Monday, January 27, 2014

A Vocation Story - Second Sunday Ordinary Time

In our Responsorial  Prayer today we prayed,

“Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.”  (Psalm 40:8a&9a)

Many of us, when we were young adults, were overflowing with enthusiasm for  life and we loudly proclaimed, "Here I am Lord - - - -!" The second part of the prayer, however, we put off for later.

Last week we celebrated the Baptism of the Lord an event that  marked a dramatic change in the life of Jesus. This week, in the Gospel reading, we hear John the Baptist say that he “saw the spirit of God come down like a dove from Heaven and remain upon”  Jesus. In a way John is announcing the end of his mission in life when he says, “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” Soon John will be in prison and shortly thereafter will be executed by Herod. Next week our Gospel reading will tell of Jesus asking four fishermen to become his followers.

These three Sundays are packed with vocation stories.
- Jesus changes vocation from Carpenter to Rabbi.
- John’ vocation as Prophet comes to an end.
- Peter, Andrew, James and John leave their vocation as fishermen to become disciples.

We often think the topic of “Vocation” is a topic for young people but the persons involved in the vocation changes in the Gospels these three weeks are almost all adults well into serious vocations!

Jesus was about thirty years old. Three of the fishermen were probably in their twenties and thirties. The fisherman John was the youngest and may have been a teenager since he lived almost until ad 100.

I would like to tell you about a modern man and his change of vocation. It is an interesting story. He lived near our farm in New Jersey. Some of my neighbors had met him and yet they and I had never heard his story. It is a story of a vocation change involving great heroism, high seas drama and a miracle.

On the morning of Sunday October 14, 2001 Brother Marinus of St Paul’s Abbey in Andover, New Jersey died quietly in his sleep. Many of us had met him because for years he managed the Abbey Gift and Book Shop on Highway 206 between Andover and Newton.

Leonard LaRue was born on January 14th 1914 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a young man he took a strong interest in the sea and after high school attended the Pennsylvania Nautical School and then went to work as a seaman. During WWII he rose to command ships bringing military supplies to the Allies in Europe through the Submarine infested North Atlantic. It may have been during this period of war time stress that he became a man of prayer.

After the war he returned to peacetime service in the merchant marine but then in June of 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. The US government asked him to return to military service and he was assigned to command  the SS Meredith Victory, a freighter, that would transport  tanks, trucks, guns and ammunition for use by UN troops fighting in Korea. While his ship was in San Fransisco being loaded and his crew assembled, he and his First Officer went to St Mary’s Church in China Town, to pray for the safety of their ship and crew.

In Korea things were not going well for the UN forces. They had been pushed back to the very southern tip of the peninsula by the North Korean troops. Then in September the UN forces under General MacArthur struck back with  a massive  invasion half way up the west coast at Inchon. The Meredith Victory was the first Merchant Ship into Inchon Harbor on the day of the Invasion. A day later they were able to unload their cargo of battle supplies.

The invasion of Inchon was a huge success and the North Korean army was driven out of South Korea. The UN troops pursued the Red army into North Korea and soon were approaching the Yalu River which is the border with Communist China. In October an optimistic General MacArthur told President Truman that the war would be over by Thanksgiving. He had no sooner said this than China entered the war opposing the UN forces and 180,000 Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River.

The Americans, who made up the bulk of the UN forces launched a new offensive to counter the Chinese entry. Then, in November, China sent  200,000 more troops into the war zone and suddenly the Americans were in trouble. MacArthur ordered a retreat southward ahead of the huge Chinese Army. Over 100,000 American Soldiers and Marines were surrounded by the Communists near the Chosin Reservoir on the far northern east coast of North Korea.  

The Americans were ordered to fight their way to Hungnam Harbor 100 miles to the south were American ships would evacuate them to safety. Before they got  there, however, the port was filling up with Korean Civilians also fleeing the brutal Chinese Army. By the time the American troops arrived there were almost 100,000 civilians on the docks and in the town hoping and pleading to be evacuated with the troops.

Meanwhile the  Meredith Victory was steaming towards Hungnam carrying 10,000 tons of jet fuel in barrels for delivery to the Marine Air Base nearby. When they arrived they found the that the airbase was under heavy attach and the Marines were evacuating. Unable to unload  they sailed south to unload their explosive cargo at Pusan. Before the ship could be completely off loaded, however,  the Captain was given emergency orders to return to Hungnam immediately to aid in the evacuation.

When they got there they found the evacuation well under way.  A group of Army colonels came on board. They told the Captain that they were ready to pull the last troops out and leave but there were still thousands of civilians on the docks. The Meredith Victory had accommodations for only twelve passengers so they could not order them to take the civilians. However, they asked them to volunteer to do so. The Captain did not hesitate but said they would take as many as they could get on board.

He had the ship back into the dock and ordered the engines be kept running during the loading  in case the enemy broke through and they needed to depart quickly. 

The refuges began pouring on board, Men, women, children, babies and seniors. They began loading from the bottom up. Slowly the five hold of the ship filled up. The was no heat, no ventilation, no sanitary facilities, no water and no medical help. The battle was just yards away and could be observed by crew and refuges alike. The roar of the great guns of the Navy Battleships offshore filled the air. You could hear the huge shells passing overhead. Planes from the carriers came in low to strafe the enemy troops coming down the hills into the town.  They began loading on December 22nd and continued into early on the 23rd. When all the holds were full and the deck packed they set sail. They had taken 14,000 civilian refuges on board! Their destination was Pusan, 450 nautical miles to the south.

As they sailed south things began to happen. First the refuges below deck began to build fires on top of the drums of jet fuel to provide a little heat and to cook some of the food they had brought with. Fearing that the ship would be blow up the crew pleaded that fires not be lit. A difficult task since none of the crew spoke Korean. Then a young woman  gave birth to a baby boy. By the time they reached safety four babies had been born aboard the Meredith Victory.

They sailed into Pusan Harbor on Christmas Eve but there they were in for another surprise. They were not allowed to dock there because the city and all its facilities was already full of refuges. Like the holy family, 2000 years before, they were turned away.  The Captain refused to leave until clothes, blankets, food and water were brought on board for the refuges. They sailed on another  50 miles to Koje-Do.

At Koje-Do there were no docks and the ship waited at anchor until morning. On Christmas morning they began the task on transferring the refuges to small boats that would take them to the beach. By 2:45 in the afternoon all 14,000 were ashore . I should say 14,004 to include the four babies born on board during the journey. Naval historians say that it was the largest human cargo ever carried by any ship. The huge Queen Mary, when refitted as a troop carrier during WWII, carried a maximum of 10,000.

The Captain would later write,
“I believe God sailed with us those three days. I believe this because by all the laws of logic, the loss of life could have been enormous. Yet not a soul perished. Time after time, dangers that threatened to explode into disaster were miraculously averted.”

The SS Meredith Victory came to be called the SHIP of MIRACLES. In 2001 a book by that name, written by Bill Gilbert, was published. (Triumph Books, Chicago, 2000)

In 1954 Leonard LaRue, then 41 years old, the Captain of the Meredith Victory entered St Paul’s Abbey in New Jersey and became Brother Marinus.

Our God is calling each of us to be and to do something special. Are we listening?

“Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.”

© Copyright 2014 Joseph E. Hilber. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission of the author.

Joseph E. Hilber
P.O. Box 501
Pelican Rapids, Mn 56572-0501

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