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Chaplain Russ Blaisdell reunites with Korean War Orphans

Friday, January 26, 2001

Russell Lloyd Blaisdell (RLB), retired US Air Force Chaplain (Colonel) and a retired Presbyterian minister, age 90, arrived at the Seoul, Korea, airport from Hong Kong accompanied by his grandson, David Blaisdell, and granddaughter, Valerie Blaisdell on Friday, January 26, 2001, for his first return since the Korean War.

Airport arrival

RLB was greeted at the gate by Helen Park, a reporter, and a photographer from a Seoul newspaper, JoongAng Ilbo. She proceeded to interview him as he was waiting for his luggage. When he cleared customs and exited the airport, several orphans, TV cameras and photographers mobbed him. Three bouquets were given. By the time he departed Seoul on Tuesday, January 30, about 12 large bouquets had been given to him. Wherever RLB went there were orphans who accompanied him, as did his two grandchildren.

Plans beforehand

RLB had told his grandson that the name of the orphanage was The Orphan's Home of Korea and that the director after the December 1950 evacuation was Whang On Soon. RLB thought that she had died in 1989. The grandson's company, Bechtel Enterprises, was working on a project with Hyundai, and his Korean secretary at Hyundai headquarters located the orphanage in December 2000 and told him that Whang On Soon was still alive! RLB's grandson visited the orphanage with Hyun Lyung Seon, a translator at Hyundai, who was working with Bechtel Enterprises. The grandson showed Whang On Soon and her son-in-law, Dr. Oh Heung-keun, the December 2000, Airman magazine, which featured RLB's rescue of the orphans off the streets of Seoul in the fall of 1950. Whang On Soon told RLB's grandson that RLB must visit!

As RLB was planning to visit Hong Kong with his wife, Sandy, in January 2001, his grandson started making arrangements for the trip to Seoul. Dr. Oh Heung-keun became involved in the plans and provided his car and driver for the weekend. Dr. Oh probably arranged the visit to the Blue House and did arrange the dinner with the Korean Veterans Association.

A Hyundai director, Joong Shik Shin, notified the Seoul press of RLB's return. Dr. Oh may have played a part here as well. The newspaper and TV press interest was immediate. They covered all of RLB's public appearances during his four-day visit. The story is very compelling. The movie, "Battle Hymn," released in 1956 and starring Rock Hudson, portrays the 1950 orphan rescue and is shown almost every year in Korea.

The JoongAng Ilbo reporter, Helen Park, transported RLB to the Seoul Hilton so that she could have an exclusive interview. RLB's granddaughter accompanied him in the reporter's car. The grandson rode in Dr. Oh's car. Once at the hotel, Dr. Oh conferred with RLB about arrangements to see the First Ladv. Lee Hee-ho, at the Blue House.

Saturday, January 27

Blue House with First Lady of Korea

RLB, accompanied by Dr. Oh, went to the Blue House in Chong Wa Dae, Seoul, to meet the President's wife, Madame Lee Hee Ho. She usually grants a 10-minute audience. Nevertheless, RLB's audience lasted 30 minutes. She expressed admiration for the contributions that RLB made during the Korean War and on behalf of the Korean people thanked him many times. "Koreans consider you a true hero for what you did. The orphans you saved are now productive members of our society, and nothing could be more precious than that," she said.

The first question she asked was of RLB's impressions of Korea after 50 years. He said that Korea had risen like "a phoenix from the ashes." He first saw Seoul after UN forces had recaptured it. He remembered only one bridge across the Han River with just shacks on the opposite bank. "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," he said. He said that Korea was still in the midst of transformation and struggle, referring to the path towards democracy mainly, but that he was confident that Korea would get there.

RLB showed his pictures and an album from his year in Korea to the First Lady. She viewed them with interest. A photo session was granted with her. She also gave gifts: watches, a clock, and her biography with a note in the flyleaf. She is an advocate of women's rights, a Methodist, and has taught a Sunday School class for 25 years.

