During the hottest time of the year, Koreans celebrate Boknal(복날) by consuming hot nutritious food. This year, my mother and I had a Sam Gye Tang (chicken soup) as a Boknal food, and it suddenly reminded me of my grandmother who passed away. Whenever I visited her, she always cooked me Sam Gye Tang. As a child, I could not understand why it always had to be that specific dish. Only when I became a teenager, did I ask her why she liked Sam Gye Tang so much. That day, she told me her remarkable and sad life story. For her, Sam Gye Tang is the symbol of the best food, love, and sacrifice.
On June 25th, 1950, Korean War broke out and she was only 22 years old woman who lived in North Korea. The war pushed her whole family into a caravan of refugees in the winter. Her family got themselves on one of many warships that left from the North Korean shore to Busan, South Korea. In that ship, she was almost starved to death. Later. my aunt told me that she predicts her mother (my grandmother) lost a couple of her loved ones due to the harsh condition of cold breeze and starvation on the ship. That was mainly because, even after the ship arrived at Busan, they had to be on the ship for a long time until permission was granted to access the port.
Refugees on Meredith Victory’s weather deck, December 1950. (PC: Bob Lunney)
Although her memory was blurry, I could induce one historical moment that I think she experienced, which is the Evacuation of Heungnam on December 25th, 1950. According to the Guinness World Record, it is the “Largest evacuation from land by a single ship.”
“During the evacuation of Hungnam, North Korea, in the face of advancing communist forces during the Korean War, the freighter SS Meredith Victory evacuated 14,000 civilian refugees to the safety of Pusan, South Korea between 22 and 25 December 1950.”
-Guinness World Record
The record also indicates that they got initially refused to disembark at Busan because the port was too full of UN armies and supplies (source).
Captain LaRue in his dress uniform, circa 1950. (Photo credit: Bob Lunney)
The factors such as Korean War, wintertime, escape via ships that arrived at Busan, and the refusal to disembark at Busan allows me to predict this is the actual event my grandmother went through. Captain Leonard LaRue of SS Meredith Victory ordered to unload all arms and supplies to accept the stream of refugees, and tens of thousands of refugees got on board SS Meredith or one of eleven other ships that escaped Heungnam (source). That humane decision allowed my grandmother to escape from North Korea.
When she was on a brink of death by starvation, the food she craved the most was the hot steamy chicken soup that is Sam Gye Tang. For her, that was the most lavish food she could think of, which did not change throughout her lifetime. When she cooked me Sam Gye Tang, she fed me the best food in the world.
The fact that this part of history is not widely known in the US surprised me when I first moved to the US. The story of Heungnam Evacuation and Caption LaRue is a soul link of the diplomatic relationship between South Korea and the US today. I am happy I could introduce this story through the memory of my grandmother’s chicken soup, the message of love and sacrifice pictured in a warm bowl.