'It's a mockery': USS Pueblo veteran wants North Korea to give back his ship
Richard Rogala was a 20-year-old mess cook aboard the Navy's USS Pueblo when he looked out a galley window on January 22, 1968 and saw North Korean boats nearby, watching his ship.
The next day, North Korean forces attacked and captured the USS Pueblo. The memory has haunted Rogala for 52 years. The status of the former spy ship, now used as a tourist attraction in North Korea, has kept old war wounds from healing.
But, Rogala says, there can be closure for the 57 remaining Pueblo POW's if a resolution by Florida Republican Congressman Greg Steube calling for the vessel’s return leads to its repatriation. A veteran himself, Steube filed H. Res 439 June, maintaining that North Korea's seizure of the Pueblo and detention of its crew violated international law, and calling for the ship to be returned to the United States.
Still held on the active roster, the Pueblo is the only commissioned U.S. Navy ship currently being held captive.
For Rogala, memories of events that began off the coast of North Korea remain clear.
“It was a non-risk mission. Nothing could have happened,” Rogala told the Washington Examiner a half-century after the incident that occurred in international waters. “We were not in their waters at any time.”
The North Koreans thought otherwise. Or, they didn’t care. Seizing the encryption equipment on board the vessel would be an intelligence coup for North Korea and their Chinese and Soviet allies.
After the attack commenced on the afternoon of January 23, 1968, Rogala found himself lying on the floor of the deck with his hands over his head, praying for his life. His fellow sailor, Duane Hodges, was bleeding to death nearby as the ship tried to maneuver away from fast-approaching North Korean submarines.
Several other sailors had taken fire and lay injured.
“I was lying on the floor and I heard the bullets whizzing over my head,” Rogala recalled. “We definitely thought we were going to be killed.”
The North Koreans were intent on boarding. The crew had commenced destroying classified materials and equipment, but the sailors could hold off the five torpedo boats and two aircraft only for so long.
The ship had two .50 caliber machine guns, but the crew had practiced on them just once, and the guns were not mounted.
“They were trying to board us and would have killed everyone to do so,” remembered Rogala, 70.
The next 11 months were a monotonous blur of darkness, interrogation and random beatings.
Meanwhile, President Lyndon Johnson and America were preoccupied by the Vietnam War and the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, which took place just days after the Pueblo was seized.
Rogala wondered: Had they been forgotten?
Negotiations for the prisoners' release began almost immediately, but North Korea was intent on maximizing propaganda value.
The prisoners resisted subtly.
“Giving them the finger was our act of defiance,” remembered Rogala. “We would pass them in the hall and give them the finger, they thought it was a salute.”
That was until an October 1968 Time Magazine article revealed the true meaning of the finger visible in so many propaganda photos.
Hell Week began on December 12.
“That was the worst for me,” said Rogala, who endured 18-hour days sitting on a chair in front of his bunk bed. One day he was surprised by a sudden fist to the mouth, and kicks when he hit the ground. More blows loosened his teeth.
Following 12 months of negotiations, the surviving 82 crew members were released on December 23, 1968.
Rogala left the Navy when his 18-month tour expired. Forty years later, however, he no longer could bear the thought that North Korea still held a commissioned U.S. Navy ship.
“I couldn’t work or concentrate,” he said, feeling the U.S. government was doing nothing to work for its return.
By 2013, the North Korea renovated the ship and was using it as part of a war museum.
“They were making a mockery of it, it's their prize possession,” Rogala said. He and a few others, including fellow sailors Elvin Plucker and Ralph McClintock, wanted to get it back. Rogala approached his congressman, Florida Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota.
“I didn’t even know this was an issue until he brought it to my attention,” recalled Steube, describing when Rogala approached him after a veterans’ event in early 2019. “Then, I started doing research.”
As an Iraq war veteran, Steube could empathize with what Rogala and other Pueblo veterans felt about the ship.
“For the guys that served on it, absolutely, that’s their little piece of America that was serving during that time that’s still captured and in a foreign land,” said Steube. “I can see that the same feelings that I felt when the Obama administration let ISIS run over bases that we inhabited and built up are probably the same feelings that Rick has that the North Koreans still have his vessel, that he served on."
The congressman shared the story of the Pueblo with bipartisan members of the For Country Caucus, which includes 19 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. “I thought it appropriate to add this to the discussion points by filing a bill,” Steube told the Washington Examiner. He filed HR 439 in June of last year.
“For the guys that served on it, absolutely, that’s their little piece of America that was serving during that time that’s still captured and in a foreign land,” said Steube.
When Trump restarted talks with North Korea, Rogala saw a “ray of hope” that the Pueblo could be returned in his lifetime. He started telling his story again, urging bipartisan support for the resolution, which languishes in the House Foreign Affairs Committee while North Korean tourists visit the Pueblo.
The congressional resolution could rekindle public attention and if talks restart, Rogala hopes, repatriating the Pueblo could be a goodwill gesture from the North.
“I don’t think the talks are over between the two presidents,” he said. “I could move on totally.”