December 23, 1950
In the midst of the Korean War, the United States Merchant Marine ship SS Meredith Victory departed North Korea’s port city of Hŭngnam carrying thousands of refugees. The evacuation holds the record as the largest-ever humanitarian rescue operation by a single ship.
In December 1950, United Nations Command (UNC) troops led by the United States were retreating from the northeastern region of the Korean Peninsula after a brutal assault by Chinese and North Korean forces. Over 100,000 UNC soldiers made their way to Hŭngnam on the eastern coast. With enemy troops advancing to that area, arrangements were made to evacuate the UNC soldiers from the city via 193 ships.
Nearly 100,000 North Korean civilians likewise gathered at Hŭngnam hoping to board the vessels and travel to South Korea’s port city of Pusan (now known as Busan). Every effort was made to load both the UNC troops and the North Korean refugees onto the ships, which included Meredith Victory.
Leonard LaRue, Meredith Victory’s captain, had almost all of the weapons and supplies onboard removed to make as much room as possible. Bob Lunney, the ship’s staff officer, later recalled LaRue’s steadfast resolve during that difficult time. Lunney said, “Without conferring with anyone, the captain said, ‘I will agree to take my ship in and take out as many people as I can.’” Ultimately, the refugees on board the ship filled all five of the cargo holds and covered the entire main deck.
Meredith Victory departed Hŭngnam just after eleven o’clock on the morning of December 23. It was able to transport more than 14,000 refugees, even though the ship — measuring 455 feet (139 meters) long and 62 feet (19 meters) wide — had been built to accommodate only a 35-person crew and up to 12 passengers. LaRue recounted, “With this cargo of souls, we steamed out to the open sea toward Pusan on the southeast Korean coast, about 450 sea miles [833.4 kilometers], or about 28 hours’ journey.”
Meredith Victory reached Pusan on Christmas Eve. Since thousands of refugees were already there, however, the ship could only debark a few people and then had travel another 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) to take everyone else to Geoje Island. The unloading of people there was completed on December 26.
These evacuation efforts resulted in LaRue and his crew being awarded the Korean Presidential Citation by South Korean President Syngman Rhee in 1958. Two years later, Meredith Victory was given the title of “Gallant Ship” by a special act of Congress that was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This made Meredith Victory the only merchant marine ship serving in the Korean War to receive such a designation. In addition, LaRue was awarded the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal.
For more information on SS Meredith Victory’s record-setting humanitarian rescue mission in 1950, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Meredith_Victory.