‘I guess God was on my side’ - a POW story
If asked where US servicemen were held prisoner by a foreign government in 1968, how many of us would identify only Vietnam? How many of us could answer about the 83 men, including one Killed in Action, who were captured and held by the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, for months?
From the comfort of the Navy Lodge overlooking the beach at Naval Air Station North Island, Senior Chief Earl Phares, United States Navy (Retired), one of those men and former Prisoner of War (POW) shared his story.
On 23 December 1968, after 335 days of captivity, together with the other crewmembers Phares walked across the bridge at the DMZ to freedom. Greeted by American Admirals and Generals, relax he was told, but Phares remembers thinking, “I don’t think so,” and just kept walking. “I thought I was going to be shot in the back,” he recounted. Why? Because that is what he was told by his captors.
Down to 120 pounds from the 160 pounds he weighed when captured, Phares also thought he was going to be court-martialed and sent to Leavenworth (the United States Disciplinary Barracks located at Fort Leavenworth…the ultimate military prison).
His is a story about a 19-year-old Navy Seaman (E-2) assigned to his first ship and becoming a POW.
In the Vietnam era, as a sole surviving son he was exempt from serving in the military. Nevertheless, he wanted to attend the Naval Academy. However, due to his eyesight being below the minimums for appointment to a service academy, that was not to be. With that avenue closed off and the family unable to pay for college, Phares decided to join the Navy as a musician, following in the footsteps of his father, who had served 22 years as a Navy musician.
So he enlisted, completed boot camp, and reported to the field music school in Littlecreek, Virginia. Unfortunately, at this time his father was terminally ill with cancer and “things were pretty tough back home.” So Phares put in paperwork to be released from active duty due to hardship. As he told it, “The CO of the school, a [Navy] Captain knew my dad…and a lot of the instructors and Chiefs knew my dad back when. I was blessed and was sent back to California,” where his family was located. About two weeks after arriving, his father passed away.
Phares then asked for Antarctica duty, claiming to like the cold, but found out all the Navy icebreakers had been returned to the Coast Guard. As he described it, the Navy must have thought he was a volunteer, “so they volunteered me to the Pueblo,” but “no one knew what the hell the Pueblo was.” Regardless, he flew over to Japan in December 1967, aboard a PanAm flight no less.
With the assistance of an senior officer on the same flight, Phares was delivered to his new homeport in style, remarking that, “the Marines rousted me at the gate, because what was this Seaman doing in a Marine Colonel’s staff car?” Once on base, no one seemed to know what the Pueblo was or where it was berthed. Welcome to the Navy, Seaman Phares.
Finally finding the Pueblo berthed outside a garbage scow, he said, “It was just like the ship in “Mr. Roberts,” except the cargo area had been built up for the hut for the CTs.” At the time, however, Phares had no idea about any of this or what the Pueblo really did. He just reported aboard and was given a bunk.
The next morning he met the CO, Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, who according to Phares was attired in, “flip flops, khaki pants, T-shirt, and a cowboy hat. I didn’t know what to do. Salute? Give him a hug? Handshake? Thinking, this is going to be interesting.”
He was integrated into the crew and given his damage control assignment and General Quarters' station, which was the forward, starboard side .50 caliber machine gun. He received some training on the gun, because his gunner was former Army and had some experience with the weapon. Soon they pushed away and headed out to sea. On that first day, Phares was ill, left wondering why he got sick, when his father had not. He shortly got his sea legs under him and was fine thereafter.
The ship was performing operations off the coast of Japan, North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union. Always in 20-foot seas said Phares, who spoke of “footprints up on the bulkheads, that’s how bad it was riding.” Up and down and side to side, all over the place, as he tells it.
On 23 January 1968, he was pulling galley duty. A Russian trawler had spotted the ship the night before, but it was “not a big thing.” He offered that, “Bucher didn’t want to leave at that time, because he hadn’t really completed his mission.” The CO wanted to stay one more day. Continuing, Phares added, “It was all Need to Know, [so] we didn’t know what was going on, except the CTs and the Captain.”
