June 16, 2009
Article about RJ's documentary "SHIP OF MIRACLES" on front page of The Seoul Times

Article about RJ's documentary "SHIP OF MIRACLES" on the front page of The Seoul Times.

"The Ship of Miracles"
SS Meredith Saves 14,000 Korean Refugees

"The Ship of Miracles" Turned into Book, Documentary

Special Contribution
By Elsa Sherin Mathews

SS Meredith, also known as "The Ship of Miracles"

It is a tale that almost slips out of attention and, consequently history. But the mere mention of the rescue of 14,000 refugees in an American cargo ship designed for twelve during the Korean War seems to surprise historians, filmmakers and military generals alike. So it is not a surprise when filmmaker RJ Mchatton, stumbled upon the fascinating story of Captain Leonard La Rue and how his cargo ship saved 14,000 north Koreans during the Hungnam evacuation, he decided to make a film.

"It was a snowy day in Oregon and I happened to come across a newspaper obituary of Leonard La Rue. It mentioned how La Rue's ship the SS Meredith (Victory), also known as "The Ship of Miracles," had saved 14,000 Korean refugees during the Korean War of 1953 in which USA intervened," says Mchatton, "It was a piece of history I was unaware of."

However, it was difficult for him to find books about the US intervention in Korean War. One reason was that the US intervention in Korea was considered to be a 'forgotten war.' Some considered it to be a police action rather than a war. Finally, Mchatton came across the book titled The Ship of Miracles by Bill Gilbert and decided to base his documentary on it.

Captain Leonard La Rue

Mchatton's documentary, which took him five years to complete, features not only the historian Bill Gilbert but also marines who were involved in the rescue operation. It uses footage of the Korean War from the National Archives. However, the main hero of this story is Leonard LaRue, also known as brother Marinus, captain of the ship Meredith Victory. He and his crew saved 14,000 people on a single voyage during the Korean War in 1950. A few years later became a monk in New Jersey, where he ran a gift shop.

The story of the Meredith Victory wasn't known until author and historian Bill Gilbert started researching on the role of merchant marine during the Korean War. Author, Bill Gilbert, while researching the role of the merchant marine during the Korean War, was given a bunch of papers by Jean Mansavage, Deputy Director, Archive of Defense, documenting the incident during the Korean War. "A group of officers were discussing the event, some said it must have been 1,400 but when I said it was 14,000 they couldn't believe it," says Mansavage in McHatton's documentary.

In 1950 at the height of the Cold War Communist North Korea was locked in a fierce battle with South Korea which was backed by the capitalist forces. The conflict arose from the attempt of the two Korean powers to re-unify Korea under their respective governments.

14,000 refugees in an American cargo ship SS Meredith Victory

Conflict escalated on the 38th parallel before the war. Under the aegis of the United Nations, nations allied with the United States intervened on behalf of South Korea.

On Nov. 24, 1950 Gen. Douglas MacArthur launched a major offensive in the Western sector with the intention of ending the war in Korea. But by November 28 the Chinese communists had entered the fighting in far greater force driving the UN troops back.

At the Chosin reservoir, the marines found themselves surrounded by Chinese troups. MacArthur ordered a retreatment of men and equipment to the port city of Hungnam and American troops started preparing for the largest military evacuation in military history.

Everything of military value in the city of Hungnam was to be destroyed. Huge shipments of military equipments had flown into the area for weeks to supply the expected military march to the Manchurian border. Hungnam was the largest amphibious evacuation in military history. It involved the evacuation of 105,000 soldiers, 17,500 vehicles and 350,000 tonnes of equipment. It was destroyed in December 1954.

The Battle of Chosin, which is considered to be the toughest military battles in US history after Iwojima, is central to the understanding of the Korean War in which 30,000 UN troops under the command of Ned Almond faced approximately 120,000 Chinese troops.

However, during the evacuation, the refugees started to emerge as a problem. "There was a long line of refugees along the beach as far as the eye could see, yearning for freedom with their only access the sea." says Joseph Stewart an American marine.

During this period of crisis one man emerged as the Schindler of Korea. This was Dr. Bong Hak Hyun, who died in 2007. In his interview to Mchatton he says "I wanted the refugees to get out because many of them were my friends or my friends' parents." It was Dr. Hyun who convinced La Rue the captain of Meredith Victory, a cargo ship constructed during World War II designed to carry 12 people, to carry 14,000 refugees to safety as the communists started killing the people. "He made the decision himself and never asked any of the officers. Our job was to get them on board and pack them away," says Albert Golembeski, second mate SS Meredith Victory.

But once on the deck, there was a different kind of battle going on. "We filled each deck with people standing up and then covered them with hatch beams and then fill the next deck. When we finished filling all the decks, we filled the main deck, which finally looks like Times Square on New Year's Eve," says Burley Smith, Junior third mate SS Meredith Victory.

Merl Smith Engineer USS Meredith victory was a witness to the Korean refugees' desperation for food. "I opened the porthole and their arms were stuck out like spaghetti holding mugs. I poured a drink into one. I remember I filled one cup and that really started the stampede," he says in the documentary.

The Koreans started fires to keep themselves warm and that posed a major problem as the drums on board contained jet fuel. There was also the risk of plague.

Whatever were the challenges, the head count of 14,000 was increased by five by the time the ship reached its destination south of Pusan, for there were five babies born on the deck.

"Some new kids were born into this world, I wonder what they are walking around thinking," Dino Savastio, Chief Mate SS Meredith Victory.

However, when the SS Meredith victory reached Pusan, they were told that they couldn't dock.

They then sailed us to an island south of Pusan and finally disembarked the refugees in the island of Koje-do(now called Goeje-Do).

The US maritime administration termed it as ‘the greatest rescue operation by a single ship in the history of mankind'

For Captain La Rue, this was a turning point of his life. Four years later he became a monk of the Benedictine order at the St. Paul's Abbey in New Jersey after the incident.

In 1958, Captain Larue and the crew of Meredith victory were recognized with a special presidential citation. Captain Larue reluctantly agreed to accept this honour in NY city.

The SS Meredith Victory was conferred the Gallant Ship Award on August 24, 1960. The rescue operation was recently featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the greatest sea rescue in history.

RJ Mchatton's documentary "The Ship of Miracles" is available on DVD.

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