Former POW keeps USS Pueblo experience alive
Published 7:00 am Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Picayune resident Dick Tuck retired from the Naval Oceanographic office as civilian consultant many years ago. His service to the United States and time as a former prisoner of war makes him uniquely qualified to review the book “Bucher: My Story” written by his close friend, Capt. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, USN. The book is about their capture and experiences as POWs.
Tuck will be speaking at the Brown Bag Book Review on May 20 from noon to 1 p.m. about the book, which is very personal to him.
Tuck was a POW, and one of two civilian oceanographers that were captured at sea in international waters on January 23, 1968, while serving on the USS Pueblo. It took 11 long months, during which time the 83 occupants of the ship were tortured and tormented, for their release to be negotiated.
Tuck credits Bucher as the hero who helped expedite their release because he signed a false confession, admitting that the ship and crew were in non-international waters and spying.
At the time of their capture, Tuck was 30 and Bucher was 40, making them the oldest of an 82-man crew with an average age of 22.
Of those on the boat, two were Marines who were supposed to be fluent in Korean, but unfortunately they weren’t fluent enough to keep up with the swift words and dialect that came across their communication equipment, Tuck said.
“That lack of understanding of what was being said, really hurt us,” Tuck said. “If we had understood the seriousness of our situation, we would have got out of there. But once the situation began, there was nothing to be done but that which we did. We were in international waters; we were not an armed warship. Guys on hunting trips have more ammo than we had on that ship.”
The situation began as two PT boats approached the Pueblo. The occupants of the Pueblo assumed that they were just checking them out, Tuck said.
Two more boats quickly joined the first two boats and they signaled the Pueblo crew with flags.
“We were instructed to follow them to port,” Tuck continued. “Our crew thought there must be some misunderstanding, and as soon as the PT boat crews realized we were in international waters and saw our oceanographic work, the boats would leave.”
That was not to be the case.
A sniper was brought out from one of the PT boats and the captain attempted to leave while crew members threw classified information over the side of the boat, Tuck said.
“Up until the time they fired, we (the two civilians) were out on deck and showing them we were doing a survey,” Tuck said. “But they opened fire with 37 mm and killed one of our members who was throwing documents in the water. We knew then that they were serious about them following us to port.”
The ship was boarded and the crew was blindfolded and constrained. They all assumed they were in the port when the ship stopped and could sense as fellow crewmates were selected and taken off the ship.
Tuck said that at the time he believed they were being forced to “walk the plank” because the military men were actually pirates who intended to steal their ship for electronics.
When his turn came, instead of a plank, he felt solid ground and was led to and seated on a bus, by which he was transported to a train, and then to another bus by which he was taken to a four-story brick building the soldiers nicknamed “the barn.”
“That is when the beatings and the torturing started to get confessions,” he said.
Everyone wrote what their jobs were and Tuck’s captain was taken down to see how the South Koreans were treated. Tuck said he returned with tales of mutilation.
Tuck said the captain was told without his written confession, they would do the same to the crew killing them, beginning with the youngest. The captain knew they had everything they needed from the men by then, so he signed the confession.
Tuck said a typical day would begin with breakfast and the first of the same three meager portioned meals they would receive throughout the day.
“We got stale bread, unrefined rice, rotten apples and rotten cabbage soup three times a day. Maybe once a week, we got a bit of meat threw in the soup,” he said.
After breakfast, they would clean their barracks. Originally most of the beatings would take place at that time followed by calisthenics and propaganda sessions in the afternoon.
“They realized that in the afternoons we all fell asleep during the propaganda session, so they switched up and used the mornings for propaganda and beat us in the afternoons,” Tuck said.”
Beatings were not confined to certain hours of the day or night and could be triggered by simply making eye contact.
“The only time I saw them genuinely laugh was when they were viewing photos sent from home and they accused us of faking the pictures to convince them that we had a great life in the states,” Tuck said.
“Once we convinced them they were real photos, they asked what the most expensive thing in our home was and the married guys all said ‘Our wife.’ The captors broke out in real laughter. No one got beat for saying that.”
The 11 months were active for the crew with beatings, torture, propaganda sessions and filtered information from the captors regarding Martin Luther King’s assassination and Kennedy’s assassination in an attempt to persuade the prisoners that the United States was turning against African Americans and had an unstable government.
Tuck coped with the time by using propaganda time to educate the younger men on math, history and English to enable them to receive their high school diplomas when they returned to the states.
They played tricks on their captors as well, Tuck said. Prior to a press session, the men convinced their captors that the extended middle finger was a Hawaiian gesture for good fortune. As a result, the captors encouraged the photographers to capture images of them posed in that manner and release them to the public.
Once those photos were released and the true meaning of the gesture was revealed, they endured what Tuck described as “hell week.”
They were eventually released on December 23, of the same year, just in time for Christmas.
The military had their families waiting for them when they arrived home.
Reflecting on his experience, Tuck said his age and life experiences helped him cope. His faith and military training from the Army that had included POW training was a big help.
“Being educated I could rationalize and understand what they were doing,” Tuck said. “This was an advantage over the younger men with less education and life experience. Fifteen of our crew, including the skipper, have passed away now but they are missed.”
Tuck will be donating his personal copy of the book to the library after his review.
The public is invited to attend the book review.