SEOUL — Seeing scenes of desperate refugees trying to escape Afghanistan during the US withdrawal — mothers holding babies, men begging to board planes in Kabul — Sohn Yang-young, 70, felt tears in his eyes. eyes welling up, his heart aching as if he were there.
His family had gone through a similar traumatic war experience.
Mr. Sohn’s parents were among the 91,000 refugees the US military had evacuated from Hungnam, a port on the east coast of North Korea, in a frantic retreat by Chinese communist forces during the Korean War in 1950. They boarded. of the last ship to leave port carrying refugees — the SS Meredith Victory, a United States freighter freighter.
Mr. Sohn was one of five babies born on the ship.
“When I saw the chaotic scenes at the Afghan airport, I thought of my parents and the same life-or-death situation they had experienced in Hungnam,” Mr Sohn said in an interview. “I couldn’t fight my tears, especially when I saw those kids.”
In late December 1950, six months after the start of the Korean War, 100,000 American and South Korean troops withdrew through the bitter cold and deep snow after United Nations forces suffered a heavy loss at the Battle of the Chosin River. reservoir, also known as Lake Jangjin. The only route to safety in the south was by sea.
As was the case in Afghanistan this year, the news of the US withdrawal caused a major exodus. By the time US forces reached Hungnam, crowds had already arrived at the port, hoping to flee the violence as Chinese troops, fighting alongside troops from the north, approached.
The Americans decided to rescue as many refugees as possible, throwing weapons and other cargo overboard to make room for the 190 ships sent out to evacuate the soldiers. The operation became known as “the miracle of Christmas,” and by some estimates it was the largest wartime evacuation of civilian refugees in US history to Afghanistan.
Older South Koreans invariably mention the evacuation when talking about their country’s alliance with the United States, forged during the war. When South Korea airlifted 391 Afghans — people working for South Korean troops stationed in Afghanistan and their relatives — last month, the decision was enforced in part by what the US military did in Hungnam.
“The Americans were our savior,” said Lee Kweng-pill, another baby born aboard the Meredith Victory. “Without them my parents would not have survived the war and I would not be here.”
Mr. Sohn, Mr. Lee and other children of the Hungnam refugees, including President Moon Jae-in, grew up listening to their parents talk about how terrified they were of being left behind under communist rule, and how panicked they were to be on American ships. During the war there were massive extrajudicial killings of civilians accused of collaborating with the enemy.
When the Americans withdrew, fear spread through Hungnam. The streets and harbor were overrun with people screaming for lost relatives, babies screaming and military police officers blowing whistles to contain the crowd, according to testimonies from some of those who escaped. Fire and smoke rose as soldiers burned trucks and other equipment they couldn’t take with them.
“Branches flew over as the Allied ships fired to deter the Communist advance, while the Communists fired back to sink the American ships,” said Han Geum-suk, a nurse in Hamhung who joined the evacuation. “We ran back and forth through the crossfire several times before we could catch a ship. The ground was littered with people with their suitcases who had perished. There was hardly any standing room on the ship.”
Few events in the Korean War have so deeply affected the psyche of elderly South Koreans as the Hungnam evacuation, which they saw as a symbol of wartime disaster and humanitarian grace. It is commemorated in South Korean textbooks, as well as in one of the country’s most beloved pop songs. “Ode to My Father”, a 2014 film based in part on the evacuation, became one of the highest-grossing films in the history of South Korean cinema.
Mr. Moon’s parents were among the fugitives who caught the Meredith Victory. The ship, designed to carry no more than 59 people, left Hungnam on December 23, 1950, carrying 14,000 refugees. Sailing unescorted, she arrived on Christmas Day at Geoje Island, off the south coast of South Korea. M. Moon, who was born in 1953 in a refugee camp on Geoje, said his mother always told him about the sweets distributed to refugees who were packed in the cargo hold on Christmas Eve.
He has called the voyage of the Meredith Victory “one of the greatest humanitarian operations in human history”.
“I am deeply moved by the humanity shown by the US military when it evacuated not only its own troops but also refugees in such a desperate situation,” Mr Moon said during his visit to the United States in 2017.
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The captain of the Meredith Victory, Leonard LaRue, made the decision to abandon weapons and cargo to carry as many refugees as he could in what has been called “the largest evacuation of land by a single ship”. The captain became a Benedictine monk in New Jersey after the war and died in 2001. The American Episcopal Conference recently expressed support for his canonization.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, the government of Mr. Moon sent millions of face masks as a token of gratitude to Korean War veterans around the world, including three surviving crew members of the Meredith Victory: Robert Lunney, Burley Smith and Merl Smith.
mr. Sohn, one of the babies born on the ship, met Mr. Lunney several years ago when the American was invited to come to South Korea. Together they confirmed that Mr. Sohn was “Kimchi One”. According to Mr Lunney, the US crew of the ship nicknamed the five babies born on board “Kimchi” because it was apparently the Korean word most familiar to them, Mr Sohn said.
mr. Lee was “Kimchi Five”.
Both Mr Lee and Mr Sohn said that when they saw the news of a young Afghan football player falling from a US plane and of babies being born during airlifts from Kabul, they relived the pain of war-torn Korean families.
Before joining the frenzied rush to the Meredith Victory, Mr. Sohn’s father and mother entrusted their 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to his brother, who was left behind. His parents believed the family would be reunited when the tide of the war turned in favor of the United States.
Instead, the war was ended in a ceasefire and the Korean peninsula remains divided. Mr. Sohn’s parents died without seeing their two children in the north again.
Thousands of refugees were stranded in Hungnam after the last ship left. The US military bombed the harbor to destroy the equipment and supplies so that the communists couldn’t use them. Mr. Lee, 70, said he heard from North Korean defectors who said many refugees left in the harbor were killed during the bombing, and others were sent to detention camps.
After resettling in South Korea, Mr. Lee’s father owned a photography studio and his mother owned a grocery store. Mr. Lee became a veterinarian. They all called their stores “Peace,” he said. “My father didn’t want another war in Korea.”