Navy crew held captive in North Korea 55 years ago reunites in San Diego
In January 1968 the Pueblo — disguised as a research ship — was set upon by North Korean warships. Its crew was captured and held in North Korea for almost a year. The North Koreans tortured the men and seized top-secret documents from the ship.
James Kell, a retired Navy chief who lives in Chula Vista, was the Pueblo's officer in charge of special operations during the mission. He said he survived by keeping his faith.
"Three things: faith in God, in my country and my Navy," Kell said. "I knew those three things, if I had those, I was going to be OK. I was determined. They could take my body. … They were never going to get my mind."
The United States negotiated the return of the crew and, on Dec. 24, 1968, they landed in San Diego to a hero's welcome.
Pueblo survivors and their families are among a group of survivors eligible for compensation under the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund established by Congress in 2015. It provides payouts to people impacted by several attacks including the Iran Hostage Crisis, the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Chris Nagel is a retired Air Force master sergeant living in Ventura County. Nagel was at the military housing complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in 1996 when a truck bomb destroyed a tower housing U.S. troops. He said he was in his room when the bomb exploded, knocking him off his feet and toppling a book shelf.
He rushed outside and began helping the wounded, he said, and is still affected by the bombing today.
He came to the Pueblo reunion, he said, in solidarity with those affected by terrorist acts.
"With this coalition that we have here today ... I'm a voice for them," Nagel said. "That's what I'm here for. They promised that they would take care of us, and we have not been taken care of."
U.S. courts have rendered judgements against the countries involved in these attacks — including North Korea and Iran. The victims fund has been depleted, and Pueblo crew members and their families only received a fraction of what was awarded, Kell said.
He said he was hopeful that Congress would act to further compensate those eligible.
"For me, personally, it's closure, because those guys did us wrong," Kell said. "I'll never recover from that, and the money is is immaterial to me. But it helps my kids and other people — my sister and my brother — who are recipients of the fund also."
The Pueblo reunion will continue through Saturday, when a new documentary of the ordeal is screening at the Handlery Hotel in Mission Valley.
The Pueblo remains in Pyongyang, North Korea, where it's on display. The Pueblo is the only U.S. Navy ship held in captivity.