Basehor vet still upset with response to Pueblo incident
As Veterans Day approaches, Steve Woelk remembers his friend Duane Hodges, an easy-going, soft-spoken young seaman.
“He was one of my best friends — a really nice guy,” the Basehor resident and Tonganoxie VFW member said. “It was hard.
“I actually spent a weekend at his home and met his family. We had a really great time.”
Hodges was mortally wounded from shellfire on Jan. 23, 1968. Unfortunately, combat deaths were common in the year — 16,592 Americans were killed in Vietnam, the deadliest for U.S. forces in that war.
But Hodges wasn’t killed in Vietnam. The shell that claimed his life was fired by a North Korean warship. Hodges and Woelk were among the 83 men serving on the USS Pueblo when it was captured on Jan. 23, 1968, by North Korea.
The 19-year-old Woelk was assigned to the Pueblo after he, the older brother of his future wife, Kathy, and another friend from the small Flint Hills town of Alta Vista joined the Navy in 1966.
On Jan. 5, 1968, the Pueblo, a converted Army supply ship, left Yokosuka, Japan, with orders to conduct electronic surveillance off the coast of North Korea. Although Russian and Chinese vessels sometimes harassed the Pueblo and its sister ships, there was no anxiety about the mission among the crew, Woelk said. There might have been a heightened sense of caution had the ship’s command been informed of a North Korean unit’s unsuccessful Jan. 22 assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
The next day, the North Koreans targeted the Pueblo. The American ship was in international waters, the Navy insists. The North Koreans said otherwise, but Woelk said a Korean official later told one of his crewmates the Pueblo’s exact location was immaterial.
“He said it didn’t matter if we were 100 miles out, they were going to get us because we were spying.”
The incident started with the arrival of a North Korean submarine chaser. The faster warship ordered the American ship to stand down or be fired on. After the Pueblo’s Commander Lloyd Bucher refused, additional North Korean ships and two MIG jets arrived on the scene.
“I remember opening the hatch door to see them circling,” Woelk said. “I was basically told not to open the hatches. They didn’t want them to see how many of us were onboard.
“We tried to get away, but there were two MIGs above us.”
With the situation becoming desperate, Woelk and Hodges were among the crew members ordered to help with the hopeless task of destroying equipment and classified documents.
“I was taking classified material out of a safe, tearing it up and burning it the best we could in a government-issued wastebasket,” he said. “The only thing we had to destroy the equipment was a sledgehammer. The smoke got so bad you could hardly see or breathe.
“We opened a hatch to vent the smoke. When the North Koreans saw the smoke, they fired a 57mm round into the side of the ship. Duane took the brunt of it.”
Shrapnel from the same round shattered his tailbone and pelvis, Woelk said. He was placed on a table in the officer’s wardroom and given morphine, as was the dying Hodges, who was in a hallway just outside the room.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the Pueblo’s capture was inevitable. The Pueblo’s two 30-caliber machine guns were wrapped in cold-weather tarps and would have offered no real defense had they been manned.
“There were those who volunteered,” Woelk said. “It would have been suicide.
“There’s conflicting information of whether the Enterprise was within strike distance. The Navy hasn’t put out a lot of information.”
To his knowledge, he was the last of the crewmen to be removed from the Pueblo, Woelk said.
“Two North Korean guards wrapped a plastic table cover around me and dragged me off the ship,” he said. “I knew at that time they were going to throw me into the ocean. I didn’t realize we had made it to port.”
The crew was taken that night by bus and train from the port of Wonsan to a prison camp. Through the night, his pain increased as the morphine wore off. He would get no more from his captors.
At the camp, Woelk and two other wounded sailors were placed in a cell with crewman Dale Rigby, who acted as their caretaker. They stayed in the cell for 10 days with no medical attention.
“It was cold — it gets cold in Korea in January,” he said. “The blood and the rotting flesh smelled so bad the guards held their noses or had cloth over their faces when they came in. We were used to it, so it didn’t bother us.”
Ten days into his captivity, he was taken to a room and strapped down on a table, Woelk said. Doctors removed a fist-sized chuck of shrapnel from his groin and cut away infected tissue without the benefit of anesthetic. He was then placed in an isolated hospital room for 44 days.
The food and room were grim and his medical attention indifferent, but he was spared the beatings his fellow crewmen endured during this time as the North Koreans coerced bogus spying confessions. And his treatment remained different once he was reunited with crewmates.
