CARRIERE, Miss. — The threat of military action with North Korea, tension in Washington and Pyongyang, two leaders unsure if the other might strike first.
That was the situation nearly fifty years ago during a standoff with North Korea that confronted President Lyndon Johnson.
In January 1968, North Korean gunboats surrounded a lightly-armed Navy spy ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo, in the Sea of Japan.
Although the Pueblo was in international waters, the North Koreans fired on the ship, killing one sailor, while other crew members frantically tried to destroy the evidence of their mission.
Outgunned and with no military back-up, the Pueblo was forced to surrender, leading to a nearly year-long nightmare for the crew.
Dunnie Tuck—friends call him “Friar” Tuck—was one of two civilian oceanographers on the Pueblo, gathering intelligence for Navy submarines.
He’s 80 years old now, but he remembers almost every detail of his time as a North Korean prisoner.
Tuck and his shipmates were taken to a military barracks near Pyongyang, where they had bunk beds to sleep in, and rotten cabbage soup to eat.
They also had daily interrogations.
“Major beatings, with chairs, rifles, broomsticks. I had two chairs broken over my head,” says Tuck today from his home in Pearl River County, Mississippi. “I was beaten senseless twice with the chairs.”
Tuck thought he and the others would be released in a few days, maybe a week or two at most. But America was in a war in Vietnam, and President Johnson didn’t want to risk a second war in North Korea.
So the Pueblo’s crew languished in prison for 11 months—a situation that Tuck can’t imagine President Trump would allow today.
During that time, Tuck became a mentor and teacher to his fellow prisoners. He says he was about ten years older than his shipmates, and he’d had survival training during a stint in the Army. And if the guards allowed the lights to stay on in their cells at night, Tuck would hold informal classes in math, history, geography, and of course oceanography– anything to give the other prisoners something to ponder besides their captivity.
“What are the first three things guys talk about?” says Tuck. “First you talk about women, then you talk about cars, then you talk about food. You do that for three months and then you gotta do something else.”
Finally, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung — the grandfather of today’s leader, Kim Jung-Un– agreed to release the Pueblo’s prisoners by forcing the Johnson administration to say that the ship had been in North Korean waters when it was captured. (The ship never left Pyongyang. Today it’s a North Korean tourist attraction, where the guides call it an example of “American imperialist aggression.”)
When they were allowed to leave, each prisoner was forced to walk alone to freedom, crossing the “Bridge of No Return” that separates North and South Korea.
Just before Tuck started to walk, a guard who spoke English asked him if he’d like to come back to North Korea one day.
“Yes,” Tuck replied, “I’d like to come back real soon as a bombardier in a B-52!”