For the nearly 5 million American servicemen who served there, Korea has never been the forgotten war, and the more than 50,000 who gave their lives there made that three-year enterprise the most costly in terms of human life America has ever experienced in so short a span of months. From the initial Communist invasion of the south in June of 1950 and the almost-immediate intervention by the United States and its allies, the 600-mile long peninsula’s mountainous terrain with its extreme climatic variations was the scene of constantly changing fortunes of war for both sides. By the fall of 1950, the Allies had fought their way out of a fragile grip on the southern-most tip of the country where it looked as if we would be driven into the sea, to the amazing recapture of everything which had been lost, thanks to the “miracle of Inchon”. By November, our forces had actually occupied nearly all of North Korea including the capital city of Pyongyang, and were poised to push what was left of the North Korean Peoples’ Army into the Yalu River. In fact, so certain seemed final victory that the United Nations Command announced its “Home by Christmas” clean-up campaign on November 24th.
By the dawn of November 25th however, we faced a brand new war as 200,000 massed Chinese forces began a campaign which, with a follow-on surge of at least 6 entire armies would eventually sweep everything before it once again pushing the Allies back to a small beachhead at Pusan in the peninsula’s southeast corner. To save more than 100,000 U.S. troops and their ROK allies from total destruction, an “Armada” of 193 vessels was assembled at Hamhung harbor, the only defendable nearby port in the northeast deep and large enough to support such a huge evacuation.
When the freedom-loving residents of North Korea realized the fate which awaited many of them when the communists returned, refugees by the thousands crowded Hamhung, hoping to somehow join our retreating forces. As we would learn again 20 years later as we “high-tailed it” out of Viet Nam, there just wasn’t enough room for all of them. And that is where today’s story begins, on December 22nd, 1950. It was then that Captain Leonard LaRue looked down from the bridge of the S.S. Meredith Victory, a 10,658 ton cargo carrier resurrected from a WWII “mothball fleet” and pressed into service to haul fuel and supplies in support of U.S. forces in Korea. With the enemy on the very outskirts of the city, his heart went out to the desperate civilian refugees watching their last hope for freedom sailing away.
Unlike the famous “Liberty” ships, 2710 of which had been built to haul WWII troops to an earlier war, the 400 “Victory” ships were designed exclusively for cargo service, with deep holds and human accommodations limited to a small working crew and 12 passengers. Making a quick decision, Capt. LaRue ordered his cargo off-loaded, and making use of boom lifts and improvised elevators, began ushering the hushed and desperate human cargo aboard his 425 feet long 62 feet wide sea-going veteran of two wars.
By the morning of December 23rd, 1950, 14,000 Korean civilians standing shoulder-to-shoulder filled the cargo holds to overflowing and the open decks from railing to railing, each wearing on their backs the only possessions they could take with them. There was no food, very little water, no toilets, and no room to move; ahead lay 450 ocean-miles of freezing, winter-tossed discomfort and behind them the burning port facilities the Allies did not wish to fall into the hands of the enemy.
What crew members of the “Meredith Victory” would never forget was the patience, stoicism and silence of all those passengers who never spoke a word of discomfort or complaint in the midst of three days and nights of what must have been sheer misery. Not only were there no injuries or loss of life occasioned by the journey, but in fact the number of passengers actually increased as First Mate D.S. Savastio, falling back on very basic first aid training, delivered five babies before arriving at Pusan.
Reflecting on the experience years later, Capt. Leonard LaRue said… “I think the clear unmistakable message comes to me that on that Christmastide, in the bleak and bitter waters off the shores of Korea, God’s own hand was at the helm of my ship.”
Notes: The humanitarian voyage of the “Meredith Victory” stands today as the largest mercy evacuation by a single ship in world history. By an act of Congress signed by Pres. Dwight Eisenhower in August, 1960, the S.S. Meredith Victory” was given the title “Gallant Ship”. In all, at least 98,000 North Korean refugees were carried to freedom by U.S. ships from Hungnam during those three days in December. I am proud to have served the cause of freedom in the Korean War and to have gained a lifelong love for the freedom-loving people of the Republic of Korea. Al. Cooper.
Launched in 1945, the “Meredith Victory” was one of a standardized WWII design named for American towns and counties.