Rear Adm. Lunney and the “ship of miracles” during the Korean War

The following blog post is an excerpt from a speech given by retired Rear Adm.  J. Robert Lunney of the New York Naval Militia during a Memorial Day ceremony held at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park, N.Y., May 27. Lunney served aboard a merchant ship chartered by Military Sea Transportation Service, now Military Sealift Command, during the Korean War and he sailed at all times under military orders. The following account is his recollection of a “great humanitarian feat” that occurred Dec. 25, 1950, when approximately 98,000 refugees were saved from North Korea as the UN forces evacuated.

“Never in recorded history have combatants rescued so many civilians from enemy territory in the midst of battle. It is estimated that over one million descendants of these stoic and courageous Koreans whom we rescued are living productive lives in Korea today.” – Rear Adm. Lunney

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, and in July, officers and crew were flown to Norfolk, Va., to take the S.S. Meredith Victory out of the laid-up fleet in the James River. The Meredith Victory, a merchant ship operated by Moore-McCormack Lines, had been chartered to the Military Sea Transportation Service. During the Korean War, the ship operated under military orders and most of the time it was part of a U.S. Navy Task Force.

Photo courtesy of Adventures of the Blackgang

Photo courtesy of Adventures of the Blackgang

After several shuttle trips between Japanese and Korean ports, the Meredith Victory was called to expedite delivery of jet fuel in drums from Tokyo, Japan, to the Marine Air Wing, Yonpo Airfield at Hungnam, North Korea. This was during the Chosin Reservoir Campaign under the command of Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond, Commander X Corps.

Hungnam, a port on the East Coast of North Korea, is south of the Russian city of Vladivostok. The approaches to the port were through a heavily laid minefield. During September and October 1950 the Navy had lost three minesweepers to enemy mines off Wonsan, just south of Hungnam. Indeed, every conceivable type of mine was found: acoustic, magnetic, contact, pressure and ship counter mines. After advising the sweeper controlling the harbor entrance of our cargo, we were provided charts through the swept channel.

This was now Dec. 14, 1950, but we were unable to discharge as the Marines were evacuating Yonpo under heavy enemy pressure. We were then ordered south to Pusan to discharge the jet fuel. On December 19, with about 300 tons of jet fuel still in our lower holds, we received emergency orders to proceed back to Hungnam where we arrived against enemy forces.

On December 9, Gen.Douglas MacArthur, in the face of overwhelming enemy forces, issued orders to evacuate the entire X Corps by sea to Pusan and other ports in the South.

Army elements, including the 65th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, were deployed in a series of bunkers on the edge of Hungnam. The X Corps Command Post was located in a cave along the beach. As all artillery units were taken out by December 22, the perimeter became dependent on naval gunfire. Thousands of North Korean refugees were pressing toward the water front at Hungnam, their last avenue of escape from the threat of annihilation.

Army representatives serving under General Almond requested Captain Leonard P. LaRue, Master of the Meredith Victory, one of the last ships in the harbor, if he would volunteer to evacuate the remaining refugees from the beach. He was asked to gather his officers together, but without consultation he promptly and quietly agreed to take out as many as we were able.

On the evening of December 22, nested next to a Liberty ship loading military cargo, we commenced embarking the Korean refugees …at all times we had the protective fire overhead from the U.S. 7th Fleet, including the heavy cruisers USS St. Paul (CA-73), USS Rochester (CA-124) and the battleship, USS Missouri (BB-63), in addition to a carrier, destroyer and rocket ship support. The constant naval air and gunfire support allowed us to embark 14,000 refugees. Soon after we departed, the entire port was blown up.

We departed Hungnam on the afternoon of December 23, the last ship to leave with refugees, and after negotiating the minefields, we arrived safely in Pusan on December 24. However, Pusan was extremely overcrowded with huge numbers of UN forces and refugees [so] we were ordered not to disembark. On Christmas Day 1950 we were ordered to Koje Do…where we [finally] disembarked all the refugees.

Because there was no pier at Koje, we safely unloaded the 14,000 refugees into two tank landing ships, one on each side of our ship, for transport to the island.

The campaign has been termed by historians as one of the most savage battles in modern warfare. It was cited by President Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address as being among the epics of military history. A total of 17 Medals of Honor and 70 Navy Crosses were awarded to the campaign – the most for a single battle in modern military history. Time Magazine described it as, “unparalleled …an epic of great suffering and great valor.”

By a special act of the U. S. Congress [S.S. Meredith Victory] and crew were decorated with the Gallant ship award for their “courage, resourcefulness, sound seamanship and teamwork.” The Guinness Book of World Records has certified that the Meredith Victory “had performed the greatest rescue operation ever by a single ship.”

“The idea of war isn’t just about bombs and bad guys, it’s also about preserving the integrity of a nation and the dignity of its people – we felt that we had done that.” – Rear Adm. Lunney

Personal photo of Rear Adm. J. Robert Lunney aboard S.S. Meredith Victory in Hungnam, North Korea, December 1950.

Personal photo of Rear Adm. J. Robert Lunney aboard S.S. Meredith Victory in Hungnam, North Korea, December 1950.

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