July 31, 1989 12:00 PM

It was January 1968 when the U.S.S. Pueblo, on a spy mission in international waters off the coast of North Korea, was attacked by North Korean torpedo boats and MiG warplanes. Virtually defenseless against the machine-gun and cannon fire that raked the decks, Navy Commander Lloyd Bucher and 14 of his men were wounded—one fatally—before being taken prisoner and held in captivity for 11 months. Since then, Bucher, 62, has suffered not only the memory of a brutal captivity but also accusations by some Navy officials that he failed in his duty to defend his ship. When the Department of Defense issued medals to honor U.S. military prisoners of war just last year, the Pueblos 82 crewmen were excluded—leaving Bucher seething at what he regarded as an insult to a crew that had acted with uncommon valor.

Now Bucher may finally be winning the battle for his reputation and that of his men. He testified recently before a congressional subcommittee looking into the decision to deny his men medals, and the House Armed Services Committee has since approved a provision that would rectify the slight. Prospects appear good that the legislation, which has the backing of the Navy and the Defense Department, will be passed before October. “It has been an uphill battle to win the recognition the Pueblo’s crew deserves,” says Bucher. “But at long last [we’re] being remembered, rather than being regarded as something better swept under the rug and forgotten.”

The Department of Defense argued that because the Pueblos crew had been held by a nation with which the U.S. was not officially at war, they qualified only as “detainees,” not true POWs. But Bucher believes that criticism of his command by Navy officials may account in part for the decision not to honor his men. He has been taken to task for failing to return fire with the ship’s .50-caliber machine guns, or to scuttle the Pueblo to prevent its capture. Bucher points out he did not receive enough time or money to train most of the crew to use weapons for the hastily assigned mission and that the tarps covering the guns were frozen in any case. He decided not to sink the ship because he assumed fighter bombers were flying to his aid in response to radio calls for assistance. But while the Pueblo received a message promising help from U.S. Navy forces in Japan, none ever arrived.

Bucher also insists that he and his crew never willingly capitulated to the North Koreans. “The guards knocked me downstairs a few times, kicked and punched me,” he says. “When they forced us to sign things, we tried to send coded messages that we were under duress.” Released in return for an official apology from the U.S., Bucher and his crew arrived home on Christmas Eve, 1968—to a decidedly mixed reception. Rear Admiral Edwin Rosenberg recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but Vice Admiral George Steele and others called for Bucher’s court-martial on the grounds that he surrendered the Pueblo without a fight.

That trial never came to pass; U.S. Navy Secretary John Chafee quickly decided that Bucher and his men had suffered enough. Bucher went on to serve five more years. His last posting at sea was to help clear U.S. mines from North Vietnam’s Haiphong harbor. When he came up for promotion to captain in 1973, he retired rather than face another inquiry into his conduct in the Pueblo incident. Since then, he has turned to painting watercolors as a profession and lives outside San Diego with his wife, Rose. He has been comforted by the fact that the Pueblo’s crew has always stood behind him, Said former Petty Officer Ramon Rosales: “The skipper’s decisions helped give me the strength to survive the ordeal of imprisonment.”

Despite official support to now honor the Pueblo crew, Bucher’s bitterness lingers. “I wish some of the senior officers who continue to criticize me would meet me in a forum where I could ask some questions of them about why my ship and men were abandoned by the chain of command,” he says. “I’m ready anytime.”

—Montgomery Brower, Arturo Gonzalez in San Diego

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