KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The last prisoner of war to leave the USS Pueblo spoke to veterans Thursday in Kansas City about the spy ship’s capture and the 11 terrifying months the 82 crew members were held in North Korea.
Then just 19 years old, Steven Woelk was the last to leave the Pueblo, which was off the coast of North Korea, attempting to intercept communications, because he was one of the most seriously wounded by cannon fire.
The Kansas native said he was one of four crew members trying to destroy classified secret documents before they fell into the wrong hands by burning them.
But the smoke attracted attention and the North Koreans fired at that part of the ship, killing his friend, and critically wounding him.
After the ship’s commander Lloyd Bucher gave up the ship without returning fire, Woelk went 10 days before he received any medical treatment.
He said he has no idea how he survived without infection before they’d finally did surgery, including removing shrapnel, bone fragments and his testicles without any anesthetic.
Woelk believes he missed some of the worst of the beatings, spending 44 days in the hospital, but had to endure hell week after the North Koreans finally learned the middle finger the crew held up wasn’t a Hawaiian greeting.
“You pray you are strong enough to resist or endure, but you never know until you are faced with that reality,” Woelk said. “We faced days of boredom, thinking of food, our loved ones. Are we going to be beaten again? Are we going to be executed? Are we going to be released? There were hours of absolute terror from our captors.”
The crew was released two days before Christmas in 1968.
An admiral told them if they had fired a single shot that drew blood, they would have been heroes. But instead there was an inquiry to see if Bucher should be court martialed. Woelk defends the ship’s commander, saying he saved 82 lives that day. He blames the military for not giving them ammunition to defend themselves or means to properly destroy classified documents.
Woelk received the POW medal and two Purple Hearts.
The surviving members of the crew just gathered last year to commemorate 50 years since their release in Pueblo, Colorado. They couldn’t gather on the ship. It’s the only U.S. vessel still in foreign custody, being used as a propaganda museum by the North Koreans.