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Decades After They Were Held Captive By North Koreans, U.S. Crew Seeks Compensation

Jan 28, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's worth noting that the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have a long history. Case in point, 50 years ago, North Korean gunboats attacked and seized the U.S. Navy spy ship, the USS Pueblo. Eighty-two Pueblo crew members spent 11 months in captivity before a U.S. apology secured their release. Just last year, several crew members won some compensation for the brutal ordeal. But as NPR's David Welna reports, the rest have got next to nothing.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The Pueblo's captain was Lieutenant Commander Lloyd Bucher. He was forced at gunpoint to give up his ship on that ill-fated day in January, 1968. Two decades later, Bucher, who would die in 2004, recalled on NBC TV what he and his men then went through in North Korea.

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LLOYD BUCHER: The long 11 months that we spent in captivity over there were punctuated from time to time with brutality. And there was always concern that there might be some permanent damage inflicted on some of the people.

BOB CHICCA: I've had 11 operations putting me back together once we got out.

WELNA: That's one of the crew members, retired Marine Staff Sergeant Bob Chicca, who now lives near San Diego.

CHICCA: They beat me a lot. They broke my nose a couple of times. I could count on someone hitting me every day.

WELNA: Apart from the back pay they got for the 11 months in captivity, Chicca says there was little other compensation for the Pueblo's crew.

CHICCA: We got a hundred dollars a month hazardous duty pay, and then we got something like $33 dollars a month commuted rations since they didn't have to feed us while we were there.

WELNA: And that's all.

The U.S. and North Korea are still at war. There is a truce but no peace treaty. Still, for 22 years, the U.S. would not even recognize the crew members as prisoners of war. Dunnie Tuck was a civilian oceanographer on the Pueblo. A dozen years ago, he paid $5,000 to join a lawsuit in federal district court seeking millions of dollars in damages from North Korea.

DUNNIE TUCK: Three or four of us decide to do it. A bunch of them decided not to. They just didn't want to pay even that nominal amount up front. I may have been one of the few that just happened to have a few thousand dollars laying around, and it wasn't going to hurt me one way or the other.

WELNA: Eddie Murphy, the Pueblo's second-in-command, says he simply could not afford to join that lawsuit.

EDDIE MURPHY: I don't have that kind of gambling money. I don't know if they've ever gotten any money from that. Some people said they thought that some of them did, but I don't know.

KEVIN CONWAY: They did get a judgment against North Korea. It was something that was uncollectable.

WELNA: That's Chicago trial lawyer Kevin Conway. He says even though Tuck and the others could not collect the $65 million the judge said North Korea should pay them, he saw another potential source of compensation, a multibillion dollar fund set up by Congress two years ago for U.S. victims of state-sponsored terrorism. Conway dug up three-decade-old congressional testimony to bolster the case.

CONWAY: It said that North Korea was declared a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States for repeated acts of terrorism, including the Pueblo. And when I found out that, that least I think gave us a great argument as to why we should be included.

WELNA: It worked. Nine million dollars was awarded in March to Tuck, two other crew members and the family of Lloyd Bucher, the late skipper. As for those who did not join that lawsuit, former POW Chicca says...

CHICCA: We are working on getting some compensation from North Korea. There's a couple of lawsuits in the works. What will come of that I don't know.

WELNA: Whatever Chicca and the others might get, says Ohio State University historian Mitchell Lerner, it won't compensate for the shabby treatment they've suffered.

MITCHELL LERNER: It's a tragic story. And I've met some of the men, and they're good guys, and they were completely untrained and unprepared. That's the real tragedy of this. The ship was sent out there. The men had almost no training. The ship was a disaster. It was virtually unarmed. And it was the men who paid the price.

WELNA: A price that, for most of them, has yet to be repaid. David Welna, NPR News, San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.