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Told by Frank Ginther to Vicki Bezems, Lifestyles over 50. Hearing the story of a former POW’s ordeal ignites the question, “How did he or she endure it?” What kept him going? That was my question when I met with Frank Ginther, US Navy Communications Technician on the USS Pueblo. The 83-man crew of the Pueblo were captured off the coast of Korea in on January 23, 1968 and were held for 11 months with little hope of release.
The taking of the Pueblo and the abuse and torture of its crew during the subsequent 11-month prisoner drama became a major Cold War incident, raising tensions between western democracies and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and People's Republic of China.
Frank Ginther’s dedication to the US armed services began in early life. He proudly spoke of his father’s service in the Navy and reflected on how he himself loved the Navy as a young boy. “There was no question about it,” he mused. “I was destined to go to the Navy.” He enlisted the day after he graduated from high school, and after basic training decided to go into the communications field.
“At that particular time [the Navy] had opened up a new job code called communications technician,” he explained.
As Frank completed his training, the Navy was in the process of converting three small WWII Army cargo ships into intelligence vessels, one of which was the USS Pueblo. Their job would be to gather information on any seagoing activity under the guise of environmental research. They would be unarmed or lightly armed and manned by communications technicians from the Naval Security Group, civilian oceanographers and linguists. The 30 communications specialists on the Pueblo operated radio equipment inside a box-like structure on top of the ship. The Pueblo sailed from the US in 1967 and headed for its home port in Japan.
Under the leadership of Commander Lloyd “Pete” Bucher, the Pueblo left on its first mission in January 1968: to sail off the coast of Korea and observe all shipping activity taking place, plus the reaction of any Soviet ships to the US vessel.
A ship must remain at least 12 nautical miles from shore to stay in international waters. Captain Bucher gave orders that he was to be called to the bridge if they reached 14 miles.
“We were very, very careful to observe that,” Frank stated.
The crew was not allowed to transmit any kind of signal unless they were sure they had been detected by an adversary.
On January 22, 1968, two Korean fishing boats, (The Americans could read the names on them, “Rice Paddy I” and “Rice Paddy II”), passed very close to the Pueblo, their crews taking pictures of the US vessel. Obviously, the Pueblo had been detected. The US crew began attempts to call for help. Weather conditions being “brutally cold, dark, dank, and miserable,” they had difficulty establishing communications. On January 23, just as they had finished breakfast, Frank heard someone say a ship was approaching them at a high rate of speed. He looked out the port hole to see a patrol boat coming at them at a good clip. A gunman was positioned on the back of the ship on gun turret, helmet and vest on, expertly maneuvering the gun.
“All of a sudden, he aimed directly at the window I was looking out of, and I was looking down two barrels. I left the window and went somewhere else,” Frank remembers. Shortly afterward, the first patrol boat was joined by a submarine chaser, four patrol boats, and two jets. The Koreans told them to “heave to” (stay where they were) or they would open fire. As the Pueblo started to leave, the Koreans opened fire and wounded 12 Pueblo crew members. Next they fired a large canon. Fireman Duane Hodges, who was in the ward room destroying papers, was hit by the canon fire, becoming the sole casualty of the ordeal.
Commander Bucher’s strategy was to stall, to buy time to destroy classified information on board. The crew tried to take the documents out of the filing cabinet drawers, which were lined with lead bags. One crew member was able to throw only a couple of those overboard; there was too much gun fire to continue.
Frank recalled the scene: “We were in general quarters, which meant the whole ship was closed up. Everything was off, including the ventilation system, to prevent us from being gassed. We were in a small room, taking classified information out of the safes and burning it in garbage cans inside. The guys had sledge hammers and fire axes. I was beating on equipment, trying to destroy it with a fire ax. But the circuitry was on the back, and there wasn’t enough room to swing the axe.”
The Pueblo was unprepared to retaliate because the Navy had believed that it would never draw attention from the enemy. It was essentially unarmed and defenseless.
Frank continued, “We got overpowered. They came onto the ship and took us into the birthing area, tied our hands and blindfolded us until we reached Wonsan. A boarding party came aboard and took us off the ship, put us on busses and then a train. We traveled all night across Korea. They took us to a military base. Then they moved us to a complex out in the country which was built for war games. All we could see was a small village, rice paddies and farms. It was out in the middle of nowhere.”
The crew was subjected to general interrogation. At this point, they were able to lie their way through many questions, starting a trend they would sustain throughout their captivity. However, their captors had obtained their personnel files and so had access to names and job descriptions. The Koreans wanted the crew to confess that they went inside Korean waters, even though they had calling them spies and “US Imperialist Aggressors.”
They beat and tortured Captain Bucher severely, but at first he refused to confess. They staged a fake execution for him: They held a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. They took him to a room and showed him a man hanging on a wall who had been beaten and had one eye dangling from the socket. Finally, they threatened to start shooting crew members one by one, starting with the youngest, who was 19 years old. To save the crew, Captain Bucher agreed to sign a false confession. But, Frank explained, “Bucher wrote statements like ‘I got my instructions from Buzz Sawyer, and in the meeting was Barney Google…’ to demonstrate to the US that it was not his will to confess.