That day, at about noontime, an SO1 Class Sub-chaser came out and circled them at about 1000 yards. No panic, as he described it. “Then came a rooster tail, a PT boat. Then another PT boat. Then two, three, four more.” What he did not know at the time was that there were also two MIGs circling above the ship. Saying they were in international waters, Phares related that Bucher hoisted a flag essentially communicating, “Thank you, we’ll be leaving.” At the time, the North Koreans claimed their waters beginning from an island about six or seven miles off the main coast, extending the claimed territorial waters well outside the normally recognized area.
As the Pueblo starting “chugging out to sea,” Phares hesitated just a bit and added, “that’s when they started shooting.” General Quarters sounded and he started making his way from the galley in the stern of the ship to the forward .50 cal. The North Koreans were shooting at crewmembers working at burning classified material, killing Fireman Duane Hodges and wounding others. (Fireman Hodges was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for his actions that day.) During this portion of the attack, Phares was blown to the deck.
The command was passed for everyone to now stay below, since the flying bridge had been riddled by shellfire. At this point Phares went back to help with the wounded. During the attacks, he was unscathed. Staring a bit into space, he offered, “To this day I wonder why? I guess God was on my side.”
He described how they played cat and mouse with the North Koreans for hours, working to gain more time to destroy the classified materials, and well as service records and health records, “that we shouldn’t have had on the ship.” In his view, they should have seen a seagoing unit, shore based, so the service and health records would have remained shore, rather than being carried on the ship. Referring to the Top Secret equipment, Phares said it was in hardened cases, so the CTs could just break off the knobs. “The CTs just couldn’t handle it,” regarding actually destroying the sensitive equipment.
Over time, as the ship would move, the North Koreans would fire again. Slowly, they were eased to the west, towards the North Korean mainland. Finally, the Pueblo was within the North Korean territorial waters, and the crew was told they would be boarded and they were to give only name, rank, and serial number. The North Koreans came aboard, tied the crew’s hands around their necks, blindfolded them, and took them to the well deck.
As Phares described it, “Being 19, I thought they were just going to get our name, rank, serial number, then pop us and drop us in the ocean to freeze to death.” But that did not happen and the ship was taken into Wonsan harbor, where the crew was removed and brought to a small building. There, the crew was seated on benches and told if they did not move, they would not be shot. “It was a long two hours.” He described how they were later taken through the town, with the populace on either side, throwing things at them. “Trying doing that when you are blindfolded,” he commented, comparing it to a similar scene from the ‘Sand Pebbles’ movie.
They were put on a train to Pyongyang, going by circuitous route, stopping, backing, all possibly done to confuse the Americans. The North Koreans would then call out a crewmember’s name, the door would open, the guy would leave, and would not be heard from again. Phares said he thought it was going to be, “name, rank, serial number, phftt, and kick you off the train. Those were the things that were going on in your mind.” They finally called his name and asked him name, rank, serial, number, and date of birth. And one other question, which he answered, afterwards thinking he had given them more than he was supposed to. He had been asked about his job. After answering, he was sent back and this pattern was repeated throughout the night.
They finally pulled into Pyongyang, which they thought was a prison, though it was only a train station, with large lights that lit up the crew. “We were scared, but we were more cold than anything,” recalled Phares, because of their relatively lightweight, mismatched uniforms. Most were in dungarees and light shirts. Somehow, Phares was the only one wearing a hard hat (helmet) and he related that at some point a “girl” jammed an AK-47 up his head and, “that didn’t feel too well.”
The crew was moved to a building called the barn and that was where the interrogations began in earnest. According to his recollection, everyone (even the CTs) told the North Koreans they chipped the paint on the ship. “But I really did chip the paint on the ship and once they went through the service records and discovered Earl Phares really did chip the paint on the ship, they pretty much left me alone,” he said. However, the CTs, Marine Corps linguists, and officers were worked on pretty hard.
