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Korean War hero of 'Christmas Miracle' advances toward sainthood

US sailor Captain Leonard LaRue became a Benedictine monk after rescuing 14,000 Korean refugees

Korean War hero of 'Christmas Miracle' advances toward sainthood

'Servant of God' Leonard LaRue became Benedictine Brother Marinus after he and the crew of his merchant ship rescued about 14,000 refugees during the Korean War. (Photo: Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey)

An American sailor who became a Benedictine monk and was widely hailed for miraculously saving 14,000 refugees during the Korean War as the skipper of a US merchant navy ship is now on the path to sainthood.

The US Bishops' Conference approved the cause of canonization of Captain Leonard LaRue, who following the war became a Benedictine friar and took the name Brother Marinus.

They also backed the sainthood cause of Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, an army chaplain who died as a prisoner of war during World War II.

During the Korean War, as skipper of US Merchant Marine cargo freighter SS Meredith Victory, LaRue achieved what the US Maritime Administration has called the “greatest rescue operation by a single ship in history.”

The rescue operation in 1950 began on Dec. 23 and ended on Christmas Day, so it became known as the “Christmas Miracle.”

Among the rescued refugees were the parents of Timothy Moon Jae-in, the current president of South Korea.

I trained my binoculars on the shore and saw a pitiable scene. Korean refugees thronged the docks

Born in Philadelphia on Jan. 14, 1914, Leonard LaRue studied at Pennsylvania State Nautical School and received his certification in 1934. He initially worked at New York port on incoming and outgoing ships. In 1942, he joined the Moore-McCormack Line.

In 1944, he was promoted to the post of master that allowed him to command a ship. Eventually, he became a US Merchant Marine captain of the 7,600-tonne SS Meredith Victory.

As the Korean War broke out, LaRue sailed from Norfolk, Virginia. He was ordered to pass through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to reach a US military base in Japan. He was assigned to load ammunition and armored vehicles for delivery to Hungnam port on the eastern coast of North Korea as US military commanders sought to resist the advancing North Korean and Chinese communist forces.

As LaRue approached the shore, he witnessed the terrifying scene of thousands of refugees swarming Hungnam port as they fled the communists' fire. Some 200 United Nations ships packed with refugees were ready to depart amid the raging attacks.

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"I trained my binoculars on the shore and saw a pitiable scene. Korean refugees thronged the docks. With them was everything they could wheel, carry or drag. Beside them, like frightened chicks, were their children," LaRue told his biographer.

Captain LaRue was a deeply religious man and willing to do anything to rescue the beleaguered Korean refugees. But the capacity of the 139-meter-long cargo ship was limited — cabin space for 47 crew and a dozen passengers at most, plus five cargo holds.

He ordered the removal of anything that occupied space, including cargo and weapons, and allowed as many as refugees as possible on board. About 14,000 poured into the ship, filling cargo holds and the deck full to the brim.

The ship headed south and reached Pusan (now Busan) on Christmas Eve, but it was not allowed to dock as the port was already overwhelmed with fleeing refugees.

The ship crawled another 80 kilometers southwest of Pusan and reached the island of Koje Do, where all refugees were taken to the shore by two US navy tank-landing craft. On board, there had been no violence despite refugees fearing betrayal by their rescuers and the Americans fearful of an outbreak of riots. Moreover, five babies were born on the ship during the miraculous voyage.

"I believe that God sailed with us during those three days. God's own hand was at the helm of my little ship," LaRue later recalled.

While the great rescue mission brought LaRue fame and honors from the US and South Korea, it also infused in him a strong religious vocation

Today, the descendants of the rescued refugees are estimated to be one million, reported Catholic Times of Korea.

While the great rescue mission brought LaRue fame and honors from the US and South Korea, it also infused in him a strong religious vocation.

In 1954, he joined the Benedictine Order and took the name Brother Marinus (Latin for “of the sea”). He spent the rest of his life in prayer and seclusion at St. Paul's Abbey in Newton, New Jersey, where he died on Oct. 14, 2001.

“Many people from Korea remember and praise him for his heroic deeds,” recalled auxiliary Bishop Elias Lorenzo of the Archdiocese of Newark who attended the funeral Mass.

On March 25, 2019, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson of New Jersey opened the cause for Captain LaRue's canonization.

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