Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Harris’ life had just been spared from execution when it dawned on him: Nothing will make you appreciate being from the United States more than the possibility of never returning.
It was an epiphany Harris had in a North Korean POW camp in January 1968.
A then-lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, his crew had been captured. Their ship, the USS Pueblo, was seized. The crew had been sentenced to death, but the execution was called off hours beforehand.
When Harris realized he’d live to see another day, he wondered whether any of those days would be spent back home with his new wife and family in Melrose.
Harris had never missed a Christmas before and, even in his dire circumstances – stuck against his will in the western countryside of North Korea – he had no intentions of missing one in the future.
For 11 months, Harris and the Pueblo’s crew withstood beatings, boredom, interrogations and a diet of beets. Physical survival was in jeopardy when North Korea eventually freed the crew on Dec. 23 of the same year.
Harris and his fellow shipmates all made it home on Christmas Eve.
“You can’t appreciate your country until you’re in a situation where you may not see it again,” Harris said. “It was an answer to a prayer. I never missed a Christmas, and I got the best gift of all – freedom.”
Harris recounted his experience at the Walpole Senior Center last Thursday. In what became known as the Pueblo incident, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and imprisoned its crew for almost a year, accusing the ship of entering its waters and committing hostile acts. To this day, Pueblo’s veterans maintain that they never left international waters.
While the crew was let go, the Pueblo itself remains in North Korea and is still a commissioned ship by the Navy.
Harris was one of six officers on board the ship. He was in charge of research when it was sent to gather intelligence in the 60s. Today, he and the remaining Pueblo veterans all take responsibility for sharing the truth about the Pueblo incident.
Pueblo’s surviving veterans formed their own organization and website detailing the ordeal. They’ve turned to the federal government more than once to try to take back their ship from North Korea, where it’s a tourist attraction not unlike the USS Constitution.
“It’s one of those things where I don’t like to have it as my identity, but it’s had such an effect on my life that it’s the central issue of my life,” Harris said. “Life is very different now, but many times during the day something involving Pueblo and my memory of it will come to the forefront.”
Harris described his memory of POW camp as “mostly boredom with the occasional beating.” Pueblo’s crew faced interrogations but knew how to double-talk their way out of revealing any information. Their commander, Pete Bucher, took the brunt of the physical abuse. Bucher passed away in 2004.
North Korea kept the crew of the Pueblo alive for propaganda purposes. Harris and other sailors would be used in staged photographs and were forced to speak prepared statements to the North Korean media.
But Pueblo’s crew knew how to thwart the propaganda, too. Harris recalled convincing the North Koreans that giving the middle finger was actually a “Hawaiian good luck sign.” Many photos ended up showing a smiling crew happily shooting the bird at the camera.
When one of the photos made it into Time magazine, it sparked a week of violence known as Hell Week. Through those efforts, the North Korea government’s propaganda program quickly lost face among the international community and their own people.
Shortly after the Time photo, the U.S. negotiated for the crew’s release. One by one, the crew crossed the Bridge of No Return in Korea’s demilitarized zone on Dec. 23 – 11 months to the date after the crew’s initial capture on Jan. 23.
Harris was promoted to lieutenant commander shortly after his return, but the events of the Pueblo incident didn’t sit well with the rest of the military.
“There were those that said we should have gone down with the ship, which would have been appropriate if we were a combatant ship, but we weren’t,” Harris said. “You can’t fight off six ships with beans and pistols.”
Twenty-two years after the Pueblo incident, the Navy recognized the crew with medals. The Navy never retaliated for the Pueblo incident, and there are no plans in the works for the ship’s return.
Harris, now 73, says it’s hard to say whether or not the USS Pueblo will return to the U.S. in his lifetime.
“It depends on how badly North Korea wants something from us. That’s the only prediction I can make,” he said. “I’m convinced it’s not a high priority item of the government.”
Harris said the Pueblo’s return is still important more than 40 years after its seizure.
“It’s a symbol now,” he said. “I wouldn’t object if our people went out and sank it. There’s nothing special about it. It was kind of a wreck when we got it. It’s what it was doing and where that’s important, not the hardware itself. It would bring closure.”
LCDR Stephen R. Harris passed away peacefully at the Edith Rogers Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in Bedford on May 18, 2020, at age 82.