He Never Forgot His Captain

Capt. Leonard LaRue, 1950

On December 14, 2017, I’ll have the privilege of joining J. Robert “Bob" Lunney at a lecture about the Heungnam Evacuation being held at The Korea Society in New York City. It’ll be a memorable event, one that I’ve been looking forward to for months.

During two and a half years of researching and writing about Heungnam, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing numerous veterans and civilians who participated in, or were rescued at, the historic military and humanitarian operation that took place in December 1950. Mr. Lunney, an 89-year-old retired lawyer and Rear Admiral in the New York Naval Militia, is one of them.

Sixty-seven years ago, during the darkest days of the Korean War, Bob, a 22-year-old World War II Navy veteran who'd joined the Merchant Marine to earn a little extra cash for college, found himself sailing to Korea. As an officer aboard the SS Meredith Victory, the Moore-McCormack Line cargo vessel that in late December rescued 14,000 North Korean refugees during a single voyage (a Guinness World Record), Lunney would be an eye-witness to the largest military seaborne evacuation of civilians, under combat conditions, in American history.

Refugees at Heungnam, Dec. 1950

Refugees at Heungnam, December 1950 (public domain).

What he observed at Heungnam and throughout Meredith Victory’s miraculous voyage to Goeje-do, an island off the southeast coast of Korea, changed him forever. He’s proud of what Meredith Victory’s crew did during the evacuation. “The idea of war isn’t just about bombs and bad guys,” he said during an interview a few years ago. "It’s also about preserving the integrity of a nation and the dignity of its people - we [the crew] felt we had done that.” But the true heroes at Heungnam, he humbly reminds people, were the refugees.

Since his rendezvous with history in 1950, he’s become a dedicated and passionate spokesman for the ship, the U.S. Merchant Marine, and Captain Leonard LaRue, the Meredith Victory’s skipper. His loyalty to his former commander is extraordinary. Bob has spent years sharing the story of Captain LaRue, the courageous, selfless, and inspirational officer who made the decision to rescue as many refugees as possible during the waning hours of the Heungnam Evacuation.

LaRue, a religious man who would join the Benedictines in 1954 and live the remainder of his life as a monk at St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey, made a lasting impression on his men. From his inner confidence, judicious disciplinary policies, and expert seamanship, to his humility, compassion, and heroism, LaRue, or Brother Marinus as he was called until his death in 2001, was a man who inspired loyalty. Bob is his most fervent advocate.

Meredith Victory

The Meredith Victory leaving Heungnam, December 1950, as shown in the Korean blockbuster movie, "Ode to My Father.” (Photo credit: cinemaescapist.com)

Through newspaper and magazine articles, televised interviews, museum exhibits, and the support and friendship he gives those who are trying to keep the memory of Heungnam and the Meredith Victory alive for future generations, Bob Lunney has become the representative - a living symbol - of the most iconic ship at Heungnam. Without his dedication to the captain and crew of Meredith Victory, an important chapter of the evacuation’s story would have been lost.

On December 14, the day before Bob's 90th birthday, we’ll hear dramatic accounts of Heungnam, share anecdotes, and pay tribute to all the brave men and women who participated in the unprecedented rescue operation.

We hope to see you there.


Celebrating Bob’s 88th birthday in Seoul at the opening of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History’s Heungnam Exhibit in December 2015. Bob’s wife Joan is seated to his left. (Photo courtesy of Ned Forney)
Bob Lunney (far left) with three of his fellow officers, 1950: (from left to right) Merle Smith, Al Kaufold, and Burley Smith. (Photo courtesy of Bob Lunney)
Bob and I became friends two years ago. He’s been a wonderful mentor and supporter. He invited me to his home in Bronxville, New York, during the summer of 2016 for a Meredith Victory reunion. From left to right: Ned, Bob, Won Dong-hyuk, a 14-year-old refugee aboard the Meredith Victory in 1950, and Merle Smith. (Photo courtesy of Ned Forney)
A picture I took of Bob, with South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, this summer at Quantico, Virginia. General Robert Neller, Commandant of the Marine Corps is in the background. President Moon made a special trip to the National Museum of the Marine Corps to pay tribute to the veterans of the Chosin Campaign and Heungnam Evacuation.
For more information on the December 14, Korea Society presentation, please see their website: koreasociety.org. A special thanks to Stephen Noerper, Senior Director at The Korea Society, and Dr. Hann Seung-Kyung, President of the Dr. Hyun Bong-Hak Memorial Foundation, for their support and friendship.

Top Picture: Capt. Leonard LaRue, 1950 (Photo courtesy of Bob Lunney)


  1. RJ McHatton on November 27, 2017 at 11:52 am

    Very nice article about so many humble heroes!

    • Ned Forney on November 28, 2017 at 10:47 am

      Thank you, RJ, for reading my post and commenting. Also, thank you for your role in keeping the memory of the Heungnam Evacuation alive. Your video is a wonderful tribute to the men and women of Heungnam.