WASHINGTON – The memory of 11 gruesome months of captivity in North Korea came flooding back to Tom Massie when he heard that the American hostages held in Iran for 444 days will finally be compensated for their ordeal.
Good for them, he thought. But for Massie and his 81 fellow crew members on the USS Pueblo, a Navy spy ship that North Korea seized in international waters in 1968, financial recompense remains elusive.
Now in their 60s and 70s, many disabled and struggling on fixed incomes, the men of the Pueblo have received almost nothing in damages. The government once paid them about $800 for food they didn’t eat, calculated at the World War II rate of $2.25 a day.
That’s far less than the $4.4 million to which each Iran hostage is entitled under a law passed by Congress last month – 10,000 for every day of captivity in Tehran, coming from a fund established with penalties paid by sanctions-busting banks.
The contrast strikes many of the Pueblo crew members as another slap in the face from a government that has sometimes regarded them as an embarrassment.
“I’m glad they’re getting something,” said Massie, 67, a retired heating and air-conditioning vendor who lives in Roscoe, Ill., and still suffers the physical and emotional effects of torture.
“But I really don’t think it’s fair, if there’s a law passed where somebody gets compensated and everybody don’t get the same treatment,” he said. “They were POWs, we were POWs. We were held for 11 months and beaten every day, humiliated, starved, just about anything you could think of.”
The $1.1 billion fund to pay the Iranian hostages, and potentially the victims of terrorist attacks at U.S. embassies in Beirut and East Africa, has reopened old wounds for victims of similar international incidents.
The crew members of the Pueblo are particularly angry. More than 60 are still alive. Since learning that the Iran hostages can make claims, they have been furiously emailing one another, writing their representatives in Congress and calling lawyers to see if they can get a share of the money, too.
“We’ve always thought we ought to be compensated,” said Alvin Plucker, director of the USS Pueblo Veterans Association. “Now, we’re lighting the flames out there. We’re communicating back and forth. Some of the emails are in favor of doing something. And some say, ‘Show me the money.’ In other words, they don’t believe it’s ever going to happen.”
As the 48th anniversary of their capture approaches, several crew members said one potential obstacle is that many Americans are too young to remember the Pueblo incident.
An environmental research vessel outfitted as a spy ship, the Pueblo was on an intelligence-gathering mission in the Sea of Japan on Jan. 23, 1968, when it came under attack by North Korean sub chasers, torpedo boats and MiG fighter jets. One crew member died during the assault. The crew burned many of its records and surrendered.
In North Korea, the crew members were imprisoned under harsh conditions and tortured in an attempt to get them to confess to espionage and violating North Korean waters. They posed for propaganda photos, often extending their middle fingers to convey their true feelings about their clueless captors.
Public response to their sly defiance helped persuade Washington to officially apologize to North Korea to end the incident, and the crew returned home on Christmas Eve. The Navy held a board of inquiry that recommended Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher be court-martialed for abandoning the ship, but the Navy secretary closed the case, reasoning that the crew had “suffered enough.”
Many of the crew members have had difficulty getting over their experience. Several said they have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and have taken disability payments.
In the one serious attempt to get compensation from North Korea, Massie, two other crew members and Bucher’s widow filed a lawsuit. Other crew members didn’t take part because they couldn’t afford the lawyer’s fee of $5,000.
In 2008, the four plaintiffs won a $65 million default judgment in a federal court in Washington. But they never were able to identify any of North Korea’s assets to collect.
They may now be the only four connected to the Pueblo who are potentially eligible to make a claim on the fund just established by Congress, since the law requires a legal ruling that is not collectable. An exception was made for the Iran hostages because they were banned from suing as a condition of their release.
The fund has nonetheless resurrected long-buried hopes among crew members.
“Why can’t we be in on something like that?” said Rick Rogala, 68, of Sarasota, Fla., a seaman apprentice on cooking duty when the Pueblo was seized. “The money is out there for that kind of situation. We seem to be the forgotten ones.”
But others are skeptical.
“I’ve tried to distance myself to some degree,” said John Mitchell, 68, of Kneeland, Calif., an engineering yeoman on the ship. “I don’t want to make my life about the Pueblo. Hey, if somebody wants to give me $3 or $4 million, I’ll take it. But I doubt we’re going to get anything.”
Ralph McClintock, secretary of the USS Pueblo Veterans Association, said he still feels the way he did in 2008, when South Korean television came to the group’s 40th reunion and asked him about the lawsuit he refused to join.
“I don’t want their money,” he said of North Korea’s secretive first family. “I want them, the Kims, gone. I want the Korean People’s Army disbanded. I want whatever I may be entitled to passed to the Korean people. They’ve been through hell.”