Burley Smith was born in Islip, New York, on January 9, 1929. As a child during the Great Depression, his family moved around but he spent most of his elementary and high school years in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He does not remember learning about Korea in school, but his strong interest in learning about what was happening in the world fueled his love for reading newspapers and learning about Korea. Shortly after graduating from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, he was assigned as a Junior Third Mate to the SS Meredith Victory in Norfolk, Virginia. During his six month assignment in Korea, his vessel was part of the convoy for General MacArthur’s infamous Inchon Landing and the revered Heungnam Evacuation.
Riding the Waves of a Typhoon
Burley Smith provides an account of the hours before the historic landing in Incheon Harbor by MacArthur that cut off the North Korean Army. The SS Meredith Victory was the last ship in General MacArthur's convoy. The night before the landing, he remembers seeing waves breaching the side of the vessel and realizing that they were in a typhoon. Due to the intensity of the waves, he recalls Captain Leonard LaRue having to crawl up to the bridge and giving the orders. He shares that miraculously and with a little luck, they were able to bring the ship back in line and into Incheon Harbor.
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We Loaded as Many as We Could
Burley Smith provides an account of the role the SS Meredith Victory played in the evacuation of around fourteen thousand civilians during the 1950 Hamheung Evacuation. Throughout the process of the evacuation, he admires the behavior of the refugees during the evacuation and notes the bravery they exhibited. He notes that the ship was most likely sent there to load equipment but they ended up only loading people. He elaborates on the process of loading refugees into the holds and the living conditions they endured during the trip.
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The Level of Trust was Remarkable
Burley Smith explains issues the SS Meredith Victory faced trying to dock and unload the refugees. He recalls the fear of plague delaying the ability to dock and resources being to be brought to the vessel. Through it all, he remembers the excitement the refugees exhibited and the remarkable level of trust they had in the crew.
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It is Remarkable It Happened Without Any Incidents
Burley Smith gives details about the minefields of Hamheung harbor. He recounts how the United States Navy marked the minefield for them to navigate around the mines. He describes the United States Navy minesweepers maneuvering beside them to mark the minefield which allowed them to navigate through the mines. Along with this, he shares that the refugees were never searched and could have overtaken the ship at any time. For these reasons, he shares that it is remarkable that it all happened without any incidents.
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Hitchhiking Their Way Home
Burley Smith reminisces about the time he and a fellow merchant marine, Merl Smith, become stranded on a trip to see the front line. After hitching a ride up to the front, their pilot receives orders to head to Japan. He elaborates on their journey back to the SS Meredith Victory, which includes a ride in a Sherman Tank and an encounter with bed check charlie.
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An Impressive Show of Gratitude
Burley Smith shares how impressed he was by Former President Moon Jai-in’s reaction to finding out that his parents traveled on the SS Meredith Victory. He explains that he connected with Moon Jai-in through letters. During a visit to Korea, he was honored at a ceremony at the Geoje-do Monument.
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[Beginning of Transcribed Material]
I: It’s January 17, 2023, beautiful and splendid city of Miami, Florida. My name is Jung Woo Han. I am the President of Korean War Legacy Foundation which has more than 1,500 Korean War Veterans interviews, not only from the United States but also from 21 other countries that participated in the Korean War from 1950 to ’53. We are doing this, first of all, to preserve your memory because it’s been a long time ago.
But at the same time, we want to honor your service and your sacrifice and your contribution to the Korean people and what Korea is now. Most importantly, we want to make this interview into curricular resources for the Social Studies and History teachers so that they can use this to recognize all those people, American young men and women, who happened to see Korea when it was really poor.
It’s my great honor and pleasure to meet you, sir, especially since you are the only survivor of the Hungnam Evacuation, the miracle, historical event that happened in 1950 through Meredith Victory. So, I’m very excited, and thank you again for this beautiful setting with your wife Barbara with us. Please introduce yourself. What is your name, sir? And spell it for the audience please.
B: My name is Burley Smith. That’s spelled B for boy, BURLEY Smith. Smith is easy to spell.
I: And what is your birthday?
B: Birthday is January 9, 1929. Just last week was my birthday.
I: So, now that makes you
I: I cannot believe it, even with the strong sun here. You don’t seem to have much
B: I keep thinking it’s 104 for some reason. It’s only 94.
I: Wow. You seem to have longevity, really strong genes.
B: Well, I don’t know. Barbara says it’s all her tender care that has brought me this far.
I: Wow, 94.
I: Yeah. Where were you born?
B: I was born on Long Island in a town called Islip.
I: Could you spell it?
B: ISLIP. And lived there for a short time. That was my mother’s home.
I: Uh huh.
B: And then as a young man, I spent, during the Depression, during the ‘30’s, my family moved a lot around Philadelphia and New Jersey, New York.
My father had several jobs. And I ended up spending most of my high school years and grade school years in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
I: Tell me about your siblings when you were growing up.
B: Well, I was the eldest of four. And we were two boys and two girls.
And being the eldest, I was rather isolated from them in later years because I was off at school by the time they were still young people. But we were a close family. My father was in the Merchant Marine, the American Merchant Marine. When the War started in 1941, when America became involved, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine as an ordinary seaman and sailed for all war years on the convoys in the Atlantic Ocean,
To Murmansk and to Germany and to North Africa. And also, one of my grandparents was in the Marine business back in the 1850’s. So, there is a thread of Maritime history in our family.
I: So, can you just elaborate on about this Merchant Marine. Is this part of the military? I mean I know it. But I want our young children to know about it because it’s been a long time.
So can you explain? Is it part of the military so if you’re enlisted, you could count it as a military force of the United States or what? How does it work?
B: No. The Merchant Marine is a mystery to most Americans and, I think, to many foreigners as well. The Merchant Marine is not military.
Basically, it has nothing to do with the military except in time of war, it becomes a very important member of the Armed Forces, not that the Merchant Marine people become military officers or military enlisted men, but they are brought into service by the military as contractors to do the work that needs to be done because most of the overseas support operations during wartime are carried out by the Merchant Marine,
particularly at the time of the Second World War, aircraft, of course, were becoming more important. But the Merchant Marines still carried most of the troops, almost all of the cargo and was a very important part of any military operation.
I: So, please answer this question. Let’s say that there is a draft, okay? Everybody has to go to the War and to the military.
But if you enlist at the time as part of the Merchant Marines, were you able not to be drafted?
B: I’m not sure exactly what would happen. I think it would be very unusual for you to be drafted out of the Merchant Marine.
I: Um hm.
B: Because it was so vital to keep the Merchant Marine operating and fully manned.
All of us who went, it becomes a little bit more not complicated but specific, I went to the Merchant Marine Academy as did Merle Smith. And my classmates and I, on graduating after four years at the Merchant Marine Academy, were all commissioned as U.S. Naval officers.
So, we, at that point, became military officers. My father, on the other hand, sailed over in the War as a Merchant Marine seaman, ordinary seaman, not as an officer. He was not in the military but was never called into the military because his job in the Merchant Marine was so vital.
I: So, I can summarize it as originally and by the Institution, you are not, Merchant Marine is not part of the military.
But during the War, they carried so much important role, you know, carrying all the soldiers and cargo and logistical items and weapons and so on so that you are becoming part of the military.
B: You became technically a contractor.
B: For the military.
B: Although an ordinary Merchant seaman is not a naval officer of a naval enlisted person.
I: Perfect. And, but you were commissioned as an officer of the U.S. Navy when you finished the Academy of Merchant Marines.
B: If you went to any of the, in America, we have two systems. We have the Federal System run by the U.S. Government which operates King’s Point, the Merchant Marine Academy which is a civilian part of the U.S. Government. And that trains officers for the Merchant Marines.
At the same time, there are five different state schools that train officers for the Merchant Marines. These are very important schools. The universities in Maine and Massachusetts and New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and California all have Merchant Marine officer training schools.
I: Hm. So, when did you enlist, right, enlist to the Academy?
B: When did I join? An enlistment is a technical term for somebody who enrolls as a soldier or a sailor, not as an officer. There are officers training routes. An enlisted man is one who is not an officer.
I: Um hm.
B: And so, to go into the Merchant Marine Academy technically is not an enlistment because you’re not going into the
B: You become, well this is why it’s so difficult. As a cadet at the Academy, you are a member of the Naval Reserve.
B: You’re a cadet in the Naval Reserve. So, to that extent, you have become quasi military.
B: You’re there if the military needs you. And you can be called up if they need you.
I: So, that’s why you were able to carry that historic mission,
Evacuating so many, more than 100 North Korean refugees because you were not in the military, but you are quasi military but at the right time, you were able to evacuate so many of those North Korean refugees.
B: But remember, out of the 48 people on the Meredith Victory, out of the 48 crew members,
I: Was it 48?
B: Roughly 48.
I: Merle told me 25. So, I thought that was too small.
I noticed there was an error there. An ordinary Victory ship such as the Meredith Victory
I: Um hm.
B: Had a crew of about 48 people, say 48, 50 people.
I: Um hm.
B: Now, of those people, pardon me, the majority of them are not officers. The only officers would be four or five engineering officers. Merle was an engineering officer.
I: Um hm.
B: Four or five deck officers.
I: Um hm.
B: Including the Captain. And a radio officer.
Those were the only officers. Now these people typically would be Naval Reserve. They didn’t have to be, but they might, if they’re Academy graduates, they probably were Naval Reservists.
B: The other 40 or so people were not Navy at all. They were not military. But we were all doing the same job.
I: Hm. So, you were the officer at the time, Naval officer?
I was the Junior Third Mate. I was just, I graduated from King’s Point, the Merchant Marine Academy, in June of 1950, the month that the Korean War started.
I: By the way, Burly. I wanna thank you because we were supposed to have our interview on January 12. But you had some sort of coughing issue, so we postponed it to the 17th. And without your, you know, kindness to do this today, I think I would lose so much important information about the Hungnam Evacuation.
So, I want to thank you for that.
B: Not at all. I’m sorry. This has been, as of yesterday, I was almost completely better. Just a little bit rough sometimes.
I: Not a problem, sir.
B: Yeah. It’s complicated, this whole Merchant Marine thing. Nobody understands the relationship really unless you’ve been involved in it.
B: So, if you wish I can
I: Sure, go ahead.
B: So, on graduation, the week after I graduated, I was, at that point, I had my Third Mate’s license. That’s a commercial license.
I: What is it? A license to do what?
B: Navigating officer on a ship, of any size, any horsepower, anywhere in the world. When you graduate from the Academy, you have the license to, as a watch officer on a ship, you work eight hours a day.
The Junior Third Mate which was my position.
I: Junior Third
B: Junior Third Mate, MATE
I: Um hm.
B: The Junior Third Mate on an American ship is in charge of the bridge, the navigating bridge from 8:00 in the morning until noon.
I: Um hm.
B: And from 8:00 at night until midnight.
Then you have two other officers who are watch officers. You have the Third Mate and the Second Mate who have the watches from midnight until four and noon till four. And the other Mate, the Second Mate who is the navigating officer, is on from four in the morning until eight in the morning and four at night. I won’t go into the detail. But the reason for that is that in the days when we went to sea, there was no GPS.
The ships had to, you used a sextant to tell where you were. And so the Second Mate would be navigating. He had to see the sun and the stars at noon, not at noon, but in the evening and the morning. So anyway, the Third Mate, my job, Junior Third Mate was the four, the eight to twelve watch morning and evening. When we were in port, I would work all day from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon.
And then another mate would work from four, working cart, you know, loading and unloading. When we were in Korea loading and unloading the refugees, of course, all of the mates were down in the holds with the refugees making sure everybody was where they were supposed to be.
I: Um hm. So please tell me about your relationship, friendship with Merle Smith. I had the honor to meet him in his house.
And I was able to listen to him about what he did for the North Korean refugees and after that. And also, he shared his letter that he wrote to his mom on the day of Christmas Eve.
B: Christmas, yeah.
I: Yeah. And he just passed away. I’m so sorry for that. And please tell us a little bit more about Merle Smith and your relationship with him.
B: Well, Merle and I were classmates at King’s Point. We spent four years together at the Academy.
We didn’t really know each other while we were at King’s Point because he was an engineer. And remember, there were a total of about 300 men in each class at the Academy, each year. And so, I never knew him, although we were classmates for four years. The engineers had a completely different curriculum from the deck officers.
The deck officers were concerned with the navigation of the ship, the loading of the cargo, and the engineers were concerned with bumps in the engines and what was going on down below. And Merle used to say that whenever anybody asked him about Korea, he would say well, Burly, you’re got to tell them because I was down below where it was all dark and I never saw what was going on.
So, we really got to know each other during the six months that we were in Korea. The War started in June. Both Merle and I received orders, when we graduated, we applied to commercial companies to get our jobs because we were hired by Moore McCormick line.
I: So, that was June 1950 that you graduated from King’s Point.
I: Academy. And then you applied for commercial
B: So, I applied to Moore McCormick line, and it so happens Merle did also. And we were both assigned, and we didn’t really see each other until we got to the ship in Norfolk, Virginia. So, we reported to the ship in July. I was driving a taxicab for a month in Atlantic City where I lived at that time after I got out of King’s Point waiting for my assignment to my first ship.
And Moore McCormick line called me up and said we have a ship in Norfolk. Go down and join it there. And it turns out that Meredith Victory had been laid up as we call it, had been active all during the Second War. But at the end of the War, hundreds of ships were tied up in Reserve fleets.
I: Um hm.
B: And Meredith Victory was one of the Reserve fleet ships in Norfolk, Virginia.
B: So, we arrived down there and spent three or four days getting the ship ready to move because it had been idle for perhaps a year or so cause it was laid up. And then we, so that’s when Merle and I really got to know each other. Living together as closely as we did on the ship for the period from July of 1950 until January of ’51 when we came back to Seattle.
I: Um hm. What kind of man was he?
B: Merle was a very relaxed, friendly, as his obituary says, he had a wonderful engaging smile. Nothing was ever a crisis with Merle. I’m sure he was a very effective engineer.
And he was a very pleasant person to be with. At the end of the day when we would be anchored in Inchon Harbor after the invasion or in Hungnam waiting to load the refugees, the officers, three or four of us would get together in the officers dining room, a room about as big as this, and we’d play chess in the evening. And we had a little chess board that we had bought in Tokyo, I think, Yokohama before we went to Inchon.
And whoever won the game that night would get a little statue of the three monkeys, see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, the three little monkeys, and you would keep that in your room until the next chess game when you lose it or whatever. But I got to know Merle best then during that period much more than I did at the Academy where I knew him by sight. I didn’t know him as a person.
Pardon me. He and I and Bob Lunny who was the Purser on the ship and Al Koffold, another engineering classmate of ours who was on the ship as an engineer, we did several trips. I think I sent you a picture of one of the trips to Kamakura, the Buddha in Japan.
And a very exciting trip that we took. We were hitchhiking one day, and we went to the airfield in Pusan which was called K9. We called the Korean airfields, the military called them by a number.
