J. Robert Lunney
James Robert Lunney was born on December 15, 1927, in New York City, New York. At the age of seventeen, his father granted him permission to join the United States Navy. As part of General MacArthur’s leap-frog strategy during WWII, he served on a landing craft with the United States Navy in the Pacific theater. In 1950, he attended Alfred University and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree. Before attending law school, he served on the merchant ship, the SS Meredith Victory, as a Staff Office in Korea in September of 1950. The merchant ship’s assistance in the evacuation of fourteen thousands Korean refugees from Huengnam in 1950 is cited by the Guinness World Records as the greatest rescue operation by a single vessel. Following the Korean War, he was appointed to multiple posts and continued his service in the United States Naval Reserves until 1987.
The SS Meredith Victory Volunteers
J. Robert Lunney discusses the decision by Captain LaRue to volunteer his ship for the evacuation efforts in Heungnam. He recalls the urgency to evacuate the military personnel and civilians. He explicitly breaks down the positions and resources involved in the evacuation and the chaotic scene they encountered in the port. Because of the great leadership exhibited by Captain LaRue, he shares the crew never questioned his decision to assist in the evacuation.
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Last Ship to Freedom
J. Robert Lunney describes the process of evacuating over fourteen thousand North Korean civilian refugees aboard the SS Meredith Victory. He provides a detailed description of the loading of the refugees and protection of the port. During this process, he explains how teams were securing port so the enemy troops were unable to pursue them. He emphasizes that the people on the ship were seeking freedom, and the S.S. Meredith Victory was the last ship out.
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No Room at the Inn
J. Robert Lunney remembers the SS Meredith Victory being denied the ability to off-load the fourteen thousand refugees at Busan on Christmas Eve 1950. He explains how Busan was already overcrowded with UN troops and refugees. After being denied entry, he recalls their redirection to Koje-do and the tricky offloading of the refugees on December 26th.
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The Heros of the Ship of Miracles
J. Robert Lunney shares his opinion of the true heroes of Huengnam evacuation and the Korean War. Furthermore, he acknowledges the sacrifices and contributions of the refugees and their descendants to the development of South Korea. Nevertheless, he expresses his appreciation to the Korean people for the gratitude shown to those who served in Korea.
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[Beginning of Transcribed Material]
I: Our guest today is retired Naval officer Rear Admiral J. Robert Lunney. His record of service includes a feat recorded by the Guiness Book of World Records as the greatest rescue operation by a single ship in history, the rescue involving evacuation of more than 14, 000 refugees from North Korea in December of 1950. Admiral Lunney is one of two surviving crew members. He joins us to talk about this remarkable moment in history. It’s a pleasure and an honor. Thanks for joining us.
J: It’s really my pleasure to be here with you, especially at the Wilson Center.
I: Well, thank you. I want to take you back in time to tell us what brought the SS Meridith Victory to those waters in 1950. It wasn’t originally set up as an evacuation mission, correct?
J: That’s correct. In that, we were aboard a ship, the SS Meridith Victory which was supplying the Chosin Reservoir Campaign at that time. And initially we proceeded with orders to expedite the delivery to the Port of Hungnam in North Korea in support of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign of 10,000 tons of jet fuel and drums.
I: That was your cargo?
J: Yes. And we proceeded North at that time, and this was the beginning of December 1950. But by the time we got there and entered through the minefields, etc., and in the harbor, we realized and where it started that the airfield that we were to support had been overrun and evacuated because of heavy enemy pressure.
In that, at that time, the Chinese were advancing on the Port more rapidly than expected. And the Chinese were surrounding the Port at that point together with some North Korean divisions as well. We were then ordered South to discharge the jet fuel at the Port of Pusan.
And before we could completely discharge in Pusan, we were ordered back North. They were expediting all available bottoms to any ship that was available to get back North to Hungnam. And we still
I: To assist with refugees specifically?
J: Well, no not yet because the orders that we had at that time were simply to proceed North because they needed all available bottoms up at the port because by then, it was a great urgency not only evacuating all the military forces,
That would be the First Division, First Marine Division, the 7th Infantry Division. The 3rd Infantry Division was still holding the line etc. We also had the Korean Capital Division that was being evacuated as well. So, we were ordered North again to the Port of Hungnam, but we still had 300 tons of jet fuel. We then proceeded East on the East coast of Korea and back through the minefields.
