Chaplain Russ Blaisdell reunites with Korean
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
The university later sent RLB a video and photo
album of the award ceremony.
and orphan comments
Four orphans and Helen Park saw RLB off at the airport
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.
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
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.
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..
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.]