"I was always a keeper," Alvin Plucker says. "I tend to save everything."
And that's an understatement. In the basement of Plucker's spacious ranch house in LaSalle, Colorado, every bit of wall space and every flat surface is cluttered with memorabilia, much of it yellow with age. Clipped to a projector screen is a creased map of the eastern shoreline of North Korea, with lines tracing the route of the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering ship on which Plucker was a crewmember back in 1968. On a table under a pane of glass is a copy of North Korea's Pyongyang Times, an English-language newspaper, from February 1 of that year, describing the capture a few days earlier of the Pueblo, a so-called "Armed Spy Ship of U.S. Imperialist Aggressor Army." Hanging from a rod attached to the ceiling is the somber gray uniform that Plucker was forced to wear when he and the 81 other survivors of the Pueblo's capture were incarcerated as prisoners of war and tortured repeatedly. And tacked to the wall among other miscellanea is a bumpersticker declaring "REMEMBER THE PUEBLO" — part of the growing American outcry as months passed and the U.S. government seemed to have left the captives to their fate.
The 68-year-old Plucker is constantly collecting more materials for this room, constantly shifting how they're arranged. He's saving a part of history, keeping the memories alive.
And there, in a photo album on a side table, is documentation of what makes the Pueblo incident not just "one of the worst intelligence debacles in American history," as Act of War, a recent book on the subject, describes it, but one of the oddest episodes in the history of U.S. espionage. In photo after faded photo taken by their North Korean captors, Plucker and his fellow prisoners stare straight-faced at the camera — and give the world the finger.
On the cold, gray afternoon of January 23, 1968, eighteen days into the Pueblo's three-week mission, Plucker was just off duty and preparing to get some sleep when an announcement came over the intercom demanding that all hands get below deck: Four North Korean vessels — three torpedo boats and a larger submarine chaser — were closing in. Soon other North Korean ships appeared, and two North Korean fighter jets roared overhead. When the Pueblo signaled that it was conducting oceanographic research and raised an American flag, the North Koreans signaled the boat to stand down so it could be boarded. When the Pueblo instead attempted to escape, one of the North Korean ships opened fire, wounding the Pueblo's captain, Commander Lloyd Bucher, and several others. The cat-and-mouse game continued, with North Korean gunfire eventually killing Pueblo crewmember Duane Hodges and injuring many others.
The American ship was outnumbered and out of options. The vessel was minimally armed, and the closest U.S. military air support was hours away. So just before 3 p.m., the Pueblo surrendered, shutting down its two diesel engines. It was the first U.S. Navy ship to surrender during peacetime in 150 years. When North Korean officers boarded their prize, they found a trove of classified documents in various stages of hurried destruction.
The Pueblo wasn't an oceanographic vessel, the North Koreans realized. They'd captured a U.S. spy boat.
Plucker was the ship's quartermaster, responsible for maintaining the vessel's nautical charts and maps. Data-gathering and record maintenance suited Plucker, since he'd always been a collector. Growing up on a trout farm in southwestern Nebraska, he'd wander the plains for hours — partly to stay away from his violent father, partly to scout for arrowheads. But he couldn't always avoid his father's fury. When Plucker was eighteen, his father hit him so hard he left home for good, hitchhiking to Colorado Springs and eventually enlisting in the Navy. He figured that was his safest military option, since the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War. "All the Marines were getting shot up," he explains. "And I'd heard from a sailor about all the wild women."
Plucker saw action in the Navy, but mostly of a different sort. He was assigned as a quartermaster to the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier engaged in jet raids over Vietnam and recovery missions for downed helicopters. With two months left in his enlistment, Plucker received orders that he was being transferred to the USS Pueblo, a ship he'd never heard of — and when he flew to Washington state and saw it moored in Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, he could see why. "That thing was a piece of junk," he says of the 176-foot vessel, a light cargo ship that was then more than twenty years old. But that was the point: The ship was supposed to look as inconspicuous as possible, to conceal its real mission. The Pueblo was part of Operation Clickbeetle, the code name for a secret new Navy program that was turning old freighters into spy boats. Retrofitted with surveillance equipment, designated as AGER-2 (short for Auxiliary General Environmental Research) and sent across the Pacific with Plucker and 82 other crewmembers aboard, the Pueblo set off from a U.S. naval base in Japan on January 5, 1968, ostensibly to collect oceanographic data — but what it was really collecting was information on the Russian Navy and coded messages from North Korea.
