- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

SEOUL — A high-profile U.S. Korean War veteran, visiting Seoul at the behest of local veterans, this week delivered a scathing attack on the Bush administration for a policy of “name-calling and accusation” toward North Korea.

J. Robert Lunney, 78, was an officer on the SS Meredith Victory, recognized by Guinness World Records as having performed the largest rescue ever by a single vessel, when, in an epic last-minute effort, it evacuated 14,000 refugees from the port of Hungnam in December 1950 as communist forces closed in.

“I do feel, personally, that reconciliation can come through negotiations and talking, not through name-calling and accusations,” Mr. Lunney said of Washington’s policy toward Pyongyang. “We should be able to, as I have done in North Korea, sit down and work with the North Koreans to resolve some of the problems; some problems can be resolved through trade, and possibly tourism.”

Mr. Lunney was talking at a press conference to raise awareness of a memorial to the Meredith Victory planned for Newton, N.J.

Since receiving, on behalf of his shipmates, a South Korean Presidential Unit Citation for the ship, he has acted as an unofficial spokesman for the crew and efforts to honor its memory.

Mr. Lunney was awarded the Korean Veterans Association “Great Medal” this week — the first foreigner to be so honored.

The ex-naval officer visited North Korea in 1997 and 1998 as a monitor for Joint Recovery Operations run by U.S. and North Korean armed forces to recover the remains of Americans killed in the war.

“On my trips to the North, I was constantly confronted with the fact that we are still at war — perhaps we should strive towards a peace treaty,” Mr. Lunney said, referring to the fact that the Korean conflict ended with an armistice, rather than a permanent settlement.

“My view in dealing with communists is ignoring what they have to say on politics, and getting down to business,” he said.

Amid U.S.-North Korean tensions, the recovery programs were indefinitely suspended by Washington last year. “I think they should recommence,” said Mr. Lunney. “It was the only connection we had with North Korea, and it ran for 10 years without problems.”

The Hungnam Evacuation was one of the Korean War’s riskiest operations. As numerically superior Chinese and North Korean communists advanced, U.S. and U.N. troops pulled back to the coast for evacuation. Anti-communist Koreans, desperate to escape, also thronged the beaches and quays.

“Communist forces were only 3,000 [to] 4,000 yards away when our captain volunteered to take our ship in to evacuate as many Koreans as possible,” Mr. Lunney recalled. Due to the danger of the mission, he was not actually ordered in. He was “asked to volunteer.”

With covering fire from the battleship USS Missouri and with aircraft from a carrier task force pounding enemy positions, the Meredith Victory, a requisitioned merchant ship, put in to shore.

“My main memory was the anxiety of getting all those people aboard as the communist forces closed in,’” said Mr. Lunney. “We had men on the shore with axes ready to cut our lines, and our boilers were up and running.”

The Meredith Victory was the last vessel to leave, with refugees packed on board. Five babies were born in transit to South Korea.

Ahn Jee-chul, a Korean resident of the United States, said he expects the memorial in New Jersey to cost $40 million to $50 million, and to be completed by 2008. Ground-breaking is planned for October.

In South Korea, a huge replica of the ship already exists on Koje-do, an island off the country’s south coast, where the Meredith Victory unloaded its evacuees after the run from Hungnam.


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