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Kansas veterans bond decades after service in Korea

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, at 9:49 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, at 4:59 p.m.

Veterans Day weekend events

Saturday

El Dorado

• Sgt. Theresa Marie Vail, Miss Kansas, serves as parade marshal for the Celebration of Freedom parade at 11 a.m. The parade honors Desert Storm/Desert Shield veterans. The review stand is in front of the Butler County Courthouse. The VFW will have a biscuits and gravy breakfast from 8 to 10 a.m. The El Dorado Elks Lodge No. 1407 will have a chicken and noodle dinner from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. A musical salute to veterans will begin at 7 p.m. at the El Dorado Middle School.

• WWII battle re-enactment, 1 p.m. equipment demonstration, 1:30 p.m. battle, Butler County History Center and Kansas Oil and Gas Museum, 383 E. Central Ave., El Dorado. Donations accepted. Information, 316-321-9333.

Wichita

• Parade in downtown Wichita, 11 a.m. The theme is “Remembering the Forgotten War: The 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice.” The parade will begin at Main and Murdock and go south on Main to Douglas. A celebration will follow on Kennedy Plaza north of Century II on Douglas. Sen. Pat Roberts is the parade’s grand marshal.

• Inter-Tribal Warrior Society Veterans Powwow, gourd dancing, inter-tribal dancing, native arts and crafts. 1 p.m., Mid-America All-Indian Center, 650 N. Seneca. Free. Information, 316-350-3340.

• Fundraiser for Kansas Honor Flight program, Prairie Rose Opera House near Benton. Cost is $30. Gates open at 4 p.m. Dinner at 6 p.m. followed by auction and show. To make reservations, call 316-778-2121.

Nicodemus

• Seven veterans in Nicodemus will be honored in a ceremony at 3:30 p.m. at Nicodemus National Historic Site Visitor Center. And, at 1 p.m. Nov. 16, the TNT movie “Buffalo Soldiers” will be shown at the center, which will display several buffalo soldier items and memorabilia from the movie.

Sunday

Wichita

• National Veterans Day Run, 11K, 5K and 1-mile family walk. 7 a.m., Sedgwick County Park, Shelter No. 1, 6501 W. 21st St. Registration $20 to $40 at www.veteransdayrun.com/run/wichita.

• Lt. Col. Janis Dashner, chaplain for the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell, will be the guest speaker at potluck supper honoring veterans at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 925 N. Waco. The supper, which is open to the public, is from 5 to 7 p.m. Take food to share. The event is sponsored by Partners for Wichita, an interdenominational nonprofit.

Monday

Wichita

• Southwestern College branch campus, 2040 S. Rock Road, will offer donuts, coffee and juice from 9 to 11 a.m. to veterans, who are invited to share stories and sign holiday cards that will be mailed to deployed troops.

• Wreath laying service, 11 a.m., Veterans Memorial Park, 339 N. Greenway, followed by an open house of the park until 1 p.m. Wreaths will be laid at all memorials in the park.

• Ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony, Dole VA Medical Center Peace Garden, 5500 E. Kellogg, 10 a.m.

• “A Salute to Veterans” by Wichita Chapter of the American Guild of Organists at First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway in Wichita, 7 p.m. The program also is a benefit for Kansas Honor Flight, which sends veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit war memorials.

• Veterans and military members will be admitted free to the Museum of World Treasures, 835 E. First St. The museum will display a World War II-era Nazi flag signed by U.S.soldiers and sent home from France. At 3 p.m. Sgt. Cyril Leuelling will tell the story behind the flag.

Derby

• Derby Area Veterans Memorial Walk of Freedom and Ceremony, 2 p.m., Garrett Park, 1100 E. Chet Smith. If the weather is bad, the event will be at Woodlawn United Methodist Church, 431 S. Woodlawn, Derby.

Douglass

• Sisk Middle School hosts a program honoring veterans, firefighters, law enforcement personnel, emergency medical technicians and American Red Cross volunteers at 10 a.m. at the Douglass Sports Complex. Guests are invited to the middle school gym at 9:30 a.m.for cookies, coffee and fellowship.