The Orphans Home of Korea

RLB was driven to The Orphans Home of Korea, which has been located in Kyonggi-do since 1970, an hour north of Seoul. It was an emotional reunion with Whang On Soon, age 102, the orphanage director who took care of the 1,000 orphans after RLB arranged to fly them down to Cheju island on December 20, 1950 in 16 U.S. Air Force C-54 cargo planes. Whang On Soon had directed an orphanage for eleven years and had studied child welfare in England. The mayor of Seoul, Lee Kyu-bong, asked her to come to Cheju island to organize the orphanage. RLB said of the evacuation, "It was the most precious and memorable thing in my life."

She was waiting at the door of the orphanage with 10-12 of the orphans from the 1950 evacuation and about 50 of the present orphans. She emerged from the doorway to greet RLB as he arrived and said in halting English, "You are our savior. We love you so much." There were many tv cameras and photographers.

There was a gift ceremony for RLB within a few minutes after his arrival. One was a framed 14" x 20" painting by one of the orphans. Another gift was five large books, three of them in storage cartons, on Buddhist teachings and art. This gift was given by Hwang Byung-jin, one of the orphans who is now the head monk at the Jangan Temple in Goyang, Kyonggi Province. Other gifts were a Korean bronze bell on a stand. Another was a small, three-dimensional picture of a traditional wedding procession.

RLB and Whang On Soon went to a sitting room for photographers and media to speak with them together. After thirty minutes lunch was served in the dining hall. Cameras and interviews continued. Back to the sitting room for more interviews, a group picture out in front, and then RLB and Whang On Soon came back inside. By then all but a few of the 1950 orphans had left. RLB then pulled out all his old photos and an album Whang On Soon had made for him in 1954. At this point, the door was closed and locked for the two of them to have some peace and quiet time alone. They spent an hour together.

Korean Veterans Association

The Korean Veterans Association hosted a dinner in a hotel private dining room. The head of the association presented RLB the "Peace Ambassador" medal.

Sunday, January 28,2001

Youngnak Presbyterian Church

RLB went to the 50,000-member Youngnak Presbyterian Church, which had five standing-room only services of over 5,000 in attendance at each one. RLB and his grandchildren were shown to special booths where simultaneous translation is provided through the use of handsets. After worship he was given a large book on the church's history.

Seoul Club

Dr. Oh hosted a formal luncheon at the Seoul Club, perhaps the most prestigious club in Seoul. There were 8-9 people present: two city officials, Dr. Oh, RLB, his two grandchildren, the present director of the orphanage, and two others.

War Memorial Building

In the afternoon RLB was taken to the War Memorial Building, a large museum, and visited a special exhibition on the "June 25th War" [Korean War]. There was a large mural entitled "Children of War," depicting the orphans of the war, where RLB gave a long talk describing what he saw and related his own experience to reporters.

After greeting RLB and his two grandchildren, the director allowed each of them to bang the gigantic museum gong three times as a special privilege to honored guests. When the monk's turn came, he invited RLB to join him in striking the gong with a large gavel. The monk was very enthusiastic about banging the gong with RLB.

The director of the museum confirmed after this visit that a picture of RLB and Whang On Soon will be on permanent display at the Museum.

With orphans at Jangan Temple

RLB went to Jangan Temple where over ten of the orphans were waiting. The orphans bowed to RLB in a traditional ancestral bow of respect to their elders, in this case their "father." "We think of you as our father. If you had not helped, we all would have been killed," said Yun Young-hak, now 65. The monk, Hwang Byung-jin, made tea, and RLB shared all the photos and articles he had brought. This brought tears to many of their eyes, as they sought to recognize themselves and friends in the 50-year photos.

One orphan explained that he did not remember anything, because he was a baby. RLB explained that he had agreed to take twenty newborn babies from a hospital if several doctors and twice as many nurses accompanied them to Cheju island.

