By Joe Olvera ©, 2011
Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day has been set aside on the last Monday in May to honor those who have died in service to their nation. Although various accounts and cities take credit for celebrating the day, the actual credit might go to a women’s group during the civil war who were decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. A hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping,” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication: “To the Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”
President Lyndon Johnson, in 1966, officially commemorated the day, and declared the city of Waterloo, N.Y. as the official site of Memorial Day. Even earlier than LBJ, however, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, observed May 30, 1868 as the first Memorial Day by placing flowers on the graves of both union and confederate troops at Arlington, National Cemetery. Although the day has lost some of its original meaning, to Donald R. Peppard and Ramon Rosales, Memorial Day stands out as a day of remembrance, a day when they were captured by the North Korean Army when they hijacked the USS Pueblo in 1968.
Peppard, now 72, said he was captured along with 82 men on the U.S. cargo ship and held for 11 months, during which time he and the others suffered immensely due to the harsh conditions perpetrated against them as Prisoners of War. “On Memorial Day, I like to reflect on my situation,” Peppard said. “Young people should be serving their nation in times of war, no question about it.”
On January 23, 1968, Peppard, a thirteen-year Navy veteran, was aboard a cargo ship transformed into a surveillance vessel when North Korean war ships detained the ship and its crew for spying. During his eleven-month stint as a prisoner of the North Koreans, Peppard and his comrades endured spartan accommodations, beatings and threats, censored mail, and the sheer boredom of life in a prison camp. Although Peppard would not go into details about his captivity, other accounts painted a horrifying picture:
“While the crew was held captive, they had to endure immense torture, both mentally and physically. There were interrogations that involved severe beatings. Due to the non-existent medical care, some crewmembers, to this day, bear the effects of the injuries received during captivity, as well as on the initial hijacking. Some of the POWs were forced to wait over a week for treatment of open wounds, suffering from infection and insect infestation inside the wound. In addition to unclean water that caused dysentery, their diet consisted of turnips, parts of slaughtered pigs, including fatty skin with hair, and sometimes the occasional eyeball, rotting fish called ‘sewer trout,’ dead flies, worms, maggots, nails, hair, teeth, and anything else the North Koreans considered nutritious. Cigarettes and matches were he only ‘luxury’ allowed the men.”
For Ramon Rosales, another El Pasoan who was a member of the captive crew, the beatings were even harsher on him because he resembled a Korean with his dark skin and features. He also welcomes the Christmas season each year because that’s when they were released. The USS Pueblo was captured on Jan. 23, 1968, about 13 miles off the coast of North Korea. The capture of the ship and imprisonment of its crew caused an embarrassing international incident for the United States – becoming the first warship captured without a fifth since June 22, 1807. On that date, in 1807, the British Ship HMS Leopard forced the USS Chesapeake to surrender off the Virginia Capes and impressed four of its members into the British Navy.
Rosales, in an interview in 1982, said that his captivity caused him a great deal of stress and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He was retired from the Navy under medical conditions. “I was very lonely and depressed because the memories will never cease,” Rosales said then. “My imprisonment was a harrowing experience. Physically and mentally, I am still suffering. It’s just impossible to forget the ordeal.
“There were no heroes in that incident, we are merely survivors. If there was a hero at all, it had to be Fireman Duane Hodges, because he was the only one killed in the hijacking of the ship.” Rosales said that Hodges, 21 years old from Cresswell, Ore., was killed when a shell was fired by one of the three North Korean subchasers, after Pueblo Commander Lloyd M. Bucher ordered the ship to slow down in attempts to confuse the North Koreans. “Sometimes I think about Hodges. I think that maybe if I had been killed, and he was still alive things would have been better. It was kind of sad to see Hodges die.”
Rosales said the North Koreans were tougher on him because he resembled one of them. “They started to question me about my being a South Korean spy,” Rosales said. “They thought, because of my dark skin, that I was South Korean. I had a lot of problems because I resembled an Oriental. The first few months were pure hell; they would not believe that I was really an American. Finally, I spoke to them in Spanish all the time, and they realized that I was not from South Korea.”
As for Memorial Day, Rosales still remembers and honors the special day. “Even after being imprisoned for 11 months to the day, there is no real bitterness. I learned a lot from that situation. I learned how precious freedom can be. You have to fight for what you have. If you have freedom, it’s because there’s people willing to die so that you can have that freedom. People, right now, they don’t understand that.”