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The Presbyterian Layman, March/April 2001

'Schindler' of Korea

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 North Koreans.

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, N.Y.

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 recovery.

"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 harbor city.

"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."


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