Wounded Basehor veteran recalls hellish captivity in North Korea
Steve Woelk remembers Duane Hodges as an easy-going, soft-spoken young seaman.
“He was one of my best friends — a really nice guy,” said Woelk, a Basehor resident and Tonganoxie VFW member. “It was hard.”
Hodges was killed by shellfire on Jan. 23, 1968. That year, 16,592 Americans were killed in Vietnam, the deadliest year for U.S. forces in that war.
But Hodges wasn’t killed in Vietnam. The shell that killed him was fired by a North Korean warship. Hodges and Woelk were among 83 men serving on the USS Pueblo when North Korea captured it on that day in 1968.
The 19-year-old Woelk was assigned to the Pueblo after he and the older brother of his future wife, Kathy, and another friend from the small Flint Hills town of Alta Vista joined the Navy in 1966.
On Jan. 5, 1968, the Pueblo, a converted Army supply ship, left Yokosuka, Japan, with orders to conduct electronic surveillance off the coast of North Korea.
The next day, the North Koreans targeted the Pueblo. The American ship was in international waters, the Navy insists. The North Koreans said otherwise, but Woelk said a Korean official later told one of his crewmates the Pueblo’s exact location was immaterial.
“He said it didn’t matter if we were 100 miles out, they were going to get us because we were spying.”
A North Korean submarine chaser ordered the American ship to stand down or be fired on. The Pueblo’s Commander Lloyd Bucher refused, and additional North Korean forces arrived on scene.
With the situation becoming desperate, Woelk and Hodges were among crew ordered to destroy equipment and classified documents.
“I was taking classified material out of a safe, tearing it up and burning it the best we could in a government-issued wastebasket,” he said. “The only thing we had to destroy the equipment was a sledgehammer. The smoke got so bad you could hardly see or breathe.
“We opened a hatch to vent the smoke. When the North Koreans saw the smoke, they fired a 57mm round into the side of the ship. Duane took the brunt of it.”
Shrapnel from the same round shattered his tailbone and pelvis, Woelk said. He was placed on a table in the officer’s wardroom and given morphine, as was the dying Hodges who was in a hallway just outside the room.
The crew was taken that night by bus and train from the port of Wonsan to a prison camp. Through the night, his pain increased as the morphine wore off. He would get no more from his captors.
At the camp, Woelk and two other wounded sailors were placed in cell with crewman Dale Rigby, who acted as their caretaker. They stayed in the cell for 10 days with no medical attention.
“It was cold — it gets cold in Korea in January,” he said. “The blood and the rotting flesh smelled so bad the guards held their noses or had cloth over their faces when they came in. We were used to it, so it didn’t bother us.”
After those 10 days, doctors removed a fist-sized chunk of shrapnel from his groin and cut away infected tissue without using anesthetic. He was then placed in an isolated hospital room for 44 days.
The food and room were grim and his medical attention indifferent, but he was spared the beatings his fellow crewmen endured during this time as the North Koreans coerced bogus spying confessions. Crewmates were beaten until unrecognizable, first to obtain confessions and later during what they called hell week, a retaliation for displaying the finger during propaganda photos, Woelk said. The crew told the North Koreans the gesture was a Hawaiian good-luck sign, but the truth was revealed when Time Magazine published pictures with an explanation of the gesture.
“I really think because of my injuries, the guards were told to leave me alone,” Woelk said. “I was kicked once, and the guard who did that was removed from the floor. During hell week, I was karate chopped once. It wasn’t so bad, although my neck’s still screwed up.”
Woelk wasn’t a part of the hell week beatings because he wanted to send a different message through the photos.
“I wanted to show my parents I was OK,” he said. “They came to the hospital and took some photos. They loved to set the scene. There were plants, cigarettes and books on the table. The one they took of me, I had a big old smile on my face.”
In an effort to get him to confess, his captors subjected Commander Bucher to beatings and a mock firing squad. He finally signed when the North Koreans threatened to make him witness the execution of his crew, Woelk said.
Signed confessions, though, were peppered with references such as “say hello to Aunt Jemima” to let the American audience know they were bogus, Woelk said.
In December, the crew suspected something was up when treatment improved. After the United States issued a written apology and admission the Pueblo was spying (immediately disavowed with the release of the crew), the crew was loaded on a bus with windows covered with paper and driven south.
On Dec. 23, 1968, the crew walked over the Bridge of No Return to South Korea. Woelk made the walk weighing 55 pounds less than on the day he was captured.
Woelk accepted a medical discharge in 1969 and went to trade school to become an electrician. He was the chief electrical inspector at Fort Leavenworth before retiring two years ago. He and Kathy recently moved to a new home in Basehor after living north of Tonganoxie since 1986.
Last spring, Woelk was swinging at a golf ball when suddenly his hip exploded in pain. He had been told cartilage would fill the gap the shrapnel left in his pelvis, but he learned during a visit to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital its two sections had overlapped and fused together until they separated on the golf course.
As a result, he was unable to attend this summer’s Pueblo reunion, Woelk said, but he still keeps in touch with shipmates.
It galls the crew that the Pueblo remains in North Korea as a museum in the nation’s capital. Woelk said that underscores the feeling among the crew that the Navy and the country should have responded much more aggressively.
“It’s pretty much a consensus of the crew, we should have wiped them out,” he said. “I don’t think we would have survived — they would have killed us. But it was just such a blow to the country.”