Times, Date Unknown
By Jeffrey Miller, Feature Writer
-Savior of 1,000 Korean War Orphans
Returns to Korea-
Air Force Chaplain Russell Blaisdell Recalls 'Operation Korea Kiddie
He's been dubbed the "Korean Schindler" by the local
media. To the orphans he saved during those dark days of the Korean
War, with the Chinese bearing down on Seoul, he was a "savior." However,
for U.S. Air Force Chaplain Russell Blaisdell, he had only done what
was necessary to save the lives of 1,000 children.
"If I didn't do it the children
were dead," recalled Blaisdell.
This past weekend, the 91 -year-old Blaisdell returned
to Korea for the first time since the end of the war to meet some of
those children he saved, and the woman who ran the orphanage then and
Lee Kang-hun was 17 years old, the eldest of the
orphans airlifted to Cheju-do in December 1950. Lee recalled how "terribly
cold" it was on the 20th of December when they were airlifted to Cheju-do.
"I'm very happy to see him again,"
exclaimed Lee enthusiastically, who had also greeted Blaisdell at Kimpo
on Friday - the first time they have met each other since the war. "I
have many heartfelt thanks to him."
"Most people would only have
thought of themselves," said Yang Yun-hak, who was also 17 years old
when he was airlifted to Cheju-do. "The American soldiers' love for
Korean children was very impressive. They did everything to take care
of us. He [Blaisdell] was a savior. He was like a father to us."
Emotions ran their course as these orphans, now
in their fifties and sixties and Blaisdell met at the orphanage. However,
the emotional moment of the day was reserved for the owner of the ".Orphans'
Home of Korea," I 0 1 -year-old Whang On-soon and Blaisdell when they
met outside the entrance - the first time they have seen each other
since Blaisdell left Korea.
Blaisdell, an ordained Presbyterian minister, had
served as minister of a church in Iowa before he joined the U.8. Air
Force as Chaplain with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. By the time he arrived
in Korea, during that long, hot summer of 1950, he had been promoted
to Lt. Colonel.
In a short chronicle of the events leading up to
the successful airlift of the orphans, written not long after the successful
airlift of the orphans to Cheju-do - of what was nicknamed, "Operation
Korea Kiddie Car" - Blaisdell writes:
"The devastation and poverty
in Korea is appalling even to those accustomed to such sights. As one
watches suffering and death, nature creates a callousness to keep persons
rational and sane. But one reaction will never be completely dulled.
That is the reaction to the sight of little helpless children, orphans,
who are crying from hunger and exposure.
The American airman is tough and hardened to scenes
of devastation and hardship, even death. But the upraised hand and pleading
face of a small, naked orphan will melt his heart."
Blaisdell's role in being responsible for getting
the children down to Cheju-do was just as much fate as it was his devotion
to the welfare of the children. His predecessor, Chaplain (Col.) Wallace
Wolverton had started a program to help the orphans. Later, when Wolverton
had to return to Japan because of a bad back, they switched and Blaisdell
"We went around and picked the
children up. It became just kind of a routine after awhile. As long
as we had food, clothes, and workers to scrub them up, clean them up
and give them some food and doctors to examine them and nurses to take
care of them. I didn't care if they were legitimate orphans or not.
Some of them weren't. Some of them, their mothers would put them out
on the street early in the morning. Pretty soon, we caught onto that.
Kids are still in need even though they are not orphans."
Fate would step in again. This time it was the Chinese
bearing down on Seoul in December 1950. With everyone leaving the city
- military and civilian - Blaisdell had to find some way to get the
orphans out. However, where to take the orphans and how was the problem
that Blaisdell faced. It was not possible for them to leave by trucks.
He arranged for a boat in Inchon and with one truck,
began to transport the kids to Inchon. For five days without sleep,
Blaisdell was in a race against time to get the children to Inchon and
hopefully to safety. He put his faith in God to see him, and the children
"It was difficult because we
had not intended to fly. We intended to go by boat. We didn't have the
facilities; half of the children were sick.
