The Hungnam Evacuation, also known as the ‘Miracle of Christmas’, was a major military and humanitarian operation during the Korean War in December 1950.

Faced with the advancing Chinese and North Korean forces, United Nations troops, predominantly Americans, undertook a massive evacuation from the port city of Hungnam in North Korea.

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Background

The Korean Peninsula had a long history of foreign invasions and influences. Korea was under Japanese rule from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945. During this period, Japan exerted significant control over Korea’s political and cultural life, leading to widespread resentment among Koreans.

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At the conclusion of World War II, the Korean Peninsula faced a new reality. The Allies, primarily the United States and the Soviet Union, agreed to temporarily divide Korea along the 38th parallel as a part of the post-war settlement. This division was meant to be temporary, with the aim of eventually restoring a unified Korean government. However, the Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States made this unification increasingly unlikely.

As a result, two separate governments were established: a communist regime in the north led by Kim Il-sung, backed by the Soviet Union, and a pro-Western regime in the south under the leadership of Syngman Rhee, supported by the United States. This division solidified the ideological split, with North Korea aligning with Communist bloc countries and South Korea with the Western bloc.

The division of Korea exacerbated tensions on the peninsula. Both governments claimed legitimacy over the entire Korean territory and were eager to reunify the country under their respective ideologies. This led to a series of border clashes and skirmishes, escalating the conflict.

The Korean War officially began on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces, equipped with Soviet tanks and weaponry, crossed the 38th parallel into South Korean territory. This invasion was the culmination of escalating tensions and reflected the broader context of the Cold War. North Korea aimed to reunify the peninsula under communist rule, while South Korea sought to repel this aggression with the support of its Western allies.

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The United Nations, led by the United States, quickly intervened in support of South Korea. The UN Security Council, taking advantage of the Soviet Union’s temporary boycott of the council, passed resolutions calling for member states to assist South Korea. This led to a multinational force, predominantly made up of American troops, engaging in combat on the Korean Peninsula.

Prelude To The Evacuation

The Korean War began with the sudden and aggressive invasion of South Korea by North Korean forces in June 1950. The North Korean army, well-equipped and trained, quickly pushed the South Korean and early arriving United States forces into a small defensive perimeter around the port city of Pusan in the southeast corner of the Korean Peninsula.

In September 1950, UN forces, predominantly from the United States, launched a daring and highly successful amphibious assault at Inchon, far behind the North Korean lines. This operation, led by General Douglas MacArthur, resulted in a dramatic shift in the war’s momentum, allowing UN forces to break out of the Pusan Perimeter and rapidly advance northward.

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Encouraged by this success, UN forces pursued the retreating North Korean army across the 38th parallel into North Korean territory. The objective was not just to repel the invasion but to unify Korea under the South Korean government.

By late November 1950, UN forces had advanced deep into North Korea, approaching the Yalu River, the border with China. This advancement triggered a significant response from China, which feared an armed conflict so close to its border and the possibility of a US-allied unified Korea.

In late November, in a move that caught UN forces by surprise, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops crossed into North Korea. This massive counteroffensive pushed the UN forces into a rapid retreat. The Chinese intervention significantly altered the strategic situation, leading to heavy casualties and disarray among UN troops.

The UN Command, facing this new and overwhelming threat, ordered a retreat. This retreat turned into a fighting withdrawal under extreme winter conditions, with UN forces, including South Korean and U.S. troops, moving towards the port city of Hungnam on the eastern coast of North Korea. Hungnam presented a viable point for a maritime evacuation due to its port facilities.

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As UN forces converged on Hungnam, it became apparent that evacuation by sea was the only option to avoid encirclement and destruction by the rapidly advancing Chinese and North Korean forces. The decision to evacuate involved not only the withdrawal of military personnel and equipment but also addressing the humanitarian crisis, as thousands of North Korean civilians sought refuge and evacuation alongside the military.

The Hungnam Evacuation

The Hungnam Evacuation, which commenced on December 15, 1950, and concluded on December 24, 1950, was a massive undertaking. Approximately 105,000 soldiers of the U.S. X Corps and the 3rd Korean Division, along with a vast array of military hardware, including tanks, trucks, and artillery, were to be evacuated.

More remarkably, the evacuation included around 98,000 Korean civilians, who were fleeing the advance of the Chinese and North Korean armies. This aspect of the operation underscored its humanitarian dimension, as it was highly unusual for military operations of this kind to include such a large-scale evacuation of civilians.

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One of the most notable stories from the Hungnam Evacuation is that of the SS Meredith Victory. A U.S. Merchant Marine cargo ship, it was instrumental in what became the largest humanitarian rescue operation by a single ship. Despite being designed to carry only 12 passengers, the Meredith Victory evacuated more than 14,000 Korean refugees. The ship’s crew had to remove weaponry and cargo to accommodate the refugees, many of whom were women and children.

Refugees on board the SS Meredith Victory.

The evacuation was executed under extreme conditions. Hungnam was under constant threat of enemy bombardment, and the logistical challenges of evacuating such a large number of people and quantities of equipment were enormous. The U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine played crucial roles, with their ships making continuous trips, often under perilous conditions.

From a military standpoint, the evacuation was a strategic withdrawal. It allowed UN forces to regroup and reorganize for future operations. By successfully evacuating a significant number of troops and material, the UN Command preserved its fighting capability, which would have otherwise been severely compromised.

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The evacuation is remembered not just for its military significance but also for the humanitarian crisis it addressed. The decision to evacuate civilians along with military personnel was a profound demonstration of compassion and commitment to humanitarian principles, even amidst the harsh realities of war.

Legacy

The Hungnam Evacuation is often cited as a textbook example of a successful strategic retreat. By successfully evacuating 105,000 troops and their equipment, the UN Command was able to preserve a significant portion of its military strength, which would have otherwise been lost. This action helped maintain a viable military presence on the Korean Peninsula and influenced subsequent operations in the war.

From a military logistics perspective, the evacuation stands out as an extraordinary feat. Conducting a large-scale evacuation under hostile conditions and in a constrained timeframe showcased the exceptional planning and execution capabilities of the U.S. military and its allies.

Demolition charges were used to destroy any remaining facilities or supplies after the evacuation was complete.

The evacuation of approximately 98,000 Korean civilians is a highlight of the operation’s humanitarian aspect. This decision to include civilians in the evacuation plan was unprecedented at that time and reflected a deep commitment to humanitarian values amidst the horrors of war.

The Hungnam Evacuation set a precedent for future military operations involving large-scale evacuations of civilians. It demonstrated the possibility and importance of incorporating humanitarian objectives into military planning, influencing how modern armed forces approach civilian safety in conflict zones.

For many Korean War veterans and Korean civilians, the evacuation symbolizes hope and resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity. It stands as a reminder of the human capacity to endure and overcome even in the most desperate situations.