Footnotes might be called the Rodney Dangerfield of American History: “They don’t get no respect.” Well, some of them anyhow. That’s a crying shame, too, because some can still teach us important lessons we could benefit from today, but only if we know about them, of course.
I was keenly reminded of the sad plight of one particular American footnote last month, specifically on Thursday, January 23, 2020, while perusing the two newspapers I read regularly: The News Tribune of Tacoma and The Seattle Times. Neither mentioned anything about the Pueblo Incident, which happened 52-years-ago on that date, i.e., January 23, 1968.
What? You never heard of the Pueblo Incident? Well, then, it’s a good thing you’re reading this piece.
Just what, in fact, was the Pueblo Incident? In short, it was when Communist North Korean military forces attacked and subsequently hijacked a United States Navy intelligence gathering ship, the USS Pueblo (AGER-2), sailing in international waters on the Sea of Japan off that country’s eastern shore.
In their attack on the Pueblo, the North Koreans killed the 21-year-old sailor Duane Hodges; injured a number of others-including the captain, commander Lloyd “Pete” Bucher while holding the surviving 82 crew members of this ill-fated ship hostage for eleven full months of brutal captivity.
The funny thing about present day footnotes is that when some originally occurred, they don’t always look like “small potato” events, never to rate as much as their own page in one of our history books. Which was exactly the case with the Pueblo Incident back then.
To illustrate this point: I was a junior at Bayonne High School, in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from the Big Apple, at the time of the Pueblo Incident on January 23, 1968. I can assure readers that I was far more interested in girls and cars in those early Salad Days of mine than any sort of big, breaking news happening way he heck on the other side of the world.
Yet what happened to that little Navy ship (shorter than some seagoing tugboats, at 177 ft.) and her eighty-three man crew back then had enough significant media power pushing behind it that this stirring sea story easily penetrated my girl and car crazy, thick teenage skull, so intense was all the print and broadcast news reporting of this on event at the time.
How did such a big event back then turn into such a small footnote nowadays? Simple: 1968 was a rather busy news year for America.
Not only was the Vietnam War still steaming away, hot and heavy back then, but just a week after the Pueblo Incident (on January 30) the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of that unpopular war, broke out like a bad rash over a sizable portion of South Vietnam.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, followed by Robert Francis Kennedy in June. Plenty enough other big, bad news stories breaking out throughout 1968, like race riots and war protests; chaos in Chicago in August at the Democratic National Convention, etc. Some folks, after a while, found it far too easy to forget altogether about the surviving 82 Pueblo crew members, since the incident happened so way, way back in January of that troublesome year.
Enough Americans around the country became so concerned about the plight of the Pueblo crew becoming entirely swamped behind all the subsequent bad news of that year, thousands began slapping “Remember the Pueblo” bumper stickers on their vehicles, valiantly attempting to keep the memory of these fourscore and two sailors still alive and being help hostage by their North Korean communist captures.
During my seven years of service in the US Navy (1969-1976), on a number of occasions I overheard some of my fellow sailors and shipmates commenting about the Pueblo Incident. I listened mostly, not knowing near as much as I do now. But naturally hearing these folks piqued my interest in the incident.
As the years sailed by I read more and more about this so-called footnote within the annals of our naval actions on the high seas. On the 50th anniversary of the Pueblo Incident (the week of January 23, 2018) I decided it was high time for this old white hat to pay proper tribute to that little ship and her brave and noble crew, all of whom I admire a great deal. I did this by writing a short piece for The News Tribune of Tacoma. I am pleased to say the Tribune, in fact, did kindly publish in both print and on their website.
A month after my story was published here in the South Sound in February of 2018, on a cold winter’s day, I took a weekend trip down to Creswell, Oregon where Duane Hodges, the lone young seaman on the Pueblo to be killed in action, was born and raised.
Creswell is a charming little town, roughly 12 miles south of Eugene, along Interstate 5, roughly 250 miles south of my home in Shelton, Washington.
I wanted to go there because I had been reading and researching so much about the incident over the years, I was curious about something: How many person now living in Creswell still remembered Duane Hodges? I got my answer that weekend: Plenty, which warmed my heart.
Indeed, that memorable weekend I met a number of fine folks and fellow veterans, some longtime citizens of Creswell, who still had many fond memories of Hodges’ early, formative years. One was named LeRoy Davis.
Davis was 71 when I met him. He was the same age as Hodges. They were all 21 years of age in 1968.
Davis told me that he and Hodges had been best friends since the second grade. Around the fifth grade another boy, George Last, joined them to make a trio.
Davis and I took an instant liking to each other. Later in the day he took me to his home just outside town. It sat on a pretty piece of property overlooking a lovely stretch of the storied South Willamette Valley. I was duly impressed.
On a wall was in Davis’ home was a picture of himself, Duane Hodges and George Last, the week before the three best friends graduated from Creswell High School way back in 1965.
Davis told me of the day the Pueblo was attacked and Hodges was KIA, he was in the Army stationed in West Germany. Their other best friend Last was also in the Army but in South Vietnam in that hot jungle war. Unsuspecting, Last, like all of his fellow brothers-in-arms fighting over there, that the intense Tet Offensive was in the offing and only a week away.
Mercifully, both Davis and Last returned home safe and sound after their tours of duty. They both went on to live long lives in the Lane County area.
George Last died a few years ago. Leroy Davis is bereft of both his childhood best friends. Yet he has an almost karmic take on it all, which he shared with me over the phone recently.
The way Davis looks at it, he now seems to have two more friend almost mystically tying him to his log lost best buddy: Duane Hodges’s best friend from the Pueblo and me.
Yes, indeed, the Pueblo Incident is now but a footnote in many history books and nowadays gets very little respect or reflection up, if any at all.