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A short tour gone wrong Richard Peña | Sat, Aug 03 2013 12:00 PM

One of the bleakest events in U.S. Naval history occurred on Jan. 23 in 1968.  On that date members of the North Korean navy seized the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Naval vessel on intelligence duty in international waters and for eleven months held the crew of 82 prisoners under very trying and inhumane conditions.  The crew was released by the North Koreans on Dec. 23 of that year thus ending the saga of the USS Pueblo. Or did it?

The government of North Korea is currently holding a celebration declaring a victory in that war with South Korea. Actually no one really won. A cessation of hostilities was agreed but no treaty of peace was ever declared or signed. Nevertheless, a celebration is in the works and one of the center pieces or those hostilities is a brand new museum on the waterfront of Pyongyang.

The idea, of course, is to demonstrate to the tourists, particularly natives of the country, and the world at large how the little guy can gain over the big guy.  “What the heck?” they are probably saying.  “San Diego can have its Midway; we have our Pueblo.”

Bonitian Robert Chicca was one of two marines on board the Pueblo in those days.

A native of our nation’s capital he had enlisted in the Corps a couple of years earlier and opted for a career in intelligence.  He saw duty in various stations, mostly schools, and ended up at Camp Pendleton where he went into the language school.

When he was fully schooled he went on board the Pueblo for, what he thought, would be a short tour of duty.  He was not counting on suffering the indignities of being a Prisoner of War, something that was declared on him and his shipmates a few years after their release.

According to the literature the Pueblo crew was held in two compounds that the Pueblo crew members laughingly christened the barn and the farm. One was in Pyongyang, the capital city, and the other in the nearby countryside. The United States objected strongly to the North Korea action, even sending a naval taskforce led by the carrier Enterprise demanding release of the Pueblo crew.

The North Koreans were not about to do this since it would have been admission that the Pueblo was seized in international waters. They, therefore, commenced a routine of torture and other means of terrorizing hoping to get a confession that the vessel was, in fact, intruding in Korean waters.

The Pueblo’s commanding officer, the late Lloyd Bucher, was singled out and beat and tortured.

The literature tells us that he was once taken to another building and there shown a man who was hanging but still alive. He had been badly beaten and would soon die.  Bucher was told that was what happened to those that spy in North Korea.  He was told that his crew would die, one by one, if he did not sign a confession of spying.  He finally capitulated and signed a confession, thus saving his crew.

Today the Pueblo is still lauded with distinction though by the other side.  It has a place of honor along North Korea’s waterfront as an example of the spoils of war.  In deference to its status it has been repaired and painted and no doubt looked upon, by the visiting public, as an example of some sort of clever  naval tactics that ensured her capture.  Such an ending would have to be the task of a learned historian, one who digs and digests the facts as they become known.

As for the crew, Chicca tells me that there are about 70 members of the original 83 who are still living.  Many, I suppose, are like Chicca.  He left the U.S Marine Corps and was successful in the business world.  He and his wife, Vanessa, still live in the Bonita home that they bought in 1972.

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