Yang Yun-hak, now 67, still remembers vividly that the "priest" had unusual deep affection for the children. "Most people would only have thought of themselves," he said. "The American soldiers' love for Korean children was very impressive. They did everything to take care of us. He [RLB] was a savior. He was like a father to us."

RLB had written after the airlift: "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."

Pae Bok, now 86, helped in the care for the orphans at the Chong ro Elementary School with RLB. She said, "When we left Seoul 50 years ago, we escaped from hell .... We had nothing to eat for a day....Chaplain Blaisdell helped secure rations and clothes for us."

One of the orphans thanked RLB for the intimate time together, as he and the other orphans had never had this opportunity in the past when Dean Hess visited, and never had they seen the 1950 photos. A group photo was taken before going to dinner in a restaurant near the monastery. All the food was cooked Korean style in front of them. The mayor of Koyang City, Hwang Kyo-sun, sat across from RLB. Koyang City is a suburb of Seoul with a population of 700,000.

By Sunday evening with all the tv and newspaper publicity, Dr. Young Seek Choue, the Chancellor of Kyung Hee University, Seoul, wanted to grant RLB an honorary doctorate in Social Welfare. RLB extended his stay for another day. The special program was set for Tuesday, January 30, at I 1:00 a.m., at the university.

Monday, January 29

Prime Minister

At 9:00 a.m. RLB met with the Prime Minister of Korea, Lee Han-dong, at the main Korean government building. The 3-5 minute interview stretched into 30 minutes with photos afterwards. There were lots of flowers and gifts given here as well. The Prime Minister was the same age as the orphans during the Korean War and fled to Pusan on top of a train as the North Koreans bore down on Seoul in December 1950. He joked with RLB that the orphans traveled in style and to a luxurious locale, by plane to Cheju island, compared to his escape. Cheju island has developed into a popular tourist destination, especially for Koreans and Japanese.

The Prime Minister also wanted to know RLB's impressions of Korea. RLB's message was similar to what he had given to the First Lady: Korea has come a long way, but had more work to do. He was confident they could get there and had faith in Korea's leaders.

RLB asked the Prime Minister if he could locate Dr. Yun, who was a friend of RLB's during the Korean War. Dr. Yun was the Dean of the Medical School of Seoul National University and the father of five children. RLB had agreed to hide and protect two of Dr. Yun's daughters, Helen and Alice Yun, from the North Korean soldiers during the second invasion in December 1950. RLB put these two teenagers up in a room at 5h Air Force Headquarters and then took them to Cheju island with the December 20 airlift. The Prime Minister has since located a grandson of Dr. Yun's and written RLB of the discovery. Time ran out before the Prime Minister could see the 1950 photos of the orphans.

The blind orphan

Helen Park asked if one of the orphans, Joon Young Chang, could meet with RLB sometime. They met at 9:00 p.m. Monday evening.

His story: when war began he was 8 years old. A bomb had smashed his face, blinded him, and killed the rest of his family. He was lying in the street unconscious when a soldier picked him up and brought him to the small children's orphanage. He was still in a coma when he was flown with the other orphans to Cheju island. He came out of his coma after two months. He had amnesia for several years. When he was 12 years old the amnesia gradually stopped, and he recovered his memory. He learned braille and taught it at the orphanage.

He was determined to make his way back to Seoul, but he had no money. He snuck onto a boat to the mainland. When he was discovered he was beaten, but they couldn't throw him overboard. He was also verbally and physically abused on the train back to Seoul. Since he did not have much money, he slipped through undetected upon arrival into Seoul.

He gave RLB a carton of ginseng and a 5" x 7" photo of himself. He is married to a blind lady. They have two children, one grandchild. He is a masseur and acupuncturist.

He said that Whang On Soon stressed several times to all the orphans as they were growing up, "Never forget the chaplain and the Air Force officer," referring to RLB and Colonel Dean Hess, who did much for the orphans after they arrived at Cheju island.

