United Nations forces fighting North Korea and China had their backs to the icy waters of the East Sea in Heungnam, a town in North Korea’s South Hamgyeong Province. It was mid-December 1950, at the height of the Korean War.
Thousands of beleaguered U.S. Army soldiers, marines, their South Korean counterparts and thousands more refugees fleeing the onrush of communist troops gathered at the port, to be evacuated by sea to Busan. Top Allied commanders feared disaster.
But Hyun Bong-hak was determined to save the troops and the refugees. The 28-year-old medical doctor was the Civil Affairs deputy and a translator for Maj. Gen. Edward Almond, commanding officer of most of the encircled troops there.
Hyun’s efforts, combined with those of sympathetic U.S. officers and the U.S. Navy, resulted in the Heungnam evacuation.
From Dec. 19-24, 1950, approximately 105,000 troops and 98,000 civilians were rescued in what is remembered by some survivors as a “Christmas miracle.” The last ship to leave port, the Meredith Victory, took 14,000 refugees to safety.
Hyun Bong-hak. (Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs)
The commanders had not initially dreamed of such a dashing escape. They considered merely taking all of their own troops a tall order in the minus-10 degree Celsius temperatures, never mind the refugees.
But Hyun and U.S. Marine Corps Col. Edward H. Forney, among others, convinced Gen. Almond otherwise.
They told the general that most of them would be executed by the communists if they left them behind.
The refugees were mostly Korean Christians who had been repressed under communist rule in the five years following Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, at the end of World War II.
They had offered assistance to U.N. troops occupying the port and nearby towns in the weeks before the evacuation. Communist officials were likely to punish them for the actions once they returned.
To Hyun, the refugees’ plight was also personal. The young physician had grown up in Hamheung, only about 16 kilometers from Heungnam. Most refugees weathering the subzero temperatures at the port were from Hamheung.
“The (U.N. forces) had helped more people than I would ever have thought possible,” the war hero said in 1997. Hyun is sometimes likened to Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
Hyun’s action was featured in the Korean blockbuster “Ode to My Father,” a film depicting the evacuation as its opening scene, and the tumultuous lives of those who reached South Korea, never to see their hometowns again.
Hyun can be seen pleading with an unnamed U.N. officer in the scene to “please get the refugees on the ships.”
Hyun’s daughters saw the film multiple times during their recent visit to Korea last year and upon their return to the U.S.
“It kind of reminds me of what I read Holocaust survivors in the U.S. felt. ... They were unable to express their feelings and were constantly told, ‘The war is over, you’re safe now, let’s not talk about it and move on,’” Esther Hyun, the second daughter of the late war hero said in an email interview with The Korea Herald last week.
Helen Hyun-Bowlin, Hyun’s third daughter, said she finally understood her father’s deeds during her recent visits to Korea.
“I finally realize how important what he accomplished was,” she said. “I learned most about his accomplishments as a war hero through my last two trips (to Korea). The movie ‘Ode to My Father’ really illustrates the effect of that evacuation.”
“And now, after learning about the separated families and researching to learn about conditions in North Korea, both my parents’ birthplace and where they grew up, I am very concerned with the human rights conditions in North Korea,” she added.
Another ode to Hyun came from Col. Forney, the U.S. officer who had assisted Hyun’s efforts at Heungnam.
“Dear Dr. Hyun,” the marine wrote in January 1951, in reply to a letter of thanks from Hyun for Forney’s help at Heungnam.
“I feel very proud of the accomplishment of that operation,” the officer said.
“I will never forget the look on your face when you knew that over 100,000 (refugees) from your own part of the country had been saved.”
“That look was sufficient thanks.”
By Jeong Hunny (email@example.com