January 20, 2008 Portland Oregonian
USS Pueblo story survives through time and torture
*Cold War capture - Earl Kisler of Clackamas County recalls the pain and
heroics of a crew taken 40 years ago this week *
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Earl Kisler remembers the screams of shipmates in the interrogation room
near Pyongyang -- and his own painful turns inside. He cannot forget,
after all these years, the pain unique to each of the blunt instruments
his North Korean captors used on him.
Soldiers pummeled him with bare knuckles and stout wooden dowels,
searing blows that often fell on old bruises. Now and then his
interrogators threw karate kicks, boots thudding like leather bricks
against his skull, or smashed his head with their rifle butts, sending
him into the sweet, welcome delirium of unconsciousness.
The beatings were so vicious that Kisler sometimes felt as if he were
standing outside the man being savaged in the big wooden chair. But one
beating would stand apart -- not because it left his head big as a
basketball, but because it marked a psychological turning point for his
commander, the dispirited skipper of the USS Pueblo.
If you are younger than 50, you might never have heard of the Pueblo,
the Navy spy ship Kisler served on during one of the darkest moments of
the Cold War. But 40 years ago this week, North Korea captured the ship,
killed an Oregon sailor and held 82 sailors hostage for 11 months.
The Pueblo incident became one of the nation's worst intelligence
fiascoes, giving communist North Korea a propaganda windfall at a time
when the United States was mired in the Vietnam War.
Kisler, who lives in Clackamas County, survived. He has spent four
decades shaking off the brutality of his confinement. But he can't get
past the Navy's characterization of his skipper as a coward who
surrendered his ship without firing a shot.
"A good beating," the 61-year-old graybeard begins in a recent
interview, "is minimal compared to . . ." Here he stops himself, reaches
for the cup of black coffee on his dining table. "There are worse things."
Kisler sips, starts again. Captivity was one thing, he says, but being
called cowardly left its own scars. Years later, working armed
undercover jobs as a special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, Kisler had a recurring nightmare about criminals opening fire
"The bad guys would be getting the upper hand," he says, "but my gun
The Pueblo crew spent the first weeks of 1968 performing basic Cold War
espionage: They plowed the Sea of Japan, intercepting radio and radar
communications of the North Korean military, with plans to spy on the
But on Jan. 23, a swift North Korean sub chaser, followed by gunboats
and two MiG fighter planes, pulled up to the converted cargo ship and
ordered Cmdr. Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher to stand down. When the Pueblo
steered away, the Koreans fired a cannon and machine guns.
The Pueblo's own .50-caliber machine guns, sitting under iced-over
tarps, offered no practical defense. Bucher ordered the ship to follow
the North Korean vessels, but the Pueblo halted. Crewmen frantically
burned classified documents or hurled them overboard.
The North Koreans opened fire again. A round hit Duane Hodges, a
21-year-old U.S. Naval Reservist from Creswell, the only crewman to die.
North Korean sailors commandeered the Pueblo, then took their prisoners
to the mainland, accusing them of illegally entering North Korean
*Grinning through blood *
The day of Kisler's pivotal interrogation began with questions he no
He remembers a huge soldier the crew nicknamed "The Bear" pummeling him
mercilessly. The one they called "Mad Major" grabbed a rubber sandal
from his foot and began smacking Kisler savagely in the face.
Bucher recounted the beating in a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles
Times. He told the newspaper about the degradation of watching his men
crawl before their captors. Bucher felt helpless. He thought the U.S.
government had abandoned them.
"And I let myself get down," he explained. "This is your mind kicking
you in the butt. . . . You have to let your spirit control your mind.
Your soul has to drive you, and you've got to tell your mind to knock it
off. . . . And here comes down the passageway, having been beaten to
hell, a guy named Kisler, and his head is like a basketball, he's been
beaten so bad. . . .
"He is on his hands and knees. He's crawling, you know, they've got him
crawling, and he turns his face to me. I was just overwhelmed at what
they had done to this guy, and he gives me this grin, see, with the
blood all in his mouth, and he gives me this thumbs up. . . ."
