Fifty years ago, 82 sailors from the U.S.S. Pueblo were released from captivity in North Korea.
The Pueblo was a Navy intelligence vessel engaged in routine surveillance off the North Korean coast, when on Jan 23, 1968, it was confronted by torpedo boats. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters, almost 16 miles from shore, but North Korea demanded its surrender.
One of the men onboard the Pueblo was Boiling Springs resident Don McClarren.
“We thought we were going to be harassed and that was it,” McClarren said, “but once they started firing on us, we knew something was up.”
Fireman Dwayne Hodges was killed and the other 82 crew members were taken as prisoners of war. After 11 months in captivity with interrogations, beatings, and torture, all were released.
“We walked over the bridge of no return and it was a good feeling,” McClarren said.
McClarren was a crypto tech, encoding and decoding messages aboard the ship.
Saturday, his comrades at the Boiling Springs VFW post, along with help from family members, threw him a surprise celebration, although he wasn’t totally surprised.
“I noticed some of the cars. I knew the cars. I knew something was up then,” McClarren said.
“Somebody should have picked you guys up and bussed you here. We had it that close,” joked Nina Klinger.
Klinger is McClarren’s daughter. She says her dad is humble and views his other crew members as heroes.
“It’s events like this that really brings it home for him, to let him know that, yeah, he did really do something, too,” Klinger said.
“Don, tonight, your friends, family and comrades honor your service, your sacrifice and your friendship,” said Nikki Noll, who helped to organize the event.
McClarren says he and his fellow sailors stuck together.
“If we saw one of them go down into a depression, somebody was always with them,” he said. “You never left them alone.”
Being in captivity left physical and mental scars and he says mostly everyone aboard the Pueblo has post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In a situation like that, that’s where you find your inner self and you can find your strengths and your [weaknesses],” McClarren said.
He says for a long time, he and other crew members didn’t talk about their experience publicly, but they’re now on a mission to make sure others don’t forget.
“We like to keep the ship’s name going because one of our biggest roles right now is to have the ship returned to the U.S.,” McClarren said.
As humble as he is, McClarren has certainly made an impact on those around him.
“I did not know my dad then. I wasn’t born, but I do know that I am grateful for the man that he is,” Klinger said. “His influence and the person that he is made me the person that I am.”
Once a prisoner of war, now he’s free to tell his story.
“I don’t think the Pueblo will ever be forgotten,” McClarren said. “It might be put on the back burner for a while, but it’s going to come back up front again and we’re going to make sure it stays there.”
About 60 crew members from the Pueblo are still living and have reunions every two years. They just had one in Pueblo, Colorado, in September.
The U.S.S. Pueblo is still registered as active, in commission, but North Korean still has the ship and uses it as a museum.