Francis J. Ginther: Prisoner in North Korea

                                                                        J.R. Zane

With communist North Korea capturing news headlines over the past several years, many may have forgotten the news headlines from 50 years ago which had a definite North Korea connection to Schuylkill County. On January 23, 1968, the surveillance ship U.S.S. Pueblo was attacked by North Korean naval vessels and MiG jets with North Korea firing some 1,000 Machine gun bullets at the ship’s hull.  One fireman on board was killed and several men were wounded during the attack. The Eighty-two surviving crew members were captured and held prisoner for 11 months.  This high-tension episode played out during the Soviet Union and the United States as well as the hot war raging in Vietnam. 

One of the men captured by the North Koreans was Francis J. Ginther, a communications technician in the Navy.  He was the son Pottsville milkman Francis Christian and his wife Elizabeth Prutzman Ginther of 395 Hotel Street, Pottsville.    

 Francis J. Ginther and the others would remain prisoners for eleven months enduring psychological torture, including attempts of brainwashing, and physical brutality.  Immediately prior to the ship seizure Ginther assisted in the emergency destruction of classified information.  However, the crew was ill-trained for such a disaster.  The commander of the ship admitted later during a court of inquiry that no destruction drills had ever been held aboard the Pueblo. The electronic equipment and manuals the North Koreans seized from the Pueblo were immediately turned over to the Soviet Union giving the Soviets extremely classified information according to U.S. Cryptologic History.

Ginther was kept as a prisoner by the North Koreans and forced to survive on rice, turnips and fish.  He told the press that before capture he weighed 188 pounds and dropped to 155 when the ordeal was over.  On December 23, 1968, at noon, with a light snow falling, the Americans were released, after the United States and North Korea had reached a settlement in which the U.S. admitted intrusion into North Korean territory and apologized for its actions, promising to cease any similar action in the future.  In return 82 surviving crewmen were released and walked across the “Bridge of No Return” at Panmunjom into South Korea and back to freedom.  The men crossed the bridge in single file with a 30 second wait between them.  The body of their fallen comrade was also returned.  

Ginther arrived back in Pennsylvania in early February 1969 greeted at the Philadelphia airport by his wife, parents, daughter Bonnie, and sister Margaret.  Ginther, a member of the Pottsville High graduating class of 1961, and his wife, the former Janice Scott, had dated from their teenage years.  Prior to his arrival, the crew remained in San Diego for several weeks being debriefed and interviewed.   After the joyous reunion at the Philadelphia airport, the family flew home to Schuylkill County courtesy of Minersville’s Andrew Drebitko who operated King Coal Aviation Service. Upon his arrival back in Pottsville, he was given the key to the city by Mayor Michael Close before a large crowd of 1,000 well-wishers. He was under orders from the military not to discuss his ordeal at that time so his remarks were kept brief.

Francis Ginther would be honorably discharged from the United States Navy in January 1973 and awarded a purple heart, a Navy commendation medal and, in 1990, a prisoner of war medal. He and his family relocated to Cressona.  He became employed in the refrigerator repair business and enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in Pine Grove. He began giving talks about the Pueblo and life in communist captivity before many civic, veterans and religious groups after the order to not speak had been lifted.  Today Mr. Ginther resides in Bethlehem, PA.

According to military sources, the U.S.S. Pueblo still remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy and is the only ship of the U.S. Navy currently being held captive. It is on public display in North Korea despite continuing diplomatic efforts to secure its return.   It was the first Navy ship to have been seized after being fired upon on the high seas in over 160 years.