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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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."