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The Navy's Baby


“Message for you, skipper,” said the young sailor, as he handed the missive to his Captain, John T. “Chick” Hayward. It was late July of 1953, and the Navy escort carrier the USS Point Cruz was on patrol in Yellow Sea off Inchon, Korea, fresh from combat. The city had been devastated by three years of war. Food was scarce, and the orphanages were full of left over children. The message was from Sister Philomena de la Croix, a remarkable Irish nun who ran the Star of the Sea Children’s Home. Like all the orphanages, it was over crowded, and short of food and medicine. An old friend of the ship’s chaplain, Lt. Edward O. Riley, Sister was in urgent need of assistance, so the skipper sent Father Ed and the ship’s doctor ashore to investigate. When they arrived they were startled to find a sick, starving infant with blue eyes staring up at them.

“Where did he come from?” he asked. Sister told him. The baby had been left outside the corpsmen’s building in ASCOM (Army Service Command Post) City. On a hot July night, Marine Corpsman Lyle Van Meter had gone out at 3 am and found the sick emaciated baby, not much more than a week old, and wrapped in filthy rags. He and two buddies bathed and fed him, and in the morning they called the authorities, who instructed them to deliver him to Sister Philomena immediately.

Sister received him with open arms, but when she saw the blue eyes, she was dismayed. She knew he would have no future in Korea. If he lived, he would be despised in this culture, and object of ridicule and scorn. “The three marines who found him called him George ASCOM,” she told Father Riley. “He’s an American, Father, and he’s very sick. I have very little food for him, and no medicine. Can you not help?”

A man of action, by sunset Father Riley was back on board the Point Cruz, and in conference with his skipper.
Now, “Chick” Hayward and Father Riley were of the same rugged school. As soon as he understood the situation, the skipper ordered Father Riley to bring the baby aboard the Point Cruz, and “we’ll keep him here until he’s healthy. Go ashore and get a visa for him to enter the United States,” he ordered, “and I’ll find out how to get him adopted in the U.S.”

With that, Father Riley headed to shore to face the red tape on his mission of mercy. He was a bit worried about how the Navy would feel about a baby on board. The Captain was more concerned about the reaction of the crew. He needn’t have been.

The entire crew soon knew about George’s impending arrival. They had been at sea for almost 8 months, the armistice had been signed in July, and they wanted to go home. Morale was as low as it ever gets on board ship, so the men turned their attention to the baby. A nursery was prepared, and the ship’s carpenter built a crib and playpen. Home made toys and rattles were lovingly crafted for George, who represented to all of them family they missed. Sheets were cut into diapers, and a bomb cart was converted into a baby carriage so they could wheel him around the ship. Anticipation began to build as they waited for their baby to arrive.

When Father Riley arrived in the launch with George in his arms and brought him up the gangway, the entire crew of the Point Cruz lined the rail in their blue jumpers and white hats, cheering and waving. Their baby was finally on board! They re-named him “George Cruz Ascom,” but mostly the crew called him “Baby-san.” And they volunteered in droves to tend him. Six men were chosen to be his care-givers, the qualification being knowing how to fold a three cornered diaper!

Little George quickly responded to all the love and care. He put on weight and to everyone’s delight he was soon gurgling and smiling. The men soon discovered that when George turned his blue-eyed gaze on them, their hearts totally melted! So many of them wanted to visit the nursery that Captain Hayward began posting bulletins to apprise them of his improving condition. Each day, George was wheeled up on deck in his bomb cart carriage, and the ships PA system would announce: “Attention all hands! Baby-san on the hangar deck until 1430.” The men would then line up to visit “their” baby, fuss over him, and take his picture. They treated him with as much love and pride as if he was their own. Sometimes Captain Hayward would even order George onto the bridge, to enjoy some private time with him.

On laundry day, the men replaced the flag on the yardarm, and hung a half-dozen or so diapers on it to dry. Whenever a passing ship radioed that it didn’t understand the signal, Point Cruz’s response was always just “Baby-san on board!”

Over the next three months, Father Riley ferried Baby George back and forth between the ship and the orphanage, depending on the ship’s movements. But the men preferred it when he was on board where they could keep their eyes on him.

On November 1st, the Hospital Ship the USS Consolation arrived in Inchon Harbour. When Navy surgeon Lieutenant Hugh Keenan finally had shore leave, he and two companions headed out for some badly needed R. and R. They also knew Sister Philomena, and knowing how she always appreciated supplies, decided to pay her a visit.
Sister welcomed them graciously and quickly ascertained that the young doctor was married, and a father. She led him to the nursery, and there amongst the dozens of Korean babies, he found himself captivated by the Caucasian baby with fair hair and blue eyes, who happened to be in residence at the orphanage that week. Although George was now over three months old, he was still a bit scrawny and was still covered with a rash.

