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Ship of Miracles: 14,000 Lives and One Miraculous Voyage

Ship of Miracles: 14,000 Lives and One Miraculous Voyage

by Bill Gilbert

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It was a miracle worthy of the season. From his twelve-man merchant ship, the Meredith Victory, Captain Leonard La Rue spied a throng of Korean refugees on the docks of a city in flames. He didn`t hesitate to do what others would consider impossible. In December of 1950, La Rue and his skeleton crew rescued fourteen thousand Korean refugees from the hands of the


It was a miracle worthy of the season. From his twelve-man merchant ship, the Meredith Victory, Captain Leonard La Rue spied a throng of Korean refugees on the docks of a city in flames. He didn`t hesitate to do what others would consider impossible. In December of 1950, La Rue and his skeleton crew rescued fourteen thousand Korean refugees from the hands of the rapidly-approaching Chinese army in the city of Hungnam. Through the night and next day, a seemingly endless succession of refugees boarded the Meredith, their will to live and strong spirit steeling them against the bitter cold and incredibly crowded conditions. Standing shoulder to shoulder for three days the refugees and crew stoically endured as La Rue steered the ship through sea battle, a thirty-mile web of sea mines, and enemy shelling.

Ship of Miracles is the incredible story of what has been called `the greatest rescue operation by a single ship in the history of mankind.` Against all odds, the little merchant vessel transported its precious cargo to the island of Koje-Do on Christmas Eve completely unharmed, all fourteen thousand refugees alive and well, including an additional five new lives begun on this incredible journey.

Bill Gilbert is the author of 18 books, covering politics, sports heroes, business, government and World War II. A former reporter for the Washington Post, he served in the air force during the Korean War.

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Ship of Miracles

14,000 Lives and One Miraculous Voyage

By Bill Gilbert

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2000 Bill Gilbert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62368-491-4


Innocent Victims and Their Terror

In bone-chilling temperatures and howling winds, with the imminent threat of enemy gunfire aimed at his ship from the beach and return fire from the USS Missouri, four destroyers, two heavy cruisers, and four rocket ships sailing over him back toward the shore, destiny was summoning a thirty-seven-year-old Merchant Marine captain from Philadelphia.

Captain Leonard LaRue stood on the deck of his five-year-old, ten-thousand-ton freighter, the SS Meredith Victory, in the harbor at Hungnam, North Korea, 135 miles into enemy territory, in the sixth month of the Korean War, Christmastime 1950. "I trained my binoculars on the shore and saw a pitiable scene," he later wrote. "Korean refugees thronged the docks. With them was everything they could wheel, carry, or drag. Beside them, like frightened chicks, were their children."

He was looking at nearly one hundred thousand terrified North Korean refugees — old men, women of every age, and children, the innocent victims of every war — who were desperately fleeing the Chinese Communists, who had threatened to behead any North Korean civilians, even though they were supposedly on the same side. The Chinese angrily charged that the civilians had been aiding the Americans and their allies.

Hundreds, even thousands, of family tragedies were unfolding on those docks. Kim Jung Hee, a twenty-nine-year-old mother of three young children — two daughters and a son — carried her youngest child, Won Suk, a little girl about two years old, on her back. At the same time she clutched the hand of her son, five-year-old Doo Hyuk, with one hand and held her husband's hand with the other as he carried their oldest child, their ten-year-old daughter, Koon Ja.

They lived in the North Korean city of Wonsan, sixty miles south of Hungnam. They owned a jewelry store where they sold diamonds and other gems. As the war grew worse, and with their fear of the Communist regime in the north, they made the fateful decision to leave Wonsan and escape to South Korea, where they hoped to find safety and freedom for themselves and their children.

They were so desperate that they were willing to walk, even in the subzero temperatures and with snow on the ground. Kim Jung Hee's nephew, Major Peter Kemp, is now a major in the United States Army. He relayed questions from me to his aunt, who is now seventy-nine years old and lives in Seoul. Together we were able to piece together her story.

