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New York News, March 6, 2001

Prayer helped 'father' to 1,000.
Retired Air Force chaplain is thanked by the orphans he saved during the Korean War.

By Sarah Layden

Russell Blaisdell of Fayetteville didn't know how to get the children to safety, only that he must.

It was 1950, and he was an Air Force Presbyterian chaplain in the Korean War. Almost 1,000 Korean orphans who were abandoned by war looked to him, their "father," for help. With a prayer and no plan, Blaisdell transported the children south to Cheju Island.

This year, he returned to Korea, where he was greeted as a hero. Some of the orphans, now into their 50s and 60s, showered him with gifts and tales of their lives. They still call him father. Blaisdell said an ancient belief that remains in Asian culture is that when someone saves your life, you are indebted to him or her forever.

"There were 1,000 people in need, and there's nobody else," Blaisdell, 90, said by phone from his winter home in Las Vegas, Nev. "I didn't know it was going to be successful. But you don't succeed in anything if you don't try. What a chaplain does is help people. The thought of abandoning them never entered my head."

Blaisdell's grandson, David Blaisdell, who occasionally works in Korea, helped arrange the late-January trip.

When Russell Blaisdell returned to Korea, the Korean media followed his every move and dubbed him the "Schindler of Korea" after the man who saved Jews during the Nazi Holocaust.

Blaisdell met with Korean first lady, Lee Hee-ho and received an honorary doctorate in social welfare at Kyung Hee University. Blaisdell was touched that his hosts stayed up all night making him a special robe to wear to the school's ceremony, where he gave an impromptu 10-minute acceptance speech.

Blaisdell remembered that he and others called the December 1950 mission "Operation Kiddy Car" or "Operation Long John," for long underwear purchased for the children. The orphans eventually were airlifted to Cheju Island, but he entire mission was fraught with uncertainty. There was talk of an invasion of Seoul by North Korean troops. Blaisdell described how he didn't sleep or eat for five days as he tried to find a way to transport nearly 1,000 orphaned children out of Seoul.

At one point, he thought he would have to make repeated trips using a decrepit fishing boat as transportation. The old scow wasn't fit for a kennel of dogs, he said.

"Being a chaplain, there was only one thing to do," said Blaisdell, a retired colonel. "And so I prayed. I just put it in his hands."

Blaisdell recalled how his prayers were answered, one by one. A general offered a fleet of planes that had just landed in Japan and needed a mission. Could he get the children to Kimpo Airport? That was 20 miles away, and Blaisdell had one truck.

A Marine company of trucks was in the area, hauling sacks of cement. Blaisdell told the sergeant to forget the cement and start putting children on the trucks, so they could make their way to Inchon and somehow to the airport. When the sergeant told him he couldn't do that, Blaisdell snapped, "I didn't ask you."

A colonel showed up, and he was irate. He wanted to know who stole his trucks. Blaisdell realized he knew the colonel from before the war and explained why this mission was more important than cement. The colonel understood and offered help. Finally, a plan was coming together.

As the plane was leveling off with Blaisdell and the first load of orphans, the colonel asked where they were going. Blaisdell told him Cheju Island, 50 to 100 miles off Korea by his estimate. What runway would they use?

"I don't know," Blaisdell said.

What about communication?

"I don't know," Blaisdell said.

What will we do once we get there?

"I don't know," Blaisdell said. He had gotten that far on a prayer. It would work out somehow.

Every so often in the years since Blaisdell's rescue, he'd receive a package or letter. Whang On-soon, the director of the orphanage where many of the children would up, sent Blaisdell pictures of the children with updates. Before Blaisdell's January trip, his grandson, David Blaisdell, found out that On-soon was still alive. When the former director learned that Russell Blaisdell was alive and planning a trip to Korea, she insisted he visit the orphanage.

On-soon is now 102.

"She doesn't look 80," Blaisdell exclaimed.

The January reunion was emotional. Blaisdell said the orphanage director, who is retired but visits the orphanage most afternoons, was walking with two aides helping her avoid icy patches. When she caught sight of Blaisdell, she broke away from her helpers.

"She runs over and throws her arms around me," Blaisdell said. "I was very surprised at her agility and lucidity."

He was treated like a celebrity in Korea, and while he appreciates the attention, he doesn't particularly care for it. Last winter, he was written about in the military publications Stars and Stripes and Airman as a 50th anniversary story about the war. After returning from Korea in January, he went to Orlando, Fla., to receive an award from the Air Force Association. A clip from the ceremony appeared on "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw," Blaisdell said.

Recent interest in Blaisdell's story had brought up memories he hadn't thought about in years. His wife of five years, Sandy, is collecting articles written about him. Blaisdell's two sons followed in footsteps: Carter is a Presbyterian minister in Black Mountain, N.C., and Judd is an Air Force officer assigned to the Pentagon.

His other "children," the Korean orphans, have chosen many different paths. One is a Buddhist monk, another an artist.

"I have a lot of faith in prayer," he said. "That's assuming you've done everything you can. If you haven't done everything you can, don't pray."



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