists confronted them. They climbed aboard two buses for a trip to a cold, run-down barracks they later called "the Barn."
The officers were assigned to sparsely furnished single rooms; the enlisted men stayed in larger rooms in groups of two to 10. Kell carried Chicca to his upstairs room, which Chicca shared with Woelk and another injured sailor. One healthy sailor, Seaman Dale Rigby, would nurse the other three for weeks although he had no medical supplies and only Boy Scout first-aid training. Woelk was laid on a plastic tablecloth that had been taken from the Pueblo’s mess deck, lying in a puddle of his own blood and body fluids.
At least the injured men were spared from regular beatings. The rest of the crew wasn’t. The North Koreans zeroed in quickly on the officers, especially Bucher. The interrogations had begun on the train, repeated long harangues about the crew being spies coupled with threats to shoot them all.
At the Barn, guards dragged Bucher into a room and began the pattern they would use with brutal effectiveness on the whole crew: rapid-fire accusations, threats of execution, and a torrent of kicks and punches to the head and kidneys. The sessions seemed endless and sleep minimal.
The North Koreans broke down almost every man on the ship this way in the first weeks of captivity. They ignored the Geneva Convention, arguing it didn’t apply because the two countries were not at war. They treated the crew as criminals.
The men would hold out as long as they could against the beatings, repeatedly denying any knowledge of espionage and withholding information. Eventually fatigue, fear, pain, uncertainty and despair would overcome them, and they would sign a confession.
It didn’t help that the Koreans salvaged thousands of documents from the ship. They seemed to have every crew member’s personnel folder and knew all about his previous duty stations and family. What was the point in denying things their captors already knew, many men wondered?
Murphy said he was singled out for rough treatment because in Communist navies of the era, the second in command typically was a political officer. They assumed he was, too. His captors also were deeply suspicious because he had attended Principia College, a religious institution in Illinois they somehow connected to the CIA.
"I got the hell beat out of me for that," he said.
In one memorable session, the guards forced him to kneel and placed a board behind his knees, then jumped up and down on the board. In another, he was forced to hold a chair over his head while kneeling on the floor, then beaten badly when his arms gave out and the chair slipped.
The Koreans found a letter of resignation from the Navy that Murphy had been composing during some of his rough times aboard the Pueblo. In it, he detailed some of his complaints about the captain.
"They used that against Bucher and I, to drive a wedge between us," Murphy said. "It worked real well."
Bucher held out through almost 24 hours of relentless beatings and two mock executions. Late on the night of Jan. 25, he gave in. The North Korean colonel who ran the camp threatened to shoot each member of his crew before his eyes, starting with the youngest, until he signed the confession.
The next morning he was dragged into a "press conference" in which North Korean journalists, feigning outrage, asked canned questions while Bucher read prepared answers in a flat monotone he hoped would make clear to Americans that he had been coerced.
Over the next few weeks, every crew member signed confessions of one sort or another. Frequently they were paraded before cameras to recite them. At all times, they had to march with their chins to their chests, in a pose the North Koreans thought made them appear contrite.
Giving in offered relief from the beatings, but then the men’s consciences tortured them. Bucher admitted he contemplated suicide in those first days.
Throughout their captivity, the men were forced to write repeated confessions begging the forgiveness of the North Korean people. They were told to write to government officials and to their families confessing to crimes and telling of their "humane treatment" at the hands of the Koreans. If the writings weren’t judged to be properly "sincere," they were returned for rewrites.
In these letters and confessions, the crew did their best to slip in innuendo and false information to make it clear their comments weren’t genuine.
"The absolute truth of this bowel-wrenching confession is attested to by my fervent desire to paean the Korean People’s Army Navy and their government and to beseech the Korean people to forgive our dastardly deeds unmatched since Attila," wrote several of the officers in one group confession quoted in Bucher’s book. They went on to list "Commander Buzz Sawyer" and "Fleet General Barney Google" as their trainers in spycraft.
