Officer remembers the 1950 ‘Christmas Miracle’

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Officer remembers the 1950 ‘Christmas Miracle’


Left: J. Robert Lunney, former rear-admiral of the U.S. Navy and retired lawyer, recalls the circumstances of the Korean War-era Hungnam Evacuation, code-named “Christmas Cargo.” Right: A young Lunney aboard the SS Meredith Victory. [AHN JUNG-KYU, WORLD PEACE FREEDOM UNITED]

At the docks of the port city of Hungnam, North Korea, bullets flew by as evacuees raced to climb aboard the SS Meredith Victory in December 1950.

A U.S. Navy captain named Leonard Larue (1914-2001) took on 14,000 evacuees that day and sailed to Geoje Island in South Gyeongsang, South Korea in the Meredith Victory, a 7,600-ton merchant marine vessel. The miraculous 16-hour operation was a success - in 2004, the Guinness Book of World Records cited it as the largest transportation of evacuees ever.

No lives were lost and, along the way, five babies were born. The mission’s codename was “Christmas Cargo.” It would later come to be known as the “Hungnam Evacuation,” and is sometimes called the “Christmas Miracle.”

Robert Lunney, a 90-year-old retired rear-admiral who was then an officer under the command of Larue, helped make the Hungnam Evacuation possible.

“The true heroes of the Hungnam Evacuation were the evacuees who boarded that ship in search of freedom,” he says. Three of the refugees aboard the Meredith Victory were the parents and sister of President Moon Jae-in, who was born three years later in January 1953 in the village of Myeongjin in Geoje County, South Gyeongsang.

Lunney gave the following interview from his home in Bronxville, New York, on Monday.

Q. What do you think of the fact that President Moon Jae-in’s parents and sister were aboard the Meredith Victory at the time?

Well, I think it’s very significant that today we recognize that the parents and the older sister of President Moon were rescued by the Meredith Victory, and when you think your president today would never have been born, much less achieved his political stature, unless he had been evacuated with us from Hungnam.

What were the circumstances behind the Hungnam Evacuation?

We still had 300 tons of jet fuel and drums in the ship but the emergency orders said to go as fast as possible to Hungnam. We had 12 officers and 35 crew members and we were serving under the great leadership of a fine captain, Captain Leonard P. Larue.

Captain P. Larue took the ship into port and at that time, the Chinese were perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 yards away. Because there was very little room to tie the ship to any dock or pier, we were told to tie up to a ship that was loading cargo.

You must understand that the UN was trying to take out as many cargo tanks, equipment and personnel as possible.

Later on, it was General MacArthur who gave the order to General Almond to begin taking as many of the refugees as possible.

We began loading that evening, on December 22nd, 1950, all the Korean refugees who were pouring into the city, which was partially aflame from enemy gunfire.

We had completed loading all the refugees, and you must keep in mind that the Chinese were now closing in several thousand yard from the ship, so there was great concern about the Chinese communists overrunning the ship.

It was on December 23rd, late in the afternoon, 19:50, when we finished loading as many as possible and the final count was 14,000 North Korean refugees aboard our ship.

En route to Busan, our destination, according to our orders, five babies were born aboard the ship.

We arrived at our destination in Busan on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1950, and unfortunately we were denied the opportunity to offload the Korean refugees into port.

Christmas Day, December 25th, 1950, we received orders to proceed to the island of Geoje.

I always recall as the Korean refugees departed our ship, a number of them turned toward the officers who were stationed in the house and gave us a slight bow. So we landed 14,000 and five people at Geoje.

When you meet President Moon Jae-in, what would you like to tell him? (President Moon arranged to meet Lunney in Washington, D.C. on his first visit to the United States at the end of June).

The first thing I would like to do is congratulate him on his election and express my admiration for his people. And look at that great success of the Korean people and what they have accomplished.

When we left the country at the end of the war, the whole peninsula was in ruins. I remember viewing the landscape with just chimneys standing in the village. Every village was completely destroyed. So, I would express to him my admiration for the Korean people and trust that he will be a great leader and work for peace and continue a fine relationship with America.

One other thing I would mention to your new president is the great contribution made to America by Korean-Americans. When they come here, they have established their homes and their families, they are entrepreneurs, they establish their own businesses, their children are going to the finest universities, obtaining great awards and prizes. And they pay their taxes, they’re law-abiding. They’re very good people.

But other than that, we in America have had the opportunity to observe Koreans in our own nation and what they’ve accomplished and what they’re contributing to America. I would express our great love and affection for all the Korean people, and we hope to see the Korean peninsula united in our lifetime.

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