By André B. Sobocinski, BUMED Historian
“I urge in the name of humanity and in the cause of peace that the Soviet Union take action to withdraw forces from Hungary immediately and to permit the Hungarian people to enjoy and exercise … human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
~President Dwight D. Eisenhower, November 1956
Fifty nine years ago, Lt. Betty Nimits was in her second year as chief nurse aboard USNS General George Randall when her ship was assigned to transport some of the thousands of Hungarian refugees to the United States. “I thought here are men and women who gave up everything they knew and owned for the chance of a new beginning,” Nimits would remember. “Our job was to bring them to the United States and provide medical services in transit.”(1)
Nimits and her shipmates distributed toys to the children, and toiletry items to the adults courtesy of the American Red Cross. They attended to the passengers’ minor medical complaints like seasickness and colds, and tried to boost morale of a people who had given up all of their material possessions in exchange for freedom. After nearly a two-week voyage across the Atlantic, the Randall landed in New York and its compliment of “refugees” were transported to a relocation camp in New Jersey. Nimits would never see them again.
During the Cold War, it can be said that the very term “refugee” was almost entirely synonymous with the fight against Communism. From the end of World War II through the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” the United States opened its doors to more than four million Eastern Europeans, Cubans, Vietnamese, Chileans, and other refugees fleeing from the Soviet Union and/or socialist threats. (2) Throughout it all the U.S. military was called upon to provide medical services to these Cold War refugees. Navy Military Sealift Command (MSC) ships like the Randall would serve as vehicles of hope for many of these displaced populations. (3)
The Hungarian Revolt
During the 1950s, the growing “discontent over economic stagnation, intellectual suppression, and political tyranny” in Eastern Bloc nations bubbled over into massive protests. (4) In June 1956, factory workers in Poznan, Poland, rioted, demanding better working conditions. The protests led the Polish communist party to moderate some of its restrictive policies and institute a more reform-minded leader to the helm. (5)
In October 1956, in solidarity with the Polish plight, many Hungarian students began protesting for independence, free elections, the end of Soviet political control, and exploitation in their own country. (6) The demonstrations would soon turn violent when Hungarian police and later Soviet Union troops began firing into crowds, leading to a veritable uprising and one of the bloodiest chapters in the Cold War. (7) On November 1, Soviet Union troops poured into Budapest, the nation’s capital, to crush the rebellion. An estimated 3,000 Hungarians were killed and more than 13,000 were wounded. Over 160,000 Hungarians fled the country, many settling in Austria and Yugoslavia.
President Dwight Eisenhower called for immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary and vowed that the U.S. would play a role in humanitarian relief for the refugees. On December 12, 1956, the Eisenhower Administration established the Hungarian Refugee Relief Committee to coordinate humanitarian relief and resettlement. Processing points in Austria were established to handle U.S. bound refugees. (8) The “refugee crisis,” as it was termed, forced U.S. policy makers to look at its immigration policy and come to an agreement on how many refugees would be granted asylum and, ultimately, citizenship. Tracy Voorhees, Chairman of the newly formed committee, would state that “America has got to make good on this. We can’t fail if 165,000,000 Americans can’t take care of 21,500 refugees, a great many of whom are heroes.”(9)
The army barracks at Camp Kilmer near New Brunswick, N.J. was designated as the refugee and processing camp and the Navy, in coordination with the Air Force, was assigned with leading the air-sea lift. Ships would set sail in-five day intervals. The USNS Leroy Eltinge, the first transport to take part in the effort, departed Bremerhaven December 20,1956.
(1) Interview with LCDR (ret.) Betty Nimits on April 20, 2015. BUMED Archives.
(2) Bon Temp, Carl. Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2008.
(3) In the Cold War, the Navy had been regularly engaged in humanitarian activities. Following the French Defeat at Dienbienphu the Navy hospital ship Haven (AH-12) transported 721 French to Marseilles, France and Oran, Algeria. Soon after, under the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which ended the war between France and the Communist Viet Minh, the people of Vietnam could decide where they wished to settle. As part of Operation Passage to Freedom, the Navy would evacuate some 860,000 refugees to the South. The Navy Medical Department lead by pioneers Cmdr. Julius Amberson and Lt. Thomas Dooley would help oversee the medical relief in the refugee camps.
(4) Whelan, Joseph. The Hungarian Revolutions of 1848 and 1956: Background Information Designed for Use in the Preparation of Anniversary Statements and Speeches. The Library of Congress Legislative Reference Service. January 10, 1968.
(5) Wladyslaw Gomulka (1905-1982).
(7) On October 30, former communist premier Imre Nagy announced a return to political conditions that existed prior to communist seizure in 1947. There were promises of free elections, abolition of a one-party system, and negotiations for withdrawal of Soviet troops. This proved to be nothing but a hopeful calm before a violent crackdown.
(8) Sturdevant, Robert. Hungarian Parolees on Way to U.S.: First Group in Simplified Plan. The New York Herald Tribune. Dec 8, 1956. Pg 7.
Jacobs, Bradford. Navy Transport on Its Way to Bring Refugees to U.S. The Baltimore Sun, Dec 8, 1956.