The gesture, Bucher recalled, turned him around. "I'll never let the
bastards get me down again," he thought.
Kisler doesn't recall precisely why he gave his skipper the thumbs up
that day. But he takes a stab at it: "We're still here. . . . They
haven't got the best of us yet."
North Korean soldiers later discovered that hand gestures given by
Pueblo crewmen in staged propaganda photos were "the finger." Outraged,
they launched a wave of brutality their captives came to call "Hell
Week." They sat the crew on wooden chairs up to 18 hours a day, Kisler
recalls, forcing the men to lean slightly forward.
"If you straightened up," he says, "they'd be on you like a chicken on a
*Life at home *
The Pueblo's capture was, at first, an outrage to Americans.
"People were extremely angry that this 10th-rate nation had pirated a
U.S. Navy vessel on the high seas and the U.S. had done nothing about
it," says Jack Cheevers, a former newspaperman now finishing nine years
of research for a book titled "Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea,
and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo."
So much happened in the following seven months that the Pueblo incident
became a sideshow, Cheevers says. The Vietnam War suddenly escalated
with the Tet offensive. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F.
Kennedy were assassinated. Riots erupted at Chicago's Democratic
U.S. diplomats worked secretly to get the Pueblo's crew released. Their
Korean counterparts sought an admission that the Pueblo had entered its
waters illegally and assurances it wouldn't happen again. Trouble was,
the U.S. position was -- and remains -- that the Pueblo never strayed
into North Korean waters.
Ten months into negotiations, the two nations settled. To secure the
crew's release, the U.S. would sign an apology for entering North Korean
territorial waters while simultaneously repudiating the agreement.
On Christmas Eve 1968, the crew reached California. Tens of thousands
turned out for the homecoming, broadcast live on national TV.
Kisler's mom lined up dates after his return. He married one of them, a
Missourian named Lois Standley, in 1970. Their three children are grown.
"After 38 years, I have never heard him blame anyone for the incident,"
Lois Kisler says.
Kisler acknowledges suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress --
anger, brief depressions and sometimes holding loved ones at arm's
length. And he blames his habit of rising before the alarm clock on
those days in North Korea when he woke before soldiers burst into his
room shouting "Gee-up!"
For reasons Kisler can't explain, he poured himself into government
service, first as a range manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then
as a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He spent 20
years as an agent, making criminal cases against poachers who smuggled
such goods as alligator hides, ivory and caviar.
Kisler says work and family life prevented him from dwelling on the
miseries of 1968. He has kept up with a few shipmates, but attended only
one of the Pueblo's many reunions -- the 30th -- and only because Bucher
begged him to come.
It's the memory of Bucher that summons Kisler's enduring pain.
After the crew returned from North Korea, the skipper was called before
a Navy court of inquiry to tell why he gave up his ship without a fight.
"The Navy high command treated the captain as a pariah because he'd
violated 200 years of naval tradition that you never give up the ship,"
Cheevers says. "Surrender is not the foundation of military glory."
Bucher told the five admirals on the court that his men were so
outgunned that fighting would have meant their slaughter. The panel,
unmoved, recommended Bucher for court-martial. But the secretary of the
Navy ignored that recommendation, saying the captain had suffered enough.
The debate over Bucher's surrender has divided Americans since the
Pueblo was captured. But history is likely to show that the captain's
actions -- saving his crew from certain death, throwing himself between
his captors and his men time and again -- were indeed heroic, Cheevers
Kisler calls the government's failure to exonerate Bucher unforgivable,
especially since the captain ultimately persuaded the Navy to award his
crew POW medals. Bucher died in 2004, and Kisler says the cause might as
well have been a broken heart.
"He suffered all his life because of the Pueblo," Kisler says. "I was
one of 83 men. There were no cowards, but only one hero: Bucher."
Bryan Denson: 503-294-7614; bryandenson@...