On Jan. 23, 1968, while in international waters, the Pueblo, armed with only two .50-caliber machine guns, was attacked by four North Korean torpedo boats. After evading a North Korean boarding party, Bucher and his crew were subjected to a barrage of cannon fire. One American crewman was killed, and 10 were wounded, including Bucher. Despite frantic radio messages from the Pueblo seeking air support, no help was forthcoming. A second North Korean boarding party captured Bucher and the surviving 81 crewmembers.
Before the Pueblo was seized, Bucher and his crew managed to smash most of the intelligence equipment and destroy much of the classified material by burning it in garbage pails. Bucher described the process as a "poor substitute" for the destruction system he had requested before setting sail.
Held in concrete cells, the Pueblo crew was starved and tortured for 11 months. Fed mostly turnips, many of the malnourished crewmen began to lose their sight. They were repeatedly beaten and burned on steam radiators. Bob Chicca, one of the crew members told me, "They would use rifle butts, or pieces of wood, whatever they had handy to beat us."
By all accounts, Bucher bore the brunt of the North Korean's wrath. "He was beaten more than anybody else," crewman James Kell said. "We were all beaten, we all were tortured. But (Bucher) had it double, triple, quadruple what we got."
Stu Russell, another crewman, echoed Kell's praise of Bucher. "The man was a giant. No matter who did what, he was always punished. I simply don't know where he got the strength and courage to go through what he did."
Eventually, to save the lives of his crew, Bucher signed a coerced "confession." His men called themselves "Bucher's Bastards," in honor of their courageous skipper, and he encouraged them to extend a middle finger when being photographed so that Americans and officials back home would know they were resisting their torturers. The crew's spirits rose until Time magazine reported the meaning of the gesture.
After the North Koreans read Time magazine and realized the crew's defiance, they suffered "Hell Week" for it. "They almost killed me during Hell Week," Bucher told me. "They redoubled their efforts to beat and torture every member of the crew."
Finally, after nearly a year, the Pueblo crew's release was secured, after the U.S. government agreed to a bogus "confession." U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gilbert Woodward repudiated the text even as he signed it on behalf of his country: "The document which I am going to sign was prepared by the North Koreans. My signature will not and cannot alter the facts. I will sign the documents to free the crew and only to free the crew."
The crew was released one by one to cross the "Bridge of No Return" from North to South Korea. "It was like coming out of the grave," Bucher said. "I never thought I'd see that day."
But instead of returning to accolades, Bucher came home to face a Navy Court of Inquiry criticizing him for surrendering his ship. In 1989, the Pentagon finally issued POW medals to the Pueblo crew.
During the height of the ordeal, Pete Bucher's beloved wife, Rose, handed out bumper stickers reminding the public to "Remember the Pueblo." Now, 36 years after the capture, Pete Bucher is at rest overlooking San Diego Bay at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and the USS Pueblo is still in North Korea, on the Taedong River, near Pyongyang. His pallbearers included three of "Bucher's Bastards," who recalled his courage and leadership during their 11 months in North Korean hell. They are old men now, but their message is still the same: "Remember the Pueblo."
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.
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