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By Jason Strother
23 December 2008
Forty years ago, North Korea freed the crew of the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy ship it had captured 11 months earlier. The ship itself is still in North Korea.
Ralph McClintock, a surviving member of the Pueblo's crew, was a 24-year-old communications technician aboard the Pueblo when it was captured off North Korea's east coast in January 1968.
|Ralph McClintock is seen in this 1968 file photo on the day he was released from captivity in N. Korea|
Pyongyang said the ship was in its territorial waters, which the ship's crew and the U.S. government denied.
McClintock and the rest of the crew spent an agonizing 11 months in captivity.
He says things only got worse before they got better.
"Well, everyday we thought our lives were in peril. And it just dragged on and on," he said. "We never knew we were going to be released until a day and a half before it actually happened. And they were beating the living life out of us, for the 10 days before that. That is what we call hell week."
McClintock says the crew members were forced to sign confessions. If they refused, they were beaten even more.
Finally a deal was struck with Washington, and on December 23, the crew was sent across the border into South Korea.
"They were really sort of drummed out of the Navy," said Mitchell Lerner, author of The Pueblo Incident, and an associate professor at Ohio State University. "They were treated not as deserving heroes, but as people who surrendered a ship that they shouldn't have surrendered. And then capitulated to torture and signed a bunch of false propaganda statements. Essentially what they were told is that you should have gone down with the ship. And the fact you didn't means we're not going to do much for you upon your return."
Some members of the Pueblo's crew were recommended for court-martial, but the secretary of the Navy intervened and all charges were dropped.
Their ship never left North Korea. In the late 1990s, it was towed around the Korean peninsula, and was anchored in the Taedong River in Pyongyang. It is now a museum that praises North Korea's military for its capture.
|North Korean guide stands for a portrait next to a mounted machine gun on the deck of USS 'Pueblo' in Pyongyang, N. Korea, 19 Sep 2008|
A guide leads visitors along its deck, proudly pointing out hundreds of bullet holes that are circled in red. She also shows off the spot where Duane Hodges, the only Pueblo fatality, was killed when the ship was captured.
Inside the old mess hall, a video tells the story of the Pueblo from the time it was seized until the crew was set free.
"General Kim Jong Il instructed to state, the U.S. government should take responsibility and apologize. Then we will return the prisoners, but we cannot return Pueblo because it is a trophy," says the video.
McClintock blames Washington for letting the Pueblo become a propaganda toy of the North Koreans. He would have rather seen the ship destroyed.
|Ralph McClintock holds his patches and medals in Jericho, Vermont, 04 Sep 2008|
"Blow it up right then. The ship was given up with no retaliation, nothing. And it's still to this day, a commissioned ship. For the government of the United States to allow that to happen, to be towed 1,500 miles, is the ultimate insult to the crew," he said.
There are some U.S. politicians who want to get the Pueblo back from North Korea.
McClintock says if that ever happens, he hopes to be part of the handover.
"What I would like to be on board is the navy ship that meets the Pueblo when it is towed out into the East China Sea for the exchange," he said.
But he may have a long wait. Over the past five years, the United States has focused on efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, which have stalled. Other issues between the two countries, including the Pueblo, have received little attention.