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Airman Magazine, December 2000

A Christmas Story...
Chaplain Saves Orphans During Dark Days of Korean War

By Senior Airman Elaine Tarello

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Russell Blaisdell wasn't just desperate. He was in danger as he raced toward the embattled South Korean capital of Seoul in a battered jeep he'd stolen.

"Hurry, hurry, hurry," he mumbled to himself-over and over-like a prayer.

Talking to himself helped him stay awake. Five days without food or sleep were taking their toll, and he had to fight to keep his eyes open and on the dusty road.

He was running out of time and had no idea what lay ahead. But he knew what lay behind-1,000 children and volunteers whose fate rested in his hands. Out of options and almost out of time to save them, he did what any good chaplain would do in the same position. He prayed.

Luckily, God was listening, said Chaplain Blaisdell of Fayetteville, N.Y.

His saga started two months into the Korean War. He arrived in Seoul in August 1950 to become the Fifth Air Force staff chaplain. He knew life wouldn't be easy. There was a brutal war to contend with.

What he didn't know was that he would soon be waging a desperate battle of his own.

He found Seoul a city in dire straits. Bombed, burned and pillaged beyond recognition. Hunger and thirst were as common as the rats, which were under foot at every turn. Poverty seeped through the city like a plague. There wasn't enough food or clothing for everyone.

The streets were full of babies and children shivering from the cold. Their parents had left them, or were dead. They were dirty, hungry and covered in vermin.

"It was devastating," said the 90-year-old Chaplain Blaisdell. "I had to do something."

What he had to do was evident. His predecessor, Chaplain (Col.) Wallace Wolverton, had started a program to help Seoul's orphans. Chaplain Blaisdell picked up right where Chaplain Wolverton left off.

"We'd go out at dawn and pick up these tiny bodies, limp as sacks of rice, and pile them in an old flat bed truck, 10 or 20 at a time," he said. "They were sick and weak and seemed to have cried themselves out. We did the best we could. We brought them in, scrubbed them up, and dropped them off at the local orphanage. Then we'd go back out and do it again."

For two long months, Chaplain Blaisdell and his volunteers struggled to save the children. When he asked for help, many answered. Korean and American doctors, nurses, dentists, troops and citizens pitched in.

The tiny orphanage was soon overflowing with children dying from neglect, barely clinging to life. And every morning, Chaplain Blaisdell and his volunteers dropped off more.

Life, while tough, took on a rhythm. But then disaster struck. "The North is coming" was the word on the street in December. First rumors, then warnings. The North was about to invade Seoul again.

As Chaplain Blaisdell battled to save children, the North and South battled to the death in the serene countryside of their divided country. Already living in constant fear, the citizens of Seoul had little choice-get out or die. They fled.

"No one was going to stick around to see what would happen," he said. The city decided to abandon the orphanage and leave the kids to fend for themselves.

"It never occurred to me to leave the children," he said. After the North invaded in June, troops killed every child they found, including those the U.S. military had helped, he said.

Chaplain Blaisdell wouldn't let that happen again. He arranged for a boat to transport the children to safety. But it was Inchon, 20 miles away. And he had some 1,000 people to move with just one truck. So he, Sgt. Michael Strang, and some volunteers started piling children into the truck, and then racing them to the harbor city.

"I decided to scout out the situation, so I 'appropriated' a jeep and went to the dock," he said. But, when he got there, his heart sank. The ship was an old scow he wouldn't have put anyone on. The captain didn't know anything about the evacuation.

The situation grew worse. So he appropriated an old school building and moved the children there. He figured maybe it was the wrong boat and that they'd just have to wait awhile. But he was wrong. Now the whole group was in danger. And Chaplain Blaisdell still had to drive back to Seoul to pick up two teen-age girls he'd promised to take care of.

Seoul was a ghost town, eerily quiet and still, when he got there. He picked up the girls. But time wasn't just running out for him, it was running out for the children waiting for his return. Scared and hungry, he wracked his brain for answers. Then he went to his headquarters, where he spotted Air Force Brig. Gen. T.C. Rogers, one of the last military members left in the city.

"He took one look at me and said, 'My God, what's the matter?'" Chaplain Blaisdell said. "I hadn't slept in five days and looked like the wrath of God. I just blurted out, 'I'm in trouble and I need help.'" The weary chaplain told the general his story.

"He didn't say a word. He just pulled out an operations book, saying he had a wing of C-54s that needed a mission. Then he asked me when I could have the kids at Kimpo [Airport]. I told him right away." But Kimpo was 20 miles from Inchon, and his only truck was gone.

"I wasn't about to give up," he said. "The children were starving, cold and sick. I had to do something. It wasn't courage. I felt a responsibility." He sped back to Inchon and told his sergeant "we're saved." Still, he had one very significant dilemma-no transportation.

"But then I spotted some Marines unloading a truck onto the old scow at the docks," he said. "I told the driver that he was to report to Sergeant Strang for duty. He refused. So I just whipped out my lieutenant colonel insignia and told him it was an order."

The Marine obeyed, and the chaplain and his volunteers were back in business. Each time a truck arrived at the docks, the chaplain pulled rank to acquire it. He soon had four, and the convoy was on its way to Kimpo. When it arrived, the promised planes were waiting.

A Dec. 21, 1950, New York times article described the scene.

"Scores of small pilgrims in distress were covered with sores, and their bodies were shrunken from starvation. Some gestured at their mouths to show their hunger and mumbled, 'chop, chop.'"

The planes took the children to Cheju-do, a large island off South Korea's southern coast. There, Maj. Dean Hess ran a F?-51 Mustang fighter training school.

"That was the first time I breathed a sigh of relief," the chaplain said. Then he met with the mayor of Chej-do, who donated an old agricultural building for the children.

Just in time for Christmas.

And it was the beginning of a new life for the children, like Choi Chu-ja, who was on a plane that day.

"The only memory I have of that plane ride is sitting with the other children on the floor," she said. Now named Susie Allen and the mother of four living in Chico, Calif., she owes her life to Chaplain Blaisdell and volunteers.

"I don't know how to describe the feelings in my heart. They have just always been a part of me," she said. "They were my heroes."

But Chaplain Blaisdell, who retired from the Air Force in 1964, said he's no hero.

"I did what I had to do," he said. "What any good person would have done."

One year after the rescue - dubbed Operation Kiddy Car - Chaplain Blaisdell returned to Cheju-do. The head of the orphanage, On Soon-whang, and the children held a parade in his honor.

The children were happy and healthy, he recalls.

"It was like night and day," he said. "Just seeing them was all the thanks I needed. And I would do it all over again in a minute."

The orphanage moved back to Seoul soon after the invasion and still operates today.





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