Pueblo crew prepare for reunion 40 years later
Memories aboard US spy ship mixed
JERICHO, Vt. - 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 crewmates 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 specialists on US-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 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 US 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 United States 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 were 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.
The crew were frustrated more wasn't done to free them sooner, but Lerner said US 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 were released two days before Christmas.
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 it up as a symbol of resistance to American aggression.
Lerner said there have been negotiations to return the Pueblo.
"It is Navy property, and the US Navy would like to see it returned," Buck said.