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Pueblo Crew Honored 22 Years After It Was Seized by North Koreans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixty-four of the 79 crew members still alive from the captured spy ship Pueblo will be in San Diego this weekend to receive their Prisoner of War medals--22 years after their release by North Korea.

The medal ceremony will be the high point of a week during which the men also received recognition from the city of San Diego on Thursday, when an assistant to the mayor read a proclamation commending the men for their dedication, bravery and service during their captivity in 1968.

The former commander of the vessel, Lloyd (Pete) Bucher, stood erect and squinted in the sunlight as he listened to the words declaring this Saturday USS Pueblo Day. Supervisor Leon Williams made a similar proclamation for the county Tuesday during a Board of Supervisors meeting.

On Thursday, Bucher’s voice quivered occasionally and he apologized to his audience for the brief pauses he made as he read from a prepared statement on the front steps of Balboa Park’s War Memorial building.

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“During the 11 months of the ensuing captivity, the men of the Pueblo were subjected to brutalities, various degradations and humiliations. Never did they lose faith with their God, their country or their shipmates,” Bucher said.

The Pueblo was seized Jan. 23, 1968, while conducting surveillance off North Korea’s coast. After receiving no help from the U.S. military, the lightly armed ship was captured by seven attacking North Korean naval vessels.

One crewman, Duane Hodges, was slain in the attack.

The crew was released after 11 months in captivity in North Korea, but the indignities did not end.

When Bucher returned to the United States, a Navy Court of Inquiry recommended that he and another officer be court-martialed. But the idea was scuttled by then-Secretary of the Navy John H. Chafee, who decided the men had suffered enough.

In 1988, when Congress authorized POW medals, the men of the Pueblo were excluded. Bucher and his men felt betrayed.

Bucher went to Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee. After ordering hearings, Mavroules authored legislation making the Pueblo crew eligible for the medals. President Bush signed the bill in December.

“In my view, these men are heroes. They are not men who gave up the ship,” Mavroules said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

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Three weeks ago, when the ceremony honoring the men was announced, Robert D. White, director of the county Veterans Service Office, said he thought he would be able to get about 15 former crew members to attend the ceremony he was planning.

But that was before Bucher, a Poway resident, began receiving letters from all over the country expressing support for him and his men. More than a few contained money--enough money to pay for the air fare of about 20 men. In addition, a local hotel has donated rooms to accommodate the men.

“I can’t express any other feeling except great joy,” Bucher said of the medals and of the public support. “One fine thing counterbalances a thousand bad things.”

Bucher was accompanied Thursday by one of his former crewmen, Bob Chicca, who said many of the men still suffer because of their captivity.

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“It’s amazing that something that happened 22 years ago is still affecting people’s lives,” said Chicca, who was wounded in the initial attack.

Chicca, who is helping to coordinate Saturday’s events, said some of the men he spoke to “just broke down and cried.”

“So many of the guys are afraid to reawaken the terrors,” Chicca said.

Talking about the experience has helped him deal with his own terrors, Chicca said. He now sells graduation rings to high schools in the San Diego County area and is frequently invited to the schools to talk about the Pueblo incident.

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“There are certain events that shape your life,” Chicca said. “I was tested to a level that I had never been tested before, and I found out that I was OK.”


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