LAKEWOOD RANCH — When Rick Rogala stands on stage and looks into the crowd at the Tribute to Heroes Parade this weekend, he will think of the last man to travel south down the Bridge of No Return.
That man was in a wooden box on ice, carried by military guards. His name was Duane Hodges, and he had been dead for 11 months.
It’s the last memory Rogala, 66, has of North Korea, where he was one of 82 Navy crewmen held hostage by the North Korean military during the USS Pueblo Crisis.
And, it’s where his thoughts will turn when he speaks at the May 26 parade on Lakewood Ranch Main Street.
Rogala wants to see again the USS Pueblo, a ship originally used for freight and later as a spy ship, before he dies.
It’s a ship that nearly killed his American spirit; it’s a ship still held by North Korea.
Life during the war
Rogala enlisted in the Navy Reserve Sept. 1, 1966, because he loved his country. The Navy sent him to the USS Pueblo about a year after he enlisted.
“I thought I was going to go see the world,” Rogala said. “I didn’t know what the heck we were doing. I didn’t know where we were going.”
On Jan. 5, 1968, the ship left Yokosuka, Japan, for Saesbo, Japan. Six days later, it headed northward with orders to intercept and conduct surveillance of Soviet Union naval activity in the Tsushima Strait and to gather signal and electronic intelligence from North Korea.
The Navy had designated the mission as non-risk, so the ship carried few weapons — only two .50-caliber machine guns and a few pistols.
Rogala had been a mess cook before Jan. 23, 1968, when four torpedo boats, three sub chasers and two fighter airplanes converged on the Pueblo.
Hodges was the only crewmen killed.
North Korean men captured the boat and took it to a port at Wonsan.
Once at the port, Rogala walked off the boat, like the others, blindfolded by sheets.
On an overnight train ride to a prisoner of war camp, soldiers stuffed bread in Rogala’s mouth. Later, Rogala would eat gummy rice served in fly-infested buckets.
“Hunger hurt,” Rogala said. “I felt if they wanted to get me, they were going to get me. If they wanted to poison me, they would poison me. Or (they would) kill me a different way.”
Rogala dropped from 165 to 138 pounds in the 11 months.
Rogala remembers his life in captivity at a second prisoner of war camp, a worn military compound to which the Americans were taken in March 1968.
There, life started at 6 a.m., on a paper-thin mattress with a cardboard pillow, in a room with eight other Americans.
Through the second-floor window, Rogala wished to escape to the Vietnam War, for which a surge of 725,000 troops were being drafted to fight.
One American in Rogala’s room scribbled lyrics to songs he had memorized, such as “Along Comes Mary” and “Cherry Cherry.”
Rogala memorized the words, too, and the songs became the soundtrack to his life in captivity, where he celebrated his 21st birthday.
Sometimes, in the mornings, the Americans could leave the room to play basketball.
“We tried to play football and they stopped us,” Rogala said. “They said, ‘You Americans play too rough. You will get hurt.’”
Captors gave the crewmen fly swatters and told them to kill as many flies in a day as they could for a chance to play cards for an extra half-hour.
Guards learned what the one-finger salute the crewmen gave them meant, after seeing it on American magazine covers. Although Rogala had kept his finger to himself, he wasn’t spared payback.
Captors forced the crew to keep their heads ducked for a week straight. And, the one time Rogala moved his head upward, an officer punched him in the jaw twice.
Two years ago, Rogala had dental implants put in. Doctors said the need for surgery was related to those hits.
As time went on, the eight roommates began to rally around each other, keeping each other alive and avoiding giving up on America.
“At first we thought the U.S. would save us in a few weeks,” Rogala said. “That became a few months. Then, we talked about how it’s going to be growing old and not seeing things happen back home.”
Back home, in Niles, Ill., Rogala’s parents and siblings knew nothing — except that Pueblo had been captured.
On Dec. 23, 1968, after the United States issued a written apology that it later retracted, the American captives were taken on a bus to the border with South Korea, before flying to San Diego.
Rogala returned home to Chicago three months later, after the crew appeared before a Navy Court of Inquiry.
He returned home to cheers and respect. A former employer helped pay for him to attend Western Michigan University.
He spent his post-military career in purchasing.
Facing the past
For a while, Rogala, chose to forget about North Korea.
“I was young enough to roll off it for a while,” Rogala said. “For years, I tried to live a life where I would not talk about it, not think about it, not care about it.”
But then came random times when Rogala convinced himself he couldn’t breathe, triggered by innocuous events such as spotting groups of Asian men.
“I thought, ‘Maybe, they’re going to get me,’” Rogala said.
Doctors diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Rogala also couldn’t block out the bitterness and shame he felt toward America; he felt his country had left him to die.
The Sarasota County Veterans Commission, of which Rogala is a member, endorsed Rogala’s mission to write letters to congressmen and the president and express his — and other Pueblo survivors — desire to get the ship back.
Change in perspective
Rogala only recently began to love his country again.
In Sarasota, Rogala has gained perspective through friendships he’s built with other veterans.
His brother installed a tattered American flag in Rogala’s backyard.
Five years ago, his late wife, Regina, pushed Rogala to wear his USS Pueblo hat, fitted with pins and medals, including a Purple Heart and commendation medal.
“It took me a lot of time to wear this hat,” Rogala said. “I thank God for everything we have in America — true freedom. I just hope that ship comes back. It’s all I care about in my life, so I could put this behind me.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
TRIBUTE TO HEROES MEMORIAL PARADE
East County residents are invited to honor fallen servicemen and women and military veterans Sunday, May 26, during the annual Tribute to Heroes Parade, on Lakewood Ranch Main Street.
Festivities will start at 5 p.m. with a patriotic ceremony that includes speeches by veterans and music, as well as the announcement of float and bicycle-decorating contest winners.
The parade will follow at 6 p.m.
It will run down Main Street from the Polo Grill and Bar to MacAllisters Grill & Tavern. A military caisson will mark the end of the parade, and will be followed by a dove release, the playing of taps and closing comments.
Following the parade, attendees can enjoy dance performances, food and drink, face painting and other family-friendly activities.
Guests also will be able to donate blood, write letters to soldiers and drop off non-perishable items, such as beef jerky, Clif bars and toiletries, to send to troops serving overseas.
IF YOU GO
When: 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, May 26
Where: Lakewood Ranch Main Street
What: Ceremony starts at 5 p.m. Parade starts at 6 p.m. Proceeds from the event benefit Manasota Operation Troop Support.