INDIANAPOLIS -- Larry Marshall’s sister remembers the homecoming parades for her brother when he returned from 11 harrowing months as a captive of the North Korean government.
When he died Wednesday, after years of lingering physical and mental pain from the ordeal, she feared that most Americans had forgotten him and his fellow crew members.
Marshall, at 19, was the youngest sailor aboard the USS Pueblo when the spy ship was seized off North Korea’s east coast in January 1968. His captors coerced a confession from the ship’s captain by holding a loaded gun to Marshall’s head and threatening to kill the crew, one by one.
“He was so young, really just a baby, when he was thrust into a very mean group of brutal men. And he survived,” said Debra Marshall Hutchinson. “But it was hard.”
Marshall’s friends and family in and around his hometown of Austin are mourning his death from cancer at age 66. But they’re hoping that his story — once the subject of international headlines — lives on.
“It’s a story that still needs to be out there,” Hutchinson said. “Americans should know what brave heroes these men were.”
One of the crew was killed when the ship was strafed by machine gun fire and boarded. The remaining 82 crew members — including the injured Marshall — were taken prisoner.
They were beaten during interrogations and put in front of cameras to confess publicly that they were American spies.
In defiance, the crew planted codes into their forced letters of confession, including references to the fictional TV spy Maxwell Smart. They held up their middle fingers when photographed.
Once their captors figured out the meaning of that gesture, more beatings rained down.
The crew of the USS Pueblo weren’t treated like heroes by their government when they were released in December 1968 and forced by the North Koreans to march, one by one, across the “Bridge of No Return” into South Korea.
They faced a military board of inquiry, a multitude of questions about their forced confessions, and blame for the U.S. government’s agreement to offer an apology, which it later repudiated, that was demanded by North Korea.
“There was such a stigma attached to these men,” Hutchinson said.
In the months after their release, details of their captivity emerged. They involved daily beatings and torture, near-starvation, sleep deprivation and constant threats of execution.
Government documents released in later years showed how the U.S. Navy sent the Pueblo into foreign waters ill-equipped to repel an assault and unable to dispose of its spy machinery. Little was done to rescue the men or the ship, which remains in North Korea, because the United States was embroiled in a growing war in Vietnam.
Don McAllister, an Anderson author who founded the National Veteran’s Historical Archive, interviewed Marshall a few years ago.
He found Marshall still troubled by the Navy’s initial decision to deny prisoner-of-war medals to the Pueblo crew — a decision later reversed.
“The accusations from the Navy, that somehow (the crew) had done something wrong, hit these men so hard,” McAllister said. “So there was always this feeling, ‘We were heroes but treated like villains.’”
Marshall at first struggled to make a life upon returning to Scott County. Friends and family said he drank and went through two marriages before finding the love of his life — his third wife, Shelly.
She survives him along with two daughters, two stepsons, several grandchildren, and a multitude of siblings and their offspring.
Marshall worked as a mechanic in and around Scott County before he was finally granted disability status from the military. His nerves were permanently damaged from the beatings, his sister said.
“He worked and didn’t complain, but you could tell he was always in pain,” Hutchinson said.
McAllister said he was struck by Marshall’s sense of sorrow — and also his resilience.
Marshall’s family said several of his fellow crewmen, haunted by the experience, committed suicide after arriving home.
“There was a feeling of abandonment — that people had just forgotten about it and forgotten about them,” McAllister said.
Still, Marshall didn’t speak with bitterness.
“He said, ‘I love that flag and I love my country, and I’d go out there and do it again,’” McAllister said.
McAllister said he’d stayed in touch with Marshall and his family.
“I admired him,” he said. “I guess it was the fact that he didn’t surrender completely to the trauma he went through. There was something special about him. He wasn’t going to let himself give into the sorrow.”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden