Kansas veterans bond decades after service in Korea

11/11/2013 4:59 PM

08/06/2014 8:56 AM

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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