The North Koreans seemed interested in the men only as propaganda tools. Despite the cache of military secrets that had fallen into their hands, they never tried to pry any truly valuable secrets out of the Pueblo crew — some of whom knew plenty.
"Their interest in military stuff didn’t go very deep," Chicca said. "They were really ignorant people. They didn’t realize what they had. One of our biggest fears was that they’d bring in the Russians and the Chinese."
That spring, the Koreans moved the men to a somewhat better compound outside the city the crew jokingly called "The Country Club." They received communist political literature translated into English and occasionally were shown North Korean propaganda films or treated to long-winded political lectures.
All the men lost weight on a diet of meager amounts of bread with rancid butter and turnip soup that often featured chunks of pigskin — with hair still attached — or a pig’s eye. Often they fantasized about food. Russell recalled being mesmerized by a picture of a hero sandwich that Chicca, an excellent artist, had drawn for him.
Once, on Easter, the Koreans served the crew a feast. The men, starved for months, chowed down while cameras recorded the event to prove to the world how well they treated the men of the Pueblo.
In June, their captors showed the crew propaganda films that included Westerners flashing their upraised middle fingers at the camera operator. It occurred to the men the Koreans had no idea what this meant. Some crewmen began "flipping the bird" whenever they appeared on camera.
The men knew they would be punished severely if the Koreans found out. They came up with a cover story — they called the gesture a "Hawaiian good luck sign" and began flashing it at one another as well.
"It was a tremendous boost to our morale to be able to do that for seven or eight months and get away with it," Kell said.
But not everyone agreed with it. Murphy thought the captain was recklessly risking the crew’s safety with this and other gestures of defiance.
"Every time he was in front of the cameras, he would double-talk, slamming the Koreans," Murphy said of Bucher.
Later, the men of the Pueblo would pay.
Through the late summer and early fall, however, their captors treated the men relatively well. In October, their captors said that the United States seemed very apologetic and pledged that the men would be released soon. They were allowed to travel by bus to an opera and a concert. For the first time, the men allowed themselves to think they might soon go home. But nothing ever came of it.
Bucher had appointed Chicca to lead a small committee to plan an escape. He suggested that six to 12 men, in two groups, should dash to the sea under cover of the fall monsoons, then steal a boat and row to South Korea. Chicca and Hammond, the two Marines, had been trained in escape-and-evasion techniques and would lead the two teams.
Chicca said they waited for his wounds to fully heal, and for the rains to come. Then it appeared the crew would be released, so they put it on hold.
But suddenly the guards’ attitude turned as chilly as the weather. The Pueblo crew’s secret had been exposed.
In its Oct. 18 issue, Time magazine ran a photo showing four of the eight men in Room 13 with their middle fingers upraised and explained that it was a sign of derision. Suspicious guards had already begun asking questions about the gesture. Still, it took almost two months for their North Korean captors to realize they had been played for fools. They had lost face, the ultimate horror in East Asian cultures. The guards wanted vengeance, and they got it.
On Dec. 12, Hell Week, as the men came to call it, had begun. The guards moved some of the men to different rooms, and ordered them all to sit silently on their chairs, bodies bent forward, hands on thighs.
The sailors in Room 13 got it first. They were taken into separate rooms, the guards demanding to know who had started the finger gesture. The men were beaten for hours with boards and fists, with a fury they hadn’t seen before.
From the officers they demanded to know who was the CIA agent, who had planned escape attempts, who had originated the finger gesture. Between beatings the men were forced to write confessions. The torture continued around the clock. For the first time in months, some of the men thought they would be killed.
"They put us through hell. Some boys who were never touched before got beaten," Murphy said. "My room was right next to the torture chamber. I heard every blow."
The beatings ended as abruptly as they had started at noon on Dec. 19. The next day, doctors began treating their broken bones and bruises.
Though at the time the Hell Week abuse drove the crew to despair, in retrospect it seemed more like a grotesque fraternity initiation. "These are the beatings that are least depressing," Bucher said later, "because we earned them."
