FORT GORDON, Ga. -- It's an unusually sunny day as U.S. Navy personnel sail through calm waters in the Sea of Japan on a routine mission and service member James Kell is looking forward to a noon meal of turkey and mashed potatoes. Suddenly, the calm is shattered as a violent explosion rocks the ship, and seamen rush to positions to deal with the surprise attack. Chaos ensues as the ship is surrounded by foreign vessels that continue to bombard the Americans with gunfire and more explosions, and a seaman is killed.
A similar scene occurred when the USS Pueblo was attacked and seized by North Korean military forces on Jan. 23, 1968. Eighty-two surviving service members were captured as prisoners and the USS Pueblo became the first U.S. military ship to be captured in over 100 years.
Retired Chief Petty Officer James Kell, a survivor of the attack, visited Fort Gordon Oct. 15, and gave a detailed account of his experiences during the ordeal to military members and civilians who gathered to hear his story.
"Each year in October the Navy celebrates its birthday by coming together and paying homage to the rich history of the branch," said Lt. Commander Anthony Everhart, Navy Information Operations Command Georgia Chief of Staff. "It's an honor and my pleasure to have Mr. Kell join us in remembering our history and honoring a fateful event that occurred 42 years ago."
Kell was one of 82 service members who were held captive in North Korea for 11 months - enduring torture, starvation and mistreatment by enemy personnel.
"I remember being escorted off of the ship with an AK-47 rifle poking me in the back to prod me along," recalls Kell. "It was the beginning of a very long 11 months."
Although the U.S. insists the USS Pueblo remained in international waters at all times, the North Korean military claimed that the ship strayed into their territorial waters, giving them just cause to attack.
Once the attack began, the service members on board began destroying intelligence documents and equipment in order to prevent the enemy from obtaining the information.
Although the vessel was equipped with defensive armament, the crew had been ordered to stow or cover the weapons in such a manner that would not cause unusual interest by any unit surveying the ship; therefore the sailors were unprepared for such a violent attack and unable to prevent capture.
The next 11 months was a trying time for the Sailors that would test their mettle. Their living conditions were scant, and not only did they suffer beatings and interrogations, they were also forced to live on miniscule amounts of food, resulting in malnutrition and severe weight loss.
"Our meal for so many months was a small strip of turnip about the size of a French Fry - three of those - and half a piece of stale bread," Kell said. "We would eat that and then 5 minutes later your whole body would begin to shake because you're so hungry and not used to eating so little food. I lost 75 pounds in six months time."
Despite the dire situation they found themselves in, the Sailors maintained a defiant spirit and sense of camaraderie that would help keep up morale and give them the strength to survive the ordeal.
The Sailors resisted when and where they could, and even went so far as to pull the occasional prank on their captors. Their spirited antics would occasionally make headlines in America with such captions as "They're still giving their captors flak over there!" said Kell. Once the meaning of their actions was eventually discovered by the captors, however, the Sailors would endure further beatings.
The enemy demanded several things of the captives over time, including a forced written confession by the Sailors that they intentionally entered North Korean territories specifically to gather intelligence.
The event that became known as the USS Pueblo Incident, among other titles, is still mired in mystery and intrigue even today. Reasons for the ship's location and the intent of their mission, as well as the length of the crew's captivity remain a mystery. Numerous websites are dedicated to the event, providing known information and history, as well as raising questions that have gone unanswered.
Service members who attended the meeting with Kell listened with rapt attention as the story was told, and commented on what they had heard following its completion.
"It was a rewarding experience to hear first hand such an informative and detailed narration of such a tragic event," said Petty Officer 1st Class Joshua Wilson, Navy Information Operations Command Georgia. "To hear of their courage and bravado in the face of imminent danger was inspiring. "I hope to work with a crew as good as theirs."
Although the Sailors were released from captivity on Dec. 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo has remained in North Korean possession ever since, and it is presently operated as a museum in the Communist country.
For more information, visit http://www.usspueblo.org