Korean War Legacy Project

J. Robert Lunney

Bio

Rear-Admiral James Robert Lunney was born on December 15, 1927 in New York City, New York (more specifically the Bronx) to Thomas and Jessie Lunney.  His father was in the real estate and insurance business, and his mother was a homemaker.  J. Robert Lunney was the middle child of three boys. Lunney’s father Thomas and two of his father’s cousins served in the Navy during WW1.  At the age of 17 J. Robert Lunney asked his father for permission to join the Navy, which was granted.  Lunney serverd in the U.S. Navy during WW2 in the Pacific aboard a landing craft as a part of Macarthur’s leap-frog strategy.  After WW2 Lunney attended Alfred University and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in June 1950.  Before starting law school Lunney sailed on a merchant ship the SS Meredith Victory as a Staff Officer to Korea in September of 1950. The merchant ship was working for the US Navy when it participated in the Hungnam evacuation recusing more than 14,000 Korean refugees from North Korea.

Clips

Army Requests Help

J. Robert Lunney speaks about the decision, by SS Meredith Victory Captain LaRue, to "Volunteer" his ship to help with the Hungnam evacuation.

Tags: 1950 Hamheung Evacuation, 12/10-12/24,Heungnam,Chinese,Communists,Fear,Front lines,North Koreans

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AS_NeHfPpSg&start=210&end=463

Loading the Human Cargo

J. Robert Lunney describes the process of loading of over 14,000 North Korean civilian refugees, mostly women, children. and the elderly, aboard the cargo ship SS Meredith Victory. Lunney also speaks about the conditions aboard the ship for the refugees.

Tags: 1950 Hamheung Evacuation, 12/10-12/24,Heungnam,Cold winters,Food,Living conditions,North Koreans

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AS_NeHfPpSg&start=463&end=646

No Room at the Inn (Pusan Harbor)

J. Robert Lunney talks about not being able to off load the 14,000 refegues at Pusan on Christmas Eve 1950 because of the port being over loaded with other refugees. He also talks about being sent to Kojedo and offloading the refugees on December 26th.

Tags: 1950 Hamheung Evacuation, 12/10-12/24,Busan,Geojedo,North Koreans

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AS_NeHfPpSg&start=846&end=993

The Heros of the Ship of Miracles

J. Robert Lunney speaks about who he considers the "True Heros" of the Hungnam evacuation are. He also speaks about the sacrifices and contributions of the refugees to the development of South Korea.

Tags: 1950 Hamheung Evacuation, 12/10-12/24,Heungnam,Impressions of Korea,Pride

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AS_NeHfPpSg&start=1076&end=1222

