Some of the surviving crewmembers of an American spy ship captured by North Korean forces 50 years ago have a message for President Trump: bring our warship home.
“The crew of the USS Pueblo would like to get our ship returned,” Ron Berens, the lead helmsman onboard and at the wheel on January 23, 1968 when North Korean MiG fighter jets and patrol boats opened fire on the American spy ship, leading to the first capture of a U.S. Navy ship since the War of 1812.
“We would like them to deliver it to Lake Pueblo,” said Bob Hill, a 19-year-old deck seaman at the time and one of the youngest on board.
One crewmember was killed, 82 others taken captive and held for 11 months in North Korean prisons enduring hours of torture roughly 10 days after departing from Japan on espionage missions against the Soviet Union and North Korea.
“There’s nothing in the current history books about the Pueblo,” Berens said in an interview with Fox News during a gathering of roughly 40 surviving Pueblo crewmembers on the 50th anniversary of their capture this week in Pueblo, Colo., the ship’s namesake.
Today, the Pueblo remains a commissioned U.S. Navy ship on display in the Potong River inside North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, where the refurbished American spy ship hosts thousands of visitors a year.
It’s an episode in history largely overshadowed in a year dominated by the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Apollo 8 launch.
An even deadlier incident occurred a year later when a North Korean MiG-21 shot down a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft, killing all 31 Americans onboard.
January 23, 1968 began with anxiety for the Pueblo crew with their ship just 14 miles off the coast of North Korea. The day prior, a number of communist vessels had approached the American spy ship to take photos venturing too close for comfort.
The North Korean patrol boats and sub chasers had remained and around lunchtime Sunday began firing on the Pueblo after being joined by a pair of North Korean MiGs overhead.
Bob Hill was lying in his rack when he heard general quarters sound, sending the crew to their battle stations. Hill was told to help destroy top secret material on board because the crew quickly found themselves surrounded.
Tim Harris, a young supply officer onboard Pueblo, said the North Koreans quickly surrounded the American spy ship and opened fire with machine guns and 40mm cannon.
The American crew tried to escape, but the North Korean vessels were relentless. After signaling the Americans to stop or “heave to” and with their ship badly disabled due to the debilitating fire, the North Korean patrol boats swooped in and jumped aboard.
“We never surrendered. We stopped the ship. There was never an order to surrender,” Harris said. “We had taken so much fire.”
“We were scared s***less,” Bob Hill said recalling the feeling of seeing North Korean sailors taking him and his 82 crewmembers captive and bringing them to the port city of Wonsan.
“They tied us up, blindfolded us. We were all wondering if we were going to die.”
Shortly after arriving in North Korea, Hill said the American crew was met with shouts from a mob that had gathered.
“Kill Yankee!” they yelled in English, Hill recalled.
The American crew spent their first six weeks in North Korea in Pyongyang before being moved out to the countryside less than an hour from the capital city.
Over the next 11 months the crew was subjected to torture routinely.
“A typical day was met with intermittent terror. If you happened to be caught sleeping you were in a world of pain,” Hill said.
The crew learned to rely on God as well as one another.
“Your roommates were your biggest help,” said Berens.
The surviving crewmembers are split about bringing the ship back saying President Trump has more important issues to worry about such as getting North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
“It’s still a slap in the face to us every day that it’s still commissioned,” Hill said. “That bothers me a great deal.”
When North Korea turned Pueblo into a museum and communist propaganda piece, “I prayed when they opened that thing with all their military officers on board we could drop a MOAB [Mother of all Bombs] or something on them and blow the whole damn thing up.”
He added: "Decommission that damn thing."
Ron Berens disagrees.
“If they decommission the ship Americans would lose face,” Berens said. “That’s total surrender.”
“That is a hunk of metal. The crew is right here,” Hill said about the survivors that have gathered this week in Pueblo, Colo.
“The spirit of that ship is right here today at the reunion,” agreed Harris.
Cmdr. Josh Hill, a 2001 U.S. Naval Academy graduate currently assigned to the Pentagon, echoed his father’s sentiment.
“Nothing would mean more to the crew than having Pueblo returned to the U.S. for a proper decommissioning ceremony," he said.
Surviving Pueblo crewmembers also want their skipper recognized for his heroism in leading all 82 men through 11 months of captivity. When they returned to the United States in December 1968, they were cheered by crowds in San Diego.
Back in Washington, Navy brass demanded a courts-martial to investigate why Pueblo’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Lloyd M. Bucher, allowed his crew to be captured by North Korea. Charges were dropped weeks later because the Navy secretary felt Bucher had suffered enough, according to Berens.
To this day, Bucher has not received any valor award for his actions, despite the crew receiving Purple Hearts for their wounds suffered in captivity and during the attack at sea.
“It was his leadership under extreme circumstances that we survived,” Harris said.
Many Pueblo crewmembers want Cmdr. Bucher awarded the Medal of Honor.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for Commander Bucher,” said Navy Cmdr. Josh Hill, who added that when he was commissioned in the U.S. Navy in May 2001, Cmdr. Bucher performed a special private ceremony at the Naval Academy’s Memorial Hall.
Under Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag: “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”
Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly contributed to this report