Pueblo crew gathers for 40th reunion
By WILSON RING The Associated Press | September 07,2008
JERICHO ó When Ralph McClintock boarded the USS Pueblo in January 1968, he was planning for a three-week mission.
Instead, the 24-year-old communications technician became a prisoner of war, a pawn in the Cold War sideshow that began with North Korea's capture of the Navy spy ship and imprisonment of its 82 crew members.
Forty years later, as McClintock and the other survivors of the Pueblo prepare for a reunion, he's proud of his service and the bonds he made with his crew mates during 11 months in captivity.
But the 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," 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 Wednesday, 40 of the 69 surviving crew members will gather for a four-day reunion featuring exhibits and speeches by experts on U.S.-Korean relations.
It's a chance for the Pueblo crew to exorcise the bad feelings that linger decades later. Some still suffer the physical effects of torture or malnutrition. Some remain disillusioned by a Navy they still love.
"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.
The 1968 capture was almost a footnote in a year that saw the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert 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 The 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 Lerner, who will speak at the union.
Despite the challenges of captivity, 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, the young sailors had to go before admirals and most acknowledged they gave the enemy more than their name, rank and serial number.
"They've been living with that all these years," Schumacher said.
Navy spokesman Lt. j.g. Thomas Buck said the appropriate Navy official wasn't available to comment on the criticisms of the Navy's handling of the Pueblo incident and its aftermath.
McClintock, 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, looking for information to use should war erupt.
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 waters; North Korea says it was in North Korean waters.) One sailor was killed when the Pueblo was raked as members of the crew was trying to throw classified material overboard.
Pueblo communications technicians were giving second-by-second updates to their base in Japan, but no help was available. The Pueblo and its crew were on their own.
Lerner said the military failed the Pueblo, but it wasn't sinister.
"The American government and the American military assumed this ship would be safe because the Soviets did similar things to us," Lerner said. "No one stopped to think the Soviet Union and the North Koreans were not the same thing."
So the crew settled in to life 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 instantly, soundly, never wake up until the next morning," McClintock said. "That's the freedom, just absolute freedom. The dreams are unbelievable. You dream of the good things."
The crew was frustrated more wasn't done to free them sooner, but 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," said Lerner.
The crew was released two days before Christmas.
Soon after, the Navy formed a board of inquiry to investigate the loss of the ship. Each crew member was interviewed. There was a recommendation that the ship's captain, Commander Pete Bucher, who helped keep his crew together during captivity, face court martial for losing his ship.
The idea was nixed by senior Navy officials.
"The failures behind the Pueblo are everywhere," said Lerner. "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."
The Pueblo is still on the Navy's role as a commissioned warship, even though it's now docked on the Taedong River in Pyongyang where North Korea holds is up as a symbol of resistance to American aggression.
Lerner said there have been negotiations, some quite recent, to return the Pueblo.
"It is Navy property and the U.S. Navy would like to see it returned," Buck said.
McClintock, 65, looks forward to that day when the Pueblo comes home, as a way to honor their service and 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," McClintock said. "Our dream is to see the USS Pueblo sail into San Diego Bay."