Every crew member was tortured and made to sign a false confession. Frank was forced to kneel on the floor, holding a wooden chair over his head. When he grew so tired that he had to lower the chair, the guard kicked him repeatedly under the right arm. Finally they asked him to sign a statement saying they “intruded into territorial waters of Korea and the Soviet Union.” Frank realized, even in his dazed condition, that the statement erroneously indicated they were in two places at once, so he felt justified in signing the document. The officer gave him a stack of papers and two pencils. His arm hurt so badly he could barely write. In the confession he wrote “a lot of garbage that didn’t make sense.”
The Koreans had interpreters, but they didn’t understand slang; nonetheless, the crew had to use caution. It wasn’t until later in their imprisonment that they realized one guard had studied in England and understood much of their conversation.
The Koreans had a strict regimen for the prisoners. Every morning they went outside to exercise, ate breakfast, were given a bucket and a dirty rag and made to scrub the floors of their quarters. They were forced to march everywhere in formation, and if they fell out of line, they were beaten. One day while marching down the hall with the group, one of the crew merely mentioned the name of the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim il Sung. One of the guards heard the name, and consequently, the American was beaten for saying his name. However, the Americans wouldn’t be outdone. From then on, the crew pronounced the name spelled backward: “gnos li mik.”
The Koreans constantly filled the prisoners with propaganda. The crew were forced to listen to lectures for hours, “educating” them about the Korean people and the Korean war.
In September of 1968, treatment of the men started to improve. The Koreans took them into town to concerts, circus acts and the War Museum, which was filled with exhibits of “all the atrocities performed by the United States.” In negotiations, the US had agreed to sign a “receipt” for 83 men, which the Koreans misinterpreted to mean a confession. One Saturday, the men saw buses waiting to return them to US custody. But before they were released, the Koreans suddenly comprehended the difference between a confession and receipt, and the buses left, empty.
As winter approached, the weather started getting cold and wet. The men looked for ways to contradict the propaganda being published to the rest of the world, in which they were forced to participate. Frank used secret names in his letters home, which would be recognized only by his wife, even though the guards forced him to rewrite the letters repeatedly. In press release photos, the men extended their middle finger to discredit what was being reported. The crew decided that if questioned about the gesture, they would explain it as the “Hawaiian good luck sign.” At first the Koreans believed their story, but when “Newsweek” internationally reported the use of the gesture, their captors read the article, and the game was over.
December 6 was the beginning of “Hell Week.” Negotiations had come to a standstill. Guards were added and the men were tortured as they had been in the beginning of their captivity.
Still, the men thought of creative ways to resist. Frank was asked to write down his impressions of North Korea. He wrote, “North Korea survived a war. What were once bomb craters are now lush green fields with beautiful flowers growing. My final impression can be summed up in one sentence: ‘History Only Reproduces Successful Experiences Since History Itself Teaches.’” His real message was spelled out by the first letter of each word. The Koreans did not catch the meaning, but in interrogations, one of his fellow crew members reported him. However, understanding the pressure and tactics of his captors, pitting one crewman against another, Frank readily absolved his comrade.
Then suddenly the cruelty ceased. The men were treated for bruises and injuries. One day, they were given brand new clothes, loaded onto buses and taken to Panmunjom. Frank realized they were being released only when an officer asked, “How do you feel about going home?”
They walked across the “Bridge of No Return,” one by one, into the hands of the US. They were taken to a hospital outside of Seoul on December 23. They were flown to San Diego and greeted by their families, celebrities and then Governor Reagan on Christmas Eve. After two weeks, the Navy held a court of inquiry and recommended Commander Bucher and several others be court martialed on charges of giving up the ship. However, the Secretary of the Navy pardoned him, publicly recognizing that all those involved had “been through enough.”
What enabled Frank Ginther to get through this horrific experience?
“I had two things: Faith in God and faith in my country. I knew our government was going to do everything they could to get us out of there. I believe in God, I was raised in the church, and I knew I was going to heaven either from North Korea or somewhere else. When I was told to write my confessions, I thought about taking the two newly sharpened pencils and rolling over them. If I did this, it would be all over. I sat there and cried out to God, and he spoke. I said, ‘Lord, please help me. I don’t know what to do.’ The voice I heard was a deep, powerful voice like in the movie, ‘The Ten Commandments.’ But I didn’t hear it with my ears; I heard it in my mind. He said ‘Trust me, trust me, everything is going to be all right.’ I had a feeling like a blanket covering me, and when it reached my feet, I started writing. God has spoken to me many, many times since, but not in the same way. The ordeal changed my life, taught me how to deal with people, and how to deal with problems. I’m not exempt from problems; I just know who to go to.
“When I was about 10 years old, my Sunday school teacher gave me two plaques. One read ‘God is love.’ The other read, ‘Jesus never fails.’ Throughout my captivity and throughout my life, these two thoughts have carried me through.”
More information on the USS Pueblo incident can be found at http://www.usspueblo.org/, a website created and maintained by the surviving crew members.