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Valley Focus-Black Mountain News, August 23, 2001

Retired chaplain remembers Operation Kiddy Car

By Barbara Hootman, Staff Writer
Black Mountain News

Retired Col. Russell L. Blaisdell is approaching his 91st birthday, but remembers the struggles of saving 1,000 Korean orphans more than 50 years ago like it was yesterday.

Last January, Blaisdell returned to South Korea to meet with 101-year-old Whang On-soon, owner of the Orphans Home of Korea, and many of the people whose lives he helped save. The Korea Herald labeled Blaisdell, the "Korean Schindler."

"I never considered myself a hero," Blaisdell said. "I did what I had to do. Those people's lives were depending on me."

First Lady of South Korea, Lee Hee-ho assured Blaisdell the people of Korea think of him as a hero for saving 1,000 orphans and allowing them to grow up and become productive members of society.

When Blaisdell arrived in Korea in 1950, he became the Fifth Air Force staff chaplain. He found Seoul a city bombed, burned and pillaged beyond recognition. There were rats everywhere, and everyone was hungry and thirsty. He remembers thinking, I have to do something now.

"These kids were dirty, hungry and malnourished," Blaisdell said. "The streets were full of babies and young children that had been left by their parents, many of whom were dead. Many were naked, shivering in the cold. They were not only dirty, but many were covered in filth. We picked up as many as 50 kids every day, I followed orders to get them off the streets and put them in an orphanage that had room for only about 100. Some had gone so long without eating, they couldn't move. It wasn't long until the small orphanage was full."

Blaisdell remembers you couldn't buy anything. There wasn't a store to shop in for necessities.

"This situation got my sympathy," he said. "I knew if I didn't help them, most would die. In Korea, at that time, you were on your own by the age of 14."

The command to evacuate came, but Blaisdell never heard about it until he noticed trucks moving only in one direction-out of Seoul.

"I didn't get notice to evacuate," he said. "I saw tanks and trucks moving in one direction, and I thought what am I going to do with all these children. I didn't pray at that time. Usually I don't take it up with the Lord until I can't handle it myself. My biggest problem was I couldn't converse with them, and I didn't have an interpreter. There were seven to eight doctors and nurses in the group by the time I had to evacuate, plus 20 babies from a local hospital.

It never occurred to Blaisdell to leave the children. The city abandoned the orphanage and left the kids to fend for themselves, but he couldn't. After the North invaded in June, troops killed every child they found, especially those they thought the U.S. military had helped.

Blaisdell decided to approach the mayor of Seoul who was still functional. He promised a boat to take the children to South Korea, but he had to get them to the boat in Inchon, 20 miles from Seoul. Sergeant Mike Strang was with blaisdell throughout the evacuation ordeal.

I stole a jeep and went to scout out the situation," Blaisdell said. "My heart sank when I discovered the ship was an old scow that I wouldn't put anyone on. Also, the captain knew nothing about the evacuation. I found an old school building where I could house the children, and kept telling myself that another boat would come-that the scow was the wrong boat. Another boat never came. By this time we were running out of time and I was really desperate.

"I kept talking to myself-telling myself to hurry, hurry, hurry," he said. "I went for five days and nights without sleeping and without food. It took its toll."

Blaisdell returned to his headquarters hoping to find some help. He had promised to pick up two teenage girls while he was back in Seoul, which had become an eerily quiet ghost town. He kept his promise. Also, he found Air Force Brig. Gen. T.C. Rogers who was one of the last military people in Seoul.

"I looked like the wrath of God, having not slept or eaten in five day," Blaisdell said. "He took one look at me and asked, 'My God, what's the matter with you?'" I told him the story, and he pulled out an operations book and said he had a wing of C-54s that didn't have a mission. Then he asked me when I could have the kids at Kimpo airport. Kimpos was 20 miles away from where the kids were at Inchon, and there wasn't a truck available, but I answered that I would have them there immediately, not having any idea of how I was going to transport them. Then I prayed asking God to enlighten me as to how I was going to get the kids to Kimpo."

Operation Kiddy Car was born.

"These kids were starving and sick, and I couldn't give up now. Their attitude was that they were probably going to die. I returned to Inchon where I spotted some Marines unloading a truck onto the old scow at the docks. I told the driver that he was to report to Sergeant Strang for duty. He rrefused. I pulled out my lieutenant colonel insignia and told him I had just given him an order."

The disgruntled Marine obeyed. Every time a truck arrived at the docks, Chaplain Blaisdell acquired it in the same way-by pulling rank. Soon he had four trucks to transport the kids to Kimpo airport. When they arrived at Kimpo, planes took the children to Cheju-do, a large island off South Korea's southern coast.

"When the planes were loaded and airborne, I breathed a sigh of relief. The mayor of Cheju-do donated an old agricultural building to house the children, and just in time for Christmas."

Chaplain Blaisdell retired from the Air Force in 1964.

When asked about his role in saving 1,000 Korean orphans, he answers that he did what any good person would do. One year after Operation Kiddy Car was completed, Blaisdell returned to the orphanage in Cheju-do. The head of the orphanage, Whang On-soon, and the children held a parade in his honor.

"The children were all healthy and happy," he said. "Just seeing them happy and healthy was all the thanks I ever needed."

The orphanage is still in operation today, having moved back to Seoul shortly after the invasion. Blaisdell returned last January--50years after the evacuation--for an emotional journey that he will never forget. He met with Whang On-soon, whom he considers an old friend.

The South Korean people welcomed him as a hero, and labeled him the Schindler of Korea. He received an invitation to the presidential mansion where he received a personal thank you from first lady Lee Hee-ho. One of the country's most prestigious universities presented him with an honorary doctorate degree in social welfare. He met with Prime Minister Lee Hang-dong and the Korean Veteran Association hosted a banquet in his honor.

When he and 102-year old Whang On-soon met, she ran across several feet of ice to throw her arms around him and tell him that all of them loved him, and considered him to be their savior.

"I did what I had to do," Blaisdell said. "I had no options."



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