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Service & Sacrifice: Imprisoned in North Korea

Tortured. Starved. Abandoned. Eighty-two U.S. sailors spent 11 months as captives in North Korea during the war in Vietnam.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Life as a U.S. prisoner of war in North Korea included outside temperatures of 50 degrees below zero, daily beatings, “garbage” rice and a fear every night could be their last.

“They told (the captain) that we are going to start bringing in your crew one at a time starting with the youngest,” said Robert Hill, a veteran Navy sailor.

He was among the youngest of his 82 shipmates aboard the USS Pueblo, a spy ship, taken prisoner by North Korea in January 1968. He said the ship was hit by a surprise attack by air and sea while the crew was out training in the Sea of Japan before deploying south to the war in Vietnam.

Credit: John Becker
Robert Hill was a prisoner of war in North Korea for 11 months. He lost close to 60 pounds during his time in captivity.

“All I remember from that was just being smashed against the bulkhead and knocking me out,” said Hill.

Out of nowhere the slow, lightly armed American vessel was bombarded by enemy shells and machine gun fire after North Korea claimed a breach of its territorial waters.

“We never gave up that ship. They took it. There's a difference too, in my way, I think 'given up' means you have some way of protecting yourself that you can fight back …There was no fighting back,” said Hill.

American leaders opted against mounting a rescue and dozens of American sailors would spend 11 months as prisoners of war before a U.S. General formerly agreed to sign an admission of “spying” in exchange for the lives of the prisoners and one sailor killed during the initial attack.

“We got set up by that, probably three or four times where they'd say, 'The negotiations are going well,'” said Hill.

He recalled the captured troops enduring “false hope” time after time before they were eventually able to walk to freedom across the “Bridge of No Return." It linked North Korea and South Korea.

“All I know is I could look at my friends and somebody wasn't gonna hit me," he said.

Credit: John Becker
Robert Hill showing photos of his time in captivity

Anyone interested can watch an interview right here with Mr. Hill and his Navy son, while on the most recent HonorAir Knoxville flight to Washington, D.C. 

The POW also took time to answer the following ten questions about the influence the military had on his life. They are available below.

1. What one person influenced you most in life?

Uncle George reported to Navy boot camp during ww2 with wife and 2 kids sent home 4F. During early 30s involved in accident in steel mill losing sight in both eyes. Went on to operate several businesses to support his family of wife and 5 children. Great sense of humor and love of God Country and family.

2. Do you feel honored and respected for serving your country?

Yes by the average people not at all by the liberal political party.

3. How can people thank you for your service?

Loving this country and believing in the constitution as written not what the current administration tries to change it to benefit themselves

4. How do you honor your fellow servicemen and women?

Thanking them supporting veteran programs and helping wherever possible

5. How do you think this generation of service men and women is different or similar to yours?

I believe that young folks today are taught to believe they are owed something privileged. Sacrifice is not in their hearts.

6. What influence did your military service have on the rest of your life?

I believed that the military taught perspective in that there are many more important things than self. Holding and fighting for beliefs. Freedom

7. Does your family have a history of military service?

Yes uncles WW2- myself and my son graduate USNA class of 2001. A 23 years active duty Rank of Captain 06 USN.

8. Would you encourage your son, daughter or other younger generations in your family to join the service?

Our country will always have need of a strong military for the protection of our country her people and the freedoms we’ve earned. I fear the direction of the current admin is driving our country toward socialism. I will always encourage those close to me to serve our country.

9. How has your opinion of war changed?

I believe we as a country should reserve war only as a means to protect our country our freedoms and our living constitution. Provide military aid only to those allies that believe in our way of life.

10. How did your military experience shape your faith?

I strongly believe that the military taught the importance of servitude and the necessity of keeping our country and her people safe and free. Keeping our laws and borders safe are imperative. I’m willing still to volunteer to stand watches at our southern borders. 
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