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The Little Boy Who Wouldn't Smile

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.




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