Pacific Stars and Stripes,
22 Aug 1976
By Mike Rush S & S Korea Bureau
It was December of 1950 when
Communist Chinese forces unleashed a mass assault southward from their
border with North Korea, after U.N. forces had pushed North Korean
armies all the way back to the Yalu River frontier. "Thousands of
children were wandering loose in areas where the communists had been,"
Dean Hess recalls, and the youths had been wounded or suffered from
malnutrition to a point that "death would have been merciful for them."
Hess is a retired Air Force Colonel recently visiting the land he
once fought for and in. But in Korea, he's probably best known for
his role in "Operation Kiddy Car,"---the evacuation of more than 1,000
homeless children by air from the path of the Communist forces in
1950. Hess, who took time from his duties as a combat aviator and
advisor to the South Korean Air Force during those days 35 years ago
to organize the evacuation of Korean orphans, spoke in quiet tones
of the ordeal, the sweat and the courage of the enterprise called
Operation Kiddy Car, in an interview here. "The Communists showed
no concern for the children," he recalled.
With the threat of Seoul falling again to enemy
forces, Hess, who was the chief advisor to the fledgling South Korean
Air Force, moved with his units to Taejon, 90 miles south of the capital.
"In the hasty evacuation of our area to Taejon, a friend of mine,
Chaplain Ralph Blaisdel, came through." Hess said. "When I asked him
about the children we had seen in Seoul, he said they had to leave
them behind." At that Hess and Blaisdel turned northward to return
to the besieged capital. Rounding up as many of the youths as they
could, the two men and some Korean helpers marched the children on
foot from Seoul to Inchon, some 30 miles to the west, where Hess and
Blaisdel had arranged for a cargo vessel to pick them up and take
them to haven on Cheju Island. "I managed to get a school building
ready for them on Cheju, where the Korean Air Force was to evacuate
if the communists took over the mainland," he said. The youngsters
waited several hours on a dock at Inchon for the ship, which never
After several of the orphans had died from exposure---"It
was so cold out by the ocean then"---during their vigil, Hess and
Blaisdel contacted 5th Air Force Headquarters in Japan for help. Almost
immediately, then Gen. Earle Partridge sent 15 C-54 aircraft with
flight nurses aboard into Kimpo Airport to airlift the innocent victims
of the war to sanctuary on the island, off Korea's south coast. "It
was unfortunate that we lost 50 or 60 of them in transit to Cheju,"
Hess said, his eyes filling momentarily at thoughts of those he and
his crews were unable to save or get out of Seoul before enemy forces
again engulfed the capitol. "Wherever the Communists had been we saw
children living in boxes," Hess said. "We often asked them if the
Communists had helped them at all. And one time a youth said they
had given him one half of a rice ration." Children who had lost everything
in the war were a prime concern of Hess's all during his stay in Korea
in the later war years. One way of raising funds he and others in
his outfit had was a club across the Han River from Seoul.
Stocked with liquor he procured from flights to
Japan on an "as needed" basis, Hess' club had a standing house rule
that many veterans can still recall. "Any fellow who could show he
was legitimately back from the front lines, his first drink was free,
then the second drink was 15 cents," Hess said.
"We made tremendous amounts
of money for the orphanage on Cheju," he continued, adding, "Many
soldiers laid down $1 or $5 bills and said 'keep the change', knowing
they would have little chance to spend it if they were going north."
Many units which had picked up orphans along their lines or march,
as was the custom with many U.S. outfits in the war, left their orphans
at Hess' club knowing they would receive good care at the hands of
the man who made "Operation Kiddy Car" a success, until they could
reclaim their own waifs after business up north was finished. Hess
remembers several cases in which soldiers dropped off their orphans
at Hess' establishment with the request of a 20th Century Good Samaritan,
"take care of them, please, until I come back." Hess' eyes again clouded
when he told of several instances in which the "adopted fathers" failed
to return to pick up their orphans.
"When that happened," he paused,
"I knew what had happened to the poor guys, and for us it was an honor
to care for their orphans."
Under Hess' guidance, the orphanage continued
to provide a home on Cheju for those unable to help themselves until
1956, when he instructed the head of the orphanage, Mrs. On Soon Hwang,
to contract for building the orphanage in Seoul. "In that time Cheju
was hard to supply, and I promised the directress the money to build
a new orphanage," Hess said.
To finance the new home, Hess wrote a book, "Battle
Hymn," "An idea I had toyed around with for some time." The book was
made into a movie later, both projects which Hess calls, "God's answer
to my prayer." "The money didn't belong to me," he said of the royalties
from the book and movie.