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My day with a true American hero

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My name is Vern Greunke.

I'm a veteran of the Army Security Agency. The ASA was a separate unit of the Army specializing in many covert operations, including radio signal intelligence gathering, analysis, codebreaking and other missions.

I served a year in Vietnam, doing short-range radio direction finding, locating enemy units' radio transmitters. Later I was assigned to a mountaintop Air Force Station in Taiwan, where the services worked at electronic snooping more distant targets. In late February 1968, days after the Naval spy ship, the Pueblo, was captured, volunteers were sought to go to Korea on temporary duty. I went that March.

Years ago, I created a website and database for former ASA members, now at more than 40,000 records, with members posting their name/numbers and then contacting each other for personal and unit reunions.

At one point I learned that one survivor, Charles "Joe" Sterling, had Nebraska roots. He invited me to stop by his house when I was in Lincoln, so I did. Joe took me to a spare bedroom of his mobile home and motioned for me to sit.

Exchanging stories of our intelligence jobs, he talked about his experience as a prisoner of war. I asked him about the torture he was subjected to, wondering how I would have sustained it. He said the physical punishment wasn't that bad and he blocked out the pain. Mentally they tried to hurt them also. He was in a prison room with two other men. In the room was a fearful youngster, barely out of high school. Joe had to do a lot of talking to keep him calm. Once, returning from a beating and interrogation, the young man said they told him if he didn't talk or sign a confession, they would "hang him from the highest hill at sunrise." Joe laughed, saying it sounded like a script from a grade B movie. They didn't even know if they had hills in the area. He made assurances that "we will go home someday," but with a smile said, "I never told him, it might be in a box!"

We continued to talk, in this dark room, the afternoon sun starting to wane. I wondered if these were the conditions he lived in.

Joe and I talked for two hours. I mentioned books I'd read on the capture, written by Capt. Lloyd Bucher (a Boys Town alumni) and officers on the ship. Joe said, "I don't know what ship they were on" or how they remembered all that, as they tried desperately to destroy, burn or throw overboard the classified materials.

He said the crew had been having reunions on cruise ships - not his type of entertainment. His idea of a reunion would be "two kegs, under trees, in a field, by ourselves - and we could talk." There were many issues to hash out yet.

As I was about to leave, he grabbed a small plaque. He had received it from the president honoring the crew during the capture and imprisonment. He said it was OK, but added: "This is what I'm most proud of" and gleefully turned the plaque over. In black marker were the words, "from John Wayne."

We exchanged handshakes. I received another invite: "Come back again, we could ‘do ribs.'" A few years later, as I was reading the Omaha paper over breakfast, I saw his obituary. His funeral was that day, with burial too far to make it easily, and too late to ask the boss for the day off.

We hear a lot today about this or that person being a hero. In my book, Joe was a hero, suffering unjust punishment at the hands of our enemy. The ship still sits in the harbor in North Korea as a museum. For the U.S. Navy, it's still considered on duty, though anchored far away.

So long, Joe! I wished I'd taken the time to look you up again. That was not to be, but someday in the future .... "we'll do ribs" together.

Vern Greunke retired from the Fremont Tribune where he worked full time for 44 years. He is still a part-time employee.


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