[FOUNTAIN]Miracle of Meridith Victory“Refugees walked into the cold, waist-high ocean water on a cold day. It was a sight you could not see without shedding tears for all the people endlessly waiting for someone to give them a ride.” Alexander Haig was remembering the Chinese offensive in South Hamgyong province during the Korean War, when he was an aide to Major General Edmond M. Almond and U.S. forces were retreating south. (Mr. Haig later served as U.S. secretary of state.) General Almond disapproved of evacuating the refugees, but after he saw the scene from a reconnaissance plane above Heungnam, he changed his mind. “We cannot return, leaving all these people behind.” This is how the evacuation of Heungnam started in the middle of December 1950.
On December 20, the 7,600-ton SS Meredith Victory neared Heungnam port. The wharf and the sandy beach was overflowing with refugees, and children gawked at the ship. Leonard P. LaRue, the ship’s master, had open orders: “It’s your decision as to how many you allow aboard.” His orders to his crew: “Board as many people as possible without danger to the ship.” The ship carried 14,000 refugees safely to Geoje Island.
This SS Meredith Victory, which remained buried in our memory for 54 years, returned two years ago. The Guinness Book of World Records named the Meredith Victory evacuation as the “largest rescue operation by a single ship,” and called it the “ship of miracles.” Mr. LaRue, who later became a Roman Catholic priest, said later, “There is no love greater than risking one’s life for a friend.”
Robert Lunney, then a staff officer on the Meredith Victory, is now a New York attorney. In his home, the Korean national flag hangs on the wall. He said, “Even in such a tragic situation, the Koreans showed surprising patience and courage. The true heroes were the refugees.” Mr. Lunney was recently awarded an honorary degree by a university here.
The Meredith Victory, which should have been preserved as a historical memento, no longer exists. It was dismantled in 1993 by a shipbreaking yard in China. On Geoje Island, where the Meredith Victory arrived, is a memorial sculpture, but no one shows much interest in it. The Korean press have only written short articles about the sculpture. The evacuation of Heungnam now remains only in the lyrics of an old Korean pop song: “Heungnam port, where snow drifts hard and icy winds blow...” This being our situation, how could we dare say, “Nations that do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it.”
by Lee Chul-ho
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.