On the eve of the new year, justice was served for the former crew of the USS Pueblo when a U.S. District Court judge ordered North Korea to pay three crewmen — as well as the estate of former Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher — more than $65 million in damages for pain and suffering during their captivity in 1968. The timing of the decision coincides with that of their capture 41 years ago, a bittersweet anniversary for the remaining 69 survivors who endured hell at the hands of "The Hermit Kingdom" for 11 months and lived to tell the story.
I had never heard of the USS Pueblo until 2001, when I started working on my first episode of "War Stories with Oliver North." At the time, there was limited information on the Internet about this Cold War incident and most of it came from the USS Pueblo Veterans' Association's Web site, www.usspueblo.org. The more I read, the more I became enthralled with this heartbreaking saga which had all the elements of a Hollywood thriller: high-tech espionage, communist villains and American heroes.
• Catch the 'War Stories Classic: The Pueblo Incident,' Monday, February 9 at 3 a.m. ET
As production progressed, I had the opportunity to speak with many of the veterans. With each phone call, their harrowing experience unfolded and pieces of the puzzle came together to reveal an agonizing story of survival.
"The story of the Pueblo is a story of 83 Americans who were sent out to do a job and they did it to the best of their ability," said Mitchell Lerner, author of "The Pueblo Incident" and an associate professor at Ohio State University. "And when things went haywire, they found they were pretty much out there on their own."
Before sailing on her maiden voyage and earning the dubious distinction of being the first U.S. Navy ship to be hijacked on the high seas by a foreign military force in over 150 years, the USS Pueblo was a small, aging transport ship. Filled with the latest surveillance gear, she was retrofitted for a top secret operation — codenamed "Clickbeetle" — to spy on the Soviets and their satellites.
"Our assignment basically was to... look at four different places," said the Pueblo's late skipper, Commander Lloyd "Pete" Bucher, during his 2001 interview with Lt. Col. Oliver North. "One of them was Chongjin, Songjin, Mayang-do and finally Wonsan, and see what kinds of electronic activity were going on there."
Armed with only two, 50-caliber machine guns, the Pueblo set sail. Twelve days into her voyage, she was spotted. Less than 24 hours later, crewmembers remember seeing a North Korean subchaser racing toward them, manned by sailors in battledress uniforms. Eventually, there were four torpedo boats, two subchasers and two Soviet MiG fighter planes threatening the ship. To this day, Pyongyang says the Pueblo was in its territorial waters — a claim which the ship's crew and the U.S. government deny.
Just as Commander Bucher steered the Pueblo back toward Japan, the North Koreans opened fire. Below decks, the ship's communications officers were sending frantic messages for help. The men had also begun smashing the secret surveillance equipment and trying to destroy classified documents. In the midst of the chaos, Seaman Duane Hodges was hit in the abdomen by a 57-mm enemy shell, which literally blew him apart. The 21-year-old Oregon native was the only KIA.
The Pueblo tried to hold her own against overwhelming odds. Bucher decided he had no choice but to surrender the ship to an armed party of North Koreans. They were taken to a makeshift prison in Wonsan, where the North Koreans began to brutalize their American prisoners. The North Koreans wanted Bucher to confess to violating their territorial waters, which he denied over and over; until one day they brought the two youngest crewmen to him.
"They said that they would commence to shoot these people or to kill these people until such time as I was willing to sign this thing," remembered Bucher. "Didn't take me long to decide that these people are crazy enough to do that."
Bucher signed the confession to save his crew and their captivity turned from days, to weeks, to months. Routinely beaten and ordered to stand at attention for 16 hours a day, at times the men survived on as little as three strips of turnip a day.
"In 'Hell Week' the North Koreans redoubled their efforts to... to punish people," said Bucher. "They really almost killed me at that point in time with brutality."
The loss of intelligence was also staggering. Among the captured documents were the electronic order of battle and charts showing the locations of enemy radar and other military installations. Now the North Koreans and Soviets knew exactly what we knew about their defenses. At the height of the Cold War, this greatly endangered U.S. military forces in those regions.
After 11 months of torture for the men and negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington D.C., an agreement was reached: the men would taste freedom again. One by one, they walked across the "Bridge of No Return" into South Korea.
"And it was just to me like... coming out of the goddamn grave," remembered Bucher. "We got that whole crew out and that meant a lot to me."
Their celebration was short-lived. Soon after they were repatriated, the Navy launched an investigation into the Pueblo incident. Two-hundred hours of hearings, 104 witnesses and eight weeks later, the 5-admiral panel recommended a court martial for the ship's intelligence officer, Steve Harris, and for Commander Bucher.
"I didn't want that to be the end of my career, but in essence I knew it was," said Bucher.
The ship's skipper was accused of giving up his ship too easily and not offering any resistance to the North Koreans. He was also cited for failing to completely destroy his classified materials, even though the Navy had rejected his requests for the equipment to do so.
"Bucher really became the Navy scapegoat," said Lerner.
Eventually, former Navy Secretary John H. Chafee overruled the admirals' recommendations, declaring that the men of the Pueblo had suffered enough. Pueblo crewmembers William Thomas Massie, Dunnie Richard Tuck, Donald Raymond McClarren and Lloyd Bucher sued the North Korean government for the abuse they suffered at its hands during their captivity. The North Koreans never acknowledged the suit.
Now, 41 years later, the plaintiffs stand to receive $65 million in damages: $16.7 each to McClarren, Tuck and Massie. Bucher's widow, Rose, was awarded $1.25 million, and Bucher's estate, $14.3 million.
The men of the USS Pueblo risked their lives to preserve our nation's security. One of them made the ultimate sacrifice. For more than four decades they have lived under a cloud of suspicion that they somehow failed in their mission. Now they want nothing more than for that cloud to be lifted and to see the Pueblo back home where she belongs flying the stars and stripes once again.
Bucher died in San Diego on January 28, 2004, still holding out hope.
— Ayse Wieting is a producer for "War Stories With Oliver North"