In newsreels the captives were allowed to watch in June 1968, five months into their imprisonment, they noticed several people flashing their middle finger at the North Korean cameramen, without any negative reaction from their captors. They realized the North Koreans had no idea what the gesture meant, so they began flipping the bird every chance they got. They flipped off their guards, they flipped off each other, they fashioned new salutes out of giving people the finger.

Soon nearly all of the propaganda photos of the captives sent out to the world showed the crewmembers giving North Koreans the bird. And when their captors organized a press conference featuring several of the sailors, Bucher concluded his remarks by looking into the North Korean TV cameras, declaring, "Good luck, everyone," and raising his middle finger. Eventually, North Korean brass demanded to know what the middle finger meant. It's the Hawaiian good luck sign, crewmembers said.

The ruse didn't last. In October 1968, Time magazine published one of the propaganda photos featuring the sailors using the Hawaiian good luck sign, along with this caption: "The North Koreans are having a hard time proving to the world that the captive crewmen of the USS Pueblo are a contrite and cooperative lot.... In this class-reunion picture, three of the crewmen have managed to use the medium for a message, furtively getting off the U.S. hand signal of obscene derisiveness and contempt." Two months later, North Korean officers spotted the photo in a Far East edition of the magazine — and that started what the prisoners would call "hell week."

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.”

The beatings were worse than ever. When they weren't being interrogated, the sailors had to sit with their heads bowed and their hands between their legs for hours on end or face retribution. The torture went on for days. But looking back, Plucker says, giving North Korea the bird was still worth it. "We were glad that we did it," he adds. "It was the one way to get back at them. It embarrassed the whole nation. We kept using humor all the way to the end."

And the end was near. The United States had been negotiating for the crewmen's release for months, and on December 23, 1968, the chief U.S. negotiator signed an apology drafted by North Korea that admitted his country had been spying, although he preceded the signing by noting that he was only doing so to free the captives. Despite this caveat, the move was enough for the North Koreans. Later that wintry day, Plucker and the 81 other Pueblo crewmen arrived by bus at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which marks the southernmost border of North Korea, and one by one they crossed the "Bridge of No Return" into South Korea.

Plucker's heard stories that at least one crewman flashed the Hawaiian good luck sign at North Korea once he made it across.

**********

In his basement exhibit, Plucker tracks what's happened to Pueblo crewmembers since their release. There are photos of the jubilant supporters and journalists who met them when they arrived in San Diego on Christmas Eve, 1968 — elation that turned sour when a Naval Court of Inquiry recommended that Bucher and another officer be court-martialed for allowing the ship and much of its classified materials to fall into the hands of the enemy. While Secretary of the Navy John Chafee rejected the courts-martial — "They have suffered enough," he noted — the recommendation still stung.

There are also photos from the ceremony in which crewmembers received Prisoner of War Medals — held in 1990, 22 years after their capture. (An earlier Pentagon ruling had decided that the prisoners didn't qualify as POWs.) Bucher's still waiting for a formal apology from the Navy to hang on his wall — for letting them down when they were first attacked by the North Koreans, and for letting them down again when they were released.

There's lots of memorabilia from the various Pueblo reunions held over the years, most of which have been organized by Plucker and his close friend Chicca. "The only people we can really talk to about what happened are each other," explains Chicca. "It's really necessary for us to get together." In a photo from one of the events, Bucher smiles at the camera and flashes the Hawaiian good luck sign. He died a few months later, in January 2004. He's one of sixteen former prisoners who've passed away; several of them took their own lives, Plucker says.

And the collection includes many prints, photos and paintings of the Pueblo, the "piece of junk" that Plucker and his fellow crewmen relinquished to North Korea. It's still there — the only U.S. military vessel currently held captive and, since the Navy needs access to the ship in order to decommission it, the second-oldest commissioned vessel in the entire fleet, behind the 1797 USS Constitution. For a while, there was hope of retrieving the vessel through diplomacy — but in late 2012 the boat was encased in concrete next to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. "Obviously, we are not going to get it back now," Plucker says. Still, he takes solace in the fact that several of his fellow crewmembers sued North Korea for their treatment in U.S. District Court — and in 2008 won $65 million in damages. "We'll never see the money, but at least in the eyes of the world, we won a lawsuit against North Korea," Plucker notes proudly. "That was our final Hawaiian good luck salute."

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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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