When novelist Jeon Kyung-ae watched the first 10 minutes of the recent box-office hit “Ode to My Father,” she was surprised and deeply touched to see the U.S. merchant ship SS Meredith Victory in the flick.
The ship, designed to carry only 60 people, evacuated 14,000 civilian refugees fleeing from communist troops, sailing from Heungnam Port in present day North Korea to Geojedo Island, in South Gyeongsang Province, during the Korean War in the rescue effort known as the “Heungnam evacuation” in 1950.
It was a little-known story up until the turn of the 21st century. Only the survivors and the veterans were aware of the miraculous rescue. But Jeon ― who was only 2 years old at the time ― is credited with drawing attention to the evacuation for the first time through her English novel “The Dandelion Ranch” in 2000.
“I believe it was destiny to discover the material for the story,” the 65-year-old author said in an interview last week in Seoul, describing the series of events that led her to devote her life to writing Korean War literature.
Novelist Jeon Kyung-ae poses during an interview last week at Herald Square, Yongsan-gu, central Seoul. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
It started in 1994, when the journalist-turned-author was traveling in the U.S. and happened to visit a small museum in Montana. She found a dusty two-volume scrapbook with the title “1950-53 Korean War” on the bookshelf. In the book, there were news articles about the town’s young men who had been involved in the Korean War. The book started out with the photos of the physical examination for conscription. Next was the dates of the soldiers’ departures, and few pages later were articles about injured soldiers. The last section had obituaries of the soldiers and the dates of their funerals.
“I was just speechless,” said Jeon. “There was too much sorrow throughout the U.S and I wasn’t aware of it. We were too focused on our side of the sorrow.”
She returned to Korea with the archival material and started writing the novel. The result was her first war novel, “Montana 625” (1998), which chronicles American soldiers who fought in the war.
“It was the first Korean work that shed light on the sufferings of American soldiers,” Jeon said.
She says that there are tens of thousands of soldiers outside of Korea who fought in the war, many of them killed in a country they never heard of, and still approximately 8,000 American soldiers missing in action.
“Many survivors and the families still live with the traces of the tragedy,” she said. “And the only thing I could do was to write the novels to alleviate their great sorrow.”
When her books were published, they were reviewed by many local newspapers, including The Korea Herald, where she worked as a reporter for five years.
Inspired by the books and the articles, many veterans contacted her to thank her and provided her with more information about the “forgotten war.” This included contact lists of veterans, photos and their own journals.
It is during that time that she first heard about the organization Chosin Few, a Hawaii-based international organization of Korean War veterans who fought in the Changjin Reservoir Battle. Chosin is the Japanese pronunciation of the Korean place name.
From talking to the members, and through research on the Changjin Reservoir Battle ― one of the deadliest of the war ― she wrote the full-length novel “The Chosin Few” in 1999.
It was also during this time that she had a chance to meet Robert Lunney, the staff officer of the Meredith Victory in 1950, when he was 23 years old.
“He told me about the Heungnam evacuation in detail and the miracle that happened that winter,” said Jeon. “I was fascinated.”
rom Lunney, she heard about Leonard LaRue, the captain of the vessel behind the miraculous operation.
“He became a priest, later known as the Brother Marinus, and stayed at Saint Paul Monastery in New York for the rest of his life,” Jeon said.
She wanted to meet the captain too, but his health was deteriorating. He died in 2001.
Instead, Jeon returned from New York to Korea and did what she does best: write about it. She wrote novels and essays about the evacuation, including “The Last Ship Out of Hung-Nam Harbor,” (2005) “The Great Voyages” (2014) and “Love of A Flower” (2014).
Jeon recently received the Korean Literature One Hundred Year Award for the passion and devotion with which she has delved into the Korean War during her literary career.
Jeon says she is just giving back what she has received from others.
“I realized the education I attained and being able to live prosperously in this time comes at the price of those who sacrificed their lives in this country,” said Jeon.
“I am just doing what a person ought to do, thanking them with what I can do.”
It is her mission in life, says the author, who wishes to write more war novels and hopefully see some of her works turned into a play or film in the future.
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org)