Times Past

Arroyo Grande's Mark Moon recalls escape from North Korea as war broke out

Refugees crawling across the Tae Daong Bridge in Pyongyang, North Korea, November 1950.
Refugees crawling across the Tae Daong Bridge in Pyongyang, North Korea, November 1950. The Associated Press

“On the morning of June 25th, we heard the North Korean army invaded the South… My father decided to leave home and hide from the authorities.”

Arroyo Grande’s Rev. Mark Moon is 87 years old. He will never forget the day his father began his escape from North Korea by hiding in a cemetery under a tombstone. Moon’s mother would take food to him, pretending to be a farmer’s wife, carrying lunch to the workers in the fields.

Soon, the local police interrogated Moon about his father’s whereabouts. He was placed on a bus with other young men who were being sent to the front without any military training.

For Americans, June 25, 1950, came as a shock. The expansion of the Soviet Union into Europe had stopped along a frontier from East Germany to Yugoslavia. Mainland China had fallen to Mao Zedong in 1949, but the communist forces hadn’t followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan. Communist-inspired rebel movements had been thwarted in Malaya and the Philippines.

Now, a major war had broken out in a small country with which most Americans were unfamiliar. South Korean and American forces were driven into the Pusan Perimeter, a 140-mile-long line at the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula.

My own family was badly shaken by the news of the invasion of South Korea. My brother, 11 years my senior, had been sent to Johnson (Iruma) Air Force Base outside Tokyo in April 1950. My parents spent Sunday afternoon and evening playing bridge or canasta with friends. We got in our car to drive home when they interrupted the “Our Miss Brooks” broadcast to announce what had happened in Korea. Suddenly, at the age of 9, I became the adult in the car, trying to reassure my parents.

For Moon, it was a time of life or certain death in combat with the United Nations forces. On the bus, headed toward the front lines, he prayed: “I’m afraid of dying. I am now in the enemy’s hands. Please give me away to escape…”

The opportunity came when “I pretended to go to an outhouse in a cornfield; then I climbed the nearest mountain and headed home.”

When he returned to his hometown of Anjoo, he went to the home of Mrs. Lee, a Deaconess of the Presbyterian Church, who gave him a hiding place under her floor. He spent four months in that closed space.

A moment of liberation came Oct. 26, 1950, when U.N. forces liberated the town. Shortly after that, communist forces recaptured Anjoo.

Moon’s family again found themselves north of the line of battle. The U.N. commanders suggested they evacuate.

Taking only a bag of rice, Moon’s family made their way to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, in December 1950. They arrived just as the Chinese Communist Army was entering the city from the north. The U.N. army was going to destroy the strategic bridge across the Tae Daong River.

The three men crossed the bridge, fully expecting to return for his mother, sister and brother. At midnight, U.N. forces bombed Pyongyang and the Tae Daong Bridge.

Moon recalls: “When I looked back, Pyongyang was literally hellfire; I saw nothing but red flames.”

They lost all contact with their family members.

One of the classic images of the Korean War is Associated Press photographer Max Desfor’s image of refugees crawling across the Tae Daong Bridge shortly before the bombing. Many families were separated, often permanently, by the war and uneasy truce that followed.

Moon and his father and brother fled to the seacoast. Hanging onto a boat as it departed, Moon and his father escaped by bribing the captain with a gold ring. The boat took them to safety in Inchon.

It marked the beginning of Moon’s own spiritual beginning as a Christian minister who united diverse communities along the Canadian border, in California’s remote Lassen County and in rebuilding arson-burned black churches in the American South.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, he is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.