October 8, 2009
Hell Hath A Jury
North Korea Tortured the Crew Of USS Pueblo in 1968. 4 Victims Fought for Solace in the Courts.
By Del Quentin Wilber, Washington Post Staff Writer
ROSCOE, Ill. -- William Thomas Massie's nightmares almost always begin in a dusty prison cell. His arms are lashed behind his back, and North Korean guards are karate-chopping his neck, kicking his groin and ankles, and smashing his face with fists and rifle butts.
The frigid room is illuminated only by tannin-tinted light trickling through newspaper-covered windows. The guards are screaming. One thrusts an assault rifle into Massie's mouth. The soldier's finger is on the trigger. Sweat stings Massie's eyes. He is terrified.
When he wakes up, his body aches. Sometimes he sobs.
Those nightmares have pursued Massie for decades, vivid flashbacks of his "11 months of hell" in a brutal North Korean prison after he and 81 other members of the USS Pueblo were captured in 1968. Ever since, Massie and many of the other men have struggled with torture's legacy.
Coping hasn't been easy for the Pueblo's crew. Marriages imploded. At least two men committed suicide. Many have seen therapists and still take medication for stress and depression.
Massie, a thick 61-year-old with gray hair and a gray goatee who likes wearing all-black clothing, has seen countless doctors and therapists for severe back pain, impotence, incontinence and depression, all the result of torture.
On the advice of a counselor who thought he needed a calming influence at home, he even took in a lovable yellow Labrador named Bruno. But while the experts he has seen have helped ease Massie's lingering anger, pain and fear, they haven't delivered what he has truly craved: vengeance and vindication.
For that, he turned to the law.
Massie, two other Pueblo crew members and the widow of their captain sued North Korea for their torment. A federal judge in the District awarded them $65 million in damages last year. Their lawyers are trying to locate North Korean assets frozen by the U.S. government that they can seize.
No one knows whether they will be successful, and even Massie admits that the money might prove shallow solace. He knows that cash can't turn back the clock to 1967 or erase his physical pain. But that was never the real point.
The suit and the hunt for cash, he says, aren't about getting rich or curing his ills. It's about punishing the North Koreans and fighting back.
It's about no longer being the terrified guy in his dreams.
A Small Spy Ship
Massie was an 18-year-old looking to escape life in rural Illinois in 1966 when he enlisted in the Navy, hoping to sail on nuclear submarines, see the world and serve his country. By 1967, he had been assigned to the USS Pueblo, a World War II-era cargo ship that the Navy had retrofitted to conduct "oceanographic research."
Reporting to the San Diego naval base, Massie walked past four or five hulking warships before finally spotting the Pueblo, a tiny vessel that was just 177 feet long and 32 feet wide.
The ship had huge antennae, large domes and direction finders, all signs that Massie wasn't going on a research expedition. The Pueblo was actually a top-secret spy ship.
In January 1968, Massie and 82 others, including Capt. Lloyd "Pete" Bucher, steamed into the Sea of Japan on the Pueblo's first mission: to gather electronic intelligence while stationed off the coast of the Soviet Union and North Korea. The ship was lightly armed with two large machine guns. The United States, at the time, was deep into the Cold War and fighting in Vietnam. It hadn't been at war with North Korea in 15 years.
Twelve days into an otherwise dreary cruise, the Pueblo was steaming in international waters about 15 miles off the North Korean coast, according to U.S. military records.
Suddenly, North Korean gunboats appeared and began to circle the U.S. ship. North Korean jets streaked through the sky. Soon, the gunboats started shooting. As Massie and other crew members began setting fire to piles of classified documents, a shell exploded in a passageway. Massie's ears clanged. His dungarees were coated with blood and flesh from crewmate Duane Hodges, who died from his injuries.
Outgunned and outmaneuvered, Bucher surrendered.
11 Months of Torture
After landing in North Korea, the Pueblo's sailors were thrown into an improvised prison of dim, dusty rooms. Massie was dragged into a room to be interrogated. One guard spoke broken English. He demanded that Massie admit that the Pueblo was spying on North Korea in its territorial waters. Massie refused.
