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Korean Reporter

by Rene Cutforth, London, Allan Wingate. 1952. Pages 40-45. 

[Rene Cutforth was  the B.B.C.’s special correspondent in Korea from the beginning of December 1950 until the end of July 1951.]   

p. 40.           In the dark afternoon a refugee child in rags leaned against the wall of a house in the village by the Imjin and wailed weakly.  He was a stray.  The people in the house sat tight and hoped he would go away: it would be fatal to open the door.  They would have him for life, and he was no relative of theirs.  We did nothing either, we pushed on. 


p. 41                                       

Chapter VI.


At dawn Padre Blaisdell dressed himself in the little icy room at the top of the orphanage in Seoul.  He put on his parka and an extra sweater, for the Siberian wind was fluting in the corners of the big grey barrack of the school which he had shamed the Government into lending him.  The water in his basin was solid ice.  His fifty-fourth and last Dawn Patrol was going to be an exceptionally unpleasant one. 

His boots clicked along the stone flags in the freezing passages which led to the main door.  The truck was waiting and on the snow-covered gravel in the yellow-grey light of sunrise the two Korean nurses stood as usual, ready for duty---pig-tailed adolescents, their moon faces as passive and kindly as cows’. 

They climbed into the truck and gave the driver his instructions.  Down University Street and along the tram lines to the portentous South Gate, six tiled roofs high and solid as a fort; along Black Market Alley and down towards the river through the silent city where the first groups of refugees were only now beginning to stir, gathering their wraps and bundles about them for the day’s trek. 

By the time he reached Riverside Road the Padre had passed through the normal first stage of reaction to the wind, that daily renewed indignation that so much malice could exist: he was content now in his open vehicle to lie back and admire the effortless skill of the wind’s razor as it slashed him to the bone. 

There’s a dingy alley off Riverside Street, narrow, and strewn with trodden straw and refuse which would stink if the cold allowed it life enough.  This alley leads to the arches of the railway bridge across the Han River.  At the entrance to the alley, one of Seoul’s slum-dwellers, a woman, tired, dilapidated and old at twenty-eight, stood waiting for the truck.  She was a unit in the padre’s intelligence corps, and when she had given her information to the nurses, she received 500 won – one shilling.  She had risen at dawn and waited half an hour in the wind for this fee. 

The truck’s wheels crackled over the frozen ordure in the alley, passed from it down a sandy track and halted at the second arch of the bridge; it was boarded up on the far side, and in front of the boarding lay a pile of filthy rice sacks, clotted with dirt and stiff as boards.  The padre removed the top four layers of the pile and revealed a terrible sight. 

It was a child, practically naked and covered with filth. It lay in a pile of its own excrement in a sort of nest it had scratched out among the rice sacks.  Hardly able to raise itself on an elbow, it still had energy enough to draw back cracked lips from bleeding gums and snarl and spit at the padre like an angry kitten.  Its neck was not much thicker than a broom handle and it had the enormous pot-belly of starvation.  With its inadequate neck and huge goggle eyes, it looked like some frightful fledgling disturbed in the nest. 

Gingerly handling this appalling object, which continued weakly to scratch and bite, though it uttered no sound, the padre advanced with it in his arms towards the truck.  There, the Korean nurses wrapped it in blankets and contrived to get it to swallow a little warm milk which they poured from a vacuum flask.  Then the padre gave the truck driver another address, and the Dawn Patrol moved off to another assignation. 

At eleven o’clock that morning, when the padre returned to the orphanage, his truck was full. 

“They are the real victims of the war,” the padre said in his careful, diffident, colourless voice.  “Nine-tenths of them were lost or abandoned in the refugee columns.  No one will take them in unless they are relations, and we have 800 of these children at the orphanage.  Usually they recover in quite a short time, but the bad cases tend to become very silent children, even when they have grown sturdy again.  They don’t care to mix with the others.  I have a little boy who has said nothing for three months now but ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’” 

Korea had entirely reconstructed Padre Blaisdell.  He had been doing the ordinary job of an army chaplain until the day when his unit had had to leave behind their Korean mascot – a stray child such as was picked up at one time or another by every unit in Korea, overfed and utterly spoiled by the soldiers.  This boy, when the time came for him to leave his indulgent foster-parents, the G.I.s, had been terror-stricken. Screaming and trembling, he had been removed by a Korean couple whom the G.I.s were paying to look after him.  The scene had lit a small fire in the padre, which in a few weeks was to consume him.  He became obsessed by the fate of the children.  He would go out on roads and watch the refugee columns for hours.  He tried to talk to them through interpreters.  He formed associations with chaplains of the air force and the navy.  Finally, he abandoned other work to save the children.  He suddenly became an irresistible force, sparing neither himself nor anybody else.  The United Nations authorities capitulated to him first.  He flew about the country organizing collections from Service messes and canteens.  Money rolled in and food and clothes.  Soon he was bullying the Korean Government for an orphanage and a rice ration.  He got both.  He enlisted help among the Koreans, and combed Seoul for the lost children, and soon his fame spread even among the villages, and conservative farmers in their grass-thatched huts among the mountains would travel by ox cart into town with strays they had picked up in the ice-bound ditches around their fields. 

