It was 40 Christmas’s ago. In December 1968 I was a young Navy Journalist, in only my second year in the service, but on Christmas Eve I would experience one of the biggest stories and most memorable days of what now is my over 40 years of reporting.
I was stationed at Miramar Naval Air Station in North San Diego California which would be seen in the 1980’s movie “Top Gun”. I was reporting stories for the “Jet Journal” the base newspaper.
On January 23, 1968, a half a world away, the USS Pueblo, an American intelligence ship, was seized by military forces of North Korea in what American officials called International Waters. The ship was fired upon and U.S. sailor Fireman Apprentice Duane Hodges was killed. Captain Lloyd Bucher and his crew of 82 men, were taken away and held in captivity, starved and beaten, until December 23rd.
This incident, during the Vietnam War, is all but forgotten now by most Americans, but during the year that saw the Tet Offensive waged by the Viet Cong, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy the declaration by President Lyndon Johnson he would not seek reelection, the clubbing of students outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the presidential race of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, the story of the capture of the USS Pueblo and it’s crew remained a constant.
After a year of negotiating and waiting, the news of the release of the American sailors came at a fast clip with our base notified they would be flying home to Miramar on a Starlifter C-141 airplane. In quick order, preparations were made for a ceremony.
My job was to prepare press credentials and sign in the dozens of national media at our office. A young Tom Brokaw, then with NBC News Los Angeles, is one face I remember, because he was a familiar face that we saw on local television.
On December 23rd, 11 months to the day of their capture, the crew of the Pueblo walked, one every 15 seconds, across the Bridge of No Return at Panmumjon. They were taken to a hospital for medical treatment at Seoul, South Korea. They would fly home, refueling at Midway Island, and then landing late in the day on Miramar’s tarmac.
Welcoming them home would be California Governor Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. Waiting for their arrival was family members flown in from around the country along with a large crowd of spectators and news reporters beaming their story around the world. I was one of the witness’ to this moving event. Imagine being held prisoner, captured and tortured for 11 months and then in 36 hours whisked home.
Growing up in the Midwest, this was my first winter without cold temperatures. So I stood on the tarmac in my navy blues without a coat. I acted as a liaison of sorts and a reporter for the base newspaper. I’ve since stood in similar situations waiting for Presidents and other dignitaries to arrive but never with the anticipation that surrounded me that day. Here it was Christmas Eve, of all days, and the prayers of these crewmembers families and the whole of the United States were being answered. Their boys were coming home.
But people were being cautious. They wouldn’t believe it until they saw it. Finally, an announcement came over a p-a system that the plane was near, and you could feel the crowd sigh in unison. But still they were holding their collective breath until the plane was cited on the horizon and then a gradual cheer came up from the crowd.
Then it seemed another forever as the plane taxied the runway. Finally, the silver plane pulled up and the doors would open. As the crew left the plane a military band played "The Lonely Bull". Families enveloped their sailors. They were now home….on Christmas Eve.
Their faces were gaunt. Their bodies appeared frail. But you could see determination, pride and eventually smiles on their faces when they realized all of this was real. I did recognize Captain Bucher as he stood out from his enlisted men with his billed officer’s cap.
Official words of welcome were spoken in a short ceremony and then the crew boarded buses to Balboa Naval Hospital. There weren’t too many dry eyes.
And if that wasn’t enough to experience in one day, that night three other men made civilization’s first orbit around the moon. The Apollo Eight crew circled the moon, with pictures beamed via live television to Earth while they read from Genesis. “And God created the Heavens and the Earth.”
It was that Christmas Eve orbit that gave us that first view of a colorful marble Earth hanging in a black sky seen from the desolate moon. How can I not forget that Christmas Eve?
On this Christmas of 2008, the Navy still lists the Pueblo as a commissioned warship, even though it's docked on the Taedong River in Pyongyang where North Korea holds it as a tourist attraction and as a symbol of resistance to what they call “American aggression.”
Today 68 former Pueblo crew members are still alive. Forty of them held a 40th reunion this past September .
After defending his and the crew’s honor for three decades, Pueblo skipper Captain Lloyd “Pete” Bucher died in 2004 and is buried in Fort Rosencrans National Cemetery on Point Loma in San Diego looking out on San Diego Bay. The crew’s dream is their ship will sail home into San Diego Bay one day.
Note: Cary has reported for several radio and tv stations over a 4 decade career. He was the CBS 2 Iowan Traveler for 25 years. He began writing for the Marion Times in October.