The Story of Hungnam

A Story to be Told

My Father-in-law (dad) and his family are North Korean refugees. No they didn’t race across the DMZ dodging bullets. They escaped from Hungnam in North Korea as the Chinese troops joined the North Korean troops pushing back the UN forces culminating in the evacuation of troops, equipment and some 98,100 civilian refugees with the last ship departing on 24th December 1950. The last ship was the Meredith Victory now famed in a movie called Ode to my Father, a good watch!

So some background. Dad’s Father, Chang Seung Lee (Grandpa), and his Wife, Sung Yoon Kim (Grandma) were Christians living in a place called Hamheung (see Pic1 Map) north east from the coastal port of Hungnam. They had lived through Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) with Grandpa being jailed and tortured for being subversive to the Japanese rule, when he was arrested he was 70kg, when finally released he was only 38kg. It was said he wouldn’t live long. He proves them wrong. With the Allies winning WWII they decided in their wisdom to divide Korea at the 38th parallel into Soviet controlled North Korea and US controlled South Korea. Good one folks!!!! Grandpa and Family now lived in communist controlled North Korea run by that nut job Kim Il Sung, Grandfather of the current nut job!

Grandpa had not only been subversive during Japanese occupation but as a Christian leader he was seen as a threat by the Communists so during the communist occupation of the north things got so bad that he had to go into hiding.

As you probably know the North Koreans with the help of the Russians invaded South Korea on 25th June 1950. The U.N. with very significant contribution of US fought back aggressively and pushed the North Koreans almost back to the Yalu river bordering China. The family now seemingly safe under U.N. protection. However in Oct of 1950 massive numbers of Chinese troops crossed the Yalu and smashed their way south. Grandpa and family were again under severe threat.

After a vicious battle between 30,000 Allied troops and some 120,000 Chinese at Chosin Reservoir in Nov/Dec 1950 the US realised that the US X Corp including other allied troops would need to be evacuated – the place Hungnam. Some 125 ships were needed to evacuate the 105,000 troops and associated vehicles and cargo. This took place during late December 1950 within an ever shrinking perimeter.

So Grandpa and family are in trouble again. They know that the communists will kill them if captured, they are just within the UN perimeter. The UN forces were totally focused on getting all the troops plus as much equipment as possible from Hungnam. Initially there was little or no consideration of the refugees. The only plan so far had been to get a small number of government officials plus some folk that were considered at high risk from communist retribution, luckily that did include Grandma and family. Before this though In mid Dec as the UN casualties mount and military evacuation is underway Grandpa goes to Hungnam to try to find a way out for the family, as you would imagine there is chaos. In the process he is unable to get back to the family and is forced to flee on a fishing boat on 14th Dec and gets to Busan on 10 Jan 1951

Grandma is now faced with managing to get the family out. Her Father-in-law does not want to leave! She with the help of her Brother takes the family and get on a supply train that takes them to Hungnam on the evening of the 19th Dec. The family is Grandma who was 28 years old at this time, Jang Yung Lee 10 years old (Uncle), Keum Yung Lee 8 (Aunty), Soon Yung Lee 5 (Dad), Ae Yung Lee 2 (Aunty), Soo Yung Lee as an 8 month old baby, and and on top of that, Grandma was 7 months pregnant! She also had her Father-in-law Do Jae Lee 79 and his Wife Maria Kim 72.

They get to Hungnam being only able to take the minimum of possessions and food, they are at the port with other Christians waiting for news of when they will get out. Remember it is freezing cold in the middle of winter in North Korea. On the evening of the 22nd at 9pm in the cold and dark they get to board an LST (Landing Ship Tank) – see photos below. Note this is not their ship (I am trying to find details on which one they were on). They are crammed on board in between some tanks and about 8-10 pieces of artillery. There is no food and very little water. The LST departs on the morning of the 23rd of Dec.

Understated was how cold and miserable it was throughout the evacuation. “They stood in masses, their worldly possessions strapped to their backs, children clutching at the hands of parents, hunger, fear, and despair etched deeply in the faces of all” read the official after action report approved by Edward M Almond Lt General in command. High winds with gale force gusts up to twenty-seven knots (50kph) buffeted loading operations and wind chill lowered the temperatures to -27c throughout 21-24 December.

Dad has some recollection from the journey from Hamheung, where they lived, to Hungnam by train. He remembers they were on open flat cars. He also remembers boarding the LST where he felt so thirsty and cried “I am thirsty, I am thirsty!”. “Mom and everyone were so tired that they were on the floor of the ship. At that time a young man passing by finding me crying gave me two or three water bottle caps of water.“. “I remember those things.”

