Evacuation Day from Korea, 1940

During the Korean War, the rapid UN retreat from northern Korea in the face of massive intervention by the “Chinese People’s Volunteers” in late 1950 was known as the Big Bugout. Almost exactly ten years earlier, many Westerners in Japanese-occupied parts of Northeast Asia staged their own Big Bugout.

On September 12, 1940, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew cabled Washington from Tokyo with his famous “green light message,” switching his support to the hard-liners in the U.S. government who wanted to punish Japan for its aggression on the Asian mainland. Yet punishment was hardly advisable as long as thousands of American civilians, all potential hostages, were living in the Japanese Empire. It was time to put out the signal that war was getting closer by evacuating “non essential” American civilians from East Asia. The number to be evacuated from China, Japan, and Korea was estimated at over a thousand, making it necessary to charter several passenger ships to make the rounds and pick them up. The SS Washington was sent to Shanghai, the SS Monterey to Shanghai and Yokohama, and the SS Mariposa to Shanghai and Ch’inhuangtao in northeast China, Jinsen (Inch’ôn) in Korea, and Kobe, Japan.

The State Department’s evacuation order went out to embassies and consulates during the second week of October. When it reached Seoul, Consul-General Gaylord Marsh quickly wrote up a notice and passed it to American community leaders for distribution….

He had no legal power to order anyone to leave Korea. However, the American community reacted with something bordering on panic. An immediate casualty was Pyeng Yang Foreign School. At the time, PYFS was one of the best international boarding schools in Asia with a history of more than forty years. It had started the 1940-41 school year in September with new teachers from the United States and 105 students, 55 of them from outside Korea, and everything had functioned normally through the middle of October. But over the weekend of November 1, PYFS simply ceased to exist. When the evacuation order came from Consul-General Marsh, the school board held an emergency session and voted to suspend classes without delay. The boarding students were put on trains within hours, and three days later, on Tuesday; November 4, the school closed forever….

The withdrawal of American civilians from Korea touched off withdrawals by British subjects also, including Canadians and Australians who were essential to the Protestant missionary effort. In Seoul, Horace and Ethel Underwood were appalled by the stampede. After fighting off the Presbyterian Mission’s attempts to remove them from Chosen Christian College, they were in no mood to obey the consul-general’s alleged order. Horace was angry at the way Gaylord Marsh had frightened the expatriate community….

The evacuation “order” caused consternation in Japan. In Tokyo, the Japan Advertiser gave the official Japanese view that “Evacuation in principle is all wrong and a retrograde move. Even at the cost of some personal and temporary difficulties it should be stopped, if not by governments, as far as possible by individuals.” A columnist in the Miyako described the U.S. government as “trembling at phantoms” while the Tokyo Nichi Nichi said that the evacuation was one of a series of moves meant to intimidate Japan and wondered what subsequent moves might be. Other Japanese papers welcomed the withdrawal as a chance to move in on American privileges and markets in China and Korea. While expressing amazement that Washington could think its citizens in danger, the departure of American and British “fifth columnists” was seen as a boon to the future of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

On November 15, 1940, the Mariposa crossed the Yellow Sea and anchored at Inch’ôn…. For the Americans on shore, the next morning brought Evacuation Day. From all parts of Seoul by car, Korean kuruma cart, and on foot, more than two hundred Americans converged on the railroad station for the 22-mile trip to Inch’ôn. Porters carried trunks on chigye A-frames, enough to create a mountain of baggage on the platform. Korean friends braved police surveillance to come and say good-bye, and there were enough empty seats on the special evacuation train to permit many of them to travel all the way to Inch’ôn for their last farewells….

Toward dusk, the Mariposa weighed anchor and headed for the open sea, the Americans aboard feeling reassured by a rumor that the cruiser USS Augusta was out in the darkness standing watch. Life on the Mariposa then took shape as people settled into their cabins. The ship was not full, so the captain did away with the class system–after making sure that the Foreign Service families had the best cabins. The crew organized games and parties for the 196 children on board. Religious services were organized and a room was set aside for daily meditation. And there were the ship’s usual amusements: tea dances, movies, and band concerts. On Thanksgiving Day there was a turkey feast. In fact, everything wonderful about America seemed to be contained on the Mariposa. “The Mariposa is a little bit of Heaven,” wrote one evacuee. A tea dance menu carefully preserved by another bore the notation “This boat is a luxury ship, and no mistake–everything about it is superb.”

SOURCE: Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience 1900-1950, by Donald N. Clark (Eastbridge, 2003), pp. 250-257

I have similar fond memories of being “evacuated” to Japan aboard the SS President Cleveland and SS President Wilson as a kid.

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