They left her husband's parents behind in Wonsan. Her husband's brothers and sisters had already been drafted into the North Korean Army. Kim Jung Hee's own family lived much farther away, near the border of Siberia, so she was forced to leave them behind, too. Their decision to leave their families was made easier, she said, because everyone believed that those who were evacuating would be able to return to their homes in only a few months. The rumor going around was that the United Nations forces were retreating, but that their retreat was only temporary — everyone would soon be able to come back home. Neither Kim Jung Hee nor her husband, Lee Man Sik, ever saw their parents or other family members again.

The walk "seemed like forever," Kim Jung Hee recalled. It was "very cloudy," she said, and "extremely cold." She estimated that their journey took at least two days, maybe several more. As they walked, they passed the bodies of those who were not able to survive even the first leg of their desperate journey to safety and freedom. There were "a lot" of people on the road, also traveling by foot to Hungnam, lending credibility to statements by veterans of Hungnam that the North Korean people "were voting with their feet," expressing their displeasure over the ironfisted rule of the Communist Party in their country.

On the way to Hungnam they were strafed and bombed by war planes. Kim Jung Hee was unable to tell whether they were American or Russian planes. They had to dive for cover on the side of the road several times. The parents almost became separated from their children during the air attacks when all of them ran for protection from the planes as they swooped down on the wide-open refugees.

After they reached Hungnam, they found that the scene at the city's dock was "chaotic," with pushing and shoving and soldiers trying to separate the refugees from military personnel so the refugees wouldn't board the ships intended to transport the troops. After the military boarding was complete, the soldiers still on the beach (the men of the United States Army's Third Infantry Division) helped the refugees to board other ships to sail out of the harbor at Hungnam and head for the southern tip of Korea and another port city, Pusan.

As the vast crowd surged back and forth, with refugees extending all the way to the horizon and more flooding in by the minute, Kim Jung Hee's husband told her he was going to look for food for the family. Lee Man Sik took their daughter Koon Ja with him. He told his wife, "Stand here. We'll be right back." After he left, the throng grew more desperate due to both the sheer numbers and the growing fear among the refugees that the American ships might leave at any minute. The refugees were urging those in front of them to hurry, to board the ship — not knowing what kind it was, where it was headed, or what their fate might be if they boarded it. All they knew was that it was a ship, and a ship — any kind — was their only hope for survival.

Kim Jung Hee felt the surge of the crowd around her and heard people telling her to keep moving ahead. She wanted to wait right there, as her husband had told her. She was afraid that any step in any direction would mean they would not find each other. But even her neighbors from Wonsan around her were growing anxious. As the eagerness of everyone on the dock increased, the force of the crowd pushed the young mother and her two children toward a ship, an American "LST" (the Navy's initials for landing ships that carry tanks). Some in the mass of humanity were telling her, "Come on. Let's go. This may be the last ship out."

Those who saw the scene at Hungnam in 1950 say that it was like that other famous scene of desperate human beings, the people of South Vietnam who overran the United States embassy in Saigon and reached for the helicopters from the roof as American personnel completed their pullout at the end of the war in 1975.

At Hungnam, the crowd literally pushed Kim Jung Hee on board the LST with her two children. As she looked around anxiously but futilely for her husband and their third child, she never imagined in her worst fears that she would spend the rest of her life looking for them. Today, as she enters her eighties, she still looks.

* * *

A seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, Jung Park, stood with her mother, hoping against hope to be squeezed onto one of the countless fishing boats that bobbed up and down in the harbor. By the time Jung and the rest of the jam-packed passengers sailed out of Hungnam in their small boat, the ship rode only inches above the water. Eventually the refugees were forced to throw all of their earthly possessions overboard, those few belongings they had been able to pack on their backs or on ox-drawn carts to the beach. Jung painfully threw over her brother's accordion and guitar, two of her family's few sources of happiness during the five years of harsh Communist dictatorship in North Korea since the end of World War II.

