LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Rick Rogala cried unashamed Sunday when he discussed his personal hero, Duane Hodges, before a crowd estimated at 3,000 on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch.
Rogala, whose short speech kicked off the fifth annual Tribute to Heroes Memorial Parade on Main Street, was a crewman on the USS Pueblo, which was attacked Jan. 23, 1968, by North Korean naval forces at the height of the Vietnam War shortly before the Tet offensive.
The Pueblo was a technical research ship, which the United States insists was not in North Korean waters, but it was boarded and the crew led off blindfolded.
Although the crew was set free 11 months later, the North Koreans still hold the USS Pueblo.
Of the 83 crew members at the time of the attack, a fireman named Hodges was the only one who insisted on carrying out his assignment of destroying any material the enemy could find useful, Rogala said.
"Duane died while destroying classified materials," Rogala told the silent crowd.
Rogala, who said he was mistreated sometimes in captivity, said Hodges' body remained on ice until the crew was set free.
"Duane died so that we could live free," said Rogala. He and others are working to have the USS Pueblo returned to the United States.
After he finished his speech, some in the crowd reacted emotionally. Many came to shake Rogala's hand and thank him for his service.
"We tracked your ship's radar," former military officer Dan Morford told Rogala. "You know, they took the radar from your ship and mounted it along
the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. I flew over it. As far as I know, it's still there. We were tracking it from 1981 to 1984."
Others just shook Rogala's hand and smiled.
Rogala then hurried to join the parade that delighted the large crowd.
"Richard is the real deal," said Andy Hooker of the Sarasota County Veterans Commission.
The parade and the crowd set an all-time record, said John Breiner, owner of Ed's Tavern on Main Street and co-founder of the parade with E.F. Gene Sweeney, president and CEO of Salt of the Earth USA.
Sweeney, the parade's master of ceremonies, had once hoped to plant a beam from the fallen World Trade Center towers as a memorial in Lakewood Ranch. His plan did not work out, but Sweeney was there Sept. 11, 2012, when a beam from the site was installed as part of a memorial in Patriots Park in Venice.
NBA referee and Lakewood Ranch resident Bob Delaney, the parade's grand marshal, gave a passionate speech concerning his travels to war zones. He closed it with: "We live in the land of the free because of the brave."
Among the record 40 organizations in the parade, the crowd reacted strongly to the Hernando De Soto Historical Society ship float and costumed crew. The Lakewood Ranch Stars dance team, East Manatee Fire Rescue engine and Lakewood Ranch Gymnastics were also fan favorites.
Prior to the parade, Diana Pontenberg of River Club was dining with her friend, Joanne Wagner of Ellenton, and thinking of her late husband, Forrest Pontenberg, who died last year at age 82. He served five tours in Vietnam as a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy.
"This is a day to remember," Pontenberg said. "We remember all the people we lost to make this country free."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, Ext. 6686.