Incidentally, the Navy lost these two or three minesweepers sweeping mines in this area just South of Hungnam at the Port of Wonsan, etc. So, there was some danger involved in transiting these waters with our ship. But we did get into a port. And at first, we thought we were there to evacuate as much in the way of material, cargo, equipment, tanks, trucks and vehicles and personnel if necessary.
But then the Army sent out under General Almond who was the Commander, Commanding General of the 10th Corps. That was the military force that was holding the area to inquire of our Captain as to whether he would volunteer to take his ship into the beach, to the beachhead, etc.
I: So not an order. He would have to volunteer.
I: Because of the risks involved.
J: Exactly. Uh, he, the Army Colonels that came out explained to the Captain that he should gather his officers together, there were 12 officers aboard our ship. We had 45 crew, a total of 45. And we gathered together with the Captain, and the Army representatives explained to us exactly what was going on to it, the evacuation was under great haste at that time, especially to get out all material, equipment, personnel, etc.,
They were taking out some civilian, that is North Korean civilians that had been working with, cooperating with a liaison or agents for the UN Forces at that time. But there were still thousands upon thousands of civilian refugees on the beach that had come down to Hungnam, and this is in the middle of winter, freezing cold out there.
The Chinese were firing into the Port. The Port was partially aflame from enemy gun fire. We had been the support of the 7th Fleet. We had the USS Missouri battleship firing the 16” shells into the Communist position together with heavy, two heavy cruisers I remember, the Rochester and the St. Paul. We had about eight destroyers firing 5” guns and some rocket ships.
In addition, we had three carriers supporting us with Corsairs were propeller driven fighter aircraft that could carry up to 500 lb. bomb. But more importantly, they carried 20 mm guns that could fire on and take cold fire positions on enemy machine guns.
I: But with all this activity, it’s not as orderly as it sounds in a recounting. It was chaos. And so friendly fire is a risk to your ship as well.
J: Well, not only that. But what the Captain, that is Captain Larue understood all of these exigencies, and they asked him whether he would volunteer to take a ship in and carefully explained to us no way could he, they be ordered to go in because it would expose the ship, the officers and the men to such danger, especially getting back out through the minefield.
I: Did Captain Larue make the decision himself, or did he consult with you and the crew?
J: In no way did he consult with anyone. He immediately, without looking.
I: No hesitation
J: No hesitation, without looking to his left or to his right. He just responded to the Army representatives. He said I will take my ship in, and I will remove as many of the refugees as we can.
I: How was the rest of the command the crew feeling about that decision?
J: Well, you must understand that we were serving under a fine leader.
Captain Larue was a man of great leadership quality and a man of such demeanor and character that there was never any question at all, especially when you recognize the unit cohesion aboard a functioning ship. Each one of us had our own duties and responsibility and depended on everyone else to do their job, etc. And we were there to follow orders,
To do our job and carry out our function. So, there was never any question in following his direction to take the ship in. We were in the inner harbor at that time. We took it right into the Port.
I: So how difficult was it actually to load 14,000 human beings onto this ship that isn’t equipped to carry that many people? What was the crew size that it’s intended for, and how many people?
J: Well, we carried a crew of about 35 men with, plus 12 officers.
We had accommodations on there, from the construction of the ship being an old World War II victory ship, we had quarters maybe for 12 passengers.
I: Twelve passengers? And you loaded 14,000.
I: How does that work?
J: Well, what we did, and under the Captain’s leadership and supervision, we loaded them as if they were cargo.
We had three hatches forward of the house, the house being the main structure in the middle approximately in the middle of the ship. And we had two holds after the house. So, the forward three hatches had three levels, usually three levels, for cargo. And we would lower the refugees down on pallets with the cranes lowering them down into the deep holds, and then we would cover that hold, and there were three layers in each of these holds.
And we would leave one pontoon open to allow fresh air to come through because ordinarily it would be all.
I: No light, no heat.
J: There was no light. There was no heat. There was no food. There was no water. There was no doctor. There was no interpreter.
I: And 4,000 of these 14,000 are infants and children, right/
J: Exactly. Yes, there, when you think of it, there were no young men there because all of them were off in the military.
If there were any men aboard amongst the refugees, they were the elderly men who were coming aboard carrying children wherever they could. I always remember some of the older men with huge coats, and under their coats would be a child because of the freezing weather and the concern of the parents and really grandparents at times of the safety and security of the children, especially in view of the fighting.
