By André B. Sobocinski, BUMED Historian
“Today will be remembered as a day of tears for the 1,750 Hungarian Refugees who came aboard the Eltinge this A.M. The tears were for thankfulness not regret. They were shared by the men of the U.S. Navy participating in this special mission ordered by President Eisenhower”
~ The official account of USNS Leroy Eltinge (TAP-154)
The Voyage of the General Eltinge
The voyage of USNS General Leroy Eltinge (T-AP-154) represented the Navy’s first effort in the massive sea lift of Hungarian refugees. (1) The former World War II troopship, had brought thousands of U.S. service personnel home from the war. In 1949, the Eltinge was one of several ships used to transport many of the Second World War’s “Displaced Persons”; later the ship would carry Greek, Ethiopian and United Nation troops to Korea in 1953.
On December 201956, 1,747 Hungarian refugees boarded the General Eltinge in Bremerhaven, Germany. (2) Some donned uniforms of the Hungarian Army, many proudly wore lapel buttons identifying them as freedom fighters. A passenger carried a Hungarian flag with a black mourning band. There were 88 children under the age of ten, almost 200 adult women, and close to 1,500 adult males. The refugees covered a wide-range of professions and backgrounds; students, professors, physicians, dentists, craftsmen, nurses, musicians, homemakers, artists, athletes, and factory workers. In the mix were engaged couples, pregnant women, and orphans. One refugee, Laszlo Donka, a 13-year old boy, fled the country after his father was killed and his mother captured by the communists. (3)
Before setting sail, messages from U.S. Consul Andrew Lynch and Vice Adm. J.M. Will, Commander of the Military Sealift Command, were read over the ship’s public address system in English and Hungarian, followed by renditions of the Star Spangled Banner and “Himnusz,” the Hungarian National Anthem.
The Eltinge departed the following day through a heavy fog that seemed to frame the moment. On December 23, Christmas trees were set up by the crew, and mess tables were used to make streamers. On Christmas Eve, while families congregated in the dining hall, they were visited by a crewmember dressed as St. Nicholas bringing refreshments and stockings full of toys and noisemakers for the children. (4)
Rear Adm. Hubert Van Peenan, medical officer aboard this trip, noted that the passengers were relatively young, most in their early 20s. Van Peenan would write that they were “very active, excessively curious, enthusiastic, not at all timorous or depressed and their recent sufferings seemed to be repressed or forgotten. Their curiosity and motor activity soon led them swarming all over the ship and they wasted no time in reading instructions or listening to the public address system.”(5) Navy personnel later reported that those who spoke English asked “if they could help with any duties aboard ship” and even “how could they join the Navy?”
Van Peenan was joined aboard the Eltinge by medical officer Lt. Melvin Borowsky, two nurses, Lt. Cmdrs. Mary Vaughan and Catherine Recicar and two WAVES Corpsmen. Medical conditions were typical for such a voyage; seasickness proved the biggest issue with 90 cases reported, resulting in the dispensing of more than 12,000 Dramamine pills. In an office memorandum entitled “A Hungarian Deluge,” from the “Brooklyn Sea Nymphs” to the “Washington Express,” Lt. Borowsky wrote, “The angry seas caused a green reflection on all Hungarian refugee faces. Many had the Elvis Presley haircut and the Rock ‘n Roll of the ship gave them the playful dance.”(6)
Other medical issues reported included upper respiratory infections, 66 cases, 66 visits, and even six admitted with gunshot wounds suffered in the revolt. A 21-year-old patient was treated for a bullet wound in his clavicle. The medical staff reported peptic conditions, epilepsy, hypertension, 350 colds, and 67 suspected cases of pulmonary tuberculosis. Several passengers were pregnant, including one in her ninth month. On the morning of January 1, 1957, the day of the ship’s arrival to the U.S., Gabriela Matusek gave birth to her first child, a 6.5 pound boy named Heinrich Tibor Matusek. He was nicknamed “Leroy” after the ship. Van Peenan, a 28-year veteran, remarked it was the first time he ever delivered a baby at sea. (7)
The Hungarian Relief Operation
The Hungarian Relief Operation would mark the largest influx of Cold War refugees until the Cuban crisis beginning in the late 1950s. From December 1956 to May 1957, more than 35,000 Hungarian refugees were transported aboard 214 Air Force Military Air Transportation Service (MATS) flights, five Navy MSC ships, as well as 133 flights chartered by the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM). The entire relief operation saw more than 20 governmental and volunteer organizations work together to transport, provide medical care, and manage job placement and housing programs. It’s estimated that the entire operation cost about $12 million (about $104 million in today’s money).
(1) On December 7th, 1956, the first Air Force flight left Munich Airport landing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to commence its Project Safe Haven. Some 20 Air Force MATS planes (each carrying between 58 and 72 passengers) would be diverted from their usual cargo runs.
(2) The Eltinge would offer 250 cabin spaces for families with children and an additional 1,500 troop bunks allocated for single men.
(3) Daily Account of the Navy’s Hungarian Refugee Sealift, Nurse Corps Collection, Box 26, Folder 11, U.S. Navy Operational Archives.
(4) Daily Account of the Navy’s Hungarian Refugee Sealift, Nurse Corps Collection, Box 26, Folder 11, U.S. Navy Operational Archives.
(5) Daily Account.
(6) Brooklyn Sea Nymphs Memo. Nurse Corps Collection, Box 26, Folder 11, U.S. Navy Operational Archives.
(7) As a former World War II POW who was repatriated during Operation Magic Carpet one can conjecture that Van Peenan cast a sympathetic eye his patients and fellow passengers aboard the Eltinge.
(8) Burd, Laurence. Ike Sets up Air-Sea Lift for Refugees: 3 Navy Transports to Join Operation. Chicago Daily Tribune; Dec 7, 1956. Pg 5.
(9) Coridon, Guy. Report on Hungarian Refugees. CIA Historical Review Program. (https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol2no1/html/v02i1a07p_0001.htm)