Tuesday, January 30

Honorary Doctorate at Kyung Hee University

RLB went to Kyung Hee University, which was another very formal affair as were the meetings with the First Lady and the Prime Minister. Whang On Soon was given the Emerald Award for "a major contribution to Korea." Dr. Young Seek Choue, age 81, established the university and has been the Chancellor for 52 years. He has written 30 books, is a great humanitarian, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. Today Kyung Hee, located on the edge of Seoul is one of Korea's largest universities with over 20,000 students. The President of the University is the son of the Chancellor.

A tailor-made robe with sleeves and a hood had been made for RLB on short notice. Over twenty professors were present in full robe with white gloves. There were lots of visitors and photographers. Two little girls, dressed in traditional Korean attire, made a flower presentation to RLB and Whang On Soon. Two of the 1950 orphans also made a flower presentation to each of them. A flower presentation is a part of every formal event and was printed in the program.

Before reading his prepared script in English, Dr. Choue spoke informally in Korean to the professors why the university should honor RLB and Whang On Soon: "Today is a very happy day. It seems that what RLB and Whang On Soon did is holy or merciful. During the peak of the June 25th War [Korean War], when the military was retreating during the January 4 retreat, when everybody was just trying to protect themselves and their families and leaving their homes to flee, these people were trying to save almost 1,000, 993 starving 'little angels' from their death. The very people who did it are here, sitting with us now.

"I was very surprised to hear the story and wondered how we did not know about it and recognize it before. I deeply appreciate those journalists who let us know about this wonderful story. I was shocked to know about it."

"This year military chaplain Blaisdell is 90 [will be 91] years old, and Ms. Whang On Soon is 102 years old, according to her Korean age. I believe that God has blessed them so that they can live long to do a lot of good works, because they are very good people....

"When we found out that Rev. Blaisdell visited Korea, we asked him to give us an opportunity to honor him....There may be no precedent in world history in which the doctorate degree is decided and awarded by such a big university as ours within a day. But with an hour, if we have to, we have to honor them.

"Think about this. If God asked us how we had lived in this world, could we just tell Him that we had lived well or had a healthy life? We should be able to tell Him 'Following Your will, we came here after helping all those unfortunate people in this world like them.'

"What is our Kyung Hee University spirit? Isn't it our mission to construct 'a bright society,' 'a healthy, morally sound society'? Aren't we committed to the welfare of humanity and to the peace movement? That's why we do today what we ought to do."

RLB's grandson alerted him (via his granddaughter) that the program, which was written in both Korean and English, called for him to give an acceptance speech. After the honorary doctorate in social welfare was granted, RLB gave this acceptance speech:

"I come here with a very humble spirit. This was far and beyond anything that my mind had dreamed. The welcome I have received since arriving in Seoul was the greatest of my life. The heartfelt feelings of the orphans and the other citizens of Seoul bring tears to my eyes.

"I have been asked many times since I have arrived, 'Why did you do it?' At first the question seemed peculiar. But then I realized you have a different culture; you have a different background.

"I am a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as a Christian I must follow the teachings of Jesus, and He said that those who would follow Him must take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves. His last statement was, 'As you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.' Therefore, it is part of my nature. To see anyone in serious trouble, young or old, and not to do something, to me, is a sin. Therefore, what little I did personally was only a natural reaction to a very, very difficult situation.

"There is, I believe, a great need in the world today for humanitarianism, for people who have to think of the have-nots. We must consider all people our brethren. There are many differences. We still are children of God, and, therefore, they are all our brothers and our sisters and our children. I would hope some day that spirit would gain momentum and give the world a sense of peace, of belonging, a fellowship. Even as two brothers in a family will argue, maybe even fight, they are still brothers. And they must come together some day.

