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Stars & Stripes, Jan. 29, 2001

Miracle worker returns to Seoul
Chaplain rescued more than 1,000 orphans from invading communists

By Jim Lea,
Osan bureau chief, Stars & Stripes

SEOUL- "I did what I had to do. I had no options," a former chaplain said as he recalled performing a Korean War miracle.

In December 1950, Russell Blaisdell, today a retired Air Force colonel, spirited more than 1,000 South Korean orphans out of Seoul. He took them to Cheju Island, about 90 miles off the peninsula's south coast, two weeks before Chinese communist troops captured the city.

On Friday, he arrived in Korea for the first time since the war and, on Saturday, was reunited with some of the orphans. He also met the director of the orphanage that housed the children during the war.

Blaisdell is now 90. The director, Hwang On-soon, is 102. Now retired, she is considered something of a "director emeritus" by facility staffers.

The reunion was arranged by Blaisdell's grandson, David, who lives in Hong Kong.

In 1950, fearing the children would be massacred if they remained in Seoul, Blaisdell feverishly planned and replanned, occasionally pulling rank on troops more concerned with getting their units and themselves out of the city.

A Presbyterian minister from Iowa, Blaisdell entered the military in World War II. By the time of the Korean War, he was assigned as a 5th Air Force chaplain in Nagoya, Japan.

In August 1950, he was sent on temporary duty to Korea, landing at Taegu, 170 miles south of Seoul, and was confronted by hundreds of thousands of Korean refugees and retreating U.S. and South Korean troops. After U.S. forces recaptured Seoul, he headed for the capital.

"I can never forget what I found there," he said. "The city was devastated and the streets were filled with an estimated 6,000 homeless babies and children. They were starving, diseased and covered with vermin. Some were so far gone they were lying in the streets, too weak to even cry, just waiting to die."

Most of the children were orphans, he said, but some had been left on the streets by their parents hoping that someone would feed them.

Members of 5th Air Force in the city began taking care of some children and keeping them with their units. "They called them 'mascots,'" Blaisdell said. "But only a very small number of children could be cared for in this manner. Orphanages in the city had been looted or destroyed, and neither the city nor outside relief agencies were equipped to handle the children."

The 5th Air Force established a small orphanage in the city, running it on airmen's donations. The number of children soon exceeded the facility's capability of supporting them. Then, with cooperation from then-Mayor Lee Kyu-bong, the Air Force established a Seoul Orphans Center.

A 5th Air Force truck began moving through the city at dawn each day carrying Korean social workers and picking up as many as 50 children a day. The center soon was overflowing. Far East Air Force units in Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines and Korea began sending money, Blaisdell said.

After Chinese forces invaded Korea in November and began barreling south, Blaisdell-by then assigned as 5th Air Force staff chaplain-became concerned that the children would be in danger when the communists reached Seoul.

"We thought the children would be treated severely when the Chinese took over the city if they were found in U.S. military supported facilities.," he said.

First, he attempted to arrange their evacuation to Kyushu in southwestern Japan, but couldn't get approval. Then he tried to move the children at the 5th Air Force orphanage and the Air Force-supported orphans center to Korean orphanages that had reopened in the city.

But, remembering horrid conditions they suffered when the North Koreans first captured Seoul in June, orphanage workers didn't want to be there when the communists recaptured Seoul.

"Everyone was planning to leave," he said. Blaisdell left Seoul for Taejon, 100 miles south, on Dec. 10. There, he met Air Force Lt. Col. Dean Hess, Korea Military Assistance Group air adviser, and they discussed the orphans' plight.

"He told me that he had a C-47 (transport) returning from Japan in two day and it could fly the children from the 5th Air Force orphanage to Cheju, where Lt. Col. Hess had a small unit operating," he said. Blaisdell also learned that a South Korean navy landing ship would be leaving shortly for Cheju.

"We decided to try to load all the children from the 5th Air Force orphanage and the Seoul Orphan Center on that ship and take them to Cheju," he said. Blaisdell headed back to the capital to begin making arrangements. He named the project Operation Kiddy Car.

Setbacks began cropping up almost immediately.

He moved 950 children and 110 orphanage staffers to Inchon by truck and housed them in a one-room building near the port. They waited for four days for the ship to arrive. During that time, many contacted whooping cough and measles and eight children dies.

On Dec. 19, with communist forces nearing Seoul, Blaisdell learned that all U.s. military trucks and the port battalion would evacuate Inchon the next day. He moved the children and orphanage workers to the port to load them on the landing ship, but ran into a brick wall.

"A colonel in the 3rd Logistic Command who had to give the final approval refused to allow our people on the ship," he said.

Blaisdell then turned to Col. T.C. Rogers, 5th Air Force chief of operations.

"I hadn't slept in five days and looked terrible," he said. "He looked at me and said, 'My God! What's the matter?'"

Blaisdell explained his dilemma. "In 20 minutes, the colonel had laid on air transportation for us to Cheju to leave at 8 a.m. the next day."

Blaisdell hurried back to Inchon to begin looking for transportation to move the children the 26 miles from the port to Kimpo, but found none. He later was able to round up 24 trucks that would be waiting at the port at 5:30 a.m. the next day.

Returning to Seoul to pick up a few more children, Blaisdell found a message from Hess saying the operation had to be postponed one day so more arrangements could be made.

"It couldn't be postponed," he said. "There would be no trucks, no planes, nothing. I sent Hess a message saying, 'Airlift will proceed on schedule. First plane departs 0800.'"

Blaisdell headed back to Inchon, arriving in the wee hours of Dec. 20-and found no trucks waiting. He said he "scrounged six trucks to move our supplies to Kimpo, but by 8:30 a.m., not one orphan was on a truck."

Then, he began pulling rank. He spotted U.S. troops loading an ammunition ship nearby. As each of the trucks was emptied, Blaisdell ordered the drivers to wait. Soon, orphan-laden trucks were heading for Kimpo.

"We were two hours late, but the planes had waited," he said. Sixteen C-54s took off with all the children and orphanage staffers.

On Cheju, the planes were greeted by U.S. and Korean officials.

"They gave us a building at the Agricultural School for Boys in Cheju City to use as an orphanage," he said. Hwang, who had operated a small orphanage for 11 years, was appointed director and the facility was named the Orphans Home of Korea.

The facility later was moved to Seoul, then to its present site near Uijongbu, an hour's drive north.

Before he went to the orphanage Saturday Blaisdell received an unexpected invitation to the South Korean presidential mansion. Officials had been unaware of Blaisdell's efforts until Seoul newspapers reported last week he was returning for a reunion.

Oh Heung-keun, youth services committee chairman of the Seoul Rotary Club who accompanied Blaisdell to the presidential mansion, said first lady Lee Hee-ho thanked the retired chaplain for helping the orphans.

He also was honored at a banquet hosted by the Korean Veterans Association on Saturday night; and was invited to meet with Prime Minister Lee Han-dong early Monday. Blaisdell was to leave South Korea later in the day.

On Saturday, Hwang-shedding a few tears, hugging Blaisdell and holding his hands tightly-told him in halting English, "You are our savior. We love you so much."

"If you had not helped, we all would have been killed," said Yun Young-hak, now, 65, about when Blaisdell led him and the other children to Cheju. "We think of you as our father."

Blaisdell said he only did "what I had to do."

"I couldn't just sit by and watch. It didn't matter who the children were. They were children in great danger and great need. I just did what I could to help."



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