A guard hit him so hard that Massie saw a bright flash and blacked out. Another kicked him repeatedly in the groin. Others pummeled his neck. The beating didn't stop until Massie was carried away. On a later trip to the bathroom, Massie spotted Bucher standing by a sink. The captain appeared to be in a trance, his face a purplish mass.
That night, Massie heard they had been convicted of spying and were going to be shot at dawn. The 19-year-old crawled into a corner and contemplated his looming death. When turnip soup arrived the next morning, Massie knew the threat had been empty. But the beatings didn't stop for 11 months. He was kicked so often in the groin that he routinely urinated blood. The men were poorly nourished, and Massie lost 51 pounds from his 6-foot, 200-pound frame.
The harsh conditions and fear eventually wore down the men. Bucher and the sailors admitted to spying in North Korean waters. They penned confessions. They even posed for propaganda photographs, though they tried to insert subtle and not-so-subtle messages for those back home. In one famous photograph, several men flicked their middle fingers at a camera. They told the North Korean guards it was the Hawaiian good-luck sign.
In a letter to his parents, Massie wrote that he was excited to return to Illinois so he could attend the Rockford Memorial fair.
There was no such thing. Rockford Memorial was a hospital.
Home and Heartache
On Dec. 23, 11 months into captivity, the North Koreans released the Pueblo sailors. The regime kept the ship in Pyongyang, where it is a museum of American aggression.
After a brief celebration, Massie and the others realized they were not being hailed as heroes. And the Navy was embarrassed because the United States had lost a ship and its valuable spy equipment and records.
Admirals on a board of inquiry recommended that the Navy court-martial Bucher for giving up the Pueblo. The decision angered Massie and the others because Bucher had led them safely through captivity.
The Navy secretary eventually closed the case, saying the Pueblo's men had "suffered enough." But they would get little help: no mental health counseling, no guidance on how to cope with the lingering trauma of abuse, just a feeling that they had humiliated the Navy. Many felt as though they were swept aside.
The crew wrote several books about their saga. There was even a 1973 television movie starring Hal Holbrook as Bucher. But the times were turbulent. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. Riots devastated many American cities that year. Americans were focused on the war in Vietnam, not the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula.
After being discharged in June 1969, Massie returned to Roscoe, Ill. He got married four years later, but the union lasted just six months because Massie couldn't function sexually after all the kicks to his groin.
Massie moved into a one-story rancher with his mother and father on Hononegah Road in Roscoe. He became a repairman and later owned his own heating and air conditioning business. But he was an irritable and short-tempered boss. He once fired three people on a single day because they annoyed him.
"He just wasn't the same man" after Korea, says his mother, Eileen, 81. "I could tell. They took something, a part of him, away."
He ate to fight his depression and stress. Massie grew to 260 pounds. He shuffles because his ankles hurt too much to take a full stride. Often he needs a walker.
He had a hard time holding on to friends. He just didn't like crowds or making small talk. His closest buddy, a pal since grade school, died eight years ago. His photo hangs on Massie's wall. "I like being alone," Massie says.
He still has a hard time relating to Asians because they remind him of his captors. Recently an Asian man turned down his aisle in the supermarket. Massie immediately lumbered the other way. "I just don't want to be around them," he says.
Massie received mental health treatment and medical assistance only after Bucher brought an official from the Department of Veterans Affairs to a Pueblo reunion in the 1990s. The official arranged appointments with VA doctors and therapists, who told Massie he had a slew of mental and physical problems, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He receives about $3,000 per month in disability payments.
In 2004, just before Bucher died, Massie was itching to do something to repay the captain for saving his life and easing his pain at home.
He also wanted to hurt North Korea. He fantasized about dropping a nuclear bomb on the country.
"I want to kill them all," he says.
"If they valued turnips, I would go after turnips," Massie adds. "But I know their leadership likes money. So I decided to go after that instead."