In the closing days of the military evacuation the refugee crisis had become overwhelming. There are some 120,000 Korean refugees freezing with little food with the Chinese and North Korean troops getting closer. They have little or no chance of survival. A choice has to be made between stores and equipment or a humanitarian effort. Major General Edward Almond makes the decision and Colonel Edward Forney to assign on 23 February 3 Victory Cargo Ships and 2 LSTs dedicated for refugees totalling some 60,000 souls, the record for one ship, the Meredith Victory was 14,500.

The last ship to leave was on the 24th of Dec as all remaining stores and ammunition were blown up with much of the port infrastructure to deny use by the communists (below). The total evacuation of 100,000 troops, 350,000 tons of vehicles and stores plus a total 98,100 refugees using 105 cargo ship and 89 LST loads ferrying from Hungnam down to Busan and Geoje at the bottom tip of South Korea. The tragedy reflected by Rear Admiral James Doyle, “Had there been sufficient shipping, twice that number could have been saved. I estimated that as many Koreans remained (behind) vainly hoping for transport.” They were left behind suffering in the brutal cold and to await their fate at the hands of the communists.

Grandma with 7 family members ranging from 8 months through to 79 years old endure through 3 days and 2 nights on the LST before they make it to Geoje (at the time referred to as Koje-Do) Island at the South of Korea (see Pic 4). They arrive on the 26th of Dec at Jangseungpo-Dong harbour and spend the night at the nearby school.

You’d think this was the end of the harrowing experience – but no.

As refugees were organized through the Church they had been assigned to a Parish Called The Central Presbyterian Church Geoje in a town on the other side of the island. They had to walk – 3 days and 2 nights (see Pic 5). Older Uncle says at least it wasn’t that cold like Hungnam.

As they walked, sleeping in ditches by the roadside, older Uncle said that Dad had the worst of it at 5 years old. Uncle at 10 was ok on the walk although hard, the younger ones got respite with folk carrying them, but Dad at 5 had a hard time of the walk, nobody had the energy to carry him. The red line shows the route of the walk, on our recent visit we drove that road, it’s very mountainous – it would have been a very tough walk. As they made their way tragedy struck and the little 8 month old baby, Soo Yung Lee, passed away. Point A on the map is a small valley with a river flowing through it, Older Uncle says the baby was buried somewhere along there but can’t remember exactly where.

For the first night on arrival at point B on the map they stayed in the local church. There is a new much larger church on the same spot. After that they moved into what Uncle called a “mud hut”. The photo (Pic 6) below is Uncle showing Dad exactly where the hut was located.

The following photo shows the view from up where the hut was. The power lines spoil the view but it does give a sense of the mountains that they walked through.

So a bit of levity to add in the mix here. Uncle and Aunty came to visit us in Singapore in May 2018 with Dad and Mrs You. Uncle speaks ok English although he told me once that he speaks very good French (not that helpful as I do not!), I speak no Korean so talking required a lot of translation by Dad and Yujin. Now just in case you didn’t know, Koreans like to drink (!!) so we had quite a number of very funny (drunken) nights talking about stuff in broken English and Korean. So Uncle starts to tell a story about the evacuation, that he had to “carry the cow” – what?? Again he said he was carrying a cow – in a bucket! Ok so after further probing we worked out that because they couldn’t carry much from Hamheung and food was going to be a challenge, and they lived on a dairy farm – they slaughtered a cow and cut it up preserved it in soy sauce then put it in a big bucket (remember its winter). Uncle carried the bucket with the meat in it on his back so they had something to eat on the journey. He said that the good news was that every day it got lighter (as they ate it), the bad news was it was getting lighter and lighter so they were progressively running out of food.

Ok, now remember Grandpa was in Busan having escaped there by fishing boat. By word of mouth he heard that his family was in Geoje. He found them in early March 1951 and lived with them through until mid 1952 when his Father (Great Grandfather) died. The family then moved to Busan where Grandfather became a wealthy businessman – made and then lost a fortune, but that is another story. Oh by the way the bucket made it to Busan – Dad can remember it being in the house, it was used as a waste bin in one of their toilets.

So an all to brief acknowledgment on various sources providing assistance in pulling this together including Uncle, Dad, Ned Forney (Grandson of Col Edward H Forney who was responsible for the evacuation) and now lives in Seoul, Dr. Chisholm who is a professor in the Joint Military Operations Department at the US Naval War College and Alex Daverede from History Hub – All of the above have answered my questions and pointed me to various documents, photos and books too numerous to mention.

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