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.
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.
One sailor composed a comical poem about their ordeal, ending it with this:
But if we get back,
No coins will we lack,
So beware all ye banks, bars, and brothels!
If some night you're pub-crawlin',
And into gutters you're fallin',
And in that gutter are 82 gaffers;
It's only the crew of AGER-2,
Otherwise known as "BUCHER'S BASTARDS."
The prisoners even cracked jokes in the midst of physical abuse. "Here you are, and they're interrogating you, and they keep slapping you," says Plucker. "And you'd get up and laugh and say, 'Do it again.'"
Bob Chicca, one of the other crewmembers, remembers when a prisoner returned from an interrogation with a broken nose. "He had a bone sticking out, and he grabbed it and flopped it back and forth," Chicca remembers. "I said, 'Hey, that's neat.' They broke my nose, too, but the bone wasn't sticking out, so I couldn't flop it around.
"It could be considered pretty sick humor, but you do what you gotta do," Chicca continues. "It helped us survive and kept morale up. For that little period of time, we were in charge of our own lives."
Plucker agrees. "I think it was to help cope," he says of their escapades. To cope with the bare lightbulbs in the cells that were never turned off, to cope with the measly diet of cabbage-and-sewer-trout soup that led one crewmember to go blind from malnutrition, to cope with the beatings from the guards they'd receive when they walked to the latrine for their twice-a-day visits. And to cope with the fact that, one by one, they all broke down and provided the North Koreans with more than just the name, rank and serial number that POWs are supposed to give to their captors.
Although Plucker wasn't among the more ribald of the crew, he played his part to keep his spirits up. He saw what happened to those who failed to do so — like his cellmate who chewed his fingernails to bloody nubs worrying about his family, or the guy who tried to use the pen knife they were given for shaving to slice open his wrists.
While humor helped the Pueblo crew through tough times, for much of recorded history, folks have believed that tragedy leaves no room for comedy. In some of the earliest known musings on the subject, Plato argued that people laugh out of malice, delighting in others' pain and misfortune. Of the 29 references to laughter in the Old Testament, only two aren't associated with scorn, mockery or disdain. And Lord Chesterfield, the fastidious champion of eighteenth-century manners, declared that "there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter."
These days, however, humor is often considered to be a very good thing. The change is due largely to the 1979 publication of Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, journalist Norman Cousins's best-selling account of laughing away a degenerative disease with a steady diet of Candid Camera and Marx Brothers films. Since then, a booming industry has sprung up around the idea of healthy humor. Clown programs, comedy carts and humor rooms are common hospital features. In more than seventy countries around the world, people engage in laughter yoga, chuckling their way to physical and mental health. And these days, humor's purported medical benefits have expanded far beyond anything ever suggested by Cousins, who passed away in 1990. You can find claims that laughter and humor relieve headaches, provide good exercise, ward off coughs and colds, lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, mitigate arthritis pain, ameliorate ulcers, vanquish insomnia, combat allergies and asthma, prolong people's lifespans, protect against AIDS, help cure cancer and improve fertilization rates.
As it turns out, most of these claims are as unsubstantiated as were earlier beliefs that humor is inherently dark and dangerous. Ten years ago, Sven Svebak, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, included a brief sense-of-humor questionnaire in one of the largest public-health studies ever performed: the HUNT-2 study, which surveyed every adult in the county of Nord-Trøndelag in central Norway regarding their blood pressure, body-mass index, various illness symptoms and overall health satisfaction. It was the most ambitious attempt ever to correlate humor and health — and it found no connection at all between sense of humor and objective health measures.
