Like the other 81 sailors who’d survived an attack on the U.S. spy ship by North Korean gunboats on Jan. 23, 1968, McClarren was taken ashore and tossed into a communist prison. There he and the others survived for the next 11 months on a diet consisting mostly of rice and turnips. Occasionally, the men also got chunks of a smelly fish they called “sewer trout.”
But on Dec. 23, 2014 – 46 years to the day after he and the other Pueblo seamen were freed – McClarren finally got his steak and ice cream. It was served up by friends and family at a rollicking “welcome home” party at VFW Post 8851 in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, near Don’s home.
The party was a complete surprise to Don, who’s now vice president of the USS Pueblo Veterans Association (www.USSPueblo.org). When he walked into the VFW hall, his relatives and friends began cheering and waving American flags. Each white-linen-covered table had red, white, and blue carnations on it. On one side of the room were American, Navy, and POW flags; on the other side was a big “welcome home” sign.
“Don was stunned,” said Nikki Noll, who helped organize the party. “He stood there for about 30 seconds just looking around at everything.”
The post commander presented Don with a plaque recognizing him “for keeping the faith and not breaking under duress” – a reference to the torture, beatings, and other brutality that he and other crewmen endured at the North Koreans' hands. The inscription continued: “You survived captivity with honor and are an inspiration to us all.” (The plaque was placed in a permanent display case at Post 8851 along with a photo of Don and, I’m very proud to say, a copy of “Act of War.”)
Several people gave speeches about Don and his Navy service, including his daughter Nina Klinger, a police officer. When Nina was finished, Nikki reports, “There was not a dry eye in the house.” Journalists from the local newspaper and a TV station covered the celebration. You can read the terrific news story at http://cumberlink.com/news/local/communities/boiling_springs/boiling-springs-vet-remembers-time-as-pow-and-returning-home/article_af30a4bc-8bb6-11e4-85e3-eb2878f3fccd.html
The next day, Don shared all the photos and links with other members of the Pueblo Veterans Association, saying that the homecoming wasn’t just for him but for all of them.
By the way, in the photo above (taken by Robert B.J. Small), Don isn’t giving his reaction to the party. He’s re-enacting the Pueblo crew’s famous “Hawaiian good luck sign.” When the captive Americans realized that the North Koreans didn’t understand the derisive gesture, they began flashing it whenever a communist propaganda camera was turned on them. They succeeded in ruining numerous propaganda photos and films until the communists learned, from Time magazine, what the finger salute actually meant. The Americans paid for the “good luck sign” and other resistance efforts when they were viciously beaten during what they called “Hell Week.”
And to this day they’re damn proud of flipping off the commies.