The head guard — mockingly named the Glorious General by crew members — called the men together for a meeting. He told them they seemed sincerely sorry, that the U.S. government had admitted to its crimes, and the men would be released. They didn’t believe it, though, until they got off the buses in Panmunjom and were ordered to walk across the bridge to South Korea.
Bucher went first, Murphy last. The men were spaced at equal intervals, Kell said, 10 to 15 yards apart, and crossed slowly and without looking back, as their names were called. As a final humiliation, a loudspeaker on the North Korean side played a tape of one of Bucher’s confessions.
"About halfway across the bridge, I burst into a smile and couldn’t stop," said Chicca, who was among the last to cross.
"Reaching the other side was just euphoric. It was almost like shock," said Kell, who also crossed near the end. "I couldn’t believe we were free."
Hodges’ body, shrouded in gauze inside a wooden coffin, was repatriated, too, after Bucher identified it.
The Pueblo crew traveled to an air base west of Seoul, then an aircraft whisked them to Midway Island, and finally to San Diego for a Christmas Eve reunion with their families. When they got there, they were stunned to find a throng of placard-waving Californians lining the streets to cheer their homecoming.
"The welcome in San Diego was beyond anything we ever could have believed," Chicca said. "We had no idea we had become a centerpoint of controversy and concern."
The public may have greeted the men as heroes, but the Navy appeared to be hunting for scapegoats.
The USS Pueblo had been the first Navy ship in a century and a half to be boarded and seized by a foreign power. Despite handshakes from admirals when the crew came home, the brass was not pleased the ship had been surrendered without firing a shot. The men knew they would have some explaining to do.
"We expected our little buns were in a wringer," Chicca said.
To a man, they believed the Pueblo couldn’t possibly have fought back against the North Korean ships that encircled it, and that Bucher followed the only course of action that could have saved their lives.
The men spent Christmas with their families. A day later, the Navy began long interviews with all 82 survivors in hopes of determining which documents the North Koreans recovered and what classified information might have been revealed under torture.
On Jan. 20, 1969, the Navy convened the Court of Inquiry in Coronado, Calif. The board of five admirals grilled the crew for nearly two months, much of it in secret session. They hammered on the crew’s failure to follow the Code of Conduct, which dictates that captured troops give captors only their name, unit, rank and serial number.
The Pueblo crew argued the code didn’t fit their circumstances because the United States was not at war with North Korea, and because their captors already possessed information about them from the seized documents. Instead they focused on foiling their captors’ propaganda efforts.
"It was an extremely intimidating period of time," Chicca said. "They made me testify in closed session. I didn’t have a lawyer, nothing — just me and the admirals."
The crew closed ranks, praising Bucher’s leadership during their captivity. "I personally think the captain should have been given the Medal of Honor," Kell said.
The Court of Inquiry felt differently. In its report, the admirals recommended Bucher be court-martialed for failing to protect and defend his ship; following North Korean orders to sail to their port; failing to properly train his crew to destroy classified material; failing to destroy that material upon capture; and permitting classified material to fall into enemy hands.
They also recommended that Steve Harris be charged with failing to train his crew in emergency destruction procedures and failing to destroy classified material as ordered; and that Murphy receive a reprimand for dereliction of duty.
The brass didn’t escape the court’s notice either. The report recommended bringing charges against the Rear Adm. Frank Johnson, the Commander Naval Forces Japan, and Capt. Everett Gladding, director of the Naval Security Group Pacific, for failing to support and protect the ship adequately.
The court singled out 10 crew members for praise, including Hammond, "as the salient example of resistance demonstrated by members of the Pueblo’s crew," and Chicca, "for resistance to the demands of the Koreans."
Navy Secretary John Chafee considered all the charges — and dropped them. The Navy wanted to put this embarrassing chapter behind it.
"They have suffered enough," Chafee said, in dismissing the charges. "The major factor which led to the Pueblo’s lonely confrontation by bold and hostile forces was sudden collapse of a premise which had been assumed at every level of responsibility and upon which every other aspect of the mission had been based — freedom of the high seas. The consequences must, in fairness, be borne by all rather than by one or two individuals whom circumstances placed closer to the crucial event."
