South Korean President Moon Jae-in brought with him to the U.S. last week his mother's vivid memory of her rescue by the Americans in what is often called "The Forgotten War" on the peninsula.
Moon's mother, Kang Han-ok, was one of 14,000 refugees fleeing the horrific battle at the Chosin Reservoir in what is now North Korea who had crammed aboard the SS Meredith Victory, the "Ship of Miracles."
"According to my mother, who is now 90 years old, on the 24th of December (1950), halfway through the voyage, American soldiers handed out a candy droplet to each refugee on board as Christmas presents. I believe this story has not yet been told," Moon said.
"Although it was but one droplet, I will always be grateful to the U.S. service members with such caring hearts for giving Christmas presents to so many refugees in the middle of a devastating war," Moon said through a translator in a moving ceremony last Wednesday at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.
To several survivors of the battle, and at least one surviving crew member of the Meredith Victory at the ceremony, Moon gave thanks for the "SS Meredith Victory's voyage toward freedom and human rights."
"Honorable veterans, the Republic of Korea remembers. Our memories of gratitude and respect will continue forever," Moon said. "This is why I do not doubt the future of our alliance."
Moon spoke before the monument to the Chosin Reservoir campaign, called Jangin in Korean, of Nov. 27-Dec. 10, 1950, in which the 1st Marine Division and elements of the Army's 7th Division fought off the encirclement of an estimated 120,000 Chinese in sub-zero temperatures.
In his remarks, Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Commandant, spoke directly to Moon, noting that the battle "bears special significance to you. Your family shares a personal bond with our Marine Corps. Thank you, for honoring that legacy today."
"The iconic story of the Jangin Reservoir is the ultimate story of overcoming insurmountable odds," Neller said. "Yet, despite these odds, the Marines fought their way out over 78 miles of harsh terrain to the port of Hungnam, where they held off the Chinese while more than 100,000 troops and an estimated 100,000 refugees were evacuated by 193 Navy and Merchant Marine ships.
A major part of the operation, Neller said, was "the largest evacuation of refugees ever by a single ship -- 14,000 on the SS Meredith Victory."
According to the Korea War Memorial Foundation, Capt. Leonard LaRue of the Meredith Victory ordered weapons and cargo dumped overboard to make room for the refugees, who were crammed standing-room-only on the deck and in five cargo holds.
Not one refugee was lost, and the population actually increased by five during the three-day voyage to Koji Island near the port of Pusan. All five babies were delivered by First Mate D.S. Savastio, who had nothing more than basic first aid training.
At the ceremony, Moon singled out for praise Robert Lunney, who was a 22-year-old staff officer aboard the Meredith Victory and was present with other veterans of the conflict at the monument.
In a 2003 interview with Stars & Stripes, Lunney said that several Army colonels had boarded the Meredith Victory to ask LaRue if he would take on refugees. "LaRue said he'd take as many as he could."
"As far as we could see, there was a mass of humanity on the beach," Lunney said. "The poor people were being threatened with annihilation. Many of them were being wiped out in the village because they were accused of cooperation with the UN forces, especially the Americans. They were fleeing for their lives."
LaRue said years after the war that "I think often of that voyage. I think of how such a small vessel was able to hold so many persons and surmount endless perils without harm to a soul" as the ship passed unharmed through enemy minefields.
"And, as I think, the clear, unmistakable message comes to me that on that Christmastide, in the bleak and bitter waters off the shores of Korea, God's own hand was at the helm of my ship," LaRue said.
Two years after the Meredith Victory brought his mother to safety, Moon was born. "Had it not been for the warriors of Jangin Reservoir, I would not be here today," he said. "How could I ever put into words, therefore, the gratitude I have for your sacrifice and devotion."
Moon said Lunney had told him that "he would like to see a re-unified peninsula before passing away. This is my dream, as well."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.