A Special Event

A Special Event at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, June 28, 2017

On Tuesday June 22, 2017, I received a phone call from the South Korean Embassy in Washington, DC, informing me that President Moon Jae-in of South Korea would be visiting the USA next week. As part of his visit, he would lay a wreath at the Jangjin Reservoir Battle Monument at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Would I do the honor of accepting an invitation to attend this event? I was very much honored and accepted.

Why would I be invited to what would hardly seem to be the most important event of President Moon’s visit to the USA? What connection could there be between myself and this small event. The answer goes back to an event that affected President Moon’s life and also that of Br. Marinus LaRue (known then as Captain LaRue) of St. Paul’s Abbey, Newton, NJ, in December 1950. At that time, the Marines and the army were retreating from the forces of the Chinese communists in northeast Korea. The troops were being evacuated at the port of Heungnam. Along with the retreating Marines, were thousands of refugees fleeing for their life. At the same time, Captain LaRue was commanding the Meredith Victory, a merchant ship chartered to the Military Sea Transportation Service. He was ordered to Heungnam to help though he still had a partial cargo of jet fuel. Upon arrival, he discovered that the enemy forces were encroaching upon the harbor and were only held off by naval fire. The north Koreans fleeing the communist forces were crowded on the beach. Army representatives boarded the Meridith Victory and said they did not need his services but as one of the last ships in the harbor would he volunteer to evacuate remaining refugees huddled on the shore. Without hesitation, Captain LaRue agreed and ordered his crew to prepare the ship to take on as many as possible.  Protected by naval gun fire, 14,000 people were loaded into three holds and the deck. The temperature was close to 0 degrees F. On December 23rd they set sail for Busan heading through minefields. On Christmas Eve they arrived at Busan. On Christmas Day they were told they could not disembark the refugees, “There was no room in the inn,” as Br. Marinus later reflected. The ship sailed on to Geoje Island south of Busan and on December 26th, the refugees safely set foot on land again; five babies were born during that sea voyage. A total of 98,000 people were evacuated from Heungam at that time but the Meredith Victory was remembered as the last ship and the one carrying the most significant number.

Soon after his recent election, it quickly became known that President Moon’s mother (still alive), his father and his oldest sister were refugees on board the Meredith Victory. The president was born in 1953 on Geoje-Do. In 1954 Captain LaRue gave up life at sea and became a Benedictine monk of St. Paul’s Abbey. He quietly lived with us in the monastery. Though he and ship’s crew received honors in gratitude for their humanitarian act from the governments of both South Korea and the USA, he himself really never spoke about this deed. In 2000, when the 50th anniversary of the Jangjin Reservoir Battle and the Heungnam Evacuation were remembered again, some Koreans who had been affected by that rescue came to say thanks to Brother, though he was bedridden by this time. They called him the Good Samaritan and bowed deeply in gratitude. Brother died peacefully on October 14, 2001. He was carried to the abbey cemetery by members of the Korean Catholic community in New Jersey, one of whom had been boy of 11, rescued on the Meredith Victory.

It was in February of this year that a special Jangjin (Chosin) Reservoir Battle Monument was erected in a forest area of the National Museum of the Marini Corps. President Moon wanted in some way to honor those who had valiantly fought in what was one of the most savage battles in modern warfare and at the same time those who had served to evacuate thousands of refugees from northern Korea and whose descendants today owe their lives to that humanitarian and Christian act, his own life among them. When he arrived on Wednesday, the 28th, his first official act was a deeply personal one. He wanted to honor those who had fought and rescued. There are only 50 survivors alive today of the Jangjin Reservoir Battle. Three were invited to come to meet President Moon. And from the Meredith Victory, now called “The Ship of Miracles,’ Mr. F. Robert Lunney, was able to receive the words of gratitude from the President of South Korea. Photos of the evacuation at the time were shared and presented. As for myself, as the abbot of St. Paul’s Abbey for the last years of Brother Marinus’ 45 years of monastic life and the one who laid him to rest in the monastery cemetery, I was the living link for the end of his life. Of all the people there, I happened to be the one who lived with him the longest.

Each of us expressed our gratitude and felt highly honored to be there to greet and welcome the President of South Korea. But the fact is, he was the one honoring each of us in some way for the role played at that moment in history and a moment affecting the present. He came to bow before us. President Moon’s speech at the wreath laying ceremony in front of the monument was deeply personal. He is conscious that he owes his life to what was fought for and who was rescued in December 1950. He told us clearly that he was standing there that day because of what had happened then. He spoke of the battle and the evacuation as a victory, a victory for humanity in the face of the greatest odds. He sees the rescue of thousands of fleeing refugees as the symbol of the ongoing relationship between the USA and Korea, a humanity at is best.

But, I was not the only Benedictine monk to stand in the receiving line of the 15 invitees for this event. Next to me was Abbot Blasio Park of Waegwan Abbey, South Korea. The story of the refugees on the Meredith Victory has touched the community of Waegwan Abbey in a personal way. One of the monks of the abbey was a nine-month old baby held by his mother on that voyage. The community of Waegwan knew the story of our Br. Marinus. In 2001, when the community was asked if they would consider coming to St. Paul’s Abbey to continue monastic life there as the original community had dwindled to a handful of members, there was a significant thread that linked both communities together already. By this time Br. Marinus was in his last days. Though he did not know it, he died two days after the community of Waegwan gave its initial yes to send monks to live at St. Paul’s. It was as if his last work had been completed. There were times when I was pushing Brother around in his wheel chair when he would say to me, “I don’t know why I am living so long.” I could only say, God has reasons we don’t know about. Sometime after his death and the first Korean monks of Waegwan had come to Newton, I came to see why he lived so long. The ways of God are inscrutable. We can only stand in awe, or in East Asia, bow profoundly in gratitude.

Fr. Prior Joel Macul, O.S.B