As explosions shook the earth and echoed for miles and ear pounding heavy artillery fire blew-up everything it reached, the stench of death seemed everywhere and thousands of civilians fled for their lives.
It was Christmas time 1950, and this part of the Korean War was being fought near the port city of Hungnam in North Korea as the Chinese and North Korean armies were pushing out the U.S. and South Korean armies. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians got caught in the middle.
Offshore, the U.S. Navy shelled the advancing forces. On shore, the docks were overrun in chaos jammed with 105,000 U.S. and South Korean troops and all around them were 90,000 frightened North Korean civilians trying to get out.
It was then the U.S. merchant marine vessel, the Meredith Victory, captained by Leonard LaRue was ordered to rescue as many civilians as it could. Ordinarily it delivered ammunition, tanks and trucks to the U.S. troops and was designed to carry just 47- crewmen and 12- passengers.
“I trained my binoculars and saw a pitiable scene,” Captain LaRue recalled. “Korean refugees thronged the docks. With them was everything they could wheel, carry or drag. Beside them like frightened chicks, were their children.”
On the dark, cold night of Dec. 22nd, the Meredith Victory began boarding the refugees. To make as much room as possible, Captain LaRue had them leave their possessions behind. Somehow 14,000 passengers were squeezed into the five cargo holds and shoulder to shoulder across the deck, a miracle in itself.
The next day, the Meredith Victory headed for Pusan, South Korea, through heavily mined waters with no mine detection equipment. The holds had no lighting so the people stood in the dark. The toilet facilities were vastly inadequate, there was little food or water, no translator, no blankets, no doctor and the only weapon was the gun in the captain’s pocket.
Like a roller coaster, the ship rose and fell with the powerful waves and conditions on board were miserable. Some passengers were claustrophobic and sea sick but they held on for their survival depended on it.
On Christmas Eve, they arrived in Pusan and everyone was greatly relieved and anxious to leave the ship. Then Captain LaRue was told by South Korean officials Pusan was already overrun with refugees, and the Meredith Victory was turned away. The officials suggested they go to Koje Do island, 50 miles southwest.
The conditions seemed unbearable. The air was frigid, on board supplies scarce and they would have to again bear it, with the hope they could dock at Koje Do, for as in the biblical story, Pusan had no room at the Inn.
They arrived at Koje Do on Christmas day and found the dock was tiny and packed with people. But this time they were welcome. They were joined by two U.S. Navy landing craft normally used to deliver tanks on shore in combat conditions and those craft delivered the 14,000 refugees on to the dock.
Not a single refugee died during this perilous journey and five tiny refugees were born. 14,000 people had been saved under seemingly impossible circumstances.
Later the U.S. Maritime Administration called it the greatest one ship rescue operation in history.
Captain LaRue was deeply moved by what happened and he was never the same again. He was a veteran of the merchant marines from the Korean War and World War ll and remained in command of the Meredith Victory until 1952 when it was decommissioned.
In 1954, Capt. LaRue dramatically changed his life. He said goodbye to the sea and his career to become a monk with the Benedictines at St. Paul’s Abbey. As Brother Marinus, he spent the rest of his life, until his passing in 2001 at the age of 87.
“I think of how such a small vessel was able to hold so many persons and surmount endless perils without harm to a soul,” he remembered. “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.”