The crew of the Navy intelligence ship Pueblo reunited Thursday in San Diego to commemorate 55 years since North Korea captured the vessel.
North Korea attacked and seized the Pueblo and its 83-person crew on Jan. 23, 1968, in international waters off the coast of Wonson. One crew member was killed in the initial attack, and the remaining sailors and Marines were held hostage for 11 months.
The crew was finally released and reunited with their families in San Diego just before Christmas in 1968.
While North Korea claimed that the ship crossed into territorial waters, the U.S. disputed the allegation and claimed the ship always remained in international waters.
Pueblo crew members present at the reunion Thursday included Don Peppard, 86; Bob Chicca, 79; and Rick Rogala, 76. All of them suffered severe physical injuries while being held hostage.
Peppard, a cryptologic technician who worked in the ship’s code office and maintained highly classified documents, now serves as the president of the U.S.S. Pueblo Veterans Association. He was subjected to regular beatings as a prisoner. Guards regularly pointed guns at him while in captivity, leading him to believe he’d be shot at any moment. He was also told he could be executed as he crossed the Peace Bridge in Panmunjom as North Korea released him from custody.
Chicca, who served in the Marine Corps as an interpreter and later retired as a staff sergeant, was struck by shrapnel in North Korea’s original attack on the Pueblo. He then was blindfolded, tied up and kicked as he was taken to Pyongyang. During his captivity, the North Koreans conducted two surgeries on him, which took an additional nine surgeries to correct once he was released from captivity.
Rogala, who was a seaman apprentice and, at 19, the youngest member of the crew at the time of the Pueblo crisis, was asked to denounce the United States and defect to North Korea as a hostage. Due to the injuries he sustained, the Department of Veterans Affairs determined Rogala was totally and permanently disabled.
A federal district judge determined in 2021, in the case John Doe A-1 et al. v. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, that Pueblo crew members and families were eligible for $2.3 billion in damages.
The decision means the Pueblo crew is entitled to payouts from the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, but dried-up funds have prevented the victims and families of the Pueblo crisis to receive all they’ve been awarded.
As a result, the crew is urging Congress to pass legislation to allocate proper funding so they can receive all to which they are entitled.
The Pueblo was never decommissioned and remains the second-oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. It is now open near The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang.