It was 22 years after the fact and required a special act of Congress, but the U.S. Navy on Saturday awarded Prisoner of War medals to 63 officers and crew members of the spy ship Pueblo who were held by North Korea for 11 months in 1968.
"The fact that this has finally been done fills me with great joy," said Lloyd (Pete) Bucher, the retired commander of the Pueblo, which was attacked and seized in international waters by a North Korean force on Jan. 23, 1968.
The emotional ceremony Saturday, staged at the bay front County Administration building here, ended Bucher's long and often bitter struggle for official acknowledgement that he and his men were prisoners of war during their forced 11-month stay in a North Korean prison.
Some lingering bitterness was evident Saturday. Crew members still spoke angrily of the form letters they had received two years ago, informing them they were not eligible for the Prisoner of War medals because they had not been involved in a declared war or conflict when captured.
"This medal means vindication," said Stu Russell, now 47, who signed on the Pueblo as a 24-year-old supply clerk. "We all learned about the three branches of government in high school, but we didn't learn about the Pentagon," said Russell, who criticized the Navy for what he called a needless delay.
"They put us on the back burner (in 1968) and wanted to keep us there," said Peter Bandera, 42, from Shingle Springs, a small town near Sacramento. "We were lucky enough to have people fighting" for the medals, Bandera said.
Bucher, who came to personify the nettlesome questions of patriotism and duty raised by the ship's capture by a superior military force, also had strong comments afterward. He chastised "the people who made the decision to not come to our assistance" and recalled how government officials had signed a confession indicating the Pueblo was a spy ship and recanted after the crew was freed.
"That really doesn't speak well for the government . . . they ought to be able to do a hell of a lot better than that."
Congress had authorized the issuance of medals to all of the 81 military personnel as well as the two civilians who were aboard the Pueblo when it was seized. Medals also were authorized for the family of Navy Seaman Duane Hodges, who died when the ship was attacked, and to the families of two Pueblo crew members who recently died.
Sixty-three of the 83-man crew, many accompanied by family and friends, attended Saturday's ceremony in San Diego and a reunion at a nearby hotel.
Dan Emer, a Department of Veterans Affairs official who helped plan the gathering that drew crew members from across the country, compared its cathartic value to a 1982 march by Vietnam War veterans to the Vietnam War Memorial wall.
"It's important," he said, "that these folks get the recognition that they've been denied for so long."
The Pentagon ruling that the Pueblo had not been captured in a war meant that crew members were barred from receiving medals that were presented in 1988 to thousands of ex-POWs around the country from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Crew members and their families credited Bucher and U.S. Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.) with persuading Congress to pass legislation that made Pueblo crew members eligible for POW medals.
Mavroules successfully argued that the Pueblo crew deserved POW status because they were "captured and imprisoned by hostile forces."
Crew members applauded Congress for righting what they felt was an obvious wrong.
"This could only happen in America," said Bradley H. Crowe, 42, a Vermont resident who celebrated his 21st birthday in a North Korean prison.
"Maybe I can leave some of my bad memories behind now," said Roy Maggard, 43, of Marysville, Calif., shortly after receiving the POW medal. "Maybe I can go on with my life."
As evidence of the lingering awkwardness over the Pueblo incident, the ceremony was held at the San Diego County Administration Center because "we wanted it to be on neutral ground," said Robert D. White, director of veterans services for San Diego County, which helped to arrange the ceremony.
Former Pueblo crew members received the medals from Navy Rear Adm. Karl L. Kaup and Marine Brig. Gen. Richard H. Huckaby. A Navy band and color guard attended the ceremony, and an aircraft carrier moored nearby was in full battle dress.
President Bush sent a message, saying that the nation "owes a debt of gratitude to the crew of the Pueblo . . . your patriotism and devotion to duty under the most trying of circumstances were in keeping with the most indomitable spirit of all American prisoners of war."