USS Pueblo crew reunites in Vt., 40 years after capture

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(Host) Vermont is host this weekend to a reunion of the crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo.

That’s the Navy ship that was captured by North Korea in 1968, and whose crew was held prisoner for nearly a year.

40 years later, the men gather to share memories and camaraderie. But as VPR’s Lynne McCrea reports, they also still live with unanswered questions…

(Waterfront sounds) "Welcome aboard, gentlemen"…

(McCrea) On a sparkling September day, members of the Pueblo crew gather on Burlington’s waterfront for a cruise on Lake Champlain.

As they board the tour boat, some of the men joke about the parallel to 40 years ago.

(Man) "Hey this ship is not going to get captured, is it?"

(McCrea) The cruise is one of many events the men have planned for their time together. Mostly, the reunion is a chance for the crew to talk about what happened 40 years ago as the Pueblo sat on the Sea of Japan, in international waters, on a mission to gather intelligence.

(Schumacher) "We were, right from the beginning, treated as really the first U.S. hostages, rather than POW’s.”

(McCrea) Skip Schumacher is from St. Louis, Missouri. He says the Pueblo didn’t have the kind of military intelligence that would be of use to an enemy, but that the North Koreans were after something else.

(Schumacher) "They were never after any hardcore intelligence – what they were after was propaganda that would be beneficial to their third world cause."

(McCrea) And so, for 11 months the Pueblo crew was badly beaten and forced to make confessions about what the Koreans said was their intrusion into "territorial waters.”

Ralph McClintock, of Jericho, says the men never really gave anything away to their captors. Instead, they planted codes into their confessions that would be understood back home.

(McClintock) "The strategy was to discredit anything the Koreans made us write or say and the hope was that back home, this would be understood – that, ‘wait a minute, this can’t be real.’"

(McCrea) Indeed, when the crew was released after 11 months, Americans welcomed them home as heroes. But the Navy held a court of inquiry into whether the captain, Pete Bucher, had done everything possible to avoid giving up the ship. In the view of Skip Schumacher and others, the Navy was denying its responsibility for the incident.

(Schumacher) "They didn’t want to admit any responsibility for having planned a bad mission. In other words, there was no back up for us. There was no contingency plan. Bucher followed his orders, we never violated territorial waters."

(Brandt) "There are questions that will never be answered."

(McCrea) Ed Brandt is a retired journalist, and author of the book "The Last Voyage of the USS Pueblo."

(Brandt) "Why did the U.S. Navy send a virtually unarmed ship into extremely dangerous waters? And then complain when they surrendered?

(McCrea) Brandt says that, to this day, there is a shadow over the crew of the Pueblo.

(Brandt) "Because we gave up the ship. But anyone who knows the truth of the matter understands that there was no choice in giving up the ship.”

(Gathering) "It brings back memories…none of ‘em good!" (laughter)

(McCrea) As crew members gather and look at old photographs, they laugh off the bad memories of their imprisonment. But what lingers for Ralph McClintock and others is a sense of disillusionment, over how the Navy treated them after they came home.

(McClintock) "There are times that you have to say, ‘It’s more important that lives be saved, than going down with the ship.’ The guys and girls of the Navy understand that. The institution is the other part of it, and it’s the institution that we would have loved to say, ‘Well done.’"

(McCrea) This week, Senator Patrick Leahy sent a letter to Navy Secretary Donald Winter, asking the Navy to -quote- "revisit and more fully recognize the suffering and the sacrifice that the crew endured." The Navy hasn’t had a chance to respond. But a spokesman says the Navy long ago thanked the Pueblo crew for their service and that now the incident is one for historians to judge.

Back at the Burlington waterfront, the Pueblo crew is recognized at a monument to sailors.

(Man outdoors) "We’re delighted to have you here."

(McCrea) A Navy veteran from Vermont honors them with flowers and a flag-raising. The men, in turn, ask for a moment of silence for their Captain, Pete Bucher, who died in 2004.  Ralph McClintock remembers the captain who was revered by his crew.

(McClintock) “During our 20th anniversary reunion in San Diego, we were at a pool party, and Pete was standing there watching all these kids in the pool, running around. And he said: `I did the right thing.’ His exact words were: `Now I know I did the right thing.’"

(McCrea) The crew says they’ll always remember Bucher as the captain who chose his men, over his ship.

For VPR News, I’m Lynne McCrea.

Photo: Ralph McClintock, organizer of the Pueblo reunion. Photo by Lynne McCrea.

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