Captain Courageous: Canonization push revives recognition for NJ monk, and hero of Hungnam

Famed singer-songwriter Bob Dylan wrote and sang:

      They talk about a life of brotherly love
Show me someone who knows how to live it.

Brother Bob, meet Brother Marinus.

It’s likely Dylan has never heard of Marinus, since relatively few people have. Even people who knew and worked with Brother Marinus for decades, when he was a Benedictine monk at Saint Paul’s Abbey in Andover in Sussex County, were unaware of who he had been, and what he had done, before joining the monastery.

“I was surprised when I saw so many Koreans at his funeral service,” said Terry Litchfield of Sparta, an oblate at St. Paul’s since 1983, who worked with Brother Marinus at the abbey bookstore and knew him for close to 20 years. “I wondered why they had come. That’s when I found out that this humble man was a war hero, after he died.”

Litchfield said she was, “shocked to learn that this meek, quiet man had commanded a ship that rescued 14,000 people, saved them from death, at great risk to himself and his ship. People he had rescued were at his funeral.”

Litchfield and others who knew Brother Marinus had never known of his heroics. Many South Koreans had never forgotten. Now more of the world may come to know his remarkable story because, as of this year, the American Catholic Church has signed on to advancing him for sainthood.

Brother Marinus, who died in 2001, was born Leonard LaRue in Philadelphia in 1914. He joined the merchant marines during the Great Depression. During World War II, LaRue took part in convoys carrying supplies across the Atlantic Ocean, braving enemy planes and submarines, as well as the elements. By war’s end he commanded his own vessel. In 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, Captain LaRue took command of the SS Meredith Victory and headed to the Far East to transport troops, equipment and supplies to the U.S., UN and South Korean forces. His ship participated in the allies’ landing at Inchon in September 1950.

The Chinese army entered the war in October and, along with North Korean troops, defeated the UN forces at Chosin Reservoir. The allies retreated to Hungnam, a port city in North Korea, along with thousands of Korean civilians, fleeing tyrannical rule and fearing the wrath of the Communist armies. They crowded into the city while UN Command scrambled to organize a massive evacuation of troops and civilians. Supply ships, including the Meredith Victory, were pressed into special duty.

Retired USN Rear Admiral J. Robert Lunney was, in 1950, second in command to LaRue on the Meredith Victory. In contrast to his taciturn captain, Lunney has been delivering detailed accounts of the mission ever since, and is the person most responsible for keeping the heroic deeds of captain and crew from entirely fading from public memory. Lunney’s retelling of the rescue in a 2015 interview can be found on the Wilson Center website. At 91, Lunney is no longer available for public remarks. He is quoted below from that interview.

According to Lunney, the Meredith Victory had originally been sent to Hungnam to deliver “10,000 tons of jet fuel in drums” for the fight at Chosin Reservoir. The ship had already negotiated the minefield approaching Hungnam when, due to the defeat at Chosin, it was ordered south to Pusan to offload the fuel. But before they could get all the drums off, the Meredith Victory was ordered back to Hungnam to aid in the evacuation. “We still had 300 tons of jet fuel” onboard, Lunney said, and they had to renegotiate the minefield. 

LaRue, Lunney and the crew thought they were there to evacuate military equipment and possibly personnel. But the commanding general at Hungnam sent “to inquire of our captain as to whether he would volunteer to take his ship in to the beach” to rescue some of the thousands of civilian refugees crowding on the shore. Lunney explained that the general, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Edward Almond, did not order Captain LaRue but asked if he’d volunteer, due to the dangers of entering the inner harbor with artillery fire overhead and the enemy at the gates. According to Lunney, LaRue did not hesitate.

“He said, ‘I will take my ship in and I will remove as many of the refugees as we can,’” Lunney said. “Captain LaRue was a man of great leadership qualities and a man of such demeanor and character that there was never any question at all,” of the crew not being fully behind his decision.

The Meredith Victory entered the inner harbor and began to bring refugees onboard.

“There were still thousands upon thousands of civilian refugees on the beach that had come down to Hungnam, and this is in the middle of winter, freezing cold out there,” Lunney said. “The Chinese were firing into the port. The port was partially aflame.”

Under these conditions, and under LaRue’s supervision, the Meredith Victory—a ship with 12 officers, 35 crew members and rooms for 12 extra passengers—took on 14,000 desperate people, mostly women, children and the elderly, cramming them in cargo bays below deck, on deck, and wherever they could fit. LaRue, years later, reportedly quipped, “I stopped counting at 10,000.”

The ship loaded with its boilers running and men ready to cut the cables to prevent the ship from being taken. The Chinese army got within “three to four thousand yards” of the Meredith Victory before it moved out to once again snake through the minefield. The enemy blew up the port a few hours later. 

Traveling conditions? “There was no light, no heat,” Lunney said. “There was no food. There was no water. There was no doctor. There were no interpreters. And 4,000 of these 14,000 were infants and children.” 

Onboard protection? The only gun on the Meredith Victory was the pistol in Captain LaRue’s pocket.