B: And the three of us, Merle and Lunny and I went over to the airfield one afternoon, it was a weekend, and we got talking to some of them, everything was very informal because the War was going on.
Chaos was happening, you know. You didn’t know what was, the front line was only 30 miles. The Pusan Perimeter at that point was the extent of what we held still in Korea. And we got talking to a young pilot who said that he was going North, would we like to ride with him? And we were interested in seeing the front line, which was then up at the river in Seoul, the Han.
I: Han River.
B: The Han River. And so, the three of us, the pilot said I have a what we call a DC3 nowadays, a C47 twin engine cargo plane. And he said well, I can take you as far as Suwon.
I: Um hm
B: And he said that’s not all the way to the Han. But he said if you like, you can fly with me. Well, we had to go to work that night, you know. We were supposed to be back at the ship.
But we thought well, if we could get a ride up to Suwon and the Han, then come back that evening, we’ll be on time to go to work. So, we rode up to Suwon, and I remember, this is how I got to Know Merle because you know, we spent some free time together. We got out of the airplane, and there was one Sergeant, one American Sergeant in a tent by the runway. And there was a little road that went by, a two-lane road that had been badly beaten up by the War because by this time, the North had come down and we pushed them back again.
Seoul was already pretty much deserted. This was October. And we got as far as Suwon, and there was no action going on. There were no other airplanes. And the pilot said I’ve got to go back to Japan. Do you want to come to Japan with me? And we said well, we’d love to, but we gotta be at work tonight. So, he left. He flew off to Japan. And there was nothing except the Sergeant, the tent. There was no town because the airfield was outside of the city of Suwon.
So, the three of us were standing there, no traffic on the road at all, late in the afternoon. And we said to the Sergeant
I: Where are we talking about? Are you still in Suwon?
B: So, we said to the Sergeant what do we do? How do we get back to K9, to Pusan?
And he said well, he said, I don’t know. But what you might do is go over and stand by the road there and maybe something will come by and give you a ride.
I: You are kidding me?
B: We were a long way from Pusan at this point. And so, the three of us went over and we’re standing by the road for maybe an hour, and the sun is going down, and you could hear shooting over in the rice paddy somewhere. We couldn’t see any people. But once in a while, there’d be gun fire. And all of a sudden, no traffic until along comes a tank, a Sherman tank going North back up to the front.
And behind it a big truck, you know, one of these trucks with a machine gun on the top and the big canvas back.
B: And it was the crew of another tank that had been repaired, that they couldn’t repair. The first tank was okay. It was going back to battle. The second tank was headed right back in a truck. So the tank stopped and said come on. Come with us. We were going up to Kimpo.
So, we said well, what’s Kimpo? And they said well, it’s an airfield. At least you can get a ride back to Pusan on an airplane. So, if I’m going on too long.
I: No, go ahead.
B: But so, we climbed onto this thing. And I remember I sat in the assistant driver’s seat which is up front on the left side.
B: Wonderful feeling because the tank I would expect to be bumpity, it was very smooth, you know. All the bridges had been destroyed.
So, you’d come to a stream, and the tank would go down into the stream and across. And it was like being in a Cadillac.
B: Nice ride, very easy ride. And all that was sticking out was my head, you know. All the rest of you was down below. And your head is sticking out, looking around. And so, when you hear an occasional gunfire, rifle, you think well, it’s bad, but at least I’m protected. I’m in a tank. So anyway, we got up to the river.
And the tank says we’re gonna cross the river going North, and you’ll have to walk into Kimpo from here. So, we started walking in, and it’s pitch black. And we get to the Guards, the gates of Kimpo Airfield, and the soldiers at the gate, there were no officers, just enlisted men and said you know, we don’t know, who are you? What are you doing? And we said well, we’re from the ship down in Pusan.
And they finally let us in. And we walked into the Headquarters building which was a brick building. All the windows had been blown out.
I: Um hm.
B: And the roof was in bad shape, and there were a couple of Sergeants inside. And we told them what our problem was. And there were a lot of aircraft coming in from Tokyo. And he said alright, we’ll get you a ride back to Pusan. He said just sit down and wait a minute. So, we sat down, and all of a sudden two tremendous explosions right behind the building.
And the soldiers, the Americans, dove headfirst out into open windows cause there was no glass in the windows anymore. I’ve seen that only in movies.
I: Yeah, right.
B: And, just talking about how Merle and I got to know each other. This is the sort of thing we’d do. And it turned out it was a fellow called Bed Check Charlie.
I: Yeah, Bed Check Charlie.
B: He had come in on a little North Korean plane with two bombs. And when he got into the pattern with his lights on and he flew in and kicked these bombs out the door, and they exploded right behind the building that we were in.
And so, Merle and I are standing there watching everybody dive out the windows. So, we went out the front door and hid under a truck for about half an hour until they decided that it was Bed Check Charlie. They were afraid it was a Chinese, not a Chinese, a North Korean mortar battalion.
B: But we had to spend the night, the coldest night I ever spent. And in the morning, they got us a flight back but not before some good-looking young Army Lieutenant came and said who are you guys? What are you doing up here? You’re not, you know, Merchant Marine.
You’re not supposed to be up here. So it was, we had a lot of interesting times during the six months we were out there. But talking about Merle, he was wonderful company. Barbara and I have tried over the years to get him to travel with us. He came with us only once I think in 2018 when we went to Korea. President Yoon invited us over to a reception.
It was earlier? Okay.
I: Yeah. So, it sounds like part of a movie scene, and I will name it as water hitchhiking, you know. You hitchhiked with a tank and then airplane back to K9?
B: That was interesting, too. There was another of the little C47’s.
B: A twin engine. And it was, they put us, after the Lieutenant let us go in the morning. He said you’re not supposed to be her.
And we said yes, we know. We got home, and they put us on the C47. And you know, these planes had little seats that folded down from the sides so you’re facing everybody. Then they filled the airplane with nurses and people they wanted to get out of the front line, young kids whose brothers had been killed in the Second World War.
They were taking them out of the front line so there’d be no family tragedy, you know, with another person being killed. So, we’re all jammed in there facing each other. Then they fill the middle aisle with big bags of mail so that you couldn’t get out of your seat. And we’re flying along, and it was very low, this was October as I said, very low visibility, low cloud mist.
And as you know, a lot of cemeteries in Korea are up on hilltops. So, you’d be flying along in this mist, sort of scary passing mountains looking up at the cemeteries out on the side and bouncing around. And at one point, a young fellow next to me whose brother had been killed in the Second War, oh, the pilot came on the loudspeaker, and he said if there’s anybody who’d like to get some time on the controls flying the airplane, come on up.
So, this young kid next to me stands up and he starts crawling over the mail bags going up to the cockpit and I thought oh my gosh, you know. Here it’s low visibility, low altitude. This kid, they’re not gonna let him fly. He’s gone for about 20 minutes, and he finally comes back, sits down beside me and he says oh gosh. They wanted somebody who knew how to fly. In those days, it was such a casual thing.
We stopped in Taegu to let off some of the people that were being taken out of the front and load more people and down to Pusan. And I’ve often thought that the Captain and the Chief Mate were very kind because we’d been gone from our jobs for 24 hours. They didn’t know where we were, Merle and I. But they never yelled or screamed at us. It was very informal, the whole thing.
I: One day AWOL.
B: One day AWOL, correct.
I: Tell me. You mentioned it before about what high school did you graduate? Where?
B: Atlantic City High School.
I: Atlantic City.
B: In New Jersey.
I: High School. When was it that you graduated?
B: Nineteen forty-six.
I: Nineteen forty-six. Let me ask this question. From elementary up to high school, did you learn anything about Korea?