"Now the people of Korea have had far more than your share of extreme difficulty. I am aware somewhat of what your elderly people have gone through. But today you have an opportunity to go unboundedly into a new world. You have now democratized South Korea. You have given the vote to the people. You have a constitution and rule and law that forbid this domination that your ancestors were doomed to accept. Your economic situation has developed miraculously, far more than anyone outside of Korea could have thought possible.

"Now is the time for you to take stock to determine where you are and where you are going as a free people. For as the privileges of democracy descend upon each one, so do the responsibilities. You must join the world of nations as a partner in getting these truths and this freedom to every man and woman in the world. And you can. You can help now.

"I am happy for this occasion. I am happy that people recognize how much an individual can do when the circumstances are such as these were. There will be millions of those situations.

"I had a long talk with a blind man last night, a man of indomitable courage, a man who was in the midst of the first aggression. A bomb blinded him for life. He's still picking [debris] from his cheeks. His face was smashed. As he attempted to go back home to Seoul he was kicked, stomped upon, berated, harassed, and only a few people helped him. That spirit must go.

"[To have seen] the faces of the orphans who are now useful citizens here was more than ample. May God bless you all in your future endeavors. I have enjoyed my visit. And I have with humility accepted the honorable doctorate."

Following a tour of the campus, the Chancellor hosted a luncheon at his residence on campus. At the luncheon Yang Yun-hak, one of the 17 year-old orphans, now 67, spoke. "Thanks for this opportunity to tell about myself. When the war broke out, I was in Pyongyang. I was fortunate enough to clean the U.S. Army barracks as a house boy. I came to Seoul with the retreating U.S. Army. They left me in the Chong Ro Elementary School with other orphans. I was 18 years old [Korean age]. That year I remember that there was a lot of snow. I still remember white snow on the ground of the Chong Ro Elementary School....I remember that the U.S. Army brought all kinds of materials to the school for us.

"In that Chong Ro Elementary School, there were many different types of orphans, from recently-born babies to old boys like me. I still remember that some babies and one- or two-year-old kids died of malnutrition when we were there.

"Then we transferred to the Cheju Agricultural High School and were held in different classrooms according to their ages. We stayed there until the war was over, and we moved back to Seoul.

"While in Cheju island, I was admitted to the third grade of middle school, and then entered Cheju Commercial High School. At that time I lived in the Bo Yuk Won [home for children]. Thanks to Rev. Blaisdell and Director Whang, many children including myself were able to survive and get educated, and even I can speak today in this place. We are always thankful and grateful for their graceful acts.

"I am personally thankful to Rev. Blaisdell and Mother Whang On Soon. I believe that who I am now is more thanks to them than to my [biological] parents. That's why we welcomed him [RLB] with great warmth when he came back to Korea. We also showed him new Korea during the last few days.

"Since our Bo Yuk Won [children's home] was operated by Christians, it produced many Christian leaders, including church ministers, excellent elders, and deacons.

"As you may know, Director Whang is a Buddhist, but used to say to us that faith is one....She is truly the mother of faith. We can never forget mother Whang's love. Even now she remembers and calls us by our names [like her own sons and daughters]. The seeds that mother Whang sowed in us are growing within us.

'Finally, I want to express our deepest gratitude to President Choue and others who made this event possible. Thank you very much."

The university later sent RLB a video and photo album of the award ceremony.

Departure and orphan comments

Four orphans and Helen Park saw RLB off at the airport Tuesday.

There is a great stigma attached to being an orphan in Korea. It can limit one's career opportunities. Thus, many of the orphans do not reveal their orphan background. Many others do not know why they were orphaned.

Many of the children were orphaned because their parents were Christians. Whether in North or South Korea they were singled out as a threat to communist domination. Most were orphaned when their parents became casualties from the fighting and bombing. Many of the children do not know why they were orphaned. The youngest were too young to remember their own names.