The ship sailed for Pusan. It was December 23, 1950. Christmas time. To keep warm, and to heat what little food they’d brought along, refugees lit fires in the hold atop 50-gallon drums, unaware that the drums contained jet fuel. The language barrier increased the anxiety as crew members finally convinced the Koreans to extinguish the fires.

The ship reached Pusan on Christmas Eve. But Pusan was overwhelmed with evacuated troops and equipment and the ship was ordered back out to sea. “No room at the inn,” Lunney said. Another 38 miles, and Christmas, at sea. On December 26, the refugees were offloaded at Ko Shido Island. No one had died on the voyage. In fact, five children had been born. 

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Meredith Victory’s Hungnam evacuation is the largest humanitarian rescue operation by a single ship in human history. It is estimated that the 14,005 survivors have since generated 1 million South Koreans, including the current South Korean president, Moon Jae-In, whose future parents were onboard.

Captain LaRue received recognition and several commendations at the time and after the war. Not surprisingly, he became a hero in South Korea and the evacuation is memorialized in monuments there. LaRue never tried to cash in on his fame. On the contrary, in 1954, he entered the Benedictine monastery in Andover and took the name Brother Marinus. He hardly ever spoke of the incident and, over the years, the world forgot about it and him.

Well, almost forgot. Lunney and shipmates from the Meredith Victory kept the story alive. Some of the monks and others associated with St. Paul’s Abbey also knew, especially in Marinus’ early years there.

“At his funeral in 2001, many people were surprised to learn that Brother Marinus was a war hero,” said Father Joel Macul, OSB. “Frankly, I was surprised so many people were surprised.”

Macul attended high school classes at the abbey in the 1960s. He said he and schoolmates knew of Brother Marinus’ wartime exploits. “We also knew he didn’t like to talk about it.”

Macul became a priest and a monk in the Order of Saint Benedict. In the 1980s he became the head of St. Paul’s Abbey and Brother Marinus’ superior.

“He was a man of few words,” Macul said of Marinus, who for many years ran the abbey bookstore. 

Terry Litchfield confirmed that Marinus “did not engage much in conversation. He did talk about God. He was often at prayer. He was a true follower of Saint Benedict. Prayer becomes work. Work becomes prayer.”

By the year 2000, the abbey was facing tough times. There were few monks there and fewer men becoming monks. Macul and the other eight or so monks at St. Paul’s decided to close the abbey and put the property up for sale. But the new abbot president of this congregation of Benedictines visited the New Jersey abbey and decided against selling the property. He asked if there might be another group of Benedictines who could take over the abbey and keep it open.

According to Macul, the monks at St. Paul’s suggested the Waegwan Abbey in South Korea as a possibility for assuming the operations at St. Paul’s and the abbot president made the request.

“The monks at Waegwan knew of Brother Marinus,” Macul said. “Some had been rescued by him.”

Although the South Korean monks had affection and respect for Brother Marinus, Macul explained that his being at St. Paul’s was but one factor in Waegwan’s decision to send monks to Sussex County to keep the abbey going. The South Korean clergy had also to assure themselves that there was a vibrant Catholic Korean community in the area whom they would serve and who would, in turn, support their presence. Macul said there was, and is, such a community. While the Benedictines were in the process of deciding on the fate of St. Paul’s, Marinus died on October 14, 2001. In November, the South Koreans decided to send monks to New Jersey and, in December, they arrived.

“His presence at St. Paul’s was the real, living center that linked these several factors together and brought over the South Korean monks,” said Macul, who stayed on at St. Paul’s for several years to assist in the transition, and now serves at a monastery in Nebraska. 

“He never spoke to me about the evacuation,” Macul said. “But I knew him and I know what he would have said about it. He’d say, ‘It was the right thing to do, and the time to act. So, I did it.’”

The 50th anniversary of the Hungnam rescue was celebrated in South Korea in 2000. Captain LaRue’s heroic deed was recounted in his obituaries in 2001. Afterwards, he again receded into obscurity.

But Lunney, and some shipmates, and some refugee survivors kept telling their stories to whomever would listen, seeking recognition for LaRue. Their accounts at last came to the attention of Father Sinclair Oubre, a pastor in Port Arthur, Texas, and a member of the Apostleship of the Sea, the Roman Catholic ministry for seafarers.

“I am also a merchant marine,” Oubre said. “When I learned of Brother Marinus, I was astounded that we in the maritime ministry and throughout the church did not know about him and his remarkable story. I thought this needs to be brought forward.”    

In 2016, Oubre met with Admiral Lunney, and in the same year brought LaRue’s story to the Apostleship of the Sea, asking that the ministry start the process to raise Brother Marinus to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. That got the ball rolling. In 2017, the Bishop of Paterson, who presides over the diocese in which St. Paul’s is located, endorsed the effort. In June 2021, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops approved “the cause for sainthood of ‘Servant of God’ Brother Marinus LaRue.” 

Canonization is a lengthy and complex process, and not every candidate makes it to the final elevation. But whether or not Brother Marinus becomes Saint Marinus, it is undeniable that he influenced a great many people for the better, that he risked his own life to save others and sought neither fame nor fortune in return. He had great courage and great humility. That’s a rare combination in a human being, at least as rare as sainthood.