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Rear Admiral J. Robert Lunney of Bronxville Recounts Rescue of North Korean Refugees in 1950 PDF Print Email


By RADM J. Robert Lunney, NYNM (Ret.)

Editor’s Note:
  On June 28, Bronxville resident J. Robert Lunney (Bob) was invited to Washington to meet with the new president of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in. The president's mother, father, and older sister were rescued by the Meredith Victory, a ship on which Bob Lunney was an officer. They were North Korean refugees fleeing the Communist Chinese in 1950 and were among 14,000 refugees saved on this voyage. Below is an account (edited for length) from a speech by Bob Lunney at the AOS-USA Annual National Conference on April 20, 2017. 

Jul. 12, 2017:  The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, and that July, I was one of twelve officers along with 35 crew flown to Norfolk, VA, to take the S.S. Meredith Victory out of the laid-up fleet in the James River. The Meredith Victory, a merchant ship operated by Moore-McCormack Lines, had been chartered to the Military Sea Transportation Service. She was placed under the command of Captain Leonard P. LaRue, then 37 years old. During the Korean War, the ship operated under military orders, and most of the time it was part of a Navy task force. 

Sailing in a 22-ship convoy, part of Joint Task Force 7, we participated in the Inchon Landing on September 15, 1950. After a brief enemy air attack and under the protective fire of the 7th Fleet, Captain LaRue directed the off-loading of our units into LSTs that were landed safely at Blue Beach. We then returned to Yokohama with 13 North Korean prisoners who surrendered to our ship at Inchon. 

After several shuttle trips between Japanese and Korean ports, Captain LaRue was ordered to expedite delivery of a full load of 10,000 tons of jet fuel in drums from Tokyo to the Marine Air Wing, Yonpo Airfield, at Hungnam, North Korea. This was during the Chosin Reservoir Campaign under the command of Major General Edward M. Almond, Commander X Corps. Hungnam, a port on the East Coast of North Korea, is approximately 300 miles south of the Russian city of Vladivostok. 

The approaches to the port were through a heavily laid minefield. During September and October of 1950, the Navy had lost three minesweepers to enemy mines off Wonsan, just south of Hungnam. Indeed, every conceivable type of mine was found--acoustic, magnetic, contact, pressure, and ship counter mines.

After advising the sweeper controlling the harbor entrance of our cargo, we were provided with charts through the swept channel. We were then ordered to maintain 2,500 yards behind the sweeper as it guided us into the inner harbor. However, as the sweeper increased speed and got farther and farther ahead, we realized that they wanted to be as far away from 10,000 tons of jet fuel as possible. 

It was now 14 December 1950, but we were unable to discharge the jet fuel, as the Marines were evacuating Yonpo under heavy enemy pressure. We were then ordered south to Pusan to discharge the jet fuel. On 19 December, with about 300 tons of jet fuel still in our lower holds, Captain LaRue received emergency orders to proceed back to Hungnam where we arrived again through the mine fields on the evening of the 20th. By then, the port was encircled by Communist forces estimated at 100,000 Chinese and North Koreans. 

On 9 December, General MacArthur, in the face of overwhelming enemy forces, had issued orders to evacuate the entire X Corps by sea to Pusan and other ports in the south. 

Army elements of the 3rd Infantry Division were deployed in a series of bunkers approximately 500 yards apart on the edge of Hungnam. The X Corps Command Post was located in a cave along the beach. The main line of defense was a perimeter 5,000 yards from the center of the port with an outpost extending 1,000 yards beyond. Seven strong points were established within the port; the perimeter was constantly being probed by the enemy and at times substantial attacks were made but the frantic pace of out-loading continued. As all artillery units were taken out by 22 December, the perimeter became dependent on naval gunfire. Many thousands of North Korean refugees were pressing toward the waterfront at Hungnam, their last avenue of escape from the threat of annihilation by Communist forces. 

Army representatives boarded our ship, one of the last in the harbor, and advised that the last perimeter at the port was rapidly closing with the enemy attacking from one-quarter to a half mile from the beach. In view of these exigencies, they refrained from issuing an order but requested Captain LaRue to volunteer to evacuate the remaining refugees massed on the beachhead. He was asked to confer with his officers but without consultation, he promptly and firmly agreed to take out as many as we were able. 

In the meantime, on 20 December, unknown to us, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington had made a tentative allocation of 20 atomic weapons for employment by Strategic Air Forces in retardation of possible Soviet advances in the Far East Pacific. Each service was to submit lists of known atomic targets that should be destroyed to retard Soviet advances in the event of general war. A later message stated that rather than retarding Soviet advances, the primary purpose of using atomic weapons would be to reduce Soviet sources of war potential. The targets were increased from 20 to 26 and included Vladivostok, Port Arthur, Peking, Mukden, Harbin, and Tsingtao. 

At the same time, General Headquarters, Far East Command, Tokyo, was developing plans for a general emergency. The plans were to conduct a withdrawal of all UN forces from Korea, including Republic of Korea troops and UN prisoners of war. Fortunately, atomic weapons were not necessary and it was decided not to withdraw but to regroup and continue to defend South Korea. 

