Copyright © 2010 USS PUEBLO Veteran's Association. All rights reserved.
the PUEBLO Incident
A Transition: From Sailor to Captive
By Stu Russell
The cannon and machine gun fire had ceased. After a awhile that seemed like forever, someone keyed the 1-MC and ordered that all nonessential personnel assemble in the forward well deck and "Oh, yeah, by the way, remember the Code of Conduct". I knew this order to move forward applied to me, hauling food from the store room and peeling potatoes is about as nonessential as you can get. Rich, Vic and I cracked the hatch and climbed into a scene from hell. Except for light filtering in from the forward hatch, the passageway was dark. The lights were out but we were able to see the spaces had been filled with smoke. The bulkheads were covered with soot, the deck was littered with ashes, torn up manuals, tools, axes, other signs of destruction and blood. As I went forward, I looked left into the SODHUT: the gear there appeared to have been smashed. The passageway was empty of people as the three of us picked our way through the litter; these were our last few seconds as free men. As we emerged from the passageway into the light we made the transition to being captives.
On top of the ladder leading to the 01 level was a North Korean soldier with a bayonet fitted to his AK-47. He was yelling at us to move to the forward part of the deck, where I saw about forty of my shipmates sitting in rows, facing aft with their hands on top of their heads. Behind them on the foc'sle were more armed guards who looked like the guys I saw in the Korean War newsreels as a kid, wearing padded suits and fuzzy hats. The only difference I could see was that they had traded in their burp guns for those AK-47's. Apparently fashions hadn't changed much since 1953.
I was in about row three and looked around to see what was happening. This turned out to be no-no number one. Eyes forward. Before I turned ahead I saw my buddy from supply, Ralph Reed, who was wearing only a t-shirt. It must have been near freezing at this time of the afternoon, but our comfort was not one of the over riding concerns at this time. The Koreans on the bridge were using the 1-MC to communicate with the four PT boats that were steaming close in board to us. Each time the mike was keyed there was a very audible click which preceded whatever was being said. Each time that thing was clicked, I was sure that they were giving the order to fire into us. It was possible that no one in the Free World, no one in the US military knew we had been captured and that the Koreans might as well kill us then and there and cover the whole thing up.
I realized that my thinking wasn't making any sense, but then one of the basic tenants of my personal philosophy, that no one screws with Uncle Sam, had taken quite a beating at this point, so I was entitled to a little fuzzy thinking. Someone else down wind from me must have been feeling the same or worse, because it smelled like one of us was packing a full diaper. One of the Koreans had gone below and returned with a sheet. He pulled out a knife and started making blindfolds. It's amazing how one's mind works when someone is in shock. Like everyone else on the well deck, we knew that this clown was making blindfolds so they could line us up and shoot us. Since we had been at sea for almost two weeks, our sheets were a little on the gamey side, bringing to mind what was to be the final irony of my life...my mother's prediction that I would die in dirty sheets was about to come true. And to make it worse, I had my boots on.
Once they had us all blindfolded, we were taken below into the forward berthing spaces. On the way down I overheard someone whisper that our personnel records had not been destroyed. They weren't going to kill us, at least not right now. We were forced to sit on the deck, which was at least a little warmer than the topside deck had been. There were two reasons for this; one, to let us know who was in charge, and the other was to loot our lockers. Since our bunks were also our lockers, with access to the storage from the top, naturally they didn't want us on our bunks. We could hear them as they ripped through our stuff. It became obvious every time they found a Playboy by the sound of the centerfold being pulled out -- these were some horny boys. They would giggle like a bunch of little kids as they went through our normal seagoing collection of "reading" material.
My Eagle Scout training had prepared me for any eventuality while we were at sea; therefore, my locker was a miniature pharmacy. If we were going to be at sea for a month at a time, I wanted to be prepared with all the proper over-the-counter medications I could get my hands on. I had enough chocolate flavored Exlax in my locker to clean out an elephant. So I sat there praying that whoever went into my locker had one hell of a sweet tooth. Someone whispered, "What's going to happen to us?" Doug Scarbourough answered back, "Hard to say, I ain't never pulled liberty in Wonsan before." In spite of our situation, that comment caused a muted ripple of laughter from the crew and a rain of blows from the Koreans. The chance to laugh, though brief, made me feel a little better and that's when I realized that laughter was the one thing that was going to help us through the ordeal ahead. It had been some time since we had been able to use a bathroom, and with nature calling someone eventually decided to take matters into their own hands, and urinated into their helmet. As we heard the sounds of several others doing the same thing, we knew tragedy was about to strike.
Anyone familiar with the standard issue helmet knows there is no flat spot on those things for setting them down, and somehow this one got turned over. We all knew what had happened, those of us on the down-slope of the deck did the best we could to figure out where this river was coming from and where it would go. Apparently the guards had been goofing off because this whole thing caught them by surprise. They reacted to our sudden movements with curses and rifle butts. Suddenly it was very quiet in the space and one could feel that a stand off of sorts was taking place between us and them.
The silence was shattered by the sounds of rounds being chambered. One of our people had the presence of mind to tell us to sit down very slowly. That eased the tension, except for those of us that sat in the wet spot. One of the guards found an officer who spoke English and asked why we were making trouble. When someone explained the situation, instructions were given and we were soon being taken to the head at the top of the ladder. When my turn came, I was taken to the ladder, where my blindfold was removed. I was escorted to the head by two guards, each armed. This was my first encounter with them at a close distance. I was overwhelmed by the hatred in their eyes. Not being a big fan of prejudice, I never really understood it, and now here I was experiencing it for the first time. I wondered what they had been told about Americans, or was it just me? Within a few days we would begin our education on why and how much they hated us. After the trips to the head, it was quiet for us until we reached Wonsan. Sitting on the cold, hard deck was becoming pretty uncomfortable for us; we were packed together like sardines, and the guards repeatedly kicked us. It would not get better.