WASHINGTON -- In the eyes of James Robert Lunney, a retired rear admiral of the U.S. Navy, the true heroes of the 1950-53 Korean War were the tens of thousands of Koreans who left everything behind in pursuit of freedom -- the foundation that built South Korea today from the ashes of the brutal war.
“The true heroes were the Koreans themselves who sacrificed everything to leave their villages and their homes to obtain freedom,” said Lunney in an interview.
“We look back with great pride having helped Korean people, the Republic of Korea to maintain its integrity and the freedom of its people.”
Former U.S. servicemen who fought during the 1950-53 Korean War are honored during a dinner hosted by President Park Geun-hye in Washington, Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Lunney was part of the crew of the S.S. Meredith Victory that brought North Korean refugees from the northeastern port of Heungnam to the South during the war.
The mission of the U.S. vessel was to deliver war supplies. But the ship’s captain ordered the crew to dump all weapons overboard so that they could evacuate more Koreans at the crossroads of life and death. They were in great haste as the villages were being bombarded by the Chinese troops. The ship was the last ticket to freedom, Lunney recalled.
“One word I always remember during the boarding is ‘palli, palli’ -- faster, faster. In that way, we got many people on board, who crowded our ships, on the floor, on the decks.
“We took 14,000.”
The December 1950 operation, known as the “Heungnam evacuation,” took place as the U.S.-backed South Korean forces began retreating from North Korea after China sent a massive number of troops to fight alongside the communist neighbor.
The nearly forgotten operation recently came to the spotlight in the mega-hit film “Ode to My Father.”
Lunney was one of 600 guests invited to the Korea-U.S. Friendship Night hosted by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to celebrate the countries’ bilateral ties on Wednesday evening.
Earlier in the day, Park thanked Lunney during her visit to a monument honoring U.S. soldiers who served the war, calling him a hero.
“You are the true hero. Countless of Koreans are alive today thanks to you,” Park told him.
By Cho Chung-un, Korea Herald correspondent (firstname.lastname@example.org