Ralph McClintock expected only a three-week mission when he boarded the USS Pueblo in January 1968.
Instead, he and his shipmates became pawns in a Cold War sideshow when North Korea captured the Navy spy ship and imprisoned its 82 crew members. Some still suffer the physical effects of torture or malnutrition they suffered in 11 months of captivity.
McClintock is proud of his service as a 24-year-old communications technician and the bonds he made with his crew mates, but that pride is tinged with bitterness.
“We were treated as heroes when we got back, but what the Navy, the institution of the Navy really wanted, in my opinion, is the Pueblo to have sunk,” McClintock said at his Jericho home.
On Wednesday, 40 of the 69 surviving crew members will gather in neighboring Essex for a four-day reunion.
McClintock, 65, isn't the only one who is disillusioned.
“I think the crew has always wanted someone in the Navy to stand up and say ‘Hey, you guys did a great job in a poorly conceived mission without any backup,'”said Skip Schumacher, 65, of St. Louis, a lieutenant junior grade on the ship.
The crew kept the military chain of command alive and resisted their captors. They planted defiant codes into forced letters of confession and extended their middle fingers when North Koreans photographed them and sent the images around the world.
But when they came home, most of the young sailors acknowledged they gave the enemy more than their name, rank and serial number.
A Navy spokesman, Lt. j.g. Thomas Buck, said no appropriate Navy official was available to comment on the criticisms of the Navy's handling of the Pueblo incident and its aftermath.
On Jan. 23, North Korean patrol boats opened fire on the Pueblo. The U.S. says the Pueblo was in international water; North Korea says it was in its territory.
The crew was released two days before Christmas.
The Navy still lists the Pueblo as a commissioned warship, even though it's docked on the Taedong River in Pyongyang where North Korea holds it up as a symbol of resistance to American aggression.