On the evening of 22 December, nested next to a Liberty ship loading military cargo, Captain LaRue ordered the embarking of the Korean refugees. Most of the military had been pulled out and parts of the city were aflame from enemy gunfire. While loading the refugees Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) were placing explosives throughout the port and the pier adjacent to us. At all times, we had the protective fire overhead from the U.S. 7th Fleet, including the heavy cruisers USS St. Paul (CA-73), USS Rochester (CA-124) and the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), in addition to carrier, destroyer, and rocket ship support. 

The constant naval air and gunfire support allowed us to embark 14,000 refugees, including 4,000 infants and children plus 17 wounded. Soon after we departed, the entire port was blown up. It was because of the brave men of the 3rd Inf. Div. defending the perimeter that we were able to rescue so many refugees from annihilation. 

The refugees were loaded like cargo as Captain LaRue ordered them put into our five hatches on pallets. They were placed into every cargo hold as well as the open deck. We had little food or water for them – the holds were not heated, nor were they lighted. They brought many of their earthly possessions with them – children carried children – mothers breastfed their babies with another child strapped to their backs – old men carried children together with whatever food they had saved. The winter was bitter cold and a real problem we encountered was fires started by the refugees to keep warm and heat food. Unknowingly, they set the fires atop drums of the jet fuel, so it was with great trepidation that we were able to put them out. We had no interpreter, but they must have had some understanding that we were taking them to safety. In the meantime, the Chinese were closing on the beach and had closed off all land routes south. 

We departed Hungnam on the afternoon of 23 December, the last ship to leave with refugees, and after Captain LaRue safely navigated us through the minefields, arrived safely in Pusan on Christmas Eve. However, Pusan was extremely overcrowded with large numbers of UN forces and refugees. We were ordered not to disembark our precious cargo. Just as in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve at the birth of Christ, “there was no room in the inn.” On Christmas Day 1950 we were ordered to Koje Do, an island about 38 miles southwest of Pusan, where on 26 December we disembarked all the refugees, plus five babies born en route from Hungnam. Because there was no pier at Koje, we safely unloaded the 14,005 refugees into two LSTs, one on each side of our ship, for transport to the island. 

The battle of the Chosin Reservoir involved about 20,000 UN troops, made up of approximately 17,000 men of the 1st Marine Division and attached British Royal Marines (the 41 Independent Commando), plus the Army’s 7th and 3rd Infantry Divisions, all of whom had faced Communist forces estimated to have been 10 divisions. The Communist orders were to annihilate the X Corps “to the last man.” The historic battle was fought in the mountainous terrain of North Korea in sub-zero winter conditions. 

The campaign has been termed by historians as one of the most savage battles in modern warfare. It was cited by President Reagan in his first inaugural address as being among the epics of military history. A total of 17 Medals of Honor and 70 Navy Crosses were awarded to the campaign--the most for a single battle in modern military history. Time magazine described it as, “unparalleled … an epic of great suffering and great valor.” 

An historical humanitarian feat occurred that Christmas in 1950 when a total of about 98,000 Korean refugees were saved from North Korea as the UN forces evacuated. Never in recorded history have combatants rescued so many civilians from enemy territory in the midst of battle. It is estimated that over one million descendants of these stoic and courageous Koreans whom we rescued are living productive lives in the Republic of Korea today. 

The Korean Presidential Unit Citation awarded to Captain LaRue and to our ship states that this rescue was a “true example of Christian faith in action.” By a special Act of the U.S. Congress, Captain LaRue and our crew were decorated with the Gallant Ship award for their “courage, resourcefulness, sound seamanship, and teamwork.” The Guinness Book of World Records has certified that the Meredith Victory under the command of Captain LaRue “had performed the greatest rescue operation ever by a single ship.” 

In 1954, Captain LaRue, a WWll veteran of the Murmansk run, left the sea and joined the Benedictine Order as a monk at St. Paul’s Abbey, Newton, NJ, where he took the name Brother Marinus. Once on a Christmas visit with Brother Marinus we brought our son, Alexander, and asked Brother to reflect on his experience during this humanitarian rescue. He remembered that each shell from the gunfire over our ship caused the deck plates to vibrate. But what concerned him most was the possible shortfall of one of those shells onto our ship still laden with 300 tons of jet fuel. I then asked him how, in the face of such danger and the risk of losing his ship and all his men, he was able to make the decision to voluntarily take his ship into the beach. As he thought on that fateful day, he promptly and quietly responded, “The answer is there in the Holy Bible, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’” 

In closing, Brother Marinus’s heroic virtue can best be recognized in his own words: “I think often of that voyage. I think of how such a small vessel was able to hold so many persons and surmount endless perils without harm to a soul. And as 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.”

Thank you and may God bless all seafarers and may God bless America.  

Pictured here:  Bob Lunney with Moon Jae-in, President of South Korea, taken on June 28 at the wreath-laying ceremony at Chosin-Reservoir Battle Monument, National Museum of the Marine Corps, Quantico, VA.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps


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