Another schoolgirl, Soon Park (no relation to Jung), was hurriedly transported by pickup truck from her school in Hamhung, only eight miles away, after her teacher urged the family to leave immediately for Hungnam and try to get on a boat.

Soon's grandfather was the first Christian minister in North Korea and her family was strongly anti-Communist. Word had reached Hamhung that her family was in danger and should evacuate. School officials provided a truck and offered to drive the family to Hungnam with other students, but Soon's mother refused. Instead, crying and frantic, she chose to stay home to be with Soon's father, employed by a construction company, and their only son. Meanwhile Soon, separated from her family, began the drive toward Hungnam with her classmates, on roads already crowded with other fleeing refugees. It was the first time she had ever left home.

Soon, now retired after working as an instructor and an office clerk in a driving school that she owned with her husband in Kensington, Maryland, remembers that the students all expected to return to Hamhung "in three days." She was unable to return, and never saw her parents again.

Other refugees suffered similar trials. Ashley Halsey Jr. described some of them less than four months later in The Saturday Evening Post of April 14, 1951: "One man brought only his violin. A woman struggled across the gangway with her sewing machine on her head. An entire family began shoving a piano aboard, until told the space was needed for people. Soon people filled every space below decks. Some sat cross-legged and crammed together. Latecomers stood like bus or subway riders during the rush hour. A three-year-old girl held a live chicken in her hand."

The officers and crew on the Meredith Victory watched the scene in horrified disbelief from offshore, with no way of knowing that fate was about to tap them for the most historic role of any of the 193 Navy warships, Merchant Marine freighters, and tiny fishing boats crowding Hungnam's harbor. The ship and her crew were, in fact, about to set a new standard for heroism in naval combat.

The scene of desperation and panic against the backdrop of booming modern warfare was a climactic moment in the largest and most dramatic sea rescue operation in history, a miraculous accomplishment that has been compared to the escape of 350,000 Allied soldiers from the charging Nazis on the beach at Dunkirk, France, ten years earlier.

Barely six thousand yards away, in hot pursuit as they approached a defense perimeter manned by United States soldiers, were 120,000 North Korean and Chinese Communist soldiers ordered to kill the refugees or capture them as prisoners. In front of the refugees was the vastness of the Sea of Japan, their only hope for escape to the safety and freedom of Pusan on the southern tip of South Korea.

The situation at Hungnam's harbor was the latest flash point in the world's newest war, one whose first six months had been marked by a roller-coaster ride of crises and triumphs, of shocking turns, a war that in itself surprised most Americans, many of whom didn't even know where Korea was.


The Way We Were

Korea was governed by Japan until Japan's surrender in 1945 at the end of World War II. The two new super powers in what became the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, strongly disagreed about what Korea's fate should be. The Americans called for free elections. The Soviets, under Joseph Stalin, had designs on the peninsula and refused to permit free elections. A compromise was reached when the two nations agreed to split Korea into North and South along the 38th parallel.

On May 10, 1948, free elections were held in South Korea under United Nations supervision; there were no elections in North Korea. The Republic of Korea — South Korea — was established, with its capital in Seoul, under President Syngman Rhee, a strong-willed seventy-three-year-old who had long pushed for a free Korea. In the North, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established, with its capital in Pyongyang. The government was headed by thirty-six-year-old Kim Il Sung, a much younger man than Rhee.

On March 23, 1949, President Truman approved the withdrawal of all United States troops from South Korea except for five hundred members of a Korean military advisory group. One year later to the month, on March 10, 1950, twenty-nine guerrilla attacks took place in South Korea, as well as eighteen incidents along the 38th parallel. In May the number of attacks and incidents dropped sharply.

As Americans enjoyed the first heady years of peace in the second half of the 1940s and the first days of the '50s, the two Koreas were experiencing increased tensions. Whatever concern Americans felt at that time about international tensions, however, stemmed not from Asia but from Europe, where Stalin was threatening hostilities over the divided city of Berlin, blockading the city in June of 1948 in an attempt to force the Allies out by starving the 2.5 million German residents into submission.

