MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Burley Smith remembers Christmas Day 1950 at the height of the Korean war.
The retired Miami realtor, now 92, was a 21-year-old sailor aboard the United States Merchant Marine vessel Meredith Victory.
He and a few other shipmates had recently graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy Kings Point, New York.
The ship was in Korean waters to carry military equipment to U.S. troops. He vividly recalls the ship.
“The ship was the Meredith Victory ship, hundreds were built during World War II, the top speed was 17 knots, about 20 miles an hour. It had 15 cargo holds and carried a crew of 47 people and could only carry 12 passengers,” said Smith.
But the ship’s assignment changed as thousands of desperate North Koreans fled from the Chinese army. In the bitter cold, Smith and his fellow crew members loaded 14,000 refugees on board for a three-day rescue mission.
“We happened to be the ship that took the most because our skipper Captain Leonard LaRue said ‘pack them aboard as tightly as you can’,” said Smith. “We had 14,000 people stuffed on a small ship. No toilets, no food, no water. They were locked down in the hold afraid mostly of disease.”
The refugees made it safely to South Korea. The Meredith Victory became known as the “ship of miracles” completing the largest humanitarian rescue mission by a single ship in history.
“The miracle part of it was the Koreans behaved so well- there was no riot,” said Smith.
“None of them spoke English and none of us spoke Korean, my respect for them is immense,” he added.
The rescue is part of South Korean history.
There’s a memorial in the city of Geoje, which Smith has visited. He’s also been presented with medals and commendations from the South Korean government.
“The Koreans celebrate it every year, it’s a big thing. Here, Korea is the ‘forgotten war’ as it’s known,” he said.
The rescue mission is also revered by South Koreans because among the refugees were the parents of Moon Jae-in, the current President of South Korea.
Smith received a letter from President Moon thanking him for his actions 70 years ago, but he has always remained humble about his role on the ship of miracles.’
“We never felt special, or like heroes. We all came back and we all went to sea again on other ships. The heroic part of it was being part of a successful operation,” he said.
An operation that would change the course of history.