Did you know anything about Korea? Be honest, okay?
B: Absolutely, learned nothing in school, no. I went to 12 different schools before I graduated from college finally. My interest, though, at the age of 9, 10, 11, 12, my interest in the world and in the War was very strong. I was a stamp collector. So, I knew a great deal more about geography and where Korea was and China and Japan and Chiang Kai-shek.
B: I was reading newspapers, I remember, when I was 12 so that I was keeping up on what was happening in the world. But there was never anything that we learned specifically about Korea.
I: Um hm. So then now you’ve been invited by the former President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, because his parents were in the ship, right, in the Meredith Victory?
B: His parents were in Meredith Victory, yes.
I: Yeah. So
B: About 20 years old, I think.
I: And you are a part of this miracle historical event of Hungnam Evacuation. You know Korea now. How do you put that into perspective? You didn’t know anything about Korea. Now you know and are part of the history. Even invited by the President of the Republic of Korea while he was in the position. What do you think?
B: I think it’s been a great privilege to have, through no credit of my own, to have been involved. And not only to have been involved but to have been able to meet some of the people that I’ve come across. I’ve been especially impressed, I think, by the reaction of Moon Jae-in, you know. When I learned that his parents had been on the ship, I simply sat down, and I wrote him a letter.
And said you may be interested to know that your mother and I were on a cruise together. I have a copy of the letter somewhere if you’re interested in it. And he wrote back, and within several days he wrote back and said yes. And I said that, I think at the time, Barbara, we knew we were going over, didn’t we? Yeah. So, I said that we, and about a dozen friends were coming to Korea. And he said oh, we’d love to have a reception for us at Kojedo.
He wouldn’t be able to come himself. But the house General, I forgot his name.
I: Um hm.
B: The General came.
I: Where were you? You said that you were in, the Meredith Victory was in Norfolk, Virginia, right?
I: And you were working for other commercial. But tell me from there, how did you get into Korea, and what was your original mission?
I mean, supposedly to carry the soldiers and logistical items, right? Tell me about it please.
B: When we reported to the ship in Norfolk, pardon me, it was July as I said, the ship was empty. We knew that we had to take it to Oakland, California which is in San Francisco Bay. And we thought we’d be going to Oakland, and we didn’t know what would happen from there.
So, we arrived in Oakland. We went down through the Panama Canal. It was a trip of about 12 days. So, we must have arrived about the last week in July or first week in August in Oakland where they began loading us with tanks.
B: And other bridge building equipment. And that’s when we found we were going to Korea.
It was still very hot. None of us had anything but light khakis that we wore for work, no uniforms, not winter clothing. And we knew that we were going to go to Yokohama. So, we sailed with a full ship, took 10 or 12 days to get to Yokohama. We went on our own, by ourselves. And we got there, and we were anchored out in the bay in Yokohama for about two or three days.
And then they brought us alongside the docks where they changed some of the cargo, gave us, took something off, put more things on. And we learned that we were going to become part of a convoy. We didn’t know where we were going. And at that time, we went off. Merle and I went off to Kamakura and saw a little bit of Tokyo. But we were anchored out in Tokyo Bay most of the time, so there wasn’t a lot of time to see Japan.
I had been there before as a cadet when I was going to the city. And finally, we set sail about the 10th of September.
I: Um hm.
B: The convoy left Tokyo Bay. My recollection is there were 18 of us. I’ve seen the figure of 19. But there were roughly 18 ships. There were three lines of six ships each.
Up in the front was MacArthur on the big transports, the big P2 transport.
I: So, you’re talking about all 18 ships with MacArthur in it in the front one.
B: The 18 ships were three columns of ships.
I: Uh huh.
B: Three columns of six each with MacArthur up front on one of the big transports.
B: Now those big transports were manned by military ships. They were not Navy ships with lots of guns. They were lightly armed. But they were communication ships and troop-carrying ships. These were different from ordinary merchant ships like the Meredith Victory.
B: We were the last ship in the right-hand lane. So, we sailed from Tokyo down through the Inland Sea through North of Sasebo.
And around the bottom of Korea, none of us knew where we were going.
B: But the rumor was that all the girls in the bars in Yokohama knew where we were going. The captains didn’t know where we were going. But that was the story that we heard.
I: So, all the secret to the girls.
B: The girls knew all the secrets in the bars. That’s the story. So anyway, we went together slowly. I mean, 15, 16 knots is what the convoy did.
And then the night of the 14th of September, I was on watch, pardon me, I was taking over the watch at 8:00 at night, and all during the afternoon, this typhoon Casia had come up the Yellow Sea behind us. And when I came up on the bridge to take over from the Second Mate, he and I were standing out on the open bridge wing on the starboard, the right-hand side, and just checking information and what was going on,
And we took this, the waves, the height of the bridge is about 50 – 55’, about five stories high you can see from the building over there. And each wave that was coming up behind us was about 50 – 55’ high because we could see, as we stood on the bridge, the top of each wave would be at eye level.
B: If you can imagine. It’s hard when you look at that building is five stories.
But that’s what happens in a typhoon. And we took one roll, and it was particularly dangerous because the seas were coming up from behind us.
I: Uh huh.
B: The typhoon was coming up from behind and slightly over on this side, the port side. So, they were coming up like this. And the Mate and I are standing over on the other side of the bridge wing talking, and we took a roll, and we just hung over. The ship rolled over on her right side, and she hung it.
By this time, it’s almost pitch black. It’s September 40 degrees north. So, it’s not quite pitch black, but it’s very dark. You can’t see any of the other ships because of the rain and the fog. We roll over, and the tanks on the deck, these 25-ton tanks, begin to break the chains that were holding them, their lashings.
And as they broke the chains, the tanks would slide down to the lower side of the ship. And we didn’t know for a few seconds whether the ship was going to turn over or whether it was gonna come back up. Fortunately, and miraculously, it did. It rolled back up again. And we were continuing on the same course that we were on. The captain, who’d been down in his room on the deck below, struggled and managed to crawl up to the bridge.
So, he came up with us. And at that point, the weight had shifted down onto the right side of the ship, so we knew that we were in danger then of capsizing. So, the Captain, brilliantly I think, very quiet, very undemonstrative man, just stood there for a few minutes
I: What’s his name?
B: LaRue, Captain Leonard LaRue.
I: Could you spell it?
B: Leonard, LEONARD and Larue, LaRUE, Leonard LaRue. Leonard had stood there, I was standing there beside him on the bridge in the dark, just the captain, myself, the helmsman, the fellow who was steering and the captain, after he assessed the situation, gave the order to come hard left on the wheel.
B: And we did. One of the things I’ve written about this, and I’ve got a number of things that you might be interested in that I’ve written on this. I would have turned the other way because with the ship having all the weight on that other side.
I: Um hm.
B: I thought turning to the right, what we had to do was get the front of the ship back up into the waves.
I: Exactly, yeah.
B: And I thought the safe thing to do would be to go right.
B: And get around that way. But whether the captain took this into consideration, I never did hear. I think what he must have thought since the waves were coming in like this.
I: Um hm.
B: He had a shorter turn to make if he came left. I shouldn’t be getting into all these technical considerations. But
I: No, I think it’s very.
B: The only thing I can imagine went through LaRue’s mind to come left here and get the ship into the waves was less of a turn than if we had to go right and come all the way around and get into the waves.
So that’s what he did. And he told me to put the engines on full ahead on the engine telegraph.
I: Um hm.
B: Telegraph, we got one outside here, you know, the thing that gives the order to the engine room.
