D.P.R.K’S Glorious Medical Care
by Steven E. Woelk
When General Quarters was ordered, my watch was in the Auxiliary Engine room that supplied power to the Sod Hut (electronic room) and fresh water to the ship. Prior to General Quarters being called, several of us were able to sneak at peak at our adversaries through the forward hatch that lead out onto the lower deck. I had no idea where we were or who was threatening us.
I was in that "You don’t need to know" category.
When things started to heat up topside, several of us were summoned to aid in the destruction of classified material. One such location was a safe located in the hallway outside the Officers Wardroom. This is where I began tearing up and passing papers down the hall to several crewmembers trying to burn them in Navy Issue "Classified Material Incinerators" commonly called "trash cans". I do not remember how many cans were being used for the destroying process but there were not enough to handle the mounds of paper.
A trash can was positioned by a starboard, mid-ship hatch that led outside. The can was placed just outside due to the smoke filling the hallways. The North Koreans apparently saw the smoke and came to the conclusion we were not grilling steaks and let loose with a 57mm round in the starboard side where we were all gathered. Duane Hodges, Bob Chicca, and Charles Crandell were in the immediate area of the explosion. I was squatting on my knees in a hallway that joined their position by the open hatch. The force of the explosion and shrapnel blew me over backwards. Unable to move my legs, I felt this tremendous burning sensation in my groin and hip. Traffic was beginning to pick up in the hallways so I pulled myself around the corner and into the Officers Wardroom. No sooner had I done that, then Duane was brought around the corner and positioned in the hallway at my feet. Doc Baldridge would attempt to comfort the both of us the best he could with what little he had to work with. We were both given morphine to ease the pain and bandaged to stop the bleeding. The pain was not bad as long as I did not try to move my legs, the morphine helped a lot too.
To the best of my knowledge, Duane passed away sometime prior to PUEBLO being boarded by the North Koreans. Duane was a close friend, we had shared some good times together and I will always hold a special place in my heart for him.
After the ship was boarded and taken over, I was placed on the Wardroom dining table, on top the plastic table cover. A North Korean guard was now standing watch over me while the rest of the crew was being escorted to the main deck and later removed.
Now it was time for me to be taken away. To the best of my knowledge I was one of the last "good guys" to leave the PUEBLO. Two NK soldiers, one at my feet and the other at my head, wrapped me up in the plastic cover and began dragging and bouncing me down the passageways through the hatches. I had not seen the crew for quite sometime now and my worst fear was us all being tossed overboard. Now it was my turn to be cast to the sea. I knew I would not be able to swim, but as cold as the water was that day swimming would not matter, I would be gone in a matter of seconds anyway. I was somewhat relieved when I felt them drag me onto the boarding planks and then onto the pier. From this point I was placed on the floor of a bus that had already been loaded with crewmembers.
Sometime later we were all loaded on a train and transported to our next destination. The train was very uncomfortable for me since the effects of the morphine had worn off and the pain was setting in. I could tell I had extensive wounds to my groin, buttocks and tailbone. I had two holes in my buttocks the size of my thumb. One piece of shrapnel passed through me front to back taking out half my tailbone. Another piece entered the lower part of my buttocks exiting out the top. The wound to my groin area was not good.
At the next location the most serious wounded, Crandell, Chicca and myself shared a room with Dale Rigby. Dale put any and all of his knowledge of first aid to work trying to make us as comfortable as possible. Dale with absolutely nothing to work with as far as medical supplies did a tremendous job taking care of us. We received very little medical assistance for which we were in dire need from the North Koreans.
Later in the week, the guards that came into our room would wear bandanas around their face since the stench of infection, rotting flesh, and blood was unbearable. Infection was now setting in and becoming a big concern. I was still lying on the Wardroom table cover even after a week’s time. I became stuck to the plastic due to the dried blood and yuck, which made moving virtually impossible. I was still passing blood in both urine and bowel movements.
I believe it was the evening of our tenth day of captivity, I was removed from our room and taken to what appeared to be a medical examining room, just down the hall. Up until then, no major medical help had been provided to any of us. In this examining room, I was placed on a metal examining table, my hands were bound and tied down to the table. My legs were spread, my feet bound and tied down so I was unable to move. Their so-called NK doctors commenced operating on me without any form of anesthetic whatsoever. I can still recall the scissors cutting away flesh and being sewn up with sutures that looked like kite string. A small handful of shrapnel was removed in the operation that seemed to last an eternity, but probably did not last more than twenty to thirty minutes. I was told later my screams could be heard throughout the building and many crewmembers thought one of us was being tortured. I was then returned to my room and fellow wounded crewmen.