Emporia

• Parade, downtown Emporia, 9:30 a.m. Kansans provided the inspiration in 1953 for Veterans Day observations nationally. Emporia residents started a grassroots effort to observe the day honoring veterans of all wars. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed legislation recognizing Nov. 11 as a federal holiday. Before then, it was known as Armistice Day.

Kansas City

• National World War I Museum, 100 W. 26th St., will be open free to the public. Ceremony at 10 a.m. World War I re-enactors will greet visitors and distribute poppies. The museum will also unveil a new exhibit of a stationary train car, modeled after the Pullman sleeper cars of the 1940s, allowing visitors to experience the sights, sounds and emotions of leaving home for war.

Hutchinson

• Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center offers free admission to veterans with a paying companion for any show or exhibit.

Topeka

• Veterans Day parade, 11 a.m. downtown. Route begins at Fourth Street, heads south on Kansas Avenue, turns right on 12th, heads north on Jackson Avenue and ends at Sixth Street.

Overland Park

• Johnson County’s Veterans Day Observance includes the dedication of a new panel added to the city’s Korean War Veterans Memorial honoring Chaplain Emil Kapaun, a Pilsen native who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor last year.The ceremony is at 11 a.m. at the corner of 119th and Lowell Avenue.

Meal deals for veterans

These are among the area restaurants that plan to offer free or reduced-price meals as a thank-you to veterans and active duty military personnel on Veterans Day. Guests will need to provide proof of service.

Jimmie’s Diners, 3111 N. Rock Road and 1519 S. George Washington Blvd.: 25 percent off meals to military members with an ID, both active and retired

Oliver’s Little Italy, 1930 S. Oliver: 15 percent off the bill for all military, EMS, firefighters and Wichita police

Paradise Donuts, 3107 W. Central: Free donut and small coffee for any active and retired military members from 5 a.m. to noon.

Curly’s American Diner, 1530 S. Webb Road: Free meal for active duty military, National Guard and veterans from a special menu

Applebee’s, Wichita participating locations: Free meal from special menu

Carrabba’s, 3409 N. Rock Road: Free appetizer Saturday through Monday

Chili’s, Wichita participating locations: Free meal from special menu

Longhorn Steakhouse, 2720 N Maize Road and 440 S. Towne East Mall Drive: Free Tonion appetizer

Texas Roadhouse, 6707 W. Kellogg: Free lunch from a special menu for active-duty, former, or retired military members

Red Robin, 9990 E. 13th St.: One free Tavern double burger to veterans or active duty military members with ID or in uniform

Outback Steakhouse, 2020 N. Rock Road and 233 S. Ridge Road: Free Bloomin’ Onion and a beverage

Hooters, 3151 N. Rock Road: Free meal up to $10.99 with any drink purchase

Golden Corral, 616 S. Ridge Road Circle, 11006 E. Kellogg: Free meal from 4 to 9 p.m.

Olive Garden, 323 N. Rock Road, 2641 N. Maize Road: Free meal from a special menu plus 10 percent off for family members dining with them. Current members of the military and dependents get 10 percent off throughout November.

Red Lobster, 555 S. West St., 333 S. Towne East Mall Drive: Free appetizer from special menu Monday through Thursday

Krispy Kreme, 7777 E. Central: Free doughnut and small coffee to military with ID or those in uniform

On the Border, 2347 N. Maize Road, 1930 N. Rock Road: Free Create Your Own Combo meal

TGI Friday’s, 2441 N. Maize Road: Free lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Ronald Berens was steering the U.S.S. Pueblo when it was captured by North Koreans and its 82 crew members taken hostage.

It was Jan. 23, 1968.

“The day all this went down, it was right after lunch and I went up to the bridge to take over the wheel,” said Berens, now 67 and living in Belle Plaine. “I saw a boat coming up pretty fast. It was sending rooster tails up. They came right to us and started circling. They were manning guns, bigger guns than we had. Two fishing boats had already come by and circled us, so they knew we were out there. They raised their flag and said, ‘Halt or we will fire upon you.’ ”

Berens, a Kansan who had just turned 22, was steering the ship that would soon trigger attention around the world.

