Pueblo County, Colorado
Louis Carleo

Contributed by Jean, Gracie, Phyllis and Karen.

Colorado Springs Gazette 8-10-2003 - Seeking a Special Ship -Pueblo - Louis Carleo is an old-school success story. He grew up poor and fatherless when this was a rough-and-tumble steel town. He became a popular teacher and coach, then a construction company owner, and, finally, a car dealer and major developer. Carleo now wears monogrammed shirts and expensive after-shave. He drives a flashy Cadillac Escalante pickup. He displays in his office an autographed photograph of boxer Boom Boom Mancini, an acquaintance. The picture shares office space with a massive, 10-year-old piranha named Bubba that craves visitors' attention and thrives on a diet of bananas and apples. Louis Carleo, by all appearances, is a man who gets what he wants and doesn't mind putting it on display when he does. But his latest project will take all his drive, wile and charm: He wants North Korea's brutal and strange leaders to give back the symbol of their one victory over American running-dog imperialists. Carleo wants the communists to return the USS Pueblo, a spy ship the North Koreans attacked Jan. 23, 1968. One crewman was killed, and several wounded. The remaining 82 crewman were imprisoned and mistreated for 11 months until they were released. Until recently, when it was moved to an undisclosed location, the ship was docked in North Korea's capital and used for propaganda. Getting a ship with that kind of history back sounds audacious enough. But that's just the beginning for Carleo. He wants the USS Pueblo towed back to the United States, perhaps to Texas, decommissioned by the Navy and then trucked in one piece if possible to Pueblo. Carleo envisions the crew accompanying the ship in one long national parade of honor. Once the 320-foot-long boat is pulled into town, he plans to sink it into a huge pond he'll build (and donate) in the parking lot of a downtown shopping center he owns. A light-and-fountain show and a small amphitheater would highlight the coup. To be fair, only the last part of the plan is completely Carleo's. Another civic booster, Robert Rawlings, publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper, started the effort to convince the North Koreans to return the ship a few years ago. He put together a group of movers and shakers who call themselves Puebloans for the Return of the USS Pueblo. On the face of it, the whole effort seems quixotic. Pueblo is a long, long way from any ocean. It's not a player in international affairs. It has no high connections to the State Department or Navy brass. And, at least, at first, the city had no connection to craft or crew other than being its namesake. But those involved with the effort said city residents have developed a relationship with the crew. While the crew was held captive, Pueblo residents were at the forefront of a grass-roots effort to keep politicians and Navy admirals focused on the sailors' welfare. In recent years, the city has hosted three reunions of the crew. The ship's commander, Lloyd Mark "Pete" Bucher, who once appeared on the covers of Life and Time magazines, has visited the city frequently, to give talks and stay with friends he made after his return from North Korea. Pueblo schoolchildren studied the history of the USS Pueblo and had a chance to talk to Bucher. Carleo and others acknowledged a minilake containing the ship would be a great tourist attraction and couldn't help but raise the profile of their city. They aren't exactly wild that Branson, Mo., home to a few crew members, has made a pitch to have the chip. But committee members say that's all secondary. They say they just want to help fulfill the wishes of the remaining crew members to get the ship out of North Korean hands. A former ambassador to South Korea thinks Carleo and a company might pull it off. Donald Gregg, U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989-93 and a CIA specialist in Asia for 30 years, said last week the deterioration of North Korea-U.S. relations in recent months has certainly thrown a wrench into Pueblo's plans, but he doesn't think all is lost. Gregg said he visited North Korea in April 2002 and suggested to North Korean leaders that they return the USS Pueblo. He said officials told him they didn't think the ship was of interest to America any longer, and the thought hadn't occurred to them. He was invited back in October and hand-carried a letter from the committee and Bucher saying the ship's return would mean a lot. By the time he arrived, the United States had accused North Korean leaders of supplying Pakistan with nuclear materials, and the communists weren't in the mood to listen. They told the former ambassador that talk about returning the USS Pueblo was off the table. Still, Gregg, now chairman of the New York-based Korea Society, said, "I'm hopeful with a change in climate the issue might arise again where they might see it is in their interest to return the ship." Alvin Plucker of Fort Lupton fervently hopes so. He was a 22-year-old seaman on the ship when North Korean ships and MIG jets fired upon it. The crew's 11 months in a North Korean jail was a descent into hell from which many of them never fully recovered, he said. "It was not a fun time," he said. "Outside of the usual beatings we got, the starvation was the worst. We had scurvy and horrible diarrhea. At on time I was down to 95 pounds." Plucker said he and the remaining crew members joined the effort of the Pueblo folks to push for the ship's return. "It's bad news for us, " he said. "It's a military ship and property of the U.S. Navy. It's also a personal thing. They took away the ship we were attached to. It was humiliating for us. It's all a part of us." Plucker and Gregg suggested it wasn't only the North Korean government that might not want the USS Pueblo returned to America. They said the incident embarrassed top Navy officers, who tried unsuccessfully to court-martial Bucher for allowing the ship's secrets to fall into the hands of the North Koreans. "It was a shameful chapter in naval history, and the Navy turned on Bucher and were very tough on him," Gregg said. "He wasn't fully exonerated until the first President Bush took office." Carleo, mover and shaker and big thinker, thinks Pueblo folks can overcome the obstacles and bring the ship back to the city for which it was named. He's taking his motto from the words a little kid uttered in the movie "Angels in the Outfield," about a longshot baseball team that gets some help from a band of angels. "It could happen. It could happen," Carleo said. "That's my answer."

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