One of the few areas where humor does appear to be helpful is as a coping mechanism. Over the years, researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that humor eases pain and trauma. In one study, children about to undergo surgery who first spent time with a hospital clown exhibited significantly less anxiety than other children, including those given anti-anxiety medication. In another experiment, researchers had participants narrate a thirteen-minute safety video featuring grisly wood-mill accidents. Those asked to come up with a humorous narration reported less stress afterward than those who described it seriously, and readings of skin conductance, heart rate and skin temperature suggested that the comic narrators were less physiologically stressed. And in one especially touching study, researchers interviewed a group of widowers six months after the death of their spouses. Those who were able to smile and laugh about their marriage during this time of lingering sadness had markedly fewer problems with grief and depression in the years that followed.
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.
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."
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."
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."
Down the basement hallway are other exhibits — testaments to how Plucker has personally fared since the Pueblo incident. One room is crammed floor to ceiling with artifacts he's collected over his decades of walking the plains of the northern Front Range. There are century-old bullet shells, rusted bowie knives, dinosaur teeth and prehistoric tools worth thousands of dollars, and a full-length femur from a woolly mammoth. "Part of the reason I developed all these hobbies is because it keeps me out of trouble," he says.
In another room are hundreds of beautifully crafted spears and arrowheads that Plucker made by hand; he uses them on targets he sets up in his back yard. "I wanted to learn to make my own weapons, and I wanted to learn how to make my own fire," he explains. "I never wanted to be in a position where I couldn't do that ever again."
When the sailors returned to this country from North Korea, Plucker was one of the few who didn't have anyone waiting for him in San Diego. Instead, there was a letter from his fiancée, telling him the wedding was off. "I got to a place where I was pretty cruel after that," he remembers. Released from the Navy a few months later, he returned home to Nebraska, where he met a woman named Jeanie. They got married and moved to Longmont, where Plucker got a job as a manager at a chicken farm. He made a comfortable living, enough to support his growing family — but the years weren't easy.
He once suffered a traumatic nosebleed that lasted for days. He had a nervous breakdown. He didn't socialize with others, struggled with depression, considered committing suicide. And he never found anything funny. "There was no more laugh in you," he says. "No more enjoyment. You were a changed person."
His oldest child was born with a cognitive disability; his youngest developed bipolar disorder as a teenager. Plucker wonders if these developments were due to his exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used in deforestation efforts, either during his time in Vietnam or when he passed through the DMZ when he was released into South Korea.
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At one of the Pueblo reunions, his crewmates told him to apply for disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Today Plucker has a 220 percent disability rating from the VA, much of it due to post-traumatic stress disorder. The therapy he's received and the medications he's on have helped. And "it could have been worse," he says, "if not for my crewmembers, the humor we used, and my long-suffering wife."
But Plucker's far from healed. He's plagued by terrible nightmares, including one in which he's on top of a tall building, then flaps his arms and flies away. He sleeps with his door open and never sits with his back facing open space. He wanders the plains, away from all the walls and all the people, and is always adding to and rearranging his collections, amassing all the stuff he wasn't allowed to have as a prisoner. "I think I missed a lot of things when I was younger," he says. "I moved from a young man to being one who's much older. I liked the guy I was before. I didn't like who I became."
To deal with that change, he's built this memorial in his basement, a testament to trauma, perseverance and even humor. It's the same reason the once-reticent quartermaster now gives public talks every chance he gets: to collect and present evidence, both to himself and others, that what he and his fellow captives did during their ordeal was right. "For a while, we beat ourselves up," he says. Did they not resist as firmly as they should have? Did they collaborate with their captors? But now, he says, "I am not ashamed of what I did anymore. I know what I did was a form of survival."
Sometimes, that survival meant providing the enemy with information they demanded. Other times, it meant giving them far more than they asked for — with a middle finger.