This was the padre’s fifty-fourth Dawn Patrol and it would be the last, for the Chinese were now only fifteen miles away and the air of Seoul City was shaken nightly by artillery fire – it was time to evacuate the orphans. 

Outrageous bullying on the part of this diffident tyrant of a padre had produced a promise that a Korean Government ship would put in at Inchon, the port for Seoul, and take off all the orphans to the south coast island of Cheju Do; inexorable pressure had convinced the local commander of an American army unit that he had nothing better to do with twenty trucks and drivers than to ferry the orphans from their barracks to the port of Inchon. 

All this was due to happen the next morning, and already the nurses and Korean porters were humping great loads of food and blankets from the store rooms into the passages whence the files of orphans could transport them piecemeal to the trucks. 


Page and I went up early next morning to the orphanage to see them off.  It was snowing hard, for the Siberian wind had stopped and the churring of the wind-screen wipers of a line of army trucks which squatted on the gravel outside the building made the only sound in the world except for the very faintest reverberations from the guns to the north. 

The orphans, divided into a half-dozen groups according to age, were sitting in their rooms round the sultry American tent stoves whose pipes led out the windows.  They were all dressed up for the journey in cut-down battle tunics, red and white football stockings, shirts, scarves, men’s long-john pants and every variety of odd garment.  They were merry enough, except in the hospital ward, which I couldn’t stand for more than a minute or two.  This was the home of the latest arrivals, the silent ones who stared ahead or knuckled with minute fists a perpetual belly-ache, of the little boy who held his hand across his eyes all day except at meal-times, of the girl who had said nothing for a month but, mechanically, every two minutes: “I’m cold: I’m hungry.” 

When all was ready they filed down the passages clasping rag dolls and balls made of string and rice straw, singing the brighter hymns with hilarious gusto.  Korean children are disciplined to perform tasks much earlier than ours.  A little girl of four is perfectly competent to look after her brother of two:  she can wash him, change his shoes, dress him and be altogether responsible for him, and in these columns of children, responsibility was graded right down to the toddlers.  Even a tot of two years old had something to take care of. 

The nurses bundled them into the trucks, climbed in themselves, two to a truck, and arranged the clean rice straw mats like umbrellas over each cluster of heads.  Each orphan sat on his own little refugee’s bundle.  They set off into the snow, piping “Jesus loves me” with remarkable spirit and vigour. 

I had a few words with the padre.  “Suppose the ship doesn’t arrive at Inchon?” I asked. 

“Then I shall stay at Inchon until it does.”

“But there’s nothing left of Inchon. It’s all ruined.”

“There are people there.  They will help.  Very few people are really bad,” said the padre; “they need reminding, that’s all.  Given a few reminders, they will help.  If necessary, we will camp in the ruins.  We can’t stay here.” 

We said goodbye to him as he moved out in the last truck.  I didn’t hear the rest of the story until months later. 

Naturally enough, the Korean Government ship did not arrive in Inchon.  I don’t suppose Padre Blaisdell had any idea of the number of bribes it would have taken to give the authorities a real interest in seeing that it got there. 

They did camp in the ruins, and three of the orphans caught pneumonia as they sat around great open fires at night in the roofless houses.   

But the padre still had a few ‘reminders’ to give out.  This time he ‘reminded’ the Air Force.  Four days later, a convoy of twenty air force trucks shifted the orphans to Suwon, where they were crammed into a dozen gigantic troop-carrying aeroplanes and flown to the southern port of Pusan, screaming with delight, I am told, during the whole trip.  They were embarked for Cheju Do, and there they are to this day. 

But I have yet to report the padre’s most fascinating triumph.  Unfortunately, I have it only on hearsay.  While at Inchon, I am informed, he successfully ‘reminded’ a platoon of Korean policemen of their better natures to such a tune that they gave up their beds for the orphans.  “They were good men, they were good men,” the padre said simply. 

- end of chapter -



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