Video Transcript

00:00
our guest today is retired naval officer
00:01
Rear Admiral J Robert Lonnie his record
00:04
of service includes a feat recorded by
00:06
the Guinness Book of World Records as
00:07
the greatest rescue operation by a
00:09
single ship in history the rescue
00:11
involved the evacuation of more than
00:13
14,000 refugees from North Korea in
00:15
December of 1950 Admiral Lonnie is one
00:17
of two surviving crew members he joins
00:19
us to talk about this remarkable moment
00:21
in history it’s a pleasure and an honor
00:23
thanks for joining us it’s really my
00:25
pleasure to be here with you especially
00:26
at the Wilson Center well thank you
00:28
thank you that I want to take you back
00:30
in time to tell us what brought the SS
00:33
Mary
00:33
Meredith victory to those waters in 1950
00:36
it wasn’t originally set up as an
00:38
evacuation mission correct no that
00:40
that’s correct in that we were aboard a
00:43
ship the SS Meredith victory which was
00:46
supplying the Chosun reservoir campaign
00:49
at that time and initially we proceeded
00:53
with the orders to that expedite the
00:58
delivery to the port of Hungnam in North
01:01
Korea in support of the Chosun reservoir
01:03
campaign of 10,000 tons of jet fuel in
01:06
drums so that was your cargo yes yes and
01:09
we proceeded north at that time and this
01:13
was the beginning of December 1950 but
01:16
by the time we got there and entered
01:18
through the minefields etc and in the
01:21
Inner Harbor we realized and were
01:23
instructed that the the airfield that we
01:26
were to support had been overrun and
01:28
evacuated because of heavy enemy
01:30
pressure in that at that time the
01:33
Chinese were advancing under port more
01:36
rapidly than expected
01:38
indeed the Chinese were surrounding the
01:41
port at that point together with some
01:44
North Korean divisions as well we were
01:47
then ordered south to discharge the jet
01:50
fuel at the port of Pusan and before we
01:53
could completely discharge in Pusan we
01:56
were ordered back north
01:58
they were expediting all available
02:00
bottoms to it any ship that was
02:02
available to get back north to Hungnam
02:06
and we still had to assist with refugees
02:08
specific well no not yet because the
02:12
orders that we had at that time
02:13
was simply to proceed north because they
02:16
needed all available bottoms but at the
02:19
port because by then there was a great
02:23
urgency on not only evacuating there all
02:26
the military forces that was the the
02:29
first division the 1st marine division
02:31
the 7th Infantry Division the 3rd
02:33
Infantry Division was still holding the
02:35
line etc we also had the Korean capital
02:38
division that was being evacuated as
02:41
well so we were ordered north again to
02:45
the port of Hungnam but we still had 300
02:48
tons of jet fuel we then proceeded east
02:51
on the east coast of Korea and back
02:54
through the minefields incidentally the
02:58
Navy lost at least two or three mine
03:01
sweepers sweeping mines in this area
03:04
just south of Hungnam at the port of one
03:08
Sun etc so there was there was some
03:10
danger involved in in transcending these
03:14
waters with our ship but we did get into
03:17
the port and at first we thought we were
03:19
there to evacuate as much in the way of
03:22
material cargo equipment tanks trucks
03:27
and vehicles in personnel if necessary
03:30
but then the army sent out on the
03:33
gentleman who is the commander
03:35
commanding general of the tenth Corps
03:37
that was the military force that was
03:40
holding the area to inquire of our
03:43
captain as to whether he would volunteer
03:46
to take his ship in to the beach to the
03:49
beach head etcetera so not an order he
03:53
would have to volunteer exactly because
03:55
of the risks involved exactly he the
03:59
army colonels that came out explained to
04:03
the captain that he should gather his
04:05
officers together there were 12 officers
04:07
aboard our ship we had 45 crew a total
04:12
of 45 and we gather together with the
04:16
captain and the representatives explain
04:19
to us exactly what was going on to it
04:22
the evacuation was on the great haste
04:27
that
04:27
time especially to get out all material
04:30
equipment personnel at Sarah they were
04:33
taking out some civilian that is North
04:38
Korean civilians that had been working
04:39
with cooperating with the liaison or
04:41
agents for the UN forces at that time
04:44
but there was still thousands upon
04:46
thousands of civilian refugees on the
04:50
beach that had come down to home them
04:52
and this is in the middle of winter
04:54
freezing cold out there the Chinese were
04:58
firing into the port the port was
05:01
partially aflame from enemy gun gunfire
05:04
we had then the support of the seventh
05:07
Fleet we had the USS Missouri battleship
05:12
firing the 16-inch shells into the
05:15
Communists positions together with heavy
05:18
two heavy cruisers I remember the
05:20
Rochester in the st. Paul we had about
05:22
eight destroyers firing 5-inch guns and
05:26
wrote some rocket ships in addition we
05:29
had three carriers supporting us with
05:32
courses were propeller-driven fighter
05:37
aircraft that could carry up to a 500
05:40
pound bomb but more importantly they
05:42
carried the 20 millimeter guns that
05:45
could fire on and take qualifier