After President Truman ordered the Berlin Airlift and the Soviets backed down in September of 1949, Americans paid little attention to events in Asia, certainly not some place with the strange name of Korea. Instead, they were enjoying life. Their love affair with the automobile reached something of a new level with the manufacture of more than 5 million new automobiles. They were flocking to the movies to see All The King's Men with Broderick Crawford and Adam's Rib starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. On Broadway they were enjoying South Pacific with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Carol Channing.

Movies were still a favorite entertainment for Americans, but something else was giving them pleasure, too. We were going wild over our newest source of amusement, television. We sat fascinated in our living rooms with the lights out and watched shows like Stop the Music, hosted by Bert Parks, The Life of Riley, starring William Bendix, and Mama, with Peggy Wood. Our viewing habits were changing, and so were our living habits. Our routines were being influenced by a new question sure to be heard every day: "What's on TV tonight?" And schoolchildren were being told something new: "No TV until you've finished your homework."

We were singing the hit songs of the day — "Dear Hearts and Gentle People," "Mule Train," "Some Enchanted Evening," and Gene Autry's new Christmas favorite, "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." The New York Yankees were winning the first of their five straight World Series championships under their new manager, Casey Stengel, over the annual sentimental favorites, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Even the serious business of attempting to achieve a lasting peace was a cause for optimism. After John D. Rockefeller contributed several million dollars, the cornerstone was laid for the headquarters of the United Nations on the banks of the East River in New York. Yet as 1949 turned into 1950 and Americans began to hear and read about the greatest this and the greatest that of the first half of the twentieth century, developments began unfolding that threatened what peace we had in those first years of the Cold War.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson mysteriously sent the wrong signal to the Kremlin with a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in January of 1950. Acheson declared that Korea was outside the perimeter of America's vital interests, a statement that could have understandably been interpreted by Stalin in Moscow and Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang as an indication that America would not get involved in defending South Korea in the event of hostilities that might be started by the North.

A young Army lieutenant, newly married and stationed in Tokyo on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur, remembers Acheson's statement to this day. Alexander M. Haig was destined to become White House chief of staff under President Nixon, a four-star general, commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and secretary of state under President Reagan. In April 2000 his memory of Acheson's speech and MacArthur's reaction to it was still clear.

"I can remember how upset MacArthur was," he told me. "I worked right there in his chief's office. That meant I saw him every day. I'd bring papers in to him frequently. I got to know him quite well. He was infuriated at that statement."

When I asked General Haig why Acheson would say such a thing, knowing it was an open invitation to Stalin to go ahead and start something in Korea, Haig said, "I think he genuinely believed it" — that Korea was not a concern of ours.

Did he do it on his own, or did he clear the statement with President Truman before he made it?

"Nobody knows."

Haig added, as one secretary of state evaluating another, "Acheson in other respects was a brilliant guy, far better than he ever got credit for. He was a European expert, totally oriented toward Europe. That dominated the initial phase of the war because the great fear in Washington and the State Department was that by standing up in South Korea — can you believe it? — Berlin would be overrun. That was the main inhibitor, and that's why we sat there with both arms tied behind our backs. It was just bad, bad thinking."

Acheson was not the first American official, or team of officials, to express a distinct lack of enthusiasm for rushing to South Korea's military aid in the event of war. In September 1947 America's military leaders, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that "from the standpoint of military security, the United States has little strategic interest in maintaining the present troops and bases in Korea."


Excerpted from Ship of Miracles by Bill Gilbert. Copyright © 2000 Bill Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bill Gilbert is the best-selling author of eighteen books on World War II, government, politics, and sports. A former reporter for The Washington Post, he served in the United States Air Force for four years, two and a half of which were during the Korean War. He lives with his wife, Lillian, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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