When Sister Philomena saw his interest, she picked up George, and in her thick Irish brogue said, “Oh Doctor, would you be feeding the baby?” Lt. Keenan took the child in his arms, and cuddled him close. He and his wife Genevieve had lost three baby boys at birth over the last few years, and something about this baby reminded him of one they had lost most recently. He was so taken with the child he decided on the spot he wanted to adopt him.
The next day, he returned with some ointment for the rash. While he fed him again, he told Sister his plan. He would take him home to Gen, and they would raise him as their own. Sister was delighted, and told him that their mutual friend Father Riley was already working on a visa to get George out of Korea, and as soon as he did, this baby would be going aboard the Carrier Point Cruz for full time care.

That evening he sought out his own captain, who proved unmoved by the situation. He reminded the Lieutenant that he had responsibilities on board ship, and those did not include caring for an infant. Disappointed, Dr. Keenan realized he would have to rely on Father Riley for the paperwork, and Captain Hayward to get George to the States.
Father Riley had still had no success with the Immigration Visa, and time was running out. The Point Cruz was scheduled to depart for home on December 1st. It turned out he needed a Korean passport for George first, and that was proving almost impossible to acquire. In desperation Chick Hayward handed the chaplain his last bottle of 25-year-old scotch, saying “Father, go ashore, use your creativity, and I don’t care what you have to do, don’t come back without that passport.” As the story goes, there was a card game. Whatever happened, when Father Ed returned to the ship three days later he carried a Korean Passport for George. Jubilantly he returned to the US Consul for the Visa, but to his shock, the man flatly refused to issue it! Captain, crew and Father Riley were now all angry, and very upset. But they did not give up.

The next time Father Riley visited George at the orphanage, he was pleased to find Dr. Keenan there. “I want to adopt him Father,” said the young Lieutenant. “God Bless you son,” replied Father Riley “He’s yours.” The two men agreed that George should remain on the Point Cruz, while the skipper arranged passage for him to the States. A cheer broke out that night at dinner on the Point Cruz when it was announced over the PA that when their baby got to the States, he would have a real family, a real home.

When Dr. Keenan wrote to his wife and told her he was making arrangements to have a baby in her arms by Christmas, he held his breath waiting for her reply. When it arrived, it was an emphatic YES!

But the visa problem was still not solved. It was now mid November, and Father Riley had run out of doors to knock on. Then on November 14 Father Ed and the Skipper attended a banquet also attended by Vice President Richard Nixon, who was in Korea on tour. When Nixon heard Hayward’s story he dropped a word in the right ear. When the captain returned to his ship that night, the long sought after Visa for George was waiting for him. Hayward then completed arrangements for the Point Cruz to meet the transport ship “General Gaffey” in Japan, which would carry George home to Seattle.

In late November the Point Cruz was finally preparing to depart. After doing a medical check up and signing all the papers the skipper had prepared, Hugh Keenan kissed his new baby son good-bye and handed him to Father Riley, who would escort him all the way home to the U.S. Ten days later in Japan, the entire crew once again lined the rail and cheered in an emotional ceremony as George Cruz Ascom Ibfc. (Infant Boy first class) was formally piped over the side in a rite usually reserved for Captains and VIPs, to begin his journey home to America.

On a cold December 12 in Seattle, Genevieve Keenan stood anxiously waiting dockside to meet her new son. All eyes were on the now five-month-old baby coming down the gangplank in the arms of a navy nurse, with Father Riley close behind. As the crowd watched, Mrs. Keenan scooped up her new baby, a special Christmas present from her husband, and exclaimed, “ Oh, Father, what a beautiful child!”

George was renamed Daniel Edward Keenan, Daniel for Hugh’s father, and Edward for Father Edward O. Riley. In late spring, Hugh Keenan finished his Naval tour, came home to his wife and two children, and returned to his residency at the Mayo Clinic. Later they moved to Spokane, where Danny grew up. He graduated from Washington State University, married and had his own family.

As the years passed, the men from the Point Cruz never stopped wondering about their baby. In 1993, Bill Powers the former hangar deck chief was in charge of the 2nd Annual reunion, and was determined Danny should be there. When word got out that “George” had accepted, the veterans began to buzz with excitement! Their baby was coming!

When Bill Powers stood up to formally introduce Dan, he concluded by saying, “And now gentlemen, after forty years, here is our baby,” and then just stood there and cried. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The former crew-members crowded around him just as they had done all those years ago in his bomb cart carriage. They were excited to shake his hand and regaled him with tales from the early months of his life on board the Point Cruz. Some shared the one special time they got to hold him, another would declare that he’d had the privilege of changing his diapers. One gentleman came up to him with tears in his eyes, and simply said:” You just don’t know how much this means to me to have this opportunity to finally met you.” And then he planted a big kiss on his cheek.

Dan Keenan struggled with his words as he rose to bid them farewell. He wondered what he could say to these men to express his gratitude for saving his life.” He looked out at the aging faces – all strangers to him. But they had loved him, to them he was like a son.

“How do I thank you for my life?” he said. “Without you men and your good captain, I wouldn’t be here. Not in this hotel, not in this country. And maybe not even on this earth.”

There was a long silence that followed, as the men of the Point Cruz looked at the man who had grown from the baby they had loved. He had lifted their spirits and given them hope for life and peace, and the end of the war. And they in turn, lead by their captain, had given him his life and his future.

© 2004 Janet Matthews and Dan E. Keenan

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