05:47
positions on enemy machine guns but with
05:51
all this activity it’s not as orderly as
05:53
it sounds in recounting it’s it’s war is
05:55
chaos and so friendly fire is a risk to
05:58
your ship as well well and and not only
06:01
that but with the captain that is
06:04
captain LaRue understood all of these
06:07
existence ease and they asked him
06:10
whether he would volunteer to take a
06:12
ship in and carefully explained to us in
06:14
no way could he they’d be ordered to go
06:16
in because they would expose the ship
06:19
the officers in the men to such danger
06:21
especially getting back out through the
06:24
minefield
06:24
did captain the room make the decision
06:26
himself or did he consult with him you
06:28
and the crew in no way did he consult
06:30
with anyone he immediately without
06:32
looking no hesitation no hesitation
06:35
without looking to his left or to his
06:37
right he just responded to the
06:41
me representatives he said I will take
06:43
my ship in and I will remove as many of
06:48
the refugees as we can
06:50
how was the rest of the the command and
06:52
the crew feeling about that to say well
06:55
you must understand that we were serving
06:58
under a fine leader captain LaRue was a
07:04
man of great leadership qualities and a
07:07
man of of such demeanor and character
07:11
that there was never any question at all
07:13
and especially when you recognize the
07:16
unit cohesion aboard a functioning ship
07:20
each one of us had our own duties and
07:23
responsibilities and depended on
07:24
everyone else to do their jobs etc and
07:27
we were there to follow orders to do our
07:30
job and carry out our function so there
07:32
was never any question in following his
07:35
direction to take the ship in we were in
07:37
the inner harbor at that time we took it
07:40
right in to the to the port and so how
07:43
difficult was it actually to load 14,000
07:45
human beings onto this ship that isn’t
07:47
equipped to carry that many people what
07:50
was the crew size that its intended for
07:52
and how many people we carry we carried
07:54
a crew of about 35 men with +12 offices
08:00
we had accommodations on there from the
08:05
constructions of shipping an old world
08:07
war ii victory ship we had quarters
08:11
maybe for 12 passengers 12 passengers
08:14
and you loaded 14,000 exactly how does
08:17
that work well what what we did in under
08:21
the captain’s leadership and supervision
08:23
we loaded them as if they were cargo we
08:27
had three hatches forward of the house
08:29
the house being that main structure in
08:31
the middle proximally in the middle of
08:34
the ship and we had two holes aft of the
08:37
house so the forward three hatches were
08:40
had three levels usually three levels
08:43
for cargo and we would lower the
08:47
refugees down on pallets with the cranes
08:51
lowering them down into the deep holes
08:54
and then
08:55
we would cover that whole and there were
08:56
three layers in each of these holes and
08:58
we would leave up one pontoon open to
09:03
allow fresh air to come through because
09:06
ordinarily there would be all no lice no
09:09
he’s there was no light there was no
09:11
heat there was no food there was no
09:13
water there was no doctor there was no
09:15
interpretive and 4000 of these 14,000
09:18
are infants and children exactly yes
09:21
when you think of it there wasn’t there
09:24
was no young men there because all of
09:27
them were off in the military if there
09:29
were any men aboard amongst the refugees
09:32
they were the elderly men who were
09:34
coming aboard carrying children wherever
09:36
they could and I always remember some of
09:38
the older men with huge coats and under
09:42
the coats would be a child because of
09:44
the freezing weather and the concern of
09:48
the parents and really grandparents at
09:52
times of the safety and security of the
09:55
children especially in view of the
09:57
fighting we took 17 wounded amongst the
10:01
refugees and the 65th the regimental
10:06
combat team of the 7th Infantry Division
10:09
of the 3rd Infantry Division actually
10:11
was holding the line and they were
10:13
taking casualties at this time and the
10:17
Chinese perhaps were three to four
10:19
thousand yards from the ship so we had
10:22
men ashore ready with access to chop the
10:25
lines in case they came in close enough
10:28
to take over the ship we had the the
10:32
ships boilers underway and the ship
10:34
struck placed in such a fashion that we
10:37
could exit out through them just like
10:39
the getaway car parked with the motor
10:41
running exactly exactly
10:43
that that’s it’s the best way to
10:45
describe it and so you you’d manage to
10:48
leave the port before the advancing
10:50
troops arrived but the we got out within
10:54
hours before the entire port exploded
10:59
because while we were loading the
11:01
refugees they were planting explosives
11:03
throughout the port and and even in the
11:07
pier adjacent to us
11:09
these are the UDT the underwater
11:11
demolition teams that were placing the
11:13
explosives there to deny the port usage
11:17
to the enemy when we did evacuate and it
11:20
was I would think it was took us about
11:23
12 or 13 hours to load all of the people
11:27
was it a fairly orderly even under the
11:29
circumstances it was I would say orderly
11:33