'I Did It for Pete'
Massie knew about a local lawyer named Dan Gilbert, who had successfully sued Iran in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985. Massie called Gilbert and asked whether he could sue North Korea.
Gilbert was reluctant. Such suits require money and years of work and preparation, Gilbert told Massie. They take a toll on the plaintiffs, especially when they have to vividly recall past abuse to prove their case.
But when Massie shuffled his hulking body into Gilbert's one-story brick office in Rockford, Ill., the lawyer melted. Massie seemed earnest and sad. Unlike other torture victims, he had no spouse or close friends. It was clear he was trying to combat his misery.
So Gilbert told Massie they might have a shot against North Korea under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows people like Massie to sue foreign governments for torture. Massie approached as many crew members and widows as he could.
Only three people joined the suit: Rose Bucher, the widow of the captain; Donald McClarren, a petty officer; and Dunnie Richard Tuck, a civilian oceanographer aboard the ship. "I did it for Pete," Rose Bucher said, referring to her husband's nickname, in an interview at her home near San Diego. "His life was shortened by this."
Massie and the others finally got their day in court in April 2008, where they testified at length about the abuse and its legacy.
"The guards took me into the room, and in the room was a long table and a chair sitting in front of it," McClarren testified between sobs. "And, oh God, they put me on my knees and put a two-by-four between my knees and forced me to lay back, and I was there for hours. And they finally came in and told me to get up on the chair, and I had to crawl over to the chair and climb up on the chair.
"And as I sat there, the officer that was behind the chair pulled out his gun and put it to my head and went 'click.' And the thought that went through my mind then was, 'Am I going to hear the bang and is the bullet going to hurt when it hits?' And I went blank."
McClarren hasn't been able to shake his anxiety. "I get scared a lot," he added.
North Korea didn't contest the suit, and U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. ruled in the plaintiffs' favor in December. Kennedy ordered North Korea to pay Massie, McClarren and Tuck $16.75 million each for their pain and suffering. He ordered the North Koreans to pay Rose Bucher and Bucher's estate $15.6 million. The judge noted that the sailors endured "extensive and shocking" abuse while in captivity and "suffered physical and mental harm that has endured."
Massie and the others rejoiced. They noted Kennedy had ruled that Bucher gave up the ship only after "recognizing there was no chance of escape."
Richard Streeter, a District-based lawyer who joined the case, says he is working with the U.S. government to obtain lists of frozen North Korean funds. Under Kennedy's ruling, he can then seek those funds through further legal action.
Massie has fantasies about the cash, though most aren't exactly practical. He wants to take his mom on a vacation, but he knows traveling is difficult on his body. He has thought about buying a new house, although he really likes the one they have on Hononegah Road, which he still shares with his mother. He is especially fond of a sunroom he built a decade ago, filled with leafy plants and large windows. Staring out into the back yard gives him a measure of peace.
Ghosts in the Present
Massie often hunts the Internet for news on North Korea, anything from the country's nuclear ambitions to the hunger of its people. He watches documentaries about the rogue regime and studies photographs and images of its leaders or military officers, scanning for the faces of his tormentors.
On an August morning, Massie awakens surprisingly refreshed. He didn't have a single nightmare. He hobbles past a large framed photograph of the Pueblo in his bedroom, down a dark hallway with plush beige carpet into his small kitchen, where he eats some instant oatmeal. He then heads to his office, where he plops into a big, black swivel chair and turns on the television. On the walls are seven crucifixes; a $500 bronze bust of Bucher sits on his desk; his Navy dog tags dangle from a lamp.
On the television, North Korea is the Big Story: Two female American journalists, taken hostage by the North Koreans months earlier, are finally free. Massie watches the coverage of the women getting off a plane.
A surge of relief flashes through him. But the catharsis passes quickly, and he can't stop his mind from drifting to darker places.
He wonders whether the women had been held in the same prison, or whether they had to eat the same brackish turnip soup and foul-tasting rice.
He wonders whether they had come across any of the same guards. He wonders whether they left with any of the same scars.