B: And the dangerous point, of course, as you come around is when you’re broadside to the waves. Wind is like this, as you come around, as you’re at this point if a wave hits you the wrong way, you’re in real trouble.
Miraculously, we came around. The Skipper got the bow, you don’t want to go directly into the waves but maybe 15 or 20 degrees off. And we rode much easier, slowed the engines so that we’re going very slowly. We were lucky we were the last ship in the line because if we hadn’t been, if there were ships behind us, God knows whether we would have been able to complete it without running into somebody else.
So, you know, the spirits were with us that night. And we got around. And then the rest of my watch until midnight, we just kept running into the sea very slowly. And then the typhoon passed because it was moving up to the north. And by about oh, one or two in the morning the next day, I came on watch at midnight, was able to bring the ship back onto the course,
And we arrived up at the entrance to Inchon Harbor a little bit late for the invasion the next morning.
I: So, we’re talking about, are you talking about that historic moment, the day right before, several hours before the landing of Inchon?
B: The landing was at about five in the morning, six in the morning.
B: And this was happening at 8:00 the night before.
I: Yeah. September 15, the Inchon Landing that cut off the whole logistical line of North Korean Army there.
B: That was a brilliant move by MacArthur, yeah.
I: Um hm.
B: With all the problems that MacArthur had later fighting with President Truman, he did, that was a marvelous move.
I: This is the book that I gave to Burley this morning. And as you can see, in that steering wheel, the second from the center is the (INAUDIBLE) in 1871, right?
The second puzzle, yeah, right there, yeah.
I: Yeah. Eighteen seventy-one (INAUDIBLE)
I: Yeah. And that’s when the U.S. Marines and Navy landed in Inchon.
B: Oh really?
I: Exactly the same spot.
I: Where MacArthur and you were, right?
I: That’s the history.
B: Yeah, interesting, in ’71.
I: That’s the first Korean War that I named it in my book there.
B: Uh huh.
B: What is that Wat known as in history?
I: Because in 1866, the first one, the American Blackship, the General Sherman, was burned down by the people in the near capital Pyongyang, the current capital city of North Korea. At the time it was the (INAUDIBLE) Dynasty.
B: Um hm.
I: They were burned down. So that William Seward, the State Secretary under President Lincoln asked Korea to open it up. Otherwise, we’re going to pay back about the burning of the General Sherman. And (INAUDIBLE) didn’t listen to it. And they, you know, American ship came and had attacked (INAUDIBLE) military.
B: Uh huh.
I: When they came, they landed in Inchon.
B: I’ll be darned.
I: So, I was always, I need to research about this, whether MacArthur knew about this war in 1871 or not.
B: I wonder.
I: Yeah. Because that horrible weather has so much discrepancy of the tide, you know. So, it is very dangerous.
B: Thirty feet, incredible.
I: Yes. So, you were at the most decisive moment in the Korean War battle history which was Inchon Landing.
I: What was in the Meredith Victory that you carried? You said a tank, but you changed something in Yokohama.
B: Well, they, yes. We carried to the Inchon Invasion, we loaded in Yokohama a bridge building unit. We had 120 American soldiers under an American Captain.
I: Um hm.
B: Who were experts at building these temporary bridges. The other 18 ships in the fleet had all sorts of things, you know, similar, guns, trucks. We had, I’m laughing because one of the funny things about the Inchon Invasion was we had on board, we managed somehow to get some Korean stevedores after the initial landing.
I: Korean what?
I: What is that?
B: Laborers to load and unload the ship.
B: So, we were, there were no docks that we could go to. So, we were anchored out. And we had jeeps then. But once we got the tanks ashore
I: Um hm.
B: And the bridge building stuff ashore, we had these jeeps. And we had these Korean boys who were brought out and were helping us to discharge. None of them knew how to drive.
I: Um hm.
B: Perhaps many of them had never been in a truck before.
But on a ship, you have the openings to the hatches as you go down. And then the cargo is stowed out on the side in the wings of the hold. And of course, the tanks had to be in the middle where you could lift them straight up, and they were so heavy. But the jeeps we would put off in the wings. They were only eight or ten feet high. The jeeps all had keys in them, and they all had gasoline.
And many of them had uniforms for the soldiers. But to get them off the ship, you had to move them into the middle where you could drop the hook down and pick them up. So, when I was unloading one day, I was down in one of the holds with the Korean boys, and instead of pushing them as we were doing, I thought well, let’s see if they can drive. So, none of them had ever driven before.
But we had driving lessons down in the hold. It was, they had a wonderful time. And it didn’t matter if they banged up the jeeps a little bit because they were all going to be destroyed anyway.
B: But that’s what we did in Inchon. We unloaded first the very heavy equipment that was up on deck, the bridges and the tanks. And then the other
I: They were able to drive?
B: Oh yeah. I taught them to drive.
I: Right away.
B: Well, I mean they had problems. But some were better than others.
I: So, tell me about what you actually saw in Inchon on September 15. Did you see, can you describe in detail the scene that you saw, the historic Inchon Landing?
B: Well, remember, I was on watch until midnight when we were still heading south into the typhoon.
I: Um hm.
B: So, between midnight and eight in the morning, I was sound asleep in my bed.
I’d gone down. And the ship in the meantime had turned around, rejoined the convoy up at the entrance to the Harbor. So, when I came on deck, it was breakfast time the next morning. We were in the Harbor. The Marines were going ashore from the big transports. The shooting was all going on along the beach. The North Koreans had begun to retreat towards Seoul.
It was only 12, 15 miles to the city. But you could see all of the explosions of the gunfire and the noise and the terrific smoke on the beach as the Marines pushed inland. Merle tells the story, I missed it because I came up about 8:00 on deck. But Merle always told the story of seeing two airplanes come over at about 7:30, just before breakfast.
And they, another funny story, there were two large naval ships anchored not far from us
I: Um hm.
B: In the bay. One was the USS Rochester, a heavy cruiser. And the other was the RNS Jamaica, the British cruiser.
B: And these two North Korean airplanes came over at about 7:30 in the morning.
I didn’t see them, Merle did. And they came right in a little over the fleet and dropped bombs on the Rochester that missed, the American ship. And the Rochester never got a shot off at them. It was very strange. They weren’t prepared. And then as they turned and went to the Jamaica, the British cruiser shot one of them down.
And the other one got away. Merle said it was quite an exciting sight to see this happening.
B: A couple of years later, after all this I went to Harvard to do a degree. And then the Navy got me. The U.S. Navy called me up in 1953 which was three years later after a year back at school.
And I was on the Admiral’s staff in London in late 1953. And the Admiral who was in charge of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Naval Forces, had a little party at his house. And there were about, oh, 12 of us officers at his house one evening. And I was talking to one of the commanders. I was only a Lieutenant, you know, 24 years old.
And I was talking to this commander who I knew had been at the Inchon Invasion on another ship. And I told him about that morning with the two airplanes that had come in. Merle had told me about it. And I said you know, it was really a disgrace. The American cruiser never got a shot off at these. The British ship shot one down. And Commander Laird was his name. He said for God’s sake, he said, don’t let the Admiral hear you say that.
He was in charge of the Rochester that morning. So, he saved me from being very embarrassed. But that was the scene. And then for the next couple of days, gradually the battle line moved from the Port into Seoul, and it was quite quiet there in the Port then.
I: Did you see there was a kind of smooth operation or a lot of resistance from North Koreans?
B: I think it was a fairly rapid retreat after the Marines had landed.
I: Um hm.
B: Of course, from the ship, we couldn’t tell exactly what was going on. And I imagine if you were a soldier on the ground, it wasn’t very comfortable. But I think the number of enemy forces North Koreans there at the time was not terribly strong so that MacArthur was able to cut right through them.