to a fashion in that one word we all
11:38
learned in in Korean was Bali Bali and
11:41
that meant faster faster because we were
11:45
amongst to all of this disorder that was
11:48
going on we had an orderly progression
11:51
of the the refugees that were very
11:54
anxious to seek freedom and their only
11:57
access to freedom was the sea and we
12:00
were the last ship to provide that
12:02
actually you had an uncertain deadline
12:04
you didn’t know when the troops would
12:05
arrive exactly or how we would be able
12:09
to navigate back out through the
12:11
minefields etc so once you everybody is
12:13
on board and the you you leave Porsche
12:16
and there are explosions behind you what
12:19
about the passage through were you under
12:21
fire during that no no fortunately the
12:24
the Chinese had no heavy artillery
12:27
they had heavy mortars and heavy
12:30
machine-gun but they had no sea poor sea
12:33
power they had no air power mm-hmm
12:35
we had three aircraft carriers
12:37
supporting us at all times and mostly
12:40
what the for you Corvair was able to
12:44
come in and interdict all sorts of enemy
12:47
fire and was we were more grateful for
12:50
them than any of the jet planes because
12:54
the the prop planes could come in the
12:56
the four years could come in and
12:59
interdict the enemy fire more easily by
13:02
approaching enemy gun positions the
13:05
machine gun positions etc so you have
13:08
mines to avoid in the water then another
13:10
risk I understand are the passengers who
13:13
aren’t aware of the risks involved in
13:15
lighting fires for warmth when they’re
13:17
sitting on top of jet fuel ho well that
13:19
was another experience that we had
13:22
it was with great trepidation we know
13:25
it’s a column of smoke coming up from
13:27
the number three hold that was the hole
13:29
just forward of the house and the
13:32
captain was very concerned about this
13:34
and what we ascertained was the fact
13:37
that some of the refugees were building
13:40
fires to keep warm and also to me due to
13:43
due to heat food and but they were
13:46
building small fires atop the drums the
13:49
50 gallon drums of jet fuel and without
13:52
any knowledge of what was in these drums
13:55
and we were able to get men down below
13:58
with all sorts of hand signals and
14:00
otherwise to dissuade them probably
14:04
didn’t understand why you wanted to put
14:05
the fires out we didn’t understand my
14:07
language barrier we didn’t understand
14:09
much Korean right they didn’t understand
14:10
much in a way of English but they must
14:13
have had a sense we were taking them as
14:15
safety so you get to the first port and
14:17
it’s it’s Christmas Eve and in a
14:19
biblical like analogy no room at the end
14:22
that’s right yes
14:23
so what happens you you think that this
14:25
is the end of the voyage and you’ve
14:27
brought these passengers to safety and
14:29
you’re told to turn around exactly and
14:33
you must remember too that on this
14:36
transit down from Hong nhung to Pusan
14:39
five babies were born and root and we we
14:44
had no knowledge of Korean names and
14:46
just facetiously we named each of them
14:49
kimchi one two three four and five
14:52
etc but by the time we got to Pusan
14:56
Pusan was almost overcrowded with
15:00
evacuated UN forces mostly American as
15:05
well as other civilians that have been
15:07
pouring south from the attack of the
15:10
Chinese the Chinese were coming right
15:13
down the peninsula again as they had
15:15
done the year previously so the the port
15:20
captain denied us the ability to offload
15:25
the refugees in the port and that was
15:29
Christmas Day we received orders then to
15:32
proceed a port about 38 miles
15:36
the Southwest of busan cocido and
15:39
fortunately there on the day after
15:43
Christmas December 26 1951 we’re able to
15:47
offload the civilian refugees but there
15:52
was no tear there was no dock there
15:57
there was no way we could tie up so the
15:59
Navy provided us with to LSTs there’s a
16:03
landing ship tanks and they placed them
16:06
on either side of our ship are they
16:07
amphibious type that’s right yeah the
16:10
amphibious the Old World War 2 LST yeah
16:14
and with the big open doors that the the
16:19
front end of the ship with it and we
16:23
offloaded them over the sides of our
16:26
ship into these two iced teas and they
16:29
brought them ashore to the island of Ko
16:31
Shido so when you’ve successfully
16:33
completed this evacuation do you have a
16:35
sense that you the captain the crew have
16:38
a sense of what just happened of how
16:40
significant it was no no in fact at the
16:45
time I would say that we are already
16:48
been involved in the Incheon landing for
16:51
example three or four months earlier on
16:54
September 15th we were involved in a 22
16:57
ship convoy and we landed elements of
17:00
the 31st regimental combat team of the
17:03
7th Infantry Division at blue Beach we
17:07
suffered one short enemy air attack etc
17:11
so that I would say that we had been out
17:15
there for any number of months we hadn’t
17:17
been engaged in a couple of campaigns
17:19
etc and I must add to as a footnote Oh
17:24
most of the offices aboard the ship had
17:27
already been in World War two I had
17:30
served in the naval and fibia forces
17:32
World War two and captain LaRue himself
17:35
was a veteran of World War two having a
