‘Military misson became a mission of mercy that saved 14,000 lives.’
In 1950, Leonard LaRue was the captain of a small freighter, the SS Meredith, that had been pressed into service to aid the U.S. military efforts in Korea.
LaRue set sail from Norfolk, Virginia under orders to pass through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to a US base in Japan, to load munitions and military vehicles for delivery to the port of Hungnam, on the east coast of North Korea.
But as he approached Hungnam he saw the situation was chaotic. The Chinese and North Korean armies had driven the Americans and South Koreans to retreat and now more than a hundred thousand soldiers and civilians were crowded into the port city awaiting rescue. The city was in flames and the harbour had been mined so that boats were in great danger of being destroyed.
As Captain LaRue told his biographer: “I trained my binoculars on the shore and saw a pitiable scene. Korean refugees thronged the docks. With them was everything they could wheel, carry or drag. Beside them, like frightened chicks, were their children.”
The Meredith, 455 ft long, had a crew of 47 and cabin-space for a dozen passengers, as well as five cargo holds. LaRue saw no alternative but to fill his ship with refugees. From the afternoon of December 22 until the following morning, about 14,000 people poured on to the freighter. When the holds were full, they were herded onto the main deck, where there was standing room only.
No one was allowed to bring any luggage, which was abandoned in heaps on the dockside. The ship was unarmed – except for LaRue’s personal pistol – and had no doctor, or crewman who could speak Korean. The holds were unheated in midwinter, and the ship’s sanitation was soon overwhelmed and unusable.
The refugees were terrified after coming under communist fire as they fled to the port, and feared betrayal by their rescuers. The Americans, in their turn, feared panic and riot, though, in the event, there was no major incident as the Meredith crawled southward, reaching Pusan on Christmas Eve.
However, this port, too, was swarming with refugees and the authorities turned the ship away. LaRue said he was reminded of the first Christmas Eve when there had been no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph. He sailed on another 50 miles to the island of Koje Do, south-west of Pusan.
On the morning of Christmas Day, all the refugees were shuttled ashore by two US navy tank-landing craft. No one was killed or even badly hurt; and the total put ashore exceeded the number loaded at Hungnam by five healthy babies born during the epic voyage.
In 1954, just three years after Meredith Victory’s miraculous voyage, LaRue entered St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey. He lived the rest of his life there as a Benedictine monk. He considered the 1950 event a turning point in his life, helping to solidify his decision to enter the monastery.
“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 said later. “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.”
His humility, spirituality, and dedication to his fellow man and God never abated. LaRue, or Brother Marinus as he was called until his death in 2001, was a person who inspired others, made a difference in the world, and lived his life as a model of Christian love.
[compiled from Internet sources]
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neigborhood.” (John 1.14)
May the joy and peace of Christmas inspire you as you enter a new year of promise and challenge. God has moved into the neighborhood and goes before us on our journeys.