[Viewpoint]Reaching out for tomorrow
The winter of 1950 was extraordinarily cold. As the Chinese troops pushed down from the North, the U.S. First Marine Division had to retreat from the Jangjin Reservoir on the Gaema Plateau. They were not just fighting against the Chinese but also against the freezing temperatures. A reporter from Life magazine asked a Marine who was digging into a frozen can of food with a fork, “What are you most desperate for?” The soldier hadn’t shaved or slept for days, and his beard was covered with frost. He looked at the reporter with bloodshot eyes and replied, “Tomorrow.”
Fifty-eight years ago on Dec. 13, 1950, Heungnam Harbor was packed with some 100,000 troops, including the retreating U.S. 1st Marine Division from the Jangjin Reservoir, and over 98,000 refugees waiting for ships. But even if the ships arrived, they were for transporting soldiers and military equipment, not for rescuing refugees. However, they remained at the port in fearsome cold since the overland routes had already been blocked and the sea was the only way out.
The Marine’s only hope of “tomorrow” was getting on board a boat.
Hamheung and Heungnam are about 70 miles apart, and if you are determined, you can walk the distance in a day. But 7-year-old Kim Seong-bu, now chairman of Jewu Investment, arrived at Heungnam Port after a seven-day trek. The young boy only traveled at night and hid during the day.
Lee Gwan-hui, now the chairman of the Seonam Foundation, was separated from her fiance at the Air Force base in Hamheung and came to Heungnam. She had to board the ship at the port and go to the South to reunite with Lee Yang-gu, the late founder of Orion.
The Army’s X Corps commander Ned Almond, who also led the First Marine Division and the Seventh Infantry Division, had to make a drastic decision on Dec. 14 to put the refugees on military transport vessels following a desperate appeal by doctor-turned-interpreter Hyeon Bong-hak and upon the advice of Colonel Edward Forney.
Now, the refugees had their “tomorrow.”
However, the priority of the evacuation plan was to transport the troops and military supplies, so the number of refugees was limited to around 5,000. The plan was to take the refugees with the military equipment, the tanks and heavy artillery.
Since getting on board a ship probably meant life or death for the refugees, General Almond decided to take as many civilian refugees as possible, abandoning tons of military hardware.
The supplies that were left behind were destroyed, so that if they fell into enemy hands they would be useless.
Heungnam Harbor was blown to pieces as well just to be safe.
The boy Kim Seong-bu boarded the ship, as did Lee Gwan-hui. The transport arrived at Jangseungpo in Geoje Island a week later. The voyage was a desperate affair, a case of survival of the fittest. Babies were born on board and some people died on the voyage.
The bodies of the dead were thrown overboard and those who clung to life did so with intensity, fearful of not seeing their tomorrow and aware of how close they were to crossing the threshold that divides the living from the dead.
Singer Hyeon In’s “Be Strong, Geumsun” begins: “In the snowstorm and gushing winds at Heungnam Harbor, I cried out your name and searched for you. Geumsun, where are you? Are you lost and wandering around?”
Lee Gwan-hui traveled all the way to Geoje Island by herself and was miraculously reunited with her fiance, Lee Yang-gu. They got married and settled near Yeongdo Bridge.
We are the very ones who created “tomorrow,” the children and neighbors of these survivors. If you are suffering now, please think of the refugees who were waiting to board the ship at Heungnam Harbor in the freezing winter.
Is your situation harder? More desperate? In the end, desperation will bring us tomorrow.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong