Although their ship continues to serve as a propaganda museum exhibit for the government of North Korea, the crew of the USS Pueblo recently scored a major victory in federal court.
On February 16, Judge Dabney L. Friedrich of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia awarded $2.3 billion to 49 living USS Pueblo crew members and twelve estates of deceased crew members. The decision comes three years after they filed suit against North Korea and over 53 years after North Korean soldiers captured the ship during a surveillance mission in January 1968, killing one of the crew members and imprisoning 82 others.
They were kept hostage until a breakthrough in negotiations led to the Pueblo's crew returning home just in time for Christmas 1968.
"They’ve waited already 52 years for what will be coming their way, and it’ll be nice for them to see it soon," says Mark Bravin, the Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp attorney who served as lead attorney on the case.
North Korea won't be the one paying up, though; in fact, only once has a "state sponsor of terrorism" agreed to send money to victims who sued in American court. Instead, the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, set up by Congress in 2015, has been paying terrorism victims and their family members.
"If not next year," Bravin says, "then the following year. We really do hope that, especially for the elderly crew members and their families, their spouses, that they see a payout in 2022."
The fund won't be paying the full $2.3 billion at once, but in much smaller increments. The money for the fund comes from "fines and penalties paid by individuals and companies that are caught doing business with state sponsors of terrorism," according to Bravin.
“Even though we didn’t expect anything, it is a relief to be recognized for what we went through. Maybe now it is finally settled, and we can move forward,” says Don Peppard, a surviving crew member and president of the USS Pueblo Veterans' Association.
Even though the U.S. was in the middle of the Vietnam War, military brass viewed the Pueblo's mission — to spy on radio signals and spot radar emission locations in North Korea — as low-risk. And it sent a low-priority ship on that mission.
"It had been an Army cargo ship that was delivering coconuts and pigs around the South Pacific after World War II. The Navy hastily converted it into a spy ship in 1966," says Jack Cheevers, author of Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo. As a result, it had only a few deck guns.
The Pueblo was less than a week away from completing its mission when the attack came. North Korean fighter jets swooped overhead as gunboats tracked alongside. The Pueblo didn't have a chance. Still, the captain, Lloyd Bucher, chose to flee, and ordered the vessel to go full speed ahead.
Seeing that the Pueblo wasn't surrendering, the North Koreans began shooting and shelling the American ship.
The gunfire killed nineteen-year-old Duane Hodges; other crew members were injured. Bucher then made the decision to turn off the engines and surrender.
In 2014, Westword published a cover story about how the Navy seamen survived the eleven months they spent in a North Korean prison by using humor, especially the middle finger, to make imprisonment and torture tolerable.
The initial tie between the ship and its namesake city, the ninth-largest in the state, was minimal; Navy ships are typically named after states or cities. But some of the Pueblo crew members did end up settling in Colorado after they returned home.
And the connection between the city of Pueblo and the USS Pueblo has grown over the years, thanks in part to advocacy by politicians and crew members to have the ship returned to this country.
Alvin Plucker, a resident of La Salle, has been pushing for the Pueblo to be anchored on a section of the Arkansas River that runs through the namesake city. "In order to get this cloud away, we've got to get the ship back," Plucker told Westword years ago.
The USS Pueblo is currently an exhibit at North Korea's Victorious War Museum in Pyongyang. Tourists take selfies at the ship, whose capture remains a sore spot in relations between North Korea and the U.S.
Every year, state lawmakers in Colorado pass a resolution calling for the Pueblo to come home. Prior to losing the Republican primary to Lauren Boebert, then-Congressman Scott Tipton, representing the district that includes Pueblo, advocated heavily for President Donald Trump to ask Kim Jong-un to return the ship,
“The crew members aboard the USS Pueblo suffered unimaginable pain during their captivity in North Korea,” Senate president and Marine Corp veteran Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo, said in a statement after learning of the award. “After everything they endured, these brave Americans and their families deserve to be made whole again, and this decision is a positive recognition of that fact. The final step toward closing this painful chapter in our history is to ensure the USS Pueblo’s rightful return to the USA, where it belongs. I am hopeful with new executive leadership, we can make that dream a reality.”
The recent ruling marks the second time that a federal court has awarded monetary compensation for crew members of the USS Pueblo. In 2008, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia ordered that the government of North Korea pay $65 million to three members of the USS Pueblo crew and the wife of the late ship's captain.
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