After the capture of the Navy intelligence ship U.S.S. Pueblo, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered more than 14,600 Air National Guard and Air Force Reservists and more than 600 Navy Air Reservists to active duty, including Kansas Air National Guard troops with the 184th Tactical Fighter Group at McConnell Air Force Base.

One of those Kansas reservists was Vern Moss. The two met briefly after Berens was released as a prisoner of war in 1969 and then become close friends 40 years later.

“While the crew was being held prisoners, we were assigned to a base in Korea,” said Moss, now 75 and living in Haysville. “When he comes home, he eventually gets a job at the U.S. Post office (at) which I worked. One day, my co-workers were hanging trash on me that we were to go get the Pueblo and came home without it. This gentleman happened to be working on a mail route and I went over to help him. He said, ‘Vern, don’t tell them, but I was a POW.’ ”

The capture

North Korea contended the Pueblo was in its territorial waters.

The United States claimed it was in international waters, which is generally accepted at 12 nautical miles off a country’s shoreline.

“I knew we were 14.7 miles from the coast, but the North Koreans looked at things differently,” Berens said.

During the minutes when the Pueblo crew realized it was being captured, Berens said much of the crew frantically worked to destroy classified intelligence records and equipment. Some tried to burn records.

The North Koreans began firing on the ship with gunboats and aircraft. The only defense the Pueblo had was machine guns. The ship’s captain, Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, was later criticized by Navy officials for being the first American officer to surrender a ship since 1807.

“The first place they hit is the bridge where all the command is,” Berens said. “Glass is everywhere. I hit the deck on my knees but I’m bringing the ship around. The reason they was firing was that they were shooting where the smoke was coming.”

During the attack, a Pueblo crewman was killed and several others were wounded. The crew was imprisoned.

“We were blindfolded and handcuffed,” Berens said. “We had no idea where we were going.”

The Navy crew was ill-prepared for wintertime in North Korea.

They were taken to a place the prisoners called “The Barn.”

“They tried to get a confession out of Bucher and the other officers,” Berens said. “Twice a day they’d shoot steam into our rooms that barely warmed the register. They got us clothes and brought food that was more like gruel with some rice.”

Room 13 was where North Korean soldiers beat the prisoners.

They were held hostage for 11 months.

“You’d go to the interrogation room and a guy would be sitting there and you are thinking ‘Name. Rank. Serial number.’ I’m not saying anything and he says, ‘We know everything about you. We know your dad’s name is Jacob. You were born in Hays, Kansas, and grew up in Russell.’

“My mind is racing a million miles an hour and then I realize what is going on. A Navy ship goes out with all personnel records, dental, physical, pay records – they had all of that. They’d want us to write letters and beat ... us. They really liked putting an AK-47 to your forehead and poking you. Then it dawned on me, they would beat me until I passed out, but they weren’t going to kill me. It would serve them no purpose.”

The prisoners soon discovered the North Koreans were unfamiliar with the American meaning of an extended middle finger. They began to use it extensively in propaganda photos. When the North Koreans asked them about it, they called it the Hawaiian good luck sign. One of their photos made Time magazine.

The crew was released Dec. 23, 1968.

The friendship

When he returned to Kansas after being released, Berens moved to Wichita. He worked at Beech and then for the U.S. Postal Service, where he met Moss.

The two became friends, but only briefly. Berens soon re-enlisted in the Navy and continued serving until his retirement on June 1, 1985.

In 2009, Moss was helping coordinate reunion events at McConnell and looked up Berens’ address.

“He lived in Belle Plaine. I live in Haysville, which is just a hop and skip and jump across the road,” Moss said. “I got in my truck and drove to his house. ... He’s coming out of his house looking like ‘Who the hell are you?’ And I decided it was my time to stop. I got out and shook his hand and thanked him for his service. He remembered the two of us at the Post Office that many years ago.”

Moss invited his newly rediscovered friend to the reunion.

It was too big a crowd, Berens said.

But four times a year, some of the old members of the 184th Tactical Fighter Group get together at the Home Town Buffett. Moss invited Berens to those.

The first time he attended, Berens received a standing ovation.

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