Lloyd 'Pete' Bucher, commander of USS Pueblo, seized by North Korea, dead at 76

Friday, January 30th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ Former Navy Cmdr. Lloyd ``Pete'' Bucher, who helped his USS Pueblo crew survive nearly a year of brutal captivity in North Korea and then faced criticism back home, has died. He was 76.

Bucher had been in declining health for months, partly the legacy of his captivity in 1968, said Stu Russell, who served under Bucher and is president of the USS Pueblo Veteran's Association.

He died Wednesday at a nursing facility in the San Diego suburb of Poway.

``The man was a giant,'' Russell said from his home in Eureka, Calif. ``Being the focal point between the Koreans and the crew, he took the brunt of everything. ... I simply don't know where he got the strength and courage to go through what he did.''

The lightly armed Pueblo was monitoring communist ship movements and intercepting messages in international waters near the North Korean coast when it was attacked by torpedo boats Jan. 23, 1968. One sailor was killed and 82 were taken prisoner. Some of them, including Bucher, were wounded.

After 11 months, the crew was released two days before Christmas, some of them crippled or nearly blind because of the brutality and malnourishment they endured. The ship remained behind in North Korea, where it became a tourist attraction.

A Navy Court of Inquiry criticized Bucher's surrender of the small ship, which was loaded with intelligence information. The court noted that Bucher's leadership helped the crew survive, but recommended that he face a general court-martial for allegedly failing to defend the Pueblo.

Navy Secretary John H. Chafee turned down the court-martial, saying crew members ``have suffered enough.''

During their captivity, crew members said, they were beaten, burned on radiators and had their teeth kicked out by North Korean soldiers. Bucher was beaten and tortured into signing a confession.

``I had people come to me and say on so many occasions that they never really appreciated how great it was to be an American until they had the misfortune to have been captured and stuck in a country that is completely devoid of humanity and truthfulness,'' Bucher said shortly after his release.

Yet even years later, Bucher said he remained angry that commanders had failed to come to his aid.

``The U.S. at that time had enormous military forces in the western Pacific within five minutes flying time of us,'' Bucher told The Associated Press in 1988. ``I would have thought something could be mustered to come to our aid. But everybody just forgot we were there.''

In 1989, the Pentagon gave prisoner of war medals to Bucher and the crew. Until then, the U.S. government had maintained they were detainees rather than POWs because United States and North Korea were not at war.

Bucher's parents died shortly after he was born in 1927 in Pocatello, Idaho. He was adopted, but his adoptive parents also died soon after.

Bucher lived in an Idaho children's home until 1940, when he saw the film ``Boys Town'' and wrote to the Rev. Edward Flanagan, founder of the Nebraska children's home, asking for permission to live there. Flanagan sent him a train ticket, according to an account provided by Boys Town.

After serving two years in the Navy, Bucher attended the University of Nebraska before being commissioned a Navy officer in 1953. He retired from the Navy in 1973.

Bucher is survived by his wife, two sons and several grandchildren.