After roughly 48 years, Phares said, “To this day I can remember some of my beatings, but I can’t remember the other ones. I got beat more than some, less than others, thank God. I tried to uphold the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) and Code of Conduct.”
He added, “You want to stay true to the country. John Wayne don’t cut it. You ain’t going to be John Wayne forever and ever when you’re there. You’re gonna break. Fortunately we didn’t have any of the severe torture they did in Vietnam with the electricity and some of the other brutal things. All in all, some of the things with the Vietnam prisoners coincided with what we went through. The daily routine, for example.”
Once the main beatings stopped and Bucher demanded better treatment, the crew was moved to what they believe was a military reserve camp that included a large football field and three story barracks. The North Koreans lived on the bottom deck and the Americans on the upper two decks. This was where they spent 85% of the time they were in captivity.
As Phares described it, the daily routine began by waking up at 5:00 AM, going out and doing PT (physical training) in the freezing cold. It was so cold that he said, “I’ve never felt ground that hard. I’ve never felt so cold in my life.” They had little plastic shoes, cotton pants, and “rice bag” t-shirts, while the guards wore big pile coats. After PT, the crew would go inside, with one deck cleaning up while the other ate, before switching off. Then it was back to the rooms where they would read the magazines they were provided by the North Koreans. Sleeping was prohibited during the day, but Phares learned how to sit in a chair with one arm around a steam pipe, more asleep than awake. But when the door opened, he would just know and could pop to attention; otherwise they were beaten if caught sleeping during the daytime.
Once a week there was a meeting with the North Korean they called the “room daddy.” There would be discussion about the (propaganda) movie shown the week before or some other aspect of indoctrination. Once a month there was a meeting with the commander, a North Korean Colonel who would chastise the “lazy Americans,” telling they had to go to work. All Phares said he could visualize was going into a coal mine, though he observed that he would have liked to drive a truck. Drive it all the way to South Korea.
Though there were guards, there was only an earthen embankment surrounding the facility, without fencing or barbed wire. The guards indicated they were not trying to keep the Americans from getting away, but were there to protect the Americans from being killed by the populace. Phares acknowledged that even if he had escaped, he could not pass for a North Korean and “they are so indoctrinated with hate, they’d have killed me right on the spot.”
After the noon meal, the prisoners would go outside and play basketball, soccer, or football, since one of the crew had taken a soccer ball and formed it into an acceptable football that could hold a pretty good spiral. One day, they looked up as what they thought was a balloon but was really a U-2 flew over, and Phares says the pictures of the crew looking up were clear enough to see the color of his eyes.
After the outdoor activities, it was back inside to read the books. Then it was dinnertime, for a meal of rice, turnips, and hot water, the staple fare for the entire 335 days. After dinner, the prisoners could remove their blouses and play chess, cribbage, pinochle, and talk. There was no talking during the daytime, unless they could away with it, but at night it was permitted. For all those days, in a warehouse behind them was Hodges’ body, lying in a pine box.
The North Korean Colonel in charge of the prisoners was promoted to General, so the crew was taken down to see what Phares called “his stupid war museum” at Kaesong, where a “can of Brasso was set up to be a chemical warfare item and where my dad’s K-bar is right now,” he added. The prisoners thought, “get this over with and keep going south.” However, some newspaper broke the story they were going to be released, which angered their captors, so they were returned to the compound.
That is when, “all hell really broke loose and they beat the living s&#* out of everybody, systematically going to every room. Fortunately, they stopped before getting to our room,” recalled Phares. But he told of one Boatswains Mate they beat for 24 hours straight, throwing him in a room with rice overnight, and then taking him out again and began beating him again. Phares added that the most senior Chief on the ship was severely beaten, leaving him to wonder in amazement and admiration how he endured it. Phares also described in detail how the crew was made to sit with their heads down, legs behind them for extended periods. While Phares could move a bit, the guy across from him could not. The guards would walk up and down and the guy across from him moved a little bit. Suddenly the guard decked the guy. “His eyes just rolled back just like a slot machine,” according to Phares.
