Layman, March/April 2001
By John H. Adams
January's national media story
relating to the Korea War was about the uncovering of a memo ordering
American pilots to strafe civilians who were believed to have been harboring
In the meantime, most of the media missed - or ignored
- the return to South Korea of a retired Presbyterian minister who was
a hero of epic proportions to 1,000 Korean orphans whose lives he saved
in 1950 - the "Korean Schindler," declared The Korea Herald.
The minister, retired Col. Russell L. Blaisdell,
90, an Air Force chaplain in 1950, returned to South Korea in January
to meet with 101-year-old Whang On Soon, owner of the "Orphans Home
of Korea," and many of the people whose lives he had saved.
"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," Lee Hee-ho,
first lady of South Korea, told Blaisdell.
Chaplain 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,
One Korean newspaper described Blaisdell and Whang
at their reunion as they "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."
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 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
Blaisdell. "I had to do something."
The reunion took place at the Orphans Home of Korea
in Yanju County, Kyonggi Province. Blaisdell told a reporter, " I can
vividly remember the hard times of those days 50 years ago and it is
a shock to see the rapid improvement and growth of Korea's economic
"Most people would only have
thought of themselves," Yan Yun-Hak told a South Korea newspaper reporter.
Yan was 17 when he was one of the 1,000 rescued orphans. "He [Blaisdell]
was a savior. He was like a father."
What he had to do was evident. "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, nursed, dentists, troops and
citizens pitched in.
The tiny orphanage was soon overflowing with children
barely clinging to life. An 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.
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 was the most precious and
memorable thing in my life," Blaisdell told The Korea Herald. He says
he still becomes dizzy when he thinks about the bombardment of Seoul
just after the children in the orphanage were relocated.
"We would have died in the freezing
winter if we had been left in Seoul," Yan Yun-Hak, 68, recalled.
It never occurred to me to leave the children, Blaisdell
said. He arranged for a boat to transport the children to safety. But
it was at 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
"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.
Time was running out for him and the children. Scared
and hungry, Blaisdell 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.
At the reunion, Blaisdell shared some of the photographs
he had saved from what he had dubbed "Operation Kiddie Car." He also
read from a short chronicle that he had written soon after the children
were moved to safety.
"The devastation and poverty
in Korea is appalling even to those accustomed to such sights," he had
written. "As one watches suffering and death, nature creates a callousness
to keep persons rational and sane. But one reaction will never be completely
dulled. This is the reaction to the sight of little, helpless children;
orphans who are crying from hunger and exposure."
"The General 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 that 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.
The two aging heroes, Blaisdell and Whang, stood
together at the reunion. "This is the lady who took the children and
made an orphanage," he said. "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."
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 Korean's southern coast. "That was the first time I
breathed a sigh of relief," the chaplain said. Then he met with the
mayor of Cheju-do, who donated an old agricultural building for the
children. Just in time for Christmas.
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."