I: So, what happened to you right after that Inchon Landing? Where did you go from there? You didn’t even land, right? You were in the ship, right?
B: We didn’t go ashore.
B: We were there for perhaps 10 days unloading everything.
I: Um hm.
B: We sailed back to Japan. And on the way out, we got outside the Harbor. We’re sailing alone, not in the convoy. And we’re empty of course. And it was a beautiful morning. And we’re sailing along, and the man on watch, it must have been early afternoon,
Man on watch saw a little boat, a sailboat. And we went over and stopped by the boat. And it turned out it was a boat full of North Koreans. There were about 12 North Korean Army deserters.
B: Guys who had deserted from the Army. They were maybe 12 miles out of sea. And we didn’t know what to do with them. So, we contacted the Navy by radio.
B: And they said well, bring them aboard, and bring them back to Tokyo.
So, we did. But one of the pictures I sent you is the cap and the rifle and the spear that. That was the only weapons these fellows had an old Chinese rusty rifle and rusty spear. So, we just loaded them in and we shuffled for the next six months, no, it would be the next three or four months, between Yokohama and Pusan and Yokohama and Inchon.
Just bringing more supplies, excuse me.
I: And then what happened? How did you get into Hungnam area? When did you get that notice?
B: It began to get very cold, as I said.
And by the time we were, excuse me, by the time we made the trip, Merle and I and Lunny, made the trip up to the Han River and Kimpo,
I: Um hm.
B: It was very cold. So, in October, the snow hadn’t started yet.
But I remember staying up there at Kimpo overnight, and it was bitterly cold. And then we kept running back and forth, and we were taking fuel in drums, big 55-gallon drums. And we made a trip into Hungnam with fuel for the airfield up there.
I: Oh, air, so that was the fuel for the plane.
I: Um hm.
B: It was aviation gasoline.
B: And then we were in Pusan discharging the last of one load from Japan when we had almost everything out of the ship except a couple of hundred tons of these drums of airplane fuel.
When suddenly the Army told us get up to Hungnam. We have got a problem. The Marines had retreated from Chosin. They were back down on the coast, and these 100,000 North Korean refugees had come down, many of them with them. So, we went up by ourselves, alone
I: When did you hear about it? Was it in Pusan, right?
B: Yeah. We were in Pusan discharging.
I: Remember the month?
B: Oh yeah. It would have been about December, we arrived up there I think on December 22.
I: Um hm.
B: So, it would have taken us two days. So, around December 15th to December 20th was when we were in Pusan discharging.
I: Um hm.
B: And they told us get up to Hungnam.
I: You arrived in Hungnam on December 22.
B: I think that was the exact date.
I: Um hm.
B: And we got up to Hungnam
I: What did you, what was your original mission when you were ordered to go to Hungnam from Pusan? What was your original order?
B: One assumes that what the Army wanted were as many ships as they could get up there to get the Marines and their equipment out of there.
B: One assumes that was the mission.
B: The decision to take out the refugees was one that I’ve only read about and of course, we wouldn’t have known on the ship what was going on. I understand that one of the Korean advisors was the one who helped convince General Almond and the rest of them.
B: To move out the refugees
which was interesting because on the one hand it would have been possible to say no. Leave the refugees alone. They were North Koreans. They won’t be bothering. Everybody knew they wouldn’t have been fleeing from the North if they were safe, I mean, because the conditions were awful. I’m sure you know better than I what the winters are like up there.
I: Um hm.
B: So, you had all of these people streaming into Hungnam from the North.
Many of them, I don’t know where they’d gotten the food to exist. Their clothing was typical North Korean winter clothing which was adequate, I suppose, for the most part. But they’d been traveling for God knows how long. They had no water, no supplies, no warmth. And they were just all over the docks, you know.
But the one thing though that I have always, Merle and I have both discussed many times.
I: Um hm.
B: The behavior of the North Korean refugees was so incredibly brave, so incredibly good because if it had been a bunch of Americans or a bunch of Italians or a bunch of Frenchmen, there would have been screaming,
And there would have been hollering, and there would have been chaos and people leaping up the side of the ships, you know. You saw the evacuation pictures in Afghanistan when we did that terrible withdrawal from Afghanistan just recently with people just running alongside the airplanes trying to get out. There was none of that. The North Korean civilians were absolutely, I hate to say well behaved,
But they were without panic. They appeared to be without fear. The babies weren’t crying. That was one of the things, and there were so many babies and so many women. They were an extremely brave people. One couldn’t help but admire them tremendously. And when the decision was made to evacuate as many of them as possible, it must have been about December 20th to December 22,
We began loading as many as we could. Now, the ship probably had been set up there to bring out cargo and fuel and whatever else we could load. But we ended up loading only people. That’s all that we loaded. And there were so many ships that did load these people. It wasn’t only the Meredith Victory. There were, some of the other ships must have loaded two or three thousand.
It was a remarkable event. Why the other ships didn’t load more, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because their holds were full of cargo because we were empty except for two spaces, the number two lower hold and the number three lower hold. And in those lower holds, we had drums of aviation fuel which later turned out to be a problem because the refugees began building cooking fires on top of the fuel drums which we didn’t find out right away.
But it could have blown up the ship. So anyway, when the decision was made to rescue as many as the refugees as we could, Captain LaRue just said you know, here’s the ship. Let’s fill it up. And so, the mates, the three mates and I were called down in the holds just, we would load the people from,
We built wooden platforms and hooked it up to the ship’s gear so that, with the wire, the ship’s booms, we would put maybe 20 people on that wooden platform that we built and lift it up and drop it down into the lower hold. And then once I would be down in the hold as would the other mates. And we would have them move back as far as they could into the corners.
It was dark down there. There was no light. There was no ventilation. There’s no water. There’s no toilets, no nothing. And we just, we knew that we were going to put as many as we could in. So, we just had them back up, standing up. We made them stand. So, you packed them all in. And then when the last load was put in on that deck, we would put the big steel beams over and the wooden hatch boards and then load the next deck the same way.
B: So, you had these people sealed three decks deep. There were three layers in most of the holds. And so, the people were locked down in there for the next three days. No toilets which was really a huge problem. They just used every corner and every hole. So, we had 15 decks. And when we opened the ship up in Koji, to unload them, they’d had to use the corners.
There were not containers for feces. So, they just pooed in the corners. And in every corner on every one of the 15 decks there was human manure about three or four feet high. You could imagine the smell that they lived through down there for four days or three days.
I: There were no buckets at all even?
I: They couldn’t use the buckets?
B: There were no buckets.
B: No. And then once they got off, they didn’t know what to do with the ship. So, they said finally go to Sasebo. So, we went across to Japan to Sasebo where we anchored. And then we went down with shovels and empty fuel drums, and we shoveled it into, and then raised it over and dumped it into Sasebo Harbor.
And then we washed it down with saltwater fire hoses. And then, they wouldn’t let us go ashore. They were afraid of disease. The Japanese sent out some lye, and after we washed down all the holds and put the lye down, we put, we did the best we could to take the smell out. But it still smelled so bad that there was nothing we could put in the ship to go home.
And at that point, they had to send the ship back to the States, to Seattle. And we just went across from Tokyo Yokohama to Seattle, about an eight or nine – day trip with the wind behind us all the time. January. So, it wasn’t dangerous because we didn’t have a lot of tanks on board. But it was a very uncomfortable trip like this.
I: Um hm. How long did it take to evacuate from Hungnam to Kojedo? How long did it take? What was the whole journey? How long did it take?
