Pair of Hamiltonians escaped North Korea aboard S.S. Meredith Victory
Part three in a four-part series
By Mark Newman
Jung Hee Seh still has vivid memories of being cold, hungry and scared.
Now 74, the Ancaster resident was among the approximately 14,000 North Korean refugees that were carried to the South on board S.S. Meredith Victory on Dec. 24, 1950 in what has been called the greatest rescue operation by a single ship in history and a Christmas miracle.
Seh was a 10-year-old school girl living in Heungnam, a port city on the north-east coast of North Korea when the war began in 1950.
She recalled North Korean leader Kim Il-sung was a God-like presence in the months leading up to the war.
Large pictures of him were everywhere and school children had to offer tribute to the leader and sing the North Korean anthem each day.
“Every school kid has to sing that,” said Seh through her daughter HooJung Jones who provided the translation.
Seh said she was too young to recall if she felt oppressed by the Kim Il-sung regime only remembering that the Communists “give the rice.”
When American forces drove the Communists out in the fall of 1950 following the landing at Inchon, Seh said there were big celebrations.
“We were so happy,” said Seh, who noted the pictures of Kim Il-sung were quickly replaced by pictures of South Korean leader Syngman Rhee.
However, the American and United Nations’ drive to the North brought China into the war.
About 180,000 Chinese troops crossed the border pushing the American and UN forces back.
Overwhelmed and with Chinese troops pressing forward, the Americans retreated to Heungnam where they were ordered to get out.
More than 190 military and cargo ships were dispatched to the port in what would become the largest American amphibious evacuation in history.
But the Americans weren’t the only ones looking to get out.
Thousands upon thousands of North Korean refugees lined the snowy roads leading to the port and massed on the beach in the freezing cold, many suffering frostbite, all looking to escape.
Many were wearing two or three layers of clothing and carried an armful of possessions, while others appeared with only the clothes on their backs.
They were afraid of being massacred on the spot by the Communist forces.
Seh said she and her siblings hid in their home with no food for several days with the sounds of artillery blasting around them.
“Everybody was hiding in the basement bunker,” she recalled.
Seh said her father and a brother went to the port see what was going on.
“My father saw all the children escaping,” she said.
Her father than ran about 20 kilometres back to the ruins of the home to find his wife and six children and take them to the port.
The family pushed their way forward, eventually coming to the S.S. Meredith Victory a 455 foot-long Second World War era cargo ship that was equipped to carry 35 crew, 12 officers and 12 passengers.
Meredith commander Captain Leonard LaRue was shocked by the sea of humanity he was witnessing.
Without asking permission from his superiors, LaRue ordered his crew to get as many of the refugees on board as possible.
“They opened the gate and everybody rushed in,” said Seh.
It wasn’t long before the ship’s five cargo holds were full of people, mostly women and children.
Adult and teenage males were wedged onto the deck.
In all, some 14,000 refugees had boarded the ship.
“There were people on top of people,” Seh said. “Kids were on top of their parents.”
Meredith crew members were concerned that some of the refugees were lighting fires to keep warm with 52-gallon drums of jet fuel nearby.
A narrow channel had been cleared of mines and the massively overloaded Meredith chugged out of the port and headed for Koje, an island off South Korea where, amazingly, it arrived on Christmas Day.
But Seh and her family’s problems were not over yet.
There was no room for the refugees at Jangseungpo where they landed and her family endured an incredibly cold 10-day trek through hills and mountains eventually ending up in Koyeon and Jangmok.
With no winter coats they huddled around makeshift fires and survived on water with a bit of soya sauce.
Seh said the locals were suspicious of the North Koreans and refused to give them any rice.
After several days of pleading, her father finally convinced some of them to give some rice to the starving refugees.
Seh stayed five years on the island before moving to Seoul in 1958 where she met her husband, a solider in the South Korean Army.
With memories of being hungry always with her, Seh keeps a well-stocked refrigerator in her home and is always willing to share its contents with visitors.
She remains very grateful to the crew of the Meredith for rescuing her family.
“Without them, we would be dead,” she said.
Reverend Yurak Kim
For Yurak Kim, 79, his journey on the Meredith would eventually lead him to Christianity.
Also a resident of Heungnam, Kim was 16-years-old when the Korean War began.
He recalled listening to Bible stories and hymns as a child at a “praying place” during the Japanese occupation.
That all disappeared when the Communist government was installed.
“In North Korea there was no religion,” Kim said. “The Communist leader (Kim Il-sung), he was a God.”
Kim noted Japanese did not allow them to speak Korean in school while the Communists brought back their language and culture.
But living under Kim Il-sung was not pleasant.
People were always watching each other, Kim noted.
“One day after the war broke out we were told to come to school,” Kim said. “We were standing there when this guy came out saying ‘now we’re all going to war to liberate South Korea’.”
While North Korean army trucks were rolling up to take able-bodied students away to fight, Kim slipped out to the washroom, a building behind the school where he hid until dark.
“When I came out, everybody was gone,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to the war.”
Kim said he and a friend lived for several days in a hole they had dug.
They would come out at night and survived on rice from a bag the friend’s mother would drop into the hole.
Kim said they stayed hidden until the Americans liberated the North.
“We were so happy to see them coming in,” said Kim, who recalls U.S. soldiers handing out chocolate to the children.
When Chinese troops began to push the Americans back, Kim said they became fearful the Communists would return. As the Chinese drew near residents of the port city were notified by radio and public address systems that the city was being evacuated.
“We were told everybody in Heungnam get out,” Kim said.
Like 14,000 others, Kim found his way to the S.S. Meredith Victory, the last ship to take refugees out of the port.
“So many people were jammed together,” said Kim, who rode on the deck with the other adult and teenage males.
Landing on Koje Island, Kim attended a high school run by Christian missionaries where he was introduced to Christianity by the school’s chaplain. He began reading the Bible, attending church and learning English.
Upon graduation he attended a Christian seminary in Seoul and eventually became a minister, serving as a chaplain in the South Korean Army in the 1960s.
He later joined a United Church of Canada seminary in Wonju and came to Halifax to study and preach in the mid 1970s. After several years preaching in the Maritimes he came to Hamilton in 1989 when the Korean United Church on Pearl Street North was seeking a minister who could speak English and Korean. Kim retired in 1999.
Like Seh, Kim believes he would have been killed had he not fled the North.
He finds it hard to believe the 60th anniversary of the end of a war that brought him his faith and later a new country is only a few weeks away.
“It was like yesterday,” he said
Ironically, even though they both come from Heungnam, Kim and Seh had never met until they came to Hamilton. Seh and her husband Kyu Sik Kim were brought to Hamilton in 2000 by daughter HooJung Jones, who was working as a telecommunications specialist. Seh became a Canadian citizen in 2004.
American ships evacuated 100,000 North Korean refugees from Heungnam in Dec. 1950.
Among the 14,000 on the Meredith, five healthy babies were born. A religious man, Meredith commander Captain Leonard LaRue left the military in 1954 and entered St. Paul’s Abby, a Benedictine Monastery in Newton, New Jersey. He died in Oct. 2001 at age 87. Ship of Miracles, a video about the S.S. Meredith Victory rescue at Heungnam, is available here.
For more stories in Mark Newman’s series Korea: No longer forgotten click here.