Finally, the North Koreans began trying to fix everyone up, make them look a little better, and provided a new issue of clothes. The crew was moved, first by train then on buses for the trip to the DMZ. At the DMZ, Bucher went first, then Hodges’ body, and finally the crew, beginning with the junior member. “Stay 15 meters from the man in front of you, otherwise we’ll shoot you,” Phares recalled being told by the North Koreans. He recounted being told years later that Army Intelligence had information that the North Koreans were going to “mow us down on the line, which was comforting.”
Once he walked across, on the other side were American Admirals and Generals greeting the crew. Relax, he was told, but Phares says he thought, “I don’t think so,” and just kept walking. After getting out of the North Korean issued blue coats and into green US Army field jackets, they were taken to a hospital for a meal. From there, they flew by helicopter to the 121st Evacuation Hospital where they spent Christmas Eve 1968. The next day they flew by C-141 to Midway, where a small news conference was conducted. Subsequently, they flew to then Naval Air Station Miramar. From there, they were driven down to the Balboa Navy Hospital.
Along the way to Balboa, people were waving and Phares was wondering, “What the hell?” Once at the hospital there was an Army Band playing and people were waving flags. He told of having visions of going to Leavenworth, because he had, “signed letters, wrote statements, and stuff and confessions.”
The crew was interrogated by NIS for a couple of weeks. And during the following Court of Inquiry, they fell under the command of COMNAVAIRPAC (Commander Naval Air Forces Pacific) at Navy Air Station North Island. Eventually, it came to be his turn to “confess to the Admirals.” “How were you going to open the ammo locker?” Phares was asked, replying he did not know.
There was only one key for two ammo lockers, which he did not have. So when General Quarters was sounded, Phares alone could not get the ammunition. When it was asserted he did not know how to operate the .50, Phares reportedly told them he did, but he just did not have the key to open the ammo box. “So it kind of made me look a little silly, which pissed me off,” he observed.
Sitting comfortably at the Navy Lodge decades later, Phares expanded a bit, “We didn’t have the John Paul Jones capability to fight back. They could have sunk the boat in the shallow water we were in, raised it up with all the wet documents, wet gear, and 83 dead bodies, but what good would it have done?” Continuing, he noted that if the .50 caliber machine guns had been in twin mounts, “it would have been a little different story” by possibly taking out some of the guys on the chaser, but maybe to be taken out by the MIGs. After being shown a photograph of the ship being attacked, an Admiral reportedly later commented, “If I had known that, my mind would have been totally changed about the situation.”
In the end, after the debriefings and inquiry, Phares says the Secretary of the Navy declared they had suffered enough and just let it go, adding, “Bucher wanted a court martial, because he wanted to take it uphill.” But that did not happen.
After all of that, they were reassigned.
Phares was sent to issue uniforms to Navy recruits at the Naval Training Center in San Diego. Then he was separated via a hardship discharge. Subsequent to the birth of his eldest son, Phares decided he needed the Navy and re-enlisted, in the reserves this time, and found his niche in Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
When asked about the recent capture of two small Navy boats by Iran, Senior Chief Phares said, “From what I’ve read, they weren’t prepared. The boats weren’t prepared. They didn’t pass training on navigation and a few other things. And their bosses said, just go out anyway. The same thing that happened to us.” He attributed to Bucher statements to his chain of command that they weren’t ready, asking, “What are going to do with all this sensitive stuff if we get caught? Don’t worry, he was reportedly told, you won’t get caught.”
Nearly 48 years later, like many veterans Phares says life is now a little boring. Because he cannot “go around like Wyatt Earp, looking for things to blow up.”
After the interview for this article, Senior Chief Phares joined others at Rosecrans National Cemetery in placing flowers on the grave of Commander Bucher. The next morning, he was to be a guest speaker for a class of Chief Petty Officer Selectees.
Twenty-two years after their release, the crew was awarded the POW Medal in 1990. Today, the USS Pueblo is still held by the North Koreans, who have put it on display at their Fatherland War of Liberation Museum on the Botong River.