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American airlift an inspirational uplift

Korean translates account of U.S. pilot


HUBER HEIGHTS-  After reading Battle Hymn, Dong-Eun Lee thought how much he wanted to share it with fellow Koreans.  The book would surprise them, he thought, since it told of an American soldier who didn't remain aloof from Korean life during the war. 

Battle Hymn is the autobiography of retired Air Force Col. Dean Hess of Huber Heights, the man behind "Operation Kiddy Car," an airlift that evacuated more than 1,050 orphans from Seoul, Korea, in 1950.  Their parents had been killed by military fire or by communist purges in the frantic exodus of refugees from North to South when the war broke out. 

"It was a very extraordinary experience," Lee, of Centerville, said in an interview at the Korean United Methodist Church in Kettering.  "I felt so perplexed and ashamed that his book has never been properly translated and published in Korea," Lee wrote in a translator's note to the book. 

Orphanages in Seoul were being overrun as the war erupted.  Children in ragged clothes started showing up at Hess' air base at Yongdungpo, new Seoul.  They were hungry, timid and "afraid of people in uniforms," said Hess, 83, originally from Marietta.  He and other officers tried to feed as many as they could. 

Hess was uniquely trained to deal with the crisis. 

He became a minister of the Disciples of Christ Church in Cleveland in 1941.  When the United States entered World War II, he felt he couldn't expect his parishioners to serve in the military if he didn't. 

Soon, the air base could no longer accommodate the children.  And in January 1951, Seoul was captured by the North Koreans, who threatened to push United Nations forces off the Korean peninsula. 

Cheju-do Island, off Korea's southwest coast, was a safe haven for the children since it had been kept out of the war.  "We thought we'd be driven out of Korea," Hess said.  "It was a place of last resort." 

Hess secured 15 C-4 cargo jets from the U.S. Air Force.  The children at first were housed in a makeshift orphanage.  But when Hess discovered two Koreans running the orphanage were stealing American rations, he know he needed to find a compassionate, honest person to run the orphanage, he said. 

Hess asked Francisca Rhee, the wife of South Korean President Syngman Rhee, for a recommendation.  She suggested On Soon Whang, a Korean woman experienced in child welfare, to run the orphanage.  Not only was Whang caring, she was shrewd.  "I love her to death, but I would never do business with her," Hess said. 

Hess has kept in close tough with Whang since the war.  He visited her last year, when she turned 100. 

Hess wrote Battle Hymn in 1957 to raise money for Whang to support the Orphans Home of Korea, which was eventually moved to Seoul.  He sent nearly all proceeds from the book sales to her.  Battle Hymn, a movie starring Rock Hudson, was released the same year.  Hess also sent his percentage of the movie's earning to the orphanage. 

Last year, Lee, 57, decided to translate Battle Hymn himself, although he felt his mastery of English was shaky.  Even his Korean vocabulary was a bit rusty he said. 

Lee met Hess in 1997 through a mutual friend, Y.C. Koh, who met Hess at an air base in Taegu, South Korea, in 1951.  Hess was a unit commander who trained South Korean air force pilots to fly F?-51 fighter jets. 

Lee was impressed by Hess even before reading his story. 

"I loved his personality," Lee said.  "To me, he's almost like an image of a saint." 

When he began translating the book last year, Lee didn't anticipate the difficulty in rendering military terminology and certain idiomatic expression into Korean. 

According to a bilingual hymn book in Hess's library, the literal Korean translation for Battle Hymn is "Up and Fight Against the Devil."  Lee said he decided to keep Battle Hymn the title of the book, which will be translated into Korean. 

Initially, Hess wasn't thrilled with Lee's offer to translate his work; he was tired of the publicity surrounding the book, and wanted no more personal recognition.  But Lee persisted.  "I admire his patience," said Hess, who met weekly with Lee, going through the book page by page. 

Lee said he isn't sure how Koreans will respond to the book-3,000 copies will be distributed to Korean bookstores this week.  He said some might not be pleased with Hess's positive portrayal of Syngman Rhee, South Korea's first elected president and a close friend of Hess.  Rhee was South Korea's first elected president, but became unpopular later in his career. 

Still, Lee hopes Koreans will be inspired by Hess's story. 

In an English version of his translator's note, he writes, "I sensed a flash of the Divine in a life of an American military officer of humble origin." 

(Note:  The U.S. Air Force Museum has an exhibit featuring Col. Dean Hess's Operation Kiddy Car as part of its display commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Korean War)

By Archana Pyati

6/25/00, Dayton Daily News




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