In late 1969, the Navy quietly canceled the AGER program and decommissioned the Banner and the Palm Beach.
The Court of Inquiry report still angers many of the crew members. They felt the court should have spent more time investigating the higher-ranking authorities who conceived the Pueblo’s ill-fated mission, sent it out undefended and then abandoned the ship when it got in trouble.
Regardless of the Navy’s findings regarding their conduct, crew members were winners in the court of popular opinion. Press commentators criticized the court for whitewashing the conduct of Bucher’s chain of command, and the public viewed them as Cold War heroes.
Within two years, Bucher, Murphy and Steve Harris all wrote books about what came to be known as the Pueblo Incident. So did a group of 15 sailors and officers. While Bucher accused Murphy of cowardice and Murphy accused Bucher of recklessness, all reinforced the view of the crew as suffering at the hands of the cruel North Koreans and the careless Navy brass.
The Pueblo Incident faded from the public’s memory, lost in the turbulence of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Most of the crew left the Navy soon after, many of disillusioned, most bearing physical and mental scars from their 11 months of torture.
A few Pueblo sailors kept in touch with one another, but the USS Pueblo Veterans Association did not form until much later. They’ve held reunions every two or three years since 1985; the last took place in September in Pueblo, Colo.
Many of the 75 surviving crew members find the reunions therapeutic. Their imprisonment was a defining moment in their lives, and only other Pueblo veterans can truly comprehend it.
"You get four or five of them in a room, and you hear stories you’ve never heard before," said Kell’s wife, Pat.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the Pueblo in the past several years. The History Channel produced a one-hour documentary on it in 1997, and last fall, Oliver North interviewed several crew members for a segment about the Pueblo Incident on Fox TV’s series, "War Stories." Bucher said a Los Angeles journalist currently is researching what he says will be the definitive book on the Pueblo Incident.
And the shootdown of the Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft — engaged in a mission off the coast of China strikingly similar to the Pueblo’s — prompted reporters to call the ship’s crew for their perspective.
The ill-starred USS Pueblo itself has never been stricken from the Navy’s roster of active ships. Technically, it still is assigned to the 7th Fleet headquarters at Yokosuka.
It lay rusting in Wonson harbor until the North Koreans salvaged it and towed it about three years ago to Pyongyang, where it is considered a war trophy and a tourist attraction. Visitors to the ship who have left messages on the Pueblo veterans’ Web site say it is well-preserved, but its battle scars remain. Pueblo veterans, though, are incensed that the Navy didn’t recapture it during its slow journey around the South Korean peninsula.
The Navy and the Pueblo crew didn’t learn until many years later what a devastating intelligence loss the ship’s capture represented. As the North Korean gunboats closed in on them, CTs tried vainly to destroy the SOD-hut’s KW-7, a cryptographic machine the Navy used during the Cold War to send coded messages.
At the time, no one worried much about the loss. Using it required key lists, which the Navy changed monthly. Then, when former Navy Chief Petty Officer John Walker was arrested for espionage in 1985, they learned that he had been providing his Soviet handlers with monthly KW-7 key lists since October 1967, two months before the Pueblo’s seizure. Had the U.S. gone to war with the Soviets, they likely could have intercepted messages to and from Navy ships, Bucher believes.
Today Chicca looks much younger than his 58 years, but he still suffers from night sweats and sleeplessness. He fought the Veterans’ Administration for 30 years before they would consider his chronic back and abdominal pain as a service-related disability.
"I have a lot of problems, (yet) I think I’ve come through it pretty well," he said. "I never would have believed it would have affected me as much as it has."
But he still can’t blot out the bungling and betrayal that led to the Pueblo crew’s suffering.
"Those that were closest to us, didn’t come to our rescue," Chicca said. "The Pueblo is a tremendous example of a whole lot of people blowing it."