A FEW DAYS before the Chinese
offensive in Korea last spring, Kang Koo Ri passed his fifth birthday.
He lived with his mother, father and nine-year-old brother in a small
house about 15 miles north of Seoul. Not far away there was a small
village, and sometimes Kang went there with his mother to buy rice and
to draw water from the village well. Like most Korean children, his
amusements were simple and his toys few. His prize possession was a
wooden ball which had been carved out of the root of a tree and then
polished to a fine lacquer finish by his father.
But when the offensive came, the tragedy that had
already found many other Korean households came to Kang's family. The
devil-chasing figures and signs hung over the door of the house could
not keep it away. U.N. forces north of Seoul faced the Communists at
the far end of the valley in which Kang' house was situated, turning
the area into a no man's land. Artillery and patrols from both sides
destroyed Kang's village, and most of the people in the valley were
left with only the charred ruins of their homes, although a few isolated
dwellings like Kang's remained intact.
Then early in May refugees from the north started
passing by, a sign that another Communist offensive was coming along
behind them. Patrols from the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Calvary
Division were sent into the area to clear out all civilians.
When a squad came to the house where Kang and his
family lived, the GIs noticed a strong odor of decay. One of them said,
"I told the lieutenant we might as well move on because it was the smell
of death all right." The interpreter, with his handkerchief pressed
to his nose, went to the door and called for the occupants to come out.
There was no sound from within except for the whining buzz of flies.
However, one soldier entered and, as his eyes became accustomed to the
gloom inside, he saw a small naked figure crouched against the wall
in the far corner, the body motionless but the eyes wide open. As the
soldiers came forward, Kang turned to the wall and made a feeble effort
to raise his hand to his head. The interpreter asked if he was alone
but there was no answer. Then the men noticed the body of a woman lying
on a straw mat in another corner, her face covered with maggots and
flies. Kang's mother had evidently been dead for several days.
Too weak to walk, Kang was carried outside, while
the interpreter searched for they boy's belongings. He could find nothing
except some clothes infested with vermin and a small, highly polished
wooden ball, which he left behind. There was no sign of Kang's brother
or father. As Kang was carried away, he raised he arm in the direction
of the house. His body shook in spasms; tears coursed down his cheeks
but no sound at all came from his throat.
Back at the regimental command post, Kang was handed
over to Chaplain W.B. Alsworth, who washed him with strong disinfectant.
The chaplain says that Kang was "a lot of very small bones held together
by Lord knows what."
The problem of what to do with him was happily solved
by 1st Cavalry's "Operation Mascot." In the last four months scores
of orphaned children found wandering aimlessly about had been picked
up by the GIs and taken back to camp, where they became mascots or house
boys. As the numbers increased, arrangements were made by the chaplains
to send them off to orphanages in Taegu.
Kang needed immediate medical care. Chaplain Alsworth
drove him to the medical collection station in Seoul, where the mascots
were to be given inoculations and "processed." Healthy now, boisterous
and proud wearing blue jeans and cowboy outfits that the GIs had given
them, the mascots were all playing in the courtyard when Kang arrived.
He was set down in their midst, covered from neck to toes by an outsize
jacket wrapped almost twice around his body, a liberal dose of white
DDT powder crowning his head. Bewildered and speechless, he turned his
back on the other children and walked away, his eyes wet with tears.
Kang's spirit was like a small light that might
have gone out with the slightest puff. During the time that he was processed
and given inoculations, and later some food, the expression on his face
changed scarcely at all. He winced at the needle, then sat on the floor,
apathetically watching the other children but never answering when they
spoke to him. When food was set in front of him he shook his head. Interpreters
hovered over him, talking and urging until finally in a thin, hesitant
voice he explained that all this food would make him sick because he
hadn't eaten for a long time. But after a while he ate a little fruit
and drank some soup.
In the rush of processing the children for the orphanage,
there wasn't much more that could be done for Kang that day. After dinner
everyone was loaded into a truck prior to the 200-mile train trip south
to Taegu. As they left, Kang was sitting on the chaplain's lap in the
front seat. A few GIs had stayed to shout good-bye.
Outside the gate stood a group of Seoul's ragged
and dirty street children enviously watching the departure. Their eyes
devoured the cowboy suits, the pistols and other toys the GIs had given
their favorites. The watched the truck until it disappeared.
The train to Taegu took 24 hours. Most of the children
slept. Kang lay beside the chaplain. Many times he asked to be taken
back to his brother. When he was told that he was going to a place where
there were many kind people and plenty to eat he asked why his brother
could not come, too. The chaplain could not answer, for Kang's brother
is either dead or one of a band of wandering children.
In Taegu the Bo Yook Won orphanage is located on
a hill over-looking the town. Around a sunny play yard there are four
Korean-style buildings that can accommodate 100 children in normal times;
now there are 161 boys and girls. The orphanage is subsidized by the
South Korean Government, but its main support is derived from American
Army chaplains who donate money, food and clothing.
One of the 12 children who arrived from Seoul, Kang
was the most in need of care. He was taken to an Army hospital where
examinations reveled that he was suffering from malnutrition, hookworm
and TB. Doctors say that it will be several years before he is healthy,
and in the meantime he needs rest and attention.
Through an interpreter I asked him what he used
to do before the GIs picked him up. But he cannot remember any fragment
of his early life. All that he does remember is that for many days before
the soldiers found him he sat beside his mother and brother in their
home, all of them too weak to get out and forage for food. The memory
that is the strongest is of the flies and maggots which crawled over
his mother's lips and nose. He knew that his mother was sick, but he
didn't know that for many of the days when she lay there on the floor
she was dead. He doesn't know what happened to his father, who walked
out one day to look for rice and never returned. To other questions
he simply replied, "I have forgotten," and went on playing with his
two toys-a rubber ball, larger and softer than the polished wooden ball
he left behind, and a small glass marble. These are the only possessions
he has in the world.
Shortly after Kang arrived at his orphanage Hwan
Shin Sung, one of the older girls, who has a full-time supervisory job,
became his constant companion. She sat with him for long hours, talking
and singing songs and trying to make him smile, for he had never smiled
once since the soldiers found him. The feeling grew among everyone at
the orphanage that getting Kang to smile was the most important job
they had-it was as if his return to health and life were dependent upon
it. On my last day there Hwan Shin Sung was sitting with Kang in the
orphanage office. He seemed to be feeling better. She had gotten him
to throw his rubber ball a few times and now she asked him what in all
the world he would like to do most of all. Kang thought a while and
then he said that he would like to play with the machinery of the "jeepu"
and asked if he could go for a ride in it. Hwan answered, "All right,
you shall, but first smile because now you are happy." And then very
suddenly Kang did smile for the first time, and everyone in the room
was happy for him.