We took 17 wounded amongst the refugees, and the 65th Regimental Combat team of the 7th Infantry Division, the 3rdInfantry Division actually, was holding the line, and they were taking care of these at this time. And the Chinese perhaps were three to four thousand yards from the ship. So, we had men ashore ready with axes to chop the lines in case they came in close enough to take over the ship.
We had the ship’s boilers underway, and the ship placed in such a fashion that we could exit out through the mine.
I: This is like the getaway car parked with the motor running.
J: Exactly. That’s the best way to describe it.
I: And so, you managed to leave the Port before the advancing troops arrived.
J: We got out within hours before the entire Port exploded because while we were loading the refugees, they were planting explosives throughout the Port and even in the pier adjacent to us,
These were the UDT, the Underwater Demolition Teams, that were placing the explosives there to deny the Port usage to the enemy when we did evacuate. And it was, I would think it took us about 12 – 13 hours to load all of the people.
I: Was it fairly orderly even under the circumstances?
J: It was, I would say orderly to a fashion in that one word we all learned in Korean was Bali Bali, and that meant faster, faster because we were amongst all of this disorder that was going on, we had an orderly progression of the refugees that were very anxious to seek freedom.
And their only access to freedom was the sea. And we were the last ship to provide that access.
I: And you had an uncertain deadline. You didn’t know when the troops would arrive.
J: Exactly. Or how we would be able to navigate back out through the minefields, etc.
I: So once everybody’s on board and the, and you leave Port and there are explosions behind you, what about the passage through? Were you under fire during that?
J: No. Fortunately, the Chinese had no heavy artillery.
They had heavy mortars and heavy machine guns. But they had no seaport, sea power. They had no air power.
I: Um hm.
J: We had three aircraft carriers supporting us at all times. And mostly with the F4U Corsair was able to come in and interdict all sorts of enemy fire. We were more grateful for them than any of the jet places because the prop planes could come in. The F4U’s could come in and interdict enemy fire more easily by approaching enemy gun positions and machine gun positions, etc.
I: So, you have mines to avoid in the water. But then another risk, I understand, are the passengers who aren’t aware of the risks involved in lighting fires for warmth when they’re sitting on top of jet fuel.
J: Oh that, well that was another experience we had with great trepidation. We noticed a column of smoke coming up from the number three hold. That was the hold just forward of the house.
And the Captain was very concerned about this and what we ascertained was the fact that some of the refugees were building fires to keep warm and also to heat food. But they were building small fires atop the drums, the 50-gallon drums of jet fuel and without any knowledge of what was in these drums. And we were able to get men down below with all sorts of hand signals and otherwise to dissuade them from
I: They probably didn’t understand why you wanted to put the fires out.
J: We didn’t understand
I: Language barrier.
J: We didn’t understand much Korean.
J: They didn’t understand much in the way of English. But they must have had a sense we were taking them to safety.
I: So, you get to the first Port, and it’s Christmas Eve, and in a biblical-like analogy, no room at the inn.
J: That’s right, yeah.
I: So, what happens? You think that this is the end of the voyage, and you drop these passengers to safety, and you’re told to turn around?
J: Exactly. And you must remember too that on this transit down from Hungnam to Pusan, five babies were born enroute. And we had no knowledge of Korean names and just facetiously we named each of them Kim Chi 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, etc. But by the time we got to Pusan, Pusan was almost overcrowded with evacuated UN Forces, mostly American, as well as other civilians that had been pouring South from the attack of the Chinese. The Chinese were coming right down the Peninsula again as they had done the year previously. So, the Port Captain denied us the ability to offload the refugees in the Port.
And that was, Christmas Day, we received orders then to proceed to a port about 38 miles to the Southwest of Pusan called Kojedo, and fortunately there on the day after Christmas December 26, 1951, we were able to offload the civilian refugees. But there was no pier. There was no dock there. There was no way we could tie up.
So the Navy provided us with two LSTs. Those are landing ship tanks/
I: Um hm.
J: And they placed them on either side of our ship.
I: Are they amphibious type vehicles?
J: That’s right. The amphibious, the old World War II LSTs.
J: And, with the big open doors at the front end of the ship with the
And we offloaded them over the sides of our ship into these two LSTs, and they brought them ashore to the island of Kojedo.