17:43
transited the Atlantic all the way to
17:47
the Murmansk run was that which was
17:49
famous
17:50
resupplying material to Murmansk in
17:53
season veteran crews yes so that you
17:56
know when you hear stories of these
17:58
types this type of heroism it’s often
18:00
the case where the heroes people like
18:02
you just we’re doing their job and
18:04
weren’t even thinking of it in any
18:06
extraordinary terms which from the
18:08
outside looking in is always
18:10
extraordinary and fascinating
18:11
well you mentioned and we’re heroes I
18:15
would believe as I look back and even
18:18
having talked to some of the men that
18:20
did survive in recent years we all felt
18:25
that we just carried out our duties and
18:27
functions and did what we’re supposed to
18:30
do under the guidance of a great leader
18:32
it’s sort of the two heroes in this case
18:36
were they’re Korean people themselves
18:38
when you realize what they did to
18:40
sacrifice everything to obtain freedom
18:43
they had been living under communism for
18:45
five years from 1945 to 1950 they were
18:49
fleeing their homelands where many of
18:51
their families had lived for hundreds of
18:53
years they fled their communities to
18:56
seek freedom their only access to
18:58
freedom was the sea we were the last
19:00
ship etc and they came to that port
19:05
seeking freedom and today that
19:09
descendants living in South Korea today
19:11
and we would estimate a total of 98
19:15
thousand were evacuated we took out the
19:17
last fourteen thousand but today they
19:21
have been great contributors to the
19:23
economy of South Korea which is one of
19:26
the finest economies in all of Asia
19:28
today did you stay in touch with any of
19:30
the evacuees well we have met some of
19:34
them and there have been extremely
19:38
grateful and whenever we have returned
19:43
to Korea especially at their invitation
19:45
or at the invitation of the Korean
19:47
government they couldn’t be more
19:48
hospitable they are so appreciative of
19:52
everything that we did throughout the
19:54
war in American lives and the casualties
19:57
that were taken but especially the
19:59
significance of what we did
20:02
which was
20:03
not in the ordinary sense of war time
20:07
that is the bombing and the killing it
20:09
sort of the essence of what we did was
20:12
the saving of life and to the to the
20:15
Korean people today they really
20:17
appreciate that and acknowledge that
20:20
whenever we visit for you when you look
20:23
back at your distinguished career that
20:25
includes two wars it does this incident
20:28
have a special place is this one that
20:31
stands out from other experiences that
20:33
you had well
20:35
incident I’d have to reflect back on a
20:39
number of visits that we made to the st.
20:42
Paul’s Abbey in Newton New Jersey there
20:46
came a time at the end of the Korean War
20:48
our captain captain Leonard P LaRue left
20:52
the sea and joined the bonnet
20:54
Benedictine Order and took the name as a
20:58
monk brother Meredith and he lived out
21:02
the rest of his life as a monk at st.
21:06
Paul’s Abbey in Newton New Jersey and a
21:10
number of visits my family and I would
21:12
take down there especially at
21:13
Christmastime to visit with him he was a
21:17
man of great religion and understanding
21:22
of his faith to the extent that he would
21:29
speak to me about the voyage and the
21:32
trip but told me that so many people
21:37
would come and try to question him about
21:40
it and he did not care to speak about it
21:44
because he said he just did the right
21:46
thing he did what he was supposed to do
21:48
and it was not extraordinary it was
21:51
doing the right thing and I’d said to
21:54
him explain to our son Alexander how you
21:57
could make that decision at the time
21:59
when we met the army representatives and
22:02
you chose to take the ship in he said
22:06
the answer is in the Holy Bible
22:08
and with that he reached over and he
22:10
touched the Bible he said the answer is
22:11
here no greater love hath a man than to
22:14
lay down his life for his
22:16
and he said that’s the answer and he did
22:20
this I understand more as the years went
22:27
on that there was some degree of divine
22:30
providence to all of this that his
22:34
decision thus received some degree of
22:38
divine providence indeed one of the few
22:42
times he ever wrote about this voyage he
22:45
stated he said God’s hand was at the
22:50
helm of my ship so that he didn’t wear
22:54
his religion on his sleeve he was a good
22:57
merchant mariner a fine captain enjoyed
23:01
being with his men and running the ship
23:05
but in a sense yeah a great sense of
23:09
value values the moral values and good
23:16
values and when he saw a sea of humanity
23:19
on the beach and was more pouring down
23:22
the roads into the port there was no
23:24
decision to be made it was to go in and
23:27
save these people and even though they
23:30
were in the lands of the enemy they were
23:34
still human beings to be saved and that
23:37
was his view well I Melania you’re
23:40
modest and won’t call yourself a hero
23:41
but I can do that and I want to thank
23:43
you for joining us today it’s a
23:44
privilege to hear this story firsthand
23:46
thanks for your service and thanks for
23:47
being with us today thank you very much
23:49
my pleasure a pleasure