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Captured Crew to Get Medals 20 Years Later

June 23, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ More than 20 years after North Korea’s capture of the spy ship USS Pueblo, the U.S. government on Friday reversed itself and agreed to give medals to all 82 aboard who were held captive and tortured for 11 months.

Vice Admiral J.M. Boorda, chief of naval personnel, told a House Armed Services subcommittee of the decision at a hearing that featured emotional testimony from Lloyd Bucher, the Pueblo’s retired commander.

″The Navy feels that the circumstances of Pueblo meet the spirit and intent″ of a medal for prisoners of war established by Congress in 1985, Boorda said in testimony he said was specifically authorized by the Pentagon and the Bush administration.

″I personally feel that we as a nation should recognize the sacrifices made by these crew members,″ he said. ″They have earned it.″

Bucher said his men had been ″dumbfounded, justifiably angry and deeply hurt″ when they at first were denied POW medals. That was due to a finding by Pentagon lawyers that they were techically detainees rather than prisoners of war because there was no open conflict between the United States and North Korea at the time of the Jan. 23, 1968 capture.

His voice halted as he concluded his testimony: ″Mr. Chairman, those men were America’s sons. They did as bid by this country, and more.″

In an interview later, he called the legal reasoning behind the denial of medals ″contrived″ and said it hid the real reason the medals were denied:

″They were looking at us like something you’d want to put under the rug. It was a calamity for our country, to be captured at noon on the high seas... It’s an embarrassment to a lot of people. It’s gone down as something that most elements of our government would rather forget about.″

Bucher’s surrender of his small ship, loaded with intelligence information, was harshly criticized later and he even was recommended for a court martial, although that request was denied.

″I don’t appreciate being second-guessed, but I know it’s inevitable in this world,″ Bucher said. ″It’s been kind of an uphill battle″ to win the recognition he said his crew deserves.

Most of the crew members were teenagers at the time of the capture, he said. During their captivity, they were beaten with pieces of lumber, burned on radiators and had their teeth kicked out by North Korean soldiers.

″Those guys went from teenage to adulthood in one hell of a hurry, and they did it with a degree of dignity and courage that has never been exceeded in the history of this county’s military,″ Bucher said.

Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., has introduced legislation specifically recognizing the the Pueblo crew - 77 of whom are still alive - as eligible for the POW medal. Slattery said he was alterted to the problem by a crew member, Steven Woelk of McLouth, Kan., who was permanently disabled in the attack.

Boorda said the Pentagon would support legislation to amend the law so the Pueblo crew could receive the POW medal.

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