So it made sense that Plucker and his fellow captives turned to humor. While jokes weren't going to cure their malnutrition or heal their broken noses, jokes could help mitigate their psychological pain. Humor didn't turn their suffering into an episode of Hogan's Heroes — but it was a step in the right direction.

And humor had an added benefit. It could be a weapon — perhaps the only one they had.

**********

Alvin Plucker in the museum he’s built in his basement devoted to the Pueblo incident.
Anthony Camera
Alvin Plucker in the museum he’s built in his basement devoted to the Pueblo incident.
A North Korean propaganda photo of several of the captured crewmembers — one of whom is flashing the “Hawaiian good luck sign.”
A North Korean propaganda photo of several of the captured crewmembers — one of whom is flashing the “Hawaiian good luck sign.”

Maybe it began with the prisoners disobeying guards' orders, turning left when they were told to go right and walking straight into a wall. Maybe it started when the crewmembers dealt with a guard who kept stealing their food by leaving him an apple that they'd marinated in urine. Or maybe it originated with the sailors surreptitiously relieving themselves in the potted plants placed in their cells and the prison hallways, killing them one by one. However it commenced, the Pueblo crewmembers were soon waging a small-scale rebellion against their captors, one inside joke at a time.

They reserved much of their best material for the letters the North Koreans demanded they write to relatives and officials back in the States, celebrating the North Korean cause. They peppered these letters with witticisms too subtle to be noticed by the North Korean censors — but obvious to their recipients back home. In one letter, a sailor referred to an old friend, "Lotta Crockashit." In another, a crewmember described the North Koreans, noting that he hadn't "met such nice people since our high school class visited St. Elizabeth's" — a psych ward in Washington, D.C. One missive contained dots and dashes above the "i"s that, when read as Morse code, spelled "This is a lie." Plucker wrote to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and asked about his wife, Martha Washington. "These things really got hilarious," he says now.

The crew resorted to similar tricks to sabotage the confessions repeatedly extracted from them. In a forced admission regarding illegally entering North Korean waters, crewmembers wrote that "neither the frequency nor the distances of these transgressions into the territorial waters of this peace-loving nation matter because, in the final analysis, penetration however slight is sufficient to complete the act" — taking the words directly from the military's official definition of rape. And when Bucher was forced to recite a confession in front of his crew, he noted it was his "fervent desire to paean the Korean people's army, navy and their government," making it sound like he wanted to pee on his captors.

There were dangers to this approach. "The worst thing you could ever do is look into the face of someone trying to interrogate or torment you and laugh," Plucker admits.

Still, the humor helped. "It made us feel that we got one over on them," he says. "Not only could we get word back to the people back home that we'd been forced into doing this, but we would feel good about ourselves."

And humor can do more than make you feel good, suggests Srdja Popovic, former leader of Otpor!, the Serbian youth movement that helped overthrow that country's tyrannical president, Slobodan Milosevic, in 2000: It can be a powerful weapon. According to Popovic, who considers himself a disciple of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Monty Python, Otpor! was successful largely because of what he calls "laughtivism," injecting humor into protest movements. On Milosevic's birthday, for example, Otpor! baked the president a giant cake in the shape of Yugoslavia, only to carve it up just as he'd disastrously carved up the former country, offering pieces to passersby in central Belgrade. Another time, the group released a flock of turkeys dressed up like Milosevic's wife in a busy shopping district, leading the authorities to chase the fowl all over the neighborhood.

Popovic believes that jokes like these added three key elements to the movement that ultimately brought down Milosevic. First, "people were afraid, and humor was useful in breaking that fear," he says. Second, the young, laughing activists wearing Otpor! T-shirts and engaging in goofy street theater made protests seem cool and fun. Or as Popovic puts it with a wink, "If you weren't arrested in Serbia in 2000, you couldn't get laid."

But most important, he says, humor was integral to Otpor!'s signature "dilemma actions" — protests designed so that however Milosevic responded, he looked stupid. One example involved Otpor! painting Milosevic's face on a barrel and letting folks on the street take a whack at it. Since Milosevic wasn't about to let citizens smack him in the face, police confiscated the prop — allowing Otpor! to report that the authorities had diligently arrested a barrel. "Humor undermines the authority of the ruler very fast," says Popovic, who now teaches laughtivism techniques as part of the organization he co-founded, Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies. "These strong guys like Milosevic, they believe they are superhuman, so when you mock them, they tend to do something stupid."

While Plucker and his fellow prisoners didn't know if they could make their captors do something stupid, they could certainly make them look stupid. So they mocked the North Koreans every chance they got. Their biggest chance was what became known as "the digit affair."

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3 comments
sturussell007
sturussell007

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.

 
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