Remembering a Hero to Korean Refugees

A memorial garden remembering Korean War hero Leonard LaRue will be built behind a statue of Jesus Christ at St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, N.J. Left to right: Yeonghyun Baek, president of 1492 Green Club, Fr. Prior Samuel Kim of St. Paul’s Abbey. (Photo via Korea Daily)

A memorial garden remembering Korean War hero Leonard LaRue will be built behind a statue of Jesus Christ at St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey. Left to right: Yeonghyun Baek, president of 1492 Green Club, and Fr. Prior Samuel Kim of St. Paul’s Abbey. (Photo via Korea Daily)

Two days before Christmas on Dec. 23, 1950, nearly a hundred thousand Korean civilians captured by the armed forces of the Republic of China during the Korean War were praying for their would-be last Christmas wish, a “rescue.” Leonard LaRue, a captain of the U.S. merchant marine cargo ship, SS Meredith Victory, may have provided an answer to the prayers of some of them. Captain LaRue turned his ship toward shore and rescued nearly 14,000 of those refugees from a besieged North Korean port, Hungnam.  [Nearly 200 vessels rescued 100,000 civilians and 100,000 troops in a massive rescue that came to be known as the “Hungnam Evacuation” – and still remains the largest humanitarian rescue in history.]

Since 1954, Captain LaRue lived his life as a Benedictine monk, Brother Marinus, at St. Paul’s Abbey in Newton, New Jersey until his death at 87 on Oct. 14, 2001. Now, nearly 15 years later, St. Paul’s Abbey, where his body was buried, is preparing a memorial garden to commemorate his humanitarian legacy.

“This monastery is a very special place for Korean Americans in that Captain LaRue, who made a miracle for thousands of Korean refugees during the most chaotic time in Korean history, spent the rest of his life there after he came back from the Korean War,” said Yeonghyun Baek, president of the Korean-American environmentalist group 1492 Green Club, which initially proposed building the memorial garden. “Every leaf of the Korean plants at this garden will represent the lives of the Korean refugees that Captain LaRue rescued.”

The garden will be built on a large lawn between LaRue’s cemetery and a statue of Jesus Christ, featuring 14,000 Korean plants like Korean lilacs called “Miss Kim Lilacs,” red pine, and the Korean national flower, the Rose of Sharon. The first phase of construction started Sept. 13.

St. Paul’s Abbey has been run by a South Korean monastery of the congregation of missionary Benedictines of St. Ottilien called Waegwan Abbey since it experienced financial difficulties and a reduction in the number of monks at the abbey. When the monastery was about to close down, two days before Captain LaRue died, Waegwan Abbey decided to take over the operation of the monastery after the congregation of Benedictines sent an emergency request to do so. Since then, a Korean American, Fr. Prior Samuel Kim, and other monks have revived the crippled monastery. Their efforts were considered repayment for Captain LaRue’s favor toward the Korean refugees.

“His kindness is the most honorable thing that human beings could do as long as they are alive,” said Baek. “We hope the rich fragrances of the Korean plants in this garden can spread his precedence into the world for a long time.”

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