His crewmates would be beaten until they were unrecognizable, first to obtain confessions and later during what they called hell week, a retaliation for displaying the finger during propaganda photos, Woelk said. The crew told the North Koreans the gesture was a Hawaiian good-luck sign, but the truth was revealed when Time Magazine in November published pictures with an explanation of the gesture.
“I really think because of my injuries, the guards were told to leave me alone,” Woelk said. “I was kicked once, and the guard who did that was removed from the floor. During hell week, I was karate chopped once. It wasn’t so bad, although my neck’s still screwed up.”
Woelk wasn’t a part of the hell week beatings because he wanted to send a different message through the photos.
“I wanted to show my parents I was OK,” he said. “They came to the hospital and took some photos. They loved to set the scene. There were plants, cigarettes and books on the table. The one they took of me, I had a big old smile on my face.”
In an effort to get him to confess, his captors subjected Bucher to beatings and a mock firing squad. He finally signed when the North Koreans threatened to make him witness the execution of his crew, starting with its youngest members, Woelk said.
But that confession and those his crewmen signed were peppered with references such as “say hello to Aunt Jemima” to let the American audience know they were bogus, Woelk said.
In December, the crew suspected something was up when their treatment improved. After the United States issued a written apology and admission the Pueblo was spying (immediately disavowed with the release of the crew), the crew was loaded on a bus with windows covered with paper and driven south.
On Dec. 23, 1968, the crew walked one by one over the Bridge of No Return to South Korea. He made the walk weighing 55 pounds less than on the day he was captured.
“Food consisted of a watered-down soup with a chunk of what I thought at the time was sea urchin,” he said. “I found out later if was pig fat with the hair still on it. It had no nutritional value whatsoever. You might find some critters or maggots or whatever they spit in it when they were cooking it — that was common. Later on, they added a little bread and rice.”
Court of inquiry
After a flight back to San Diego, the crew was interrogated by intelligence officers. Woelk said they were very interested in what documents or equipment might have fallen in North Korean or Russian hands and what he saw in North Korea. He had little to share on either score, he said.
Just how badly the Pueblo’s capture compromised national security wasn’t known until the John Walker spy case was unearthed in the mid-1980s, Woelk said. Walker sold the Soviet Union U.S. Navy codes, but those couldn’t be deciphered without encoding equipment such as that captured on the Pueblo.
Although Woelk believes the North Koreans acted without the knowledge of China or the USSR, the Russians certainly told advantage of the incident.
“Crew members said they saw Russians on the ship before they left the dock,” he said.
The crew was kept together in San Diego for a Navy Court of Inquiry, at which Woelk was asked his impression of Bucher.
“I told them I had great respect of him,” Woelk said. “I think he did all that he could do. He handled himself admirably during captivity. You knew he was the captain of the crew.”
The board of inquiry recommended court martial for Bucher and Lt. Steve Harris, who was in charge of the destruction of classified material, but Secretary of the Navy John H. Chafee said the two men had suffered enough.
“It got to the point, he (Bucher) wanted a court martial,” Woelk said. “Then everything would have come out.”
Woelk accepted a medical discharge in 1969 and went to trade school to become an electrician. He was the chief electrical inspector at Fort Leavenworth before retiring two years ago. He and Kathy recently moved to a new home in Basehor after living north of Tonganoxie since 1986.
This past spring, Woelk was swinging at a golf ball when suddenly his hip exploded in pain. He had been told cartilage would fill the gap the shrapnel left in his pelvis, but he learned during a visit to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital its two sections had overlapped and fused together until they separated on the golf course.
As a result, he was unable to attend this summer’s Pueblo reunion, Woelk said.
But he still keeps in touch with his shipmates, visiting one in Branson, Mo., and talking often on the phone with another in Wichita, he said.
There’s resentment among the crew about the Navy’s attitude toward Bucher and the crew displayed in the court of inquiry’s recommendations, he said.
“They haven’t agreed we did the right thing, and we did all we could do,” he said. “And we’re kind of upset about it.”
They fault the Navy for sending the lightly armed ship on a risky mission with no escort and inadequate means to destroy sensitive material and equipment, Woelk said.
It galls them the Pueblo remains in North Korea as a museum in the nation’s capital. Woelk said that underscores the feeling among the crew that the Navy and the country should have responded much more aggressively.
“It’s pretty much a consensus of the crew, we should have wiped them out,” he said. “I don’t think we would have survived — they would have killed us. But it was just such a blow to the country.”