Published September 06, 2008
JERICHO, Vt. – Ralph 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.
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," 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 in neighboring Essex for a four-day reunion featuring exhibits and speeches by experts on U.S.-Korean relations.
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 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 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 name, rank and serial number. "They've been living with that all these years," 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.
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.
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," 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 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."
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 and each crew member was interviewed.
There was a recommendation that the ship's captain, Cmdr. Lloyd "Pete" Bucher, face court martial for losing his ship even though he helped keep his crew together during captivity. Senior Navy officials nixed the court martial 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," 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. Lerner said there have been negotiations, some quite recent, to return the ship.
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."