B: Hungnam to
I: Koji Island.
B: We left Koji about midday. I think it was the
I: December 20
B: Third. We have the exact dates. But I think it was about the 23rd.
I: Um hm.
B: And it’s about 400 miles, and we averaged about 16, 17. We did about 370 miles a day.
So, we left about noon on the 23rd. We would have arrived just under 400 miles. We got to Pusan, and they would not let us dock. We had to anchor. That would have been late on the 23rd if we’re correct about the dates. Twenty-third, 24th,
I: Um hm.
And they wouldn’t let us dock. But at that point
B: Because of the fear of the plague. So, they finally agreed to let us bring the ship alongside the pier. And they brough aboard what we call GI cams, sort of the size of drums, big steel drums full of rice, boiled white rice. And that’s the only food that I ever saw come aboard.
And of course, they brought water hoses on because the water supply had just been exhausted. People had had no water. So, I guess it enabled a lot of the people to get a handful of rice and some water. And we were alongside probably about eight or 12 hours. And then they had started to build camps down on Koji as I understand it, to keep prisoners of war.
And they finally told us to sail down there. So, we did. We went down and we anchored in the bay. And then in the morning, whether it was Christmas morning or the morning after, I don’t know, we began discharging the people into two big landing crafts that came alongside. And the people were, the refugees were just wonderful. It’s the women I remember more than the men because they, you know, they had the babies.
They were handing them up and passing them around. And I think everybody was so happy to know that they were getting off the ship because if I had been one of the North Koreans being put on a ship that I knew nothing about with people who I couldn’t understand and who I had been told were the enemy, I would have been absolutely terrified.
So the trust that they had is just remarkable.
I: Um. That’s a very amazing point that you just made, that even within the North Korean refugee inside of the Meredith Victory had to have such a level of trust not to have any commotion or any violence or anything.
B: You know, what I’ve always thought is that you got a ship with 48 crew. We had one pistol on board that the captain kept in his safe.
I: One pistol. That’s the only weapon.
B: Nothing else. We had one pistol in the captain’s safe. And if any of the, once the ship had loaded these 14,000 and you know, they say it was the biggest minefield.
I: How many refugees?
I: Fourteen thousand.
B: Once we loaded, and you know, I’ve often wondered about that. It could have been, Jung Woo, it could have been 16,000. It could have been 13,000, who knows.
B: But somebody made an estimate.
B: But once we had gone out through that minefield, can you imagine. I don’t know if I told you.
But when we arrived at Hungnam to take these people out, this huge minefield had been laid outside the Harbor. They say it was the biggest minefield ever laid anywhere in history.
B: The Navy had a little pick-up boat as they called them that came alongside us as we arrived at the entrance to the minefield. And they, some of my classmates from the Merchant Marine Academy had gone into the Navy right away, were on the minesweepers.
And what they were doing is they were clearing a path.
B: through the minefield. As we arrived, they had marked the minefield, you know what the little white fenders are they you hang over the side of the boat?
B: That’s what they marked this field. So, from here to maybe 50 yards would be another white thing, and that’s the way you went in. If one mine had hit that ship on the way out
B: It would have been the world’s greatest disaster in terms of how many people killed.
And it was just, there was another point that I wanted to make. Now it escapes my mind. Oh. If any, you know, we didn’t know who these people were. We had no idea. There were many men, many women, the kid.
If any three or four North Koreans without arms, they didn’t have to have guns, but we didn’t know what they had. Nobody had checked them when they came on board. They could have brought anything cause they had bundles of stuff. They could have had pistols, knives, whatever. If any three or four of them had walked up to the bridge where the mates, where I spent my eight hours a day and just walked into, there was no guards. There were no gates. There was nothing to keep them. They could have come up to the bridge.
They could have killed us, tied us up, done whatever they liked, and all they had to do was turn left after they got outside the minefield, once we got the ship through the minefield, they just had to turn left, they could have been in Vladivostok the next morning.
B: They could have been in any North Korean anchorage by, within three or four hours. And it’s just remarkable that it all happened without something like that happening.
I: So, nothing happened when they were loaded into the Meredith Victory until the unloading of them in Koji Island.
B: No. The only thing, Merle, as an engineer, his cabin was on one of the lower decks of the deckhouse. Mine was further up. So, I didn’t see this. But he said at night, if he had his window, his porthole open in his cabin he said, sometimes at night one of the boys among the refugees would come up and stick his arm through the window with a cup to get some water or something like that.
But there was no separation of, there were no guards. There was no corralling of the people at all. It’s a miracle, it really was.
I: That’s a real miracle.
B: It’s incredible.
I: What were you thinking when you have these 14,000 people in your ship, and they could seize the ship as you just mentioned.
I: And what were you thinking?
B: Well, one had to assume, I think at that point, that, one had to assume that they had made the judgement that they were being helped. I don’t know that I would have been that trusting if I had been in their predicament.
I: Why not?
B: Well, because I’d come from a village up in the hills of North Korea where I’d never seen an American.
I’ve never seen a ship. And then suddenly these strange people are loading me onto this huge vessel. Why should I trust them? Why wouldn’t it have been more, and they’re taking me out to sea away from my homeland, away from the shore of North Korea. Why should I trust them that we’re not just gonna be taken somewhere and dumped in the ocean or, you know?
Why? We had no interpreters. There was nobody telling them, answering their questions. I doubt, there must have been some among the 14,000 who spoke English. But I never heard that any of us in the crew had any verbal contact with them.
I: That’s a kind of question. I never thought that I could be dumped into the ocean. But as you mentioned, they thought that they were being helped.
They thought that it is the biggest rescue of themselves by the ship and by the Meredith Victory so that they had 100% trust on that. Otherwise, they could have been killed in North Korea also, you know?
B: I understood that many of them might have been cooperating with the South Korean or the American Forces and were afraid. But to have had that trust, I think if I had been there and if I had been at all nervous,
Well now I suppose the fact that I was fleeing from North Korea to begin with
I: Um hm.
B: Is one good reason for me not to want to take the ship around back into North Korea.
B: So that was probably their reasoning.
I: Um hm.
B: At least we’re getting away from what we’re running away from. Whether these people are going to keep us or not, whether they’re going to help us or just dispose of us.
But the faith, it was remarkable.
I: Faith and trust, yeah. And you mentioned that other kinds of nations could have behaved differently, demanding challenging and asking chaos.
B: Chaos, yes. What are you gonna do for us, you know?
You see any sort of, even in situations like the terrible thing in Seoul just recently in the crowd, where there was chaos among the, you don’t expect Koreans to react like that.
I: Um hm.
B: But wherever you get a crowd scene, I can see how it would be very likely that people could become unmanageable and vocal.
I think, as they say an Italian or a Spaniard or a Frenchman, the Latins here in Miami, if you try to, oh God.
I: Yeah. That’s an excellent point because I never thought about it. I just took for granted for North Korean refugees to trust completely to Meredith Victory and the crew members like you that they are rescued.
But that could have been different. I agree. Oh, I see that.
B: Well, President Moon said, in one of his letters to me, he said you know, my mother talks about the nice soldier who gave her some Christmas candies when she got on the ship.
I: Um hm.
B: Well, we didn’t have any soldiers on the ship, so it must have been one of our crew.
B: That gave somebody.
I mean, there was no way we could give all of them Christmas candies. But I suppose there were some indications from the crew that we were trying to be helpful. They must have gotten subliminal messages of some sort that we weren’t there to harm them at least. But I’ve often thought the trust was remarkable.
I: Yeah. That’s an excellent point.
