Which meant that once it seized control of the Pueblo, the North Koreans suddenly had hard evidence that the United States was spying on them. To make matters worse, two days earlier, a team of North Korean commandos had snuck into South Korea to assassinate President Park Chung-hee, but the "Blue House Raid," as it became known, failed spectacularly. Discovered before they reached their target, the would-be assassins were caught up in a bloodbath, with nearly all of them killed on sight. And now North Korea was eager for retribution.

The North Korean soldiers who boarded the Pueblo tied up Plucker and the remaining crewmembers, hauled them onto the deck and roughed them up. They then navigated the ship to a North Korean port, where the blindfolded sailors were paraded past jeering civilians before being taken by train to a prison compound in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. There they passed their time either locked in small, cold prison cells, or getting tortured in interrogation rooms. "I just know, after a certain part of your life, after so many beatings and screaming, you become numb," says Plucker now. "It doesn't seem like something that a person could do to another person." He was slapped in the face, punched in the kidneys and kicked in the groin, and he had his hands crushed between wooden planks as guards stood on them. Bucher, the ship's commander, faced the worst of the abuse: His captors beat him repeatedly, threatened him with execution, and told him they'd start shooting his crew if he didn't confess to being a spy.

At first the captives assumed their imprisonment wouldn't last long. A U.S. aircraft carrier had moved into position just off the coast of North Korea, and President Lyndon Johnson's secretary of state called the Pueblo's seizure an act of war. The crew had been told that the reason their ship wasn't heavily armed and they weren't trained for combat was because they had the might of the U.S. military behind them if something went wrong. "We were expecting them to come get us," says Plucker.

Alvin Plucker on December 23, 1968, just after crossing into South Korea.
Alvin Plucker on December 23, 1968, just after crossing into South Korea.

But that didn't happen. After a few days, the aircraft carrier steamed away. With the Vietnam War escalating, the Johnson administration quietly decided that one international quagmire was enough. There would be no ultimatum, no immediate rescue mission.

Plucker and his colleagues were being left behind.


I first learned of the Pueblo incident while doing research for a book called The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. University of Colorado professor Peter McGraw and I spent several years exploring the science of humor — combing through academic literature, running experiments in McGraw's Humor Research Lab (HuRL) and tracking down different examples of comedy all over the world. One of the questions we wanted to answer: "Why does humor appear when you least expect it?" Why did Holocaust victims joke in the middle of concentration camps? Why did Soviet citizens develop a famously rich variety of political zingers during the difficult last years of the USSR?

During my research, I came across an intriguing reference in a scholarly tome on humor: "One study evaluated the psychological health of 82 surviving crewmembers of the USS Pueblo shortly after their release from 11 months of imprisonment in North Korea in 1969.... Humor was one of several coping strategies that were found to be significantly associated with better psychological adjustment. Coping humor in this stressful situation took the form of joking about the characteristics of the captors, giving funny nicknames to the guards and fellow prisoners, and telling jokes to one another."

I'd never heard of the Pueblo. Had its crew really used humor in the midst of it ordeal? Had it helped crewmembers cope?

I reached out to the USS Pueblo Veterans Association through its website, and I was put in contact with Plucker, the group's unofficial historian. "I have a large collection of Pueblo items on display to the public," he told me, and invited me to visit his home in LaSalle, just outside of Greeley.

Sitting in the middle of his Pueblo collection, Plucker now relates how he and his colleagues turned to humor as their days in the North Korean prison stretched into weeks. "If things got too serious, it would drag you down," he says. "I think after time went on, you just got to a place where no matter what you did, it didn't matter anymore. That's when you start improvising."

Their improvisations took many forms. The prisoners, packed in cells of four to eight crewmen, teased one another and assumed various nicknames. Plucker earned the name "Squid" for the increasingly pungent batch of dried squid he'd squirreled away from one of their meals and hidden under his mattress, to take with him as sustenance in case they managed to escape. But they also used their penchant for name-calling on their captors. There was "Colonel Scar," the soldier with a disfigured face. There was "Wheezy," the translator who coughed and wheezed through his faltering translations. And there was "Fee-ture Feel-um," the officer who enthusiastically translated the propaganda films the captives were forced to watch in mangled English.

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I was on board for a year before Plucker and Chicca. They both pumped you full of BS. Never heard their crap before. Very impressed with themselves. Bucher made me the ship's historian. More of Alvin's delusions. Never heard of Chicca's floppy bone or Plucker's hand grinding. Look it was bad, but don't over state it. We never had squid. Chicca is out to capitalize on it and Alvin's life is so lack luster he has to cling to the only significant event in his life. He was a quartermaster not the quartermaster. That was Charlie Law, a real hero.

I had just graduated from USC with a degree in psychology when I joined the Navy . Bucher named me the ship's Bob Newhart. So if you want some good humor stuff, contact me.

Tanya D. Snively
Tanya D. Snively

Just read this in hardcopy~planning on sending a copy to Dan, but this is probably best :Very informative~ besides giving us a glimpse into how our country tread these sailors, it shows how humor helps. There was a bit in here about how humor was used to help change fear & helped that way to defeat a dictator.