Approximately two weeks after capture I was still not doing very well. One evening the guards came in, loaded me onto a stretcher, threw a blanket over me so I could not see where they were taking me and out the building we went. I was loaded into the back of a covered jeep and taken to a NK Hospital. Conditions were not nearly what we had come to expect in the United States. The room was about 10’ by 15’, one window, one door and one bed. A wooden floor with ¼" spaces between the boards for dirt and grime to collect, paint cracking and peeling from the wall and an occasional bed bug. Bandages were changed every two days by the medical staff. This usually consisted of one Doctor and two nurses.
I would spend the next 44 days in solitary confinement, behind a locked door and no one around who gave any indication they could speak or understand English. I was allowed cigarettes, matches, NK cultural propaganda crap, a deck of cards and a pitcher of water. If the water was not boiled properly it would cause dysentery, which I had the pleasure of experiencing during my stay. Each day I would mark off the days in the hospital on the wall with a burnt match. I would spend my twentieth birthday in the hospital.
My medical treatment would consist of the doctor taking a pair of forceps and shoving long strips of gauze saturated with a type of ointment down into my open wounds as far as it would go. Each day the healing process would not allow him to shove it in quite as far as the last time. One day something came out with the gauze that drew the attention of the doctor and his staff. It appeared that a bed bug had found refuge and a warm place to sleep inside of me. This did not seem to be a big deal to the staff. This was probably a normal occurrence in the everyday life in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. I also received several injections daily and one transfusion of a clear liquid in my leg. Although my leg swelled to twice its normal size, whatever medicine it was seemed to work since I finally started making headway towards a recovery.
I spent many days wondering about my fate, the crews fate, what was going to happen, what are they going to do to me next, while I was left behind to mend.
Near the end of my healing process one of my wounds had healed over, trapping fluid under the skin and becoming very tender. Since I was about to be re-united with the crew, I thought I had better bring this to the attention of my private doctor. My biggest worry was going through another surgical procedure as before with no anesthetic. I showed him the soft spot, he took one look reached for a pair of scissors and snip, water came gushing out. It was back to the forceps, ramming the gauze back down the hole.
About a week before returning to the crew I was finally able to set up and walk around the room. I did not have any mirrors in the room so I did not know what I looked like after a month and a half. The door had a glass transom over the top of it, tilted enough to show my reflection. I was amazed on how thin I had become. I had lost 55 lbs. in captivity and it looked like most of it was during the first two months. What I was fed was not that much different than what I understand the crew was fed. Basically watered down pig fat soup, rice, bread rarely and dead flies (more often than bread by far). The worms, maggots, nails, hair, teeth and anything else the NK’s thought to be nutritional came later when I returned to the crew. What the crew did not get that I received was an apple and goats milk occasionally. Damn, what a treat.
When re-united with the crew I was able to walk and climb stairs by using the handrail. The first crewmen to greet me were the Captain and Officers of the PUEBLO, the most pleasant site I experienced in captivity. I had a room awaiting for me with 7 other crewmembers to whom I would get to know pretty well over the next 8 months. The only personnel affects left of mine was my navy shirt and boots that were in a drawer next to my bed. My shirt had a shrapnel hole, in the portion that tucks in the back, the size of a silver dollar. There was also a bone fragment about 1½" long and ½" wide. Not exactly sure where that came from. I guess it was not needed since everything was working by now.
Later in captivity I would experience yet another one of NK’s uncouth medical procedures. At the time and when I was young, I had always had trouble with tonsil infection, so the NK’s decided my tonsils needed to be removed. They took this clamping type instrument, put it around one tonsil, and tied a string (kite string) to the tonsil and crunch it was out. I guess the string was to be used to retrieve the tonsil in case I happened to swallow it or it would hit the floor. The same procedure was done on the other side. This operation was also accomplished without the use of any anesthetic.
Copyright © 2018 USS PUEBLO Veteran's Association. All rights reserved.
Steve Woelk & Rich Arnold
San Diego 1969
(Frames from North Korean propaganda film)