But we all pitched in and did it. I was just fortunate
enough that [Brig.] General [T.C.] Rogers was in the headquarters. If
he hadn't been in the headquarters, I don't know what we would have
It only took Blaisdell 20 minutes to explain to
Rogers the plight of the children before Rogers authorized the C-54's
to transport the children to Cheju-do.
"Rogers saw that there were planes
available," recalled Blaisdell. "He took it upon himself to do the mission.
He could have been criticized for taking that move."
Blaisdell managed to locate some trucks to bring
the children to Kimpo.
From there they were flown to Cheju-do.
When asked why he was the one, who took charge of
airlifting the children, Blaisdell pointed out, "children are children.
Whether they are Korean or American, it doesn't make any difference.
When you have hungry children, or sick they need to be cared for. If
you can do it, then it would be worth whatever is necessary to do that.
I was the only one there. I had no options."
Once the children were in Cheju-do, their problems
were far from being over. "It was just one problem right after another,"
pointed out Blaisdell. "Mostly sickness. We got 1,000 pounds of Indian
rice; but didn't realize that Indian rice was different from Korean
rice and all the children got diarrhea." Other problems included housing,
heating, water, and food. Likewise, "anxiety arose from the lack of
experience on the staff." Although some of the staff was very capable
with medical problems, "administrations were woefully inexperienced."
Finally, wrote Blaisdell for "the need for more
experienced personnel became very apparent." That's when Whang On-soon
came in. According to Blaisdell in his chronicle of the airlift, "she
had operated an orphanage for 11 years and had recently returned from
England where she had studied child welfare."
"This is the lady who took the
children and made an orphanage," said Blaisdell. "Without her, we wouldn't
have had any orphanage. I only brought the children to Cheju-do. She
took it from there. She gets all the credit for taking care of the children
and organizing everything. She did a wonderful job. It was remarkable
how well she could do it."
Before going to the orphanage on Saturday, Blaisdell
went to the Blue House to meet First Lady Lee Hee-ho. According to Oh
Heung-keun, son-in- law of Whang, Lee admired the contributions that
he had made during the war and on "behalf of the Korean people, thanked
him many times." So far, it has been the only "official" acknowledgment
of his contributions during the war to save the orphans.
"We cannot say thank you enough,"
"I think I've been repaid many
times," replied Blaisdell, who felt it was "a very grand experience"
just to be back here.
The 1957 movie Battle Hymn was loosely based on
the airlift. However- in the film Lt. Colonel Dean Hess was the one
who saved the orphans. Sadly, there was no mention of Blaisdell.
(In actuality, Hess had trained ROK Air Force pilots
at a training base on Cheju-do. Blaisdell had initially talked to Hess
about the plight of the orphans. According to Blaisdell, "Hess was primarily
interested in the little 5th Air Force Orphanage, as airmen of his unit
had placed 'mascots' [what the orphans were endearingly called by the
airmen] in it and also the unit had contributed generously to its support."
Although Hess offered the services of a C-47, Blaisdell decided to wait
for the boat.)
After the war, the orphanage was relocated to Seoul.
Later, it moved to its present location. Today, the orphanage, located
in Kyonggi-do, has over 50 children, ranging in ages from 6 to 17.
Lee Kang-hun and other orphans still get together
regularly in October. A sort of "homecoming," as Lee put it.
Blaisdell retired from the Air Force in 1964. He
worked for the State of New York until he retired in 1976.
Why did he wait so long to come back? "I was tied
down to my job as well as my personal life," explained Blaisdell, "I
was also restricted by funds."
An opportunity to make it back to Korea was made
possible by his grandson who works in Hong Kong who had invited him
over for a visit.
"I saw it as an opportunity to
get to Korea," said Blaisdell. "My grandson took care of everything."
Although it might have taken him 50 years to get
back to Korea, he never stopped thinking about this most memorable moment
of his life.
Blaisdell and Whang sat together for an hour, sometimes
clutching hands as they looked through old photos, letters, magazine
articles and newspaper clippings. Fifty years ago, a war and fate brought
these two remarkable individuals together. Their common bond - the lives
of 1,000 orphans - saved by this remarkable man who, with his faith
in God and his commitment to saving them, rose above the destruction
and chaos of war to carry out this humanitarian mission.