Lee Kang-hun, then 17, told RLB that this was his case. He and his 14 year-old brother were in Hwang Hae province in the north when the UN forces came through. "We fled south to Seoul, where we were picked up by the Air Force personnel and placed in their orphanage," he said. "We would have died in the freezing winter if we had been left in Seoul without food and shelter."

Mr. Lee started telling his story about a year ago after the President of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, visited North Korea and reiterated his "Sunshine Policy," which advocates a more tolerant and friendlier relationship between North and South Korea.

Some of the orphans live in the United States. Choi Chu-ja, now Susie Allen and mother of four, lives in Chico, California. She said of RLB and those assisting him, "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 does not consider himself a hero. "I did what I had to do, what any good person would have done," he said.

Whang On Soon's family

The orphanage is on land owned by Whang On Soon. It was hers and her husband's summer home. Their son, Pil Kuk Kung, was a student at Seoul National University when North Korean soldiers killed him soon after the June 25, 1950 invasion. Because he was well dressed, the soldiers could see that he was from a wealthy family. Whang On Soon was married to one of the wealthiest men in Korea. They had a beautiful home in Seoul. Syngman Rhee was a friend of theirs, and after he became President of Korea, he bought their home from them and moved in.

Whang On Soon's son-in-law, Dr. Oh Heung-keun, was the Director General of the Statistical Bureau of Korea. He then worked for the United Nations for 20 years. He was the Asia Director for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Whang On Soon lives with him. It is unusual in Korean society for a son-in-law to take care of a mother-in-law, but Whang On Soon is so famous that he feels it is his duty. Dr. Oh's wife, Woonkyung Nancy Kang, was Whang On Soon's daughter, who died five years ago. She was born around 1930 and had attended Kent State University on a music scholarship.

Korean media

Helen Park has been the main media contact before, during and since the weekend. She and Hyun Lyung Seon of Hyundai were the primary translators during the weekend. One of the tv stations, KBS, put together a fifteen-minute Korean language special on the 1950 rescue and weekend reunion, which they aired on Wednesday morning, February 1. A fifteen-minute tv special in English was also aired on the local English station, Arirang, on Sunday, February 25. Most all of the Seoul Korean and English-speaking newspapers, including Stars and Stripes, carried the weekend events.

There were so many gifts given that RLB's grandson had to box them up and ship them to his home in the U.S..

U.S. recognition and media

Before the trip the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and the Chief of Air Force Chaplains had given RLB letters and medals, which were presented to him by his son, Maj. Gen. F. Judd Blaisdell, when his family gathered to celebrate his 90th birthday in Fayetteville, NY, September 4, 2000.

Since arriving home from this reunion trip to Korea, the Air Force Association flew. RLB to Orlando, FL, to be honored on Friday, February 16, at their annual meeting. The Las Vegas Sun on February 9, the Syracuse Post-Standard and Herald-Journal on March 5, and the Black Mountain News in North Carolina on August 23 carried feature stories of the rescue and reunion. The Presbyterian Layman featured RLB in its March-April 2001 issue. On Monday, February 19, NBC Nightly News, hosted by Tom Brokaw, featured RLB in a 2 1/2-minute "Home of the Brave" segment, which included Choi Chu-ja, now Susie Allen of Chico, CA, telling of the hunger and desperate conditions in Seoul before the evacuation. The April issue of the Airman magazine reported RLB's reunion with Whang On Soon and the orphans as well as the recognition the Korean government and Kyung Hee University accorded him.

[Rev. R. Carter Blaisdell wrote the above itinerary with the help of Chaplain Russell Lloyd BlaisdelL David Blaisdell, Valerie Blaisdell and Major General Judd Blaisdell during the weeks following this reunion. Rev. Dr. John V. and Kathy (Boyer) Moore, Black Mountain, NC, Rev. Dr. John N. Somerville, Montreat, NC, and Dr. Heon Cheol Lee, Weaverville, NC, translated or transcribed Korean texts and speeches.]

September 6. 2001



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