In January of 2001 I got to cover my first big story of the year when I was part of a press pool covering Air Force Chaplain Russell Blaisdell’s visit to Korea. During the Korean War, Blaisdell saved the lives of 1,000 orphans when he had them airlifted to Cheju Island when advancing communist forces were poised to capture Seoul for a second time during the six-month old conflict. The editor at the Korea Times assigned me the story and I was able to accompany a few other reporters including the late Jim Lea from Stars & Stripes to the orphanage.
“If I Didn’t Do It, The Children Were Dead”
Savior of 1,000 Korean War Orphans Returns to Korea
Air Force Chaplain Russell Blaisdell Recalls ‘Operation Korea Kiddie Kar’
By Jeffrey A. Miller
To the orphans he saved during those dark days of the Korean War, with the Chinese bearing down on Seoul, he was a “savior.”
However, for U.S. Air Force Chaplain Russell Blaisdell, he had only done what was necessary to save the lives of 1,000 children.
“If I didn’t do it, the children were dead,” recalled Blaisdell.
This past weekend, the 91-year-old Blaisdell returned to Korea for the first time since the end of the war to meet some of those children he saved, and the woman who ran the orphanage then and now.
Lee Kang-hun was 17 years old, the eldest of the orphans airlifted to Cheju-do in December 1950. Lee recalled how “terribly cold” it was on the 20th of December when they were airlifted to Cheju-do.
“I’m very happy to see him again,” exclaimed Lee enthusiastically, who had also greeted Blaisdell at Kimpo on Friday—the first time they have met each other since the war. “I have many heartfelt thanks to him.”
Similar sentiment was echoed by other orphan who owed his life to Blaisdell.
“Most people would only have thought of themselves,” said Yang Yun-hak, who was also 17 years old when he was airlifted to Cheju-do. “The American soldiers’ love for Korean children was very impressive. They did everything to take care of us. He [Blaisdell] was a savior. He was like a father to us.”
Emotions ran their course as these orphans, now in their fifties and sixties and Blaisdell met at the orphanage. However, the emotional moment of the day was reserved for the owner of the “Orphans’ Home of Korea,” 101-year-old Whang On-soon and Blaisdell when they met outside the entrance—the first time they have seen each other since Blaisdell left Korea.
Blaisdell, an ordained Presbyterian minister, had served as minister of a church in Iowa before he joined the U.S. Air Force as Chaplain with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. By the time he arrived in Korea, during that long, hot summer of 1950, he had been promoted to Lt. Colonel.
In a short chronicle of the events leading up to the successful airlift of the orphans, written not long after the successful airlift of the orphans to Cheju-do—of what was nicknamed, “Operation Korea Kiddie Kar”—Blaisdell writes:
The devastation and poverty in Korea is appalling even to those accustomed to such sights. As one watches suffering and death, nature creates a callousness to keep persons rational and sane. But one reaction will never be completely dulled. That is the reaction to the sight of little helpless children, orphans, who are crying from hunger and exposure.
The American airman is tough and hardened to scenes of devastation and hardship, even death. But the upraised hand and pleading face of a small, naked orphan will melt his heart.”
Blaisdell’s role in being responsible for getting the children down to Cheju-do was just as much fate as it was his devotion to the welfare of the children. His predecessor, Chaplain (Col.) Wallace Wolverton had started a program to help the orphans. Later, when Wolverton had to return to Japan because of a bad back, they switched and Blaisdell took over.
“We went around and picked the children up. It became just kind of a routine after awhile. As long as we had food, clothes, and workers to scrub them up, clean them up and give them some food and doctors to examine them and nurses to take care of them. I didn’t care if they were legitimate orphans or not. Some of them weren’t. Some of them, their mothers would put them out on the street early in the morning. Pretty soon, we caught onto that. Kids are still in need even though they are not orphans.”
Fate would step in again. This time it was the Chinese bearing down on Seoul in December 1950. With everyone leaving the city—military and civilian—Blaisdell had to find some way to get the orphans out. However, where to take the orphans and how was the problem that Blaisdell faced. It was not possible for them to leave by trucks.
He arranged for a boat in Inchon and with one truck, began to transport the kids to Inchon. For five days without sleep, Blaisdell was in a race against time to get the children to Inchon and hopefully to safety. He put his faith in God to see him, and the children through.