I: So, when you successfully completed this evacuation, do you have a sense that you, the Captain, the crew, have a sense of what just happened, of how significant it was?
J: No. In fact, at the time, I would say that the, we had already been involved in the Inchon Landing for example, three or four months earlier. On September 15, we were involved in a 22-ship convoy, and we landed elements of the 31stRegimental Combat Team of the 7th Infantry Division at Blue Beach.
We suffered one short enemy air attack, etc. so that I would say that we had been out there for any number of months, we had been engaged in a couple of campaigns, etc., and I must add, too, as a footnote, most of the officers aboard the ship had already been in World War II.
I’d served in the Naval Amphibious Forces in World War II, and Captain Larue himself was a veteran of World War II having transited the Atlantic all the way to the Merman Run which was famous for resupplying material to Mermansk and to Russia.
I: A seasoned veteran crew.
I: You know, when you hear stories of these types of, this type of heroism, it’s often the case where the heroes, people like you, just were doing their job and weren’t even thinking of it in any extraordinary terms which from the outside looking in is always extraordinary and fascinating.
J: Well, you mentioned the word heroes. I would believe as I look back and even having talked to some of the men who did survive recent years, we all felt that we just carried out our duties and functions and did what we were supposed to do under the guidance of a great leader, etc.
The true heroes in this case were the Korean people themselves. When you realize what they did to sacrifice everything to obtain freedom. They had been living under Communism for five years from 1945 – 1950. They were fleeing their homelands with many of their families. They’ve lived for hundreds of years. They fled their communities to seek freedom.
Their only access to freedom was the sea. We were the last ship, etc. And they came to that Port seeking freedom. And today, the descendants living in South Korea today, and we would estimate a total of 98,000 were evacuated. We just got the last 14, 000. But today, they have been great contributors to the economy of South Korea which is one of the finest economies in all of Asia today.
I: Did you stay in touch with any of the evacuees?
J: Well, we have met some of them. And they’ve been extremely grateful. And whenever we have returned to Korea, especially at their invitation or at the invitation of the Korean government, they couldn’t be more hospitable. They are so appreciative of everything that we did throughout the War, American lives and casualties that were taken.
But especially the significance of what we did which was not in the ordinary sense of wartime, that is the bombing and the killing, etc., the essence of what we did was the saving of life. And to the Korean people today, they really appreciate that and acknowledge that whenever we visit.
I: For you when you look back at your distinguished career, that includes two wars, does this incident have a special place?
Is this one that stands out from other experiences that you had?
J: Well, to answer that, I’d have to reflect back on a number of visits that we made to St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey. There came a time at the end of the Korean War, our Captain, Captain Leonard P. Larue, left the sea and joined the Benedictine Order and took the name as a monk, brother Marinus.
And he lived out the rest of his life as a monk at St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey. And on a number of visits my family and I would take down there, especially at Christmastime to visit with him, he was a man of great religion and understanding of his faith to the extent that he would speak to me about the voyage and the trip but told me that so many people would come and try to question him about it.
And he did not care to speak about it because he said he just did the right thing. He did what he was supposed to do. And it was not extraordinary. It was doing the right thing. And I said to him explain to our son Alexander how you could make that decision at the time when we met the Army representatives, and you chose to take the ship in. He said the answer is in the Holy Bible.
And with that, he reached over and touched the Bible and said the answer’s here. No greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends. And he said that’s the answer. And he did, that’s I understand more as the years went on that there was some degree of Divine Providence to all of this that his decision thus received some degree of Divine Providence.
And he, one of the few times he ever wrote about this voyage, he stated, he said God’s hand was at the helm of my ship. So that he didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve. He was a good merchant mariner and a fine Captain, enjoyed being with his men and running the ship. But in a sense, he had a great sense of value, values with, moral values and good values.
And when he saw a sea of humanity on the beach and with more pouring down the road into the Port, there was no decision could be made. It was to go in and save these people. And even though they were in the lands of the enemy, they were still human beings to be saved. And that was his view.
I: Well Admiral Lunney, I, you’re modest and won’t call yourself a hero. But I can do that. And I wanna thank you for joining us today. It’s a privilege to hear this story firsthand. Thanks for your service, and thanks for being with us today.
J: Thank you very much. It was my pleasure.
I: My pleasure.
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