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Leonard LaRue, 87; His Small Ship Rescued 14,000 Refugees

October 22, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Maritime Administration called it the greatest rescue operation by a single ship in history.

At Christmas in 1950, a freighter designed to carry its 47 crewmen and no more than 12 passengers ferried 14,000 North Korean refugees out of a wartime inferno through the mine-pocked Sea of Japan to the safe haven of Koje Do Island 500 miles away.

The little 455-foot ship that whisked the multitude out of the port of Hungnam as American warships fired overhead was the Meredith Victory. Its captain, who later decided "God's own hand was at the helm of my little ship," was Leonard LaRue.

LaRue, who after two decades at sea became Benedictine monk Brother Marinus, died Oct. 14 at St. Paul's Abbey in Newton, N.J. He was 87.

The rescue story was published in book form earlier this year in "Ship of Miracles," by Bill Gilbert, a Korean War Air Force veteran and former public information officer for the Washington Council of Governments.

When the war began June 25, 1950, the Meredith Victory, sailing out of Norfolk, Va., was assigned to carry ammunition, tanks and trucks from Japan to supply American troops in North Korea. By the Christmas season, China had joined North Korean Communists and routed American and South Korean troops and North Korean civilians with an onslaught at Chosin Reservoir.

The Meredith Victory was ordered to the port of Hungnam where 193 ships gathered and American officers worked to aid civilian refugees as U.S. warships continued the battle.

"I trained my binoculars on the shore and saw a pitiable scene," LaRue later wrote. "Korean refugees thronged the docks. With them was everything they could wheel, carry or drag. Beside them, like frightened chicks, were their children."

It was Dec. 22, and from afternoon until the next morning, LaRue and his crew loaded women, babies and old men into the ship's five cargo holds and standing shoulder to shoulder on deck. Their baggage--including sewing machines and musical instruments--was left behind to squeeze more people on board.

On Dec. 23, the Meredith Victory sailed south--with no mine detection equipment, no doctor, no interpreter, no lighting in the holds, no heat, no sanitation facilities. The ship's only gun was the pistol in the captain's pocket.

Although stoic, the refugees who had been fired upon by Communists as possible American sympathizers for fleeing their homes, passed fearful rumors during the treacherous voyage. They whispered that the Americans might shoot them or make them jump into the water. Despite possibly incendiary demands for food and water, and even a few fires lighted for warmth atop oil drums (and quickly extinguished by crewmen), calm prevailed.

The ship arrived safely at Pusan in South Korea on Dec. 24--only to be turned away by a city already overwhelmed by refugees. The rejection caused the religious LaRue to remark in later years, "I was reminded of the first Christmas Eve when there was no room. . ."

Fifty miles farther on they came to the island of Koje Do. After one last frigid night, refugees were finally taken to shore by two Navy ships that normally land tanks during beach combat.

Not one person died. And the human cargo increased by five babies born during the trip.

LaRue, born in Philadelphia, commanded the Meredith Victory until 1952, when it was decommissioned and saw it designated by Congress as a Gallant Ship. He received citations from America and South Korea.

The captain, who joined the Benedictines in 1954, considered the 1950 event a turning point in his life, helping to solidify his decision to enter the monastery.

"I think of how such a small vessel was able to hold so many persons and surmount endless perils without harm to a soul," he said later. "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."

Gilbert set out to do a book on the Chosin Reservoir campaign in which Communist Chinese soldiers routed U.S. forces. Instead, he was encouraged by the 50th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee to write the only book about the dramatic rescue.

"We think it's a story that should be told more expansively," J. Robert Lunny, a staff officer of the ship during the rescue and later an attorney in White Plains, N.Y., told the Washington Times after the book was published. "War is to effect a humanitarian result. It's not just to kill people and collect real estate."

LaRue left no immediate survivors.

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