Hungnam Evacuation – A Christmas Miracle

Map of Heungnam

Author's Note

After two and a half years of researching the Hungnam Evacuation for a book I’m writing about the historic event, I’ve become immersed in the story (or maybe obsessed, as my wife would say). Along with countless hours of research, reading, and editing, I’ve also interviewed 30 former Hungnam refugees, taught classes to high school and university students, made presentations to government and non-profit organizations, and written articles for newspapers and magazines.

I’m on a mission to keep the memory of Hungnam alive and if all goes as planned, I’ll be the first person to write a non-fiction book that tells the “untold story” of the unprecedented military and humanitarian operation.

This month marks the 67th anniversary of the event, so I thought it would be appropriate to give a brief overview, the Cliff Notes version, of the Hungnam Evacuation.

Hungnam, North Korea, 1950

In December 1950, dramatic events taking place in the rugged mountains of North Korea captivated the world’s attention. The Chosin Reservoir campaign, one of the fiercest battles in U.S. history, was taking place in sub-zero temperatures and knee-deep snow. U.N. forces, specifically the 1st Marine Division, 31st Regimental Combat Team, and 41 Royal Commando, were surrounded by overwhelming Chinese forces. Trapped and suffering heavy casualties, the US, British and ROK troops fought their way out of Chosin and to the coast. Tens of thousands of North Korean civilians followed.

With personal possessions – and in some cases, babies – strapped to their backs, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and everyday citizens from villages and towns throughout the region hugged their relatives, promised they’d return in a few days, and began walking toward the coast. They had heard rumors that the retreating Americans might allow them to escape aboard the US ships at Hungnam.

The cold, hungry, and exhausted refugees, fleeing from the approaching Chinese army, worried about their families back home. They knew what would happen to “sympathizers.” Those that the communists accused of helping or cooperating with ROK or US forces would be imprisoned, tortured, or possibly executed.

On Dec. 10, UN troops marched into Hungnam, ending the 70-mile withdrawal to the sea. With U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine ships waiting at the port, the men began to embark. General MacArthur had ordered all U.N. forces, and their equipment, supplies, and vehicles to redeploy to South Korea.

Marine Colonel Edward H. Forney, appointed as the evacuation control officer for the operation, was on a strict timetable. He had less than two weeks to get everyone out. For 100,000 North Korean refugees now trapped at Hungnam, their only hope of escape was with the Americans.

For US military leaders, the refugees presented a serious dilemma. There was no room for civilians aboard the military ships, and even if special arrangements could be made, there were simply too many people and not enough vessels to accommodate everyone. To make matters worse, U.S. military personnel had caught numerous enemy soldiers posing as refugees and trying to get into the port. A single saboteur with a few explosives could wreak havoc aboard a packed Navy troop carrier.

MacArthur and his generals discussed their options – and waited. In a glimmer of hope for the freezing refugees huddled at the water’s edge, a relatively small number of civilians were embarked during the second week of December. If the Chinese didn’t attack and enough shipping became available, there were also plans to evacuate an additional 25,000 refugees.

As military personnel withdrew throughout December, the refugees waited. But they were losing hope. With the Dec. 24 evacuation deadline quickly approaching, their chances of survival didn’t look good. The Chinese were getting closer by the day.

Finally, after much prodding and perseverance by key members of the military, specifically Dr. Hyun Bong-hak, a Korean civil affairs officer who spoke excellent English and had studied medicine in the States, and his trusted advocate, Col. Forney, the decision was made to evacuate as many civilians as possible. Given the available shipping and time, however, no one was sure how many that would include.

Refugees waiting to evacuate at Hungnam

Refugees waiting to evacuate at Hungnam. (Public domain)

Miracle on Christmas Eve

By Christmas Eve, 100,000 refugees had left Hungnam. Two days earlier, SS Meredith Victory, a Merchant Marine cargo ship captained by Leonard LaRue and designed to carry less than 60 people, sailed out of the harbor with 14,000 refugees, a Guinness World Record. Often referred to as the greatest rescue operation ever by a single ship, the voyage of the Meredith Victory became the stuff of legend.

Bob Lunney, a 23-year-old crewman aboard the Meredith Victory, said years later when asked about the ship’s historic voyage, “War is also about preserving the integrity of a nation and the dignity of its people – we felt we had done that.”

On December 24, the last day of the Chosin-Hungnam saga, the lead story in The New York Times read:

“Evacuation of Hungnam Completed . . . UN Fleet Brings Out 105,000 Soldiers and 100,000 Refugees”

The United Nations’ first humanitarian rescue operation and the largest sea-borne, military evacuation of civilians, under combat conditions, in American history was over.

President Harry Truman was ecstatic. “I thank God for the success of the Hungnam operation. It is the best Christmas present I’ve ever had,” he proclaimed after receiving a 1 a.m. Christmas call from Omar Bradley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Truman, America, and much of the world breathed a sigh of relief. A likely UN withdrawal from the Korean peninsula and a possible larger conflict with China and the Soviet Union had been avoided.

It is estimated that today that nearly a million descendants of those rescued live in freedom today in South Korea, the United States and other countries around the world.

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

Top photo creditDepartment of the Navy - Navy Historical Center, Washington, D.C

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