So you were, even though you were a Marine Merchant. But you were in Suwon Pusan. And you were able to see those, Korea in 1950. Have you been back to Korea other than 2018?
B: Several times. I think we were there in about 2015.
I: Um hm. Why?
What brought you there?
B: On a visit. Barbara has groups of friends who like to travel with us. We’re going back to Alaska with 15 friends in September, and we’re going down through the Aleutian Islands to Tokyo. And I think what we would like to do cause some of our friends, there were a bunch of our friends with us when we went to President Moon’s reception.
And I think we’d like to do that again. And the friends love to go and sort of see the story and hear the history. So, I think we’ll go back after Tokyo and spend two or three days in Korea.
I: So, you’ve been to Korea in 2015 and then 2018.
B: I’m trying to think if there
I: Not before 2015.
We may have been about 20 years ago, about the end of the ‘90’s because we used to spend a lot of time buying for one of our operations in China. I think we’ve been back about three times.
B: Barbara would have a better memory at that than I.
I: Right. Read the book.
And for Barbara, because I explain how America became (HEDGEMONIC) strong in the Pacific Ocean because William Seward purchased Alaska in 1867, one year after the 1866, the burning of General Sherman.
B: Seward’s Icebox.
I: Yes. And so that comes with Aleutian Islands.
I: And then Japan was friend to United States at the time.
I: And Korea was the only Asian nation that refused to open with the United States.
B: Oh really?
I: Yeah. So, every historical
B: It’s all in there.
I: It’s all there. And Commodore Perry, no, not Commodore Perry, Robert Schubert, he’s the one who actually opened Korea in 1882.
B: Oh really?
I: And that’s the treaty that he signed.
B: I shall read that with interest.
I: Yeah. So, everything’s there, okay?
I: But this is the question I want to ask you. You saw Korea, you never knew anything about Korea. You never learned anything about Korea in your high school.
And then you saw Korea in 1950 including Hungnam and so many refugees. And then you were able to revisit Korea. How do you put that into perspective? Can you give us Korea you knew in 1950 and you experienced and the Korea now?
B: The way I think about it is that the chaos of that part of the world up until the end of the 1800’s, is something we don’t know a great deal about here in America.
The sad history of Korea from about 1905 when Japan took over, and the enslavement really of the Korean people by the Japanese up through the 1950’s when Korea was finally emancipated, and the disaster of the War and Seoul and Inchon and Pusan as we saw it completely destroyed,
and the people with barely enough to eat and children sitting in Pusan in the wintertime with literally naked little boys sitting next to a warehouse by our ship. I remember this.
I: You saw them.
B: I gave one of them a jacket when I was coming back to the ship one day. There were three little kids. They couldn’t have been more than five or six.
There were three of them sitting by this warehouse literally naked. And I gave them a light jacket that I was wearing. But when you see a country that in 1950 had been through half a century of privation under the Japanese and then put up with a war that decimated their cities and their population and to see the advancements that have been made,
it makes me very proud to see that American intervention was able to help a country that has so much potential, so much talent, that had not been allowed to blossom, that had not been allowed to develop. And to see what’s happened, it just makes me very proud that we were a part of it.
I: Have you ever imagined that Korea would become like this today when you left Korea?
B: Not when I left.
I: Why not?
B: Because at that point, I had been to China and Japan in the 1942-’43 when I was a cadet and, no later, 1946, ’47.
And you could see the immense potential of both Japan and China because of what they had been.
I: Um hm.
B: Korea, when I saw it, was a sapling. It was a young tree. It was something that had just managed to survive. There wasn’t a history of power. There’s wasn’t a history of military development.
There wasn’t a history of, not a history that we had seen in modern times.
I: Um hm.
B: Of what a population could do. So, I think it’s almost miraculous looking at the history of Japan up to, of Korea up to 1950. And particularly when half of the country has been isolated so that you weren’t able to really attain your full potential.
It’s just remarkable what’s happened in that period from 1950 up to the present. It’s wonderful.
I: Yeah. That’s the question I’m asking so many veterans. Had you ever imagined that Korea would become like this today when you left Korea in 1950 – ’51 and ’52 –’53, they say no, and then they begin to cry.
B: Yeah. Exactly.
I: Yeah. I’m not forcing you to cry or do any action., but they just do it.
B: I probably couldn’t stop.
That is true.
I: Yeah. Um. You know, it’s been already almost two hours. I think it will be one of the longest interviews.
B: We’ll have lunch.
I: Yeah. But why did it happen to you? You were there in Inchon Landing. You saw Korea completely devastated. You were on the ship. You were the Third Mate, right? So many North Korean people evacuated from their own home for the free world.
Why did it happen to you? Can you think of any reason?
B: It was good luck. There’s no logical reason.
I: No logical.
B: No logic, it wasn’t something I intended to do. If I had been given a choice, I would have gone back to Rio de Janeiro on the ship because the company that took us to Korea was Moore McCormick line whose main run was to Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires.
So, this was a complete aberration, a complete change from their normal routing. So that Korea was not one of the options that one would have chosen.
B: Yeah. So, it was fate.
I: So, you were rented from this only to do these things just for a year.
B: That’s right.
I: Yeah. Amazing.
B: Six months.
I: Six months.
B: Six months.
I: So, what is Korea to you now personally?
B: It’s a country so full of potential. And one wishes one could see the next 50 years because I can’t see how Korea can avoid becoming united.
I think it has to be coming, right?
I: Um hm.
B: I think the caliber and the intelligence of the people are such that it will continue to grow and to be a world power to be reckoned with. It’s lovely to see the potential blooming, developing.
And one just hopes that China won’t become a deterrent to further development because I still, I feel that Korea can be trusted. I’m still not sure about Japan. And it’s nice to have friends like Korea who seem to appreciate the connection with the United States.
I: That’s another very interesting, good point. You know, Biden just met with (INAUDIBLE), the Prime Minister, and he said that it’s the most trusted friend. And Japan now doubled the Defense budget so that they can be aggressive, not just defensive.
B: That’s what I read yesterday. And when I thought about that yes, it’s nice that they’re going to try to hold off China.
But at the same time, re-arming Japan is not, I don’t think that we have too much to fear. But it’s nice to have Korea sitting there isolated from Japan.
I: But Korea is still stuck between Japan and China and, you know, so that’s another topic that I’m writing about right now.
I: So maybe we can have another series of interviews about this when I have a book ready.
I: Again sir, this is my real honor to meet you and listen to you about those experiences.
Any other episode you remember but you haven’t shared with others about the ship and evacuation?
B: I think maybe the best thing is that if I go through some of the things I’ve written and send you copies of them, I’ve done a bit of writing, some short pieces. They’re not lengthy at all.
I: Please send me the writings of your experience and your observations about the Meredith Victory Hungnam evacuation so we can add that with your interview.
And if you have any historical artifacts related to your service about this, send it to us so that we can scan it, and we will return it to you. We don’t keep it. We are all digital, okay? So, I just collected a beautiful painting by Roger Stringham who was a soldier in Korea. He painted it, and so we have a large collection of his paintings.
And he is going with me to Korea soon to have his paintings exhibited in the War Memorial in Korea, yeah. So, give us all sort of memorabilia related to your service.
I: And we will make sure your interview stands out with the Merle Smith together, two Smiths. Yes. And it’s wonderful. Again, my pleasure and honor to meet you, sir, and thank you for sharing all the stories and your time. Thank you so much for what you did.
B: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
[END RECORDED MATERIAL]
General Kim Chee-Ho
SS Meredith Victory Q&A
SS Meredith Victory Q&A
SS Meredith Victory Q&A
SS Meredith Victory Q&A