Return of the Pueblo Crew
Anyone Who Doesn't Understand Communism...
We had many false starts before the crew finally returned. Negotiations at Panmunjon had been going on for many months and our hopes had been raised several times just to be dashed. Finally, we got the word from Washington that it was true. Rose, Miles and I were at Rose's home when the word finally came by phone.
Rose said to me, "Allen, go tell the kids. You had to give them the bad news, you can give them the good news."
The crew was to arrive the next day at local Miramar Naval Air Station. I asked the Navy for permission to be in attendance with the families – but the Navy denied my request. Finally, after much intercession by Miles and Rose, the Navy relented. Jean, Miles and I would be the only non-family members to be permitted on the tarmac when the crew deplaned.
I only owned one suit, and I knew the Navy would not have been happy if I had been in uniform, so the decision of what to wear was simple. Luckily, I decided to carry my portable tape recorder rather than the camera I had first considered. Luckily, because there were hundreds of cameras, but only I had a tape recorder.
Until the first plane of American POWs returned from Vietnam, the most poignant and emotional live TV event of the era was the return of the crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo. The saga of the capture, internment, and release of the Pueblo crew has been told and retold with varying degrees of accuracy, but on December 24, 1969, the nation was in a single spirit to welcome 82 obviously mistreated U.S. sailors.
The months preceding the final announcement of the release of the Pueblo had been a nightmare for our tight group: Rose, wife of the Commanding Officer, Miles Harvey, Rose's attorney and soon to be Pete's, and Jean and I who had been Rose's advisors.
Everyone kept looking at the sky. Planes were arriving – but it was only those arriving to meet Pete and the crew. Another plane and all hopes were high again – but this time it was the California Governor, Ronald Reagan. The Governor had known Pete and Rose since the time Mr. Reagan had filmed a thoroughly forgettable epic on a submarine several years before. Pete was a junior officer in that film. Governor Reagan had been very supportive of our Remember the Pueblo campaign during the year. The Governor kissed Rose and said, "This is the day we have all been praying for. We were out here just a little ways and we got the word they were over Catalina. They are due here in just about 12 minutes."
Miles said to the Governor, "It was very kind of you to come," and the Governor replied, "It is a great honor." The tears in his eyes and in those of his wife Nancy showed their sincerity. Governor Reagan stopped before me and asked, "Say, I wonder if anyone thought to invite the little girl who organized the prayer meeting?"
"We tried to get tickets for her," I shouted over the commotion, "and we were not able to." He nodded and walked on. He was referring to Marcey Rethwish, a fantastic 13-year-old girl who had organized several very large prayer meetings in San Diego, using money she had saved from babysitting.
As welcome as the Governor was, the crowd was restive. It was a particularly warm and clear day, the kind of a day that local TV weathermen liked to call a "patented San Diego day." Rose crowded by Jean and I and into the crowd that had formed behind her, acknowledging her position as the wife of the Commanding Officer. She had seen Mr. and Mrs. Hodges, mother and father of the only casualty of the seizure, Duane Hodges, and she pushed into the crowd to talk with them. Rose brought them back to the front of the crowd, to the edge of the waiting families – to the place of honor closest to the place the crew would deplane. They were plain, deeply religious farmers from Oregon, who had come to claim the body of their son.
Finally, two huge planes – the planes – circled the field once and seemed to land in slow motion. Hours, days, seemed to pass as the planes taxied slowly to within a hundred yards of the huge crowd of tightly packed families. If the landing and the taxi were slow, the time between the taxiing was endless. The band struck up The Lonely Bull, selected by the wardroom of the Pueblo as their theme because of the Pueblo's required independent action.
The front door of the lead plane finally opened, and a small, skinny man, dressed in a submarine jump suit three times too large, carefully picked his way down the ramp and walked with attempted dignity toward us. It was Pete, but not the Pete I had known. The last time I had seen Pete, he was a solid 215 pounds, capable of cowing men larger than himself. This 124-pound shadow was trying to hold up his dignity as he wobbled the hundred yards toward the cheering crowd. He had just recently been "bulked up" from 94 pounds in captivity, but his sunken cheeks and newly-whitened hair were proof of his condition. He collapsed into the arms of Rose, Mark, and Mike.
"Hello, Honey," he said.
"How are you feeling?" Rose sobbed.
"Great! Great! Oh, you look so good."
We all clutched at him as if to steady him, though we were weaker than he was.
The recorder indicated I was sobbing.
"Hello, Mike. How are you, Buddy? It's so good to see you," Pete sobbed quietly.
"Pete, Allen's here – he has been so good to me," Rose said softly.
Pete wrapped a frail right arm around me, keeping his left arm around Rose.
"Damn, its good to see you," I cried.
His voice broke. "Thanks for everything, Al. Thanks for everything."
Miles said, "Pete, you are a great American. Welcome back. God we are glad to have you back."
Rose led Mr. and Mrs. Hodges up to Pete and introduced them. Pete's voice, sobbing before, almost came apart.
"Mr. Hodges, I...I can't tell you what a tremendous job your son did for us." Pete was looking into the tear-stained face of the tall, raw-boned farmer.
"Captain, I'm so glad you got back," Mr. Hodges said softly, clinging to Pete's hand.
"Thank you so much, Mr. Hodges." Pete was barely under control. "I want to congratulate you on having such a grand son. I am so sorry, so sorry, that he couldn't return alive with us. His body is with me on the airplane I came on, and we intend to have a brief ceremony here. Thank you for coming down to San Diego. I sure wish he was walking with us. He did such a great job for us, such a great job...He was literally blown apart by the shell that hit him. He didn't live long after that. He died in the arms of one of my men, and I was there within two minutes of the time he died, and he was in good spirits right up to the end. He never once indicated that he was other than in great spirits than he thought that, well, he said, 'I know I'm going and I want you to know that it's been a real privilege to serve with the U.S. Navy.' He was a real great American."
Mrs. Hodges asked, her voice barely audible, "What were his last words?"
"I don't know, Ma'am. He didn't die in my arms, but the man in whose arms he did die is here, and I'll have him contact you. Reed is his name."
Pete turned back to me, "Thanks a lot, Al."
"Pete, you have the greatest wife in the world." There was so much to tell him, and I wanted to tell it all at once.
"It's so great to be home," he said.
I wanted him to know the support he had from so many of his former shipmates, particularly the enlisted men. "(Chief) MacNamara called, (Radioman) Welch called – the list is a mile long."
Rose said, "We've got to get some fat on you."
"Don't worry about me."
"Rose worked, Pete. She had no rest," I said.
Words came fast, laughter and tears merged and flowed in a single stream of happiness. The band, still playing, was almost drowned out in the flow of love as families and crew laughed and cried together.
"Look at those guys – Lord they missed you" I said, referring to Pete's boys.
Now the press would allow the crew no more privacy, as they claimed them for the public.
"Mrs. Bucher, could you look this way?"
"Turn this way with your family, Commander."
A crewmember said to the family, within the hearing of the audio recorder, "He is the greatest man in the world. I just can't say enough good things about that man...fabulous person."
"Were you talking about Pete," I asked.
"I was definitely talking about Commander Bucher," he said.
Pete and the crew moved slowly to the busses that would take them on a triumphant parade through a crowd of tens of thousands lining the freeway into San Diego. I said to Miles, who was crying like the rest of us, "Grown men don't cry, do they?"
He shook his head yes, then he said something I wish every American could have heard.
He said, "Anyone who doesn't understand Communism, should be here today."
Pen and ink by an unknown artist, showing a gaunt Pete overlooking the plane returning him, his crew, and the casket of Duane Hodges.
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