“It was difficult because we had not intended to fly. We intended to go by boat. We didn’t have the facilities; half of the children were sick. But we all pitched in and did it. I was just fortunate enough that [Brig.] General [T.C.] Rogers was in the headquarters. If he hadn’t been in the headquarters, I don’t know what we would have done.”
It only took Blaisdell 20 minutes to explain to Rogers the plight of the children before Rogers authorized the C-54’s to transport the children to Cheju-do. “Rogers saw that there were planes available,” recalled Blaisdell. “He took it upon himself to do the mission. He could have been criticized for taking that move.”
Blaisdell managed to locate some trucks to bring the children to Kimpo. From there they were flown to Cheju-do.
When asked why he was the one, who took charge of airlifting the children, Blaisdell pointed out, “children are children. Whether they are Korean or American, it doesn’t make any difference. When you have hungry children, or sick they need to be cared for. If you can do it, then it would be worth whatever is necessary to do that. I was the only one there. I had no options.”
Once the children were in Cheju-do, their problems were far from being over. “It was just one problem right after another,” pointed out Blaisdell. “Mostly sickness. We got 1,000 pounds of Indian rice; but didn’t realize that Indian rice was different from Korean rice and all the children got diarrhea.”
Other problems included housing, heating, water, and food. Likewise, “anxiety arose from the lack of experience on the staff.” Although some of the staff was very capable with medical problems, “administrations were woefully inexperienced.” Finally, wrote Blaisdell for “the need for more experienced personnel became very apparent.” That’s when Whang On-soon came in. According to his chronicle of the airlift, “she had operated an orphanage for 11 years and had recently returned from England where she had studied child welfare.”
“This is the lady who took the children and made an orphanage,” he said. “Without her, we wouldn’t have had any orphanage. I only brought the children to Cheju-do. She took it from there. She gets all the credit for taking care of the children and organizing everything. She did a wonderful job. It was remarkable how well she could do it.”
Before going to the orphanage on Saturday, Blaisdell went to the Blue House to meet First Lady Lee Hee-ho. According to Oh Heung-keun, son-in- law of Whang, Lee admired the contributions that he had made during the war and on “behalf of the Korean people, thanked him many times.” So far, it has been the only “official” acknowledgment of his contributions during the war to save the orphans.
“We cannot say thank you enough,” said Whang. “I think I’ve been repaid many times,” replied Blaisdell, who felt it was “a very grand experience” just to be back here.
The 1957 movie Battle Hymn was loosely based on the airlift. However, in the film Lt. Colonel Dean Hess was the one who saved the orphans. Sadly, there was no mention of Blaisdell.
(In actuality, Hess had trained ROK Air Force pilots at a training base on Cheju-do. Blaisdell had initially talked to Hess about the plight of the orphans. According to Blaisdell, “Hess was primarily interested in the little 5th Air Force Orphanage, as airmen of his unit had placed ‘mascots’ [what the orphans were endearingly called by the airmen] in it and also the unit had contributed generously to its support.” Although Hess offered the services of a C-47, Blaisdell decided to wait for the boat.)
After the war, the orphanage was relocated to Seoul. Later, it moved to its present location. Today, the orphanage, located in Kyonggi-do, has over 50 children, ranging in ages from 6 to 17. Lee Kang-hun and other orphans still get together regularly in October. A sort of “homecoming,” as Lee put it.
Blaisdell retired from the Air Force in 1964. He worked for the State of New York until he retired in 1976.
Why did he wait so long to come back?
“I was tied down to my job as well as my personal life,” explained Blaisdell, “I was also restricted by funds.”
An opportunity to make it back to Korea was made possible by his grandson who works in Hong Kong who had invited him over for a visit. “I saw it as an opportunity to get to Korea,” said Blaisdell. “My grandson took care of everything.”
Although it might have taken him 50 years to get back to Korea, he never stopped thinking about this most memorable moment of his life. Blaisdell and Whang sat together for an hour, sometimes clutching hands as they looked through old photos, letters, magazine articles and newspaper clippings.
Fifty years ago, a war and fate brought these two remarkable individuals together. Their common bond—the lives of 1,000 orphans—saved by this remarkable man who, with his faith in God and his commitment to saving them, rose above the destruction and chaos of war to carry out this humanitarian mission.