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November 19, 2018

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War hero: Retired Air Force chaplain fought for Korean orphans

These children were left for dead.

Their faces are filthy and blank. Their little bodies are bloated from hunger and disease. In these yellowing photos from the Korean War, hundreds of children sit on a wooden floor, half-dressed, orphaned by battle.

But from these photos an unexpected story emerges -- a story of faith and humanity that ends in a Las Vegas living room.

Last month Las Vegas resident Russell Blaisdell, 90, flew to Seoul, where he was greeted by the Republic of Korea's first lady, chased by hordes of media, and awarded an honorary Doctorate of Social Welfare by Kyung Hee University.

They called him a hero, a savior, the "Schindler of the Korean War." The Korean War Veterans Association named him an "Ambassador for Peace," and filled his luggage with gifts -- watches, medals, paintings.

But in 1950 Blaisdell was a desperate chaplain whose conscience charged him with trying to save a thousand orphans from a battle zone, even after his unit evacuated and the children had been written off as casualties of war.

His saga started two months into the Korean War. A Presbyterian minister from Hayfield, Minn., Blaisdell was assigned to be the staff chaplain in the Fifth Air Force stationed in Seoul.

"Korea was in utter chaos," Blaisdell said at his Las Vegas condominium. "The damage the communists did in Seoul was incomprehensible. The Korean people got out most any way they could -- some fled to the mountains, some went south, some were killed."

Hundreds of children were left behind in the streets. The U.S. military helped run an orphanage for the children, but when the Chinese and North Korean forces again began moving south toward Seoul, the city was evacuated again.

The U.S. forces, including the Fifth Air Force, were among those to evacuate.

"But I didn't go," Blaisdell said. "I knew these children wouldn't make it if we left them there. A child in need is a child in need -- Korean or American, black or white -- and I knew I had to get them out of there. I just didn't know how."

Blaisdell, the son of an orphan himself, managed to arrange for a Korean boat to carry the orphans from the port of Inchon "to anywhere other than Seoul."

But Inchon was 26 miles from the orphanage in Seoul. Pressed for time, Blaisdell and Sgt. Mike Strand began making harried trips to and from Inchon in their only truck, hauling the children to the seaport.

But the promised boat never came. Instead, the only boat there was an old scow that Blaisdell said wasn't seaworthy enough to carry children.

"It was so disheartening. I had done all I knew to do, so the only thing left to do was pray," Blaisdell recalled. He hadn't eaten or slept for five days and he was "desperate and sick."

On his last trip to Seoul -- now an eerie, deserted city -- he made one last visit to his now-empty headquarters.

"Miraculously, I saw an Air Force general sitting inside," he said.

"That was an answer to my prayer. He wasn't even supposed to be there. But he took a look at me and said, 'Chaplain, what has happened to you? You look terrible.' And I told him the whole story. Without hesitation, he opened his books and said, 'I have a wing of C-54s (large airplanes) available. Can you get the children to the airport in Kimpo?' "

Blaisdell told Brig. Gen. T.C. Rogers that yes, he would somehow get the orphans to Kimpo -- 20 miles from Inchon -- immediately, although he had no idea how that would be accomplished.

"I just knew I couldn't quit," he said.

When Blaisdell got back to Inchon, he saw a unit of Marines unloading trucks full of ammunition onto the scow. "That was the second answer to my prayers," he said.

Blaisdell, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time, pulled rank on each driver of each truck. "I ordered him to report for duty with the orphans."

Soon he had a convoy of four trucks loaded with children, and they made their way toward Kimpo.

A New York Times journalist had gotten word of the chaplain's struggle and was there, along with the wing of C-54s, when Blaisdell and the children arrived.

The Dec. 21, 1950, New York Times described the children as they were loaded onto the airplanes: "Scores of small pilgrims in distress were covered with sores, and their bodies were shrunken from starvation."

The planes took the little survivors to Cheju island off the southern coast of Korea, where a temporary orphanage was established out of harm's way.

A year after the escape, Blaisdell opened a package in the mail and found a photo album -- made of brown paper stitched together with yarn and painted by children. In it were photos of the now-healthier orphans and Whang On-soon, the Korean woman selected to run the orphanage.

"We are the children orphaned by war but finally saved by USAF Chaplain R.L. Blaisdell," says a hand-written caption under a group photo. "You are the father of our home."

Later the orphanage was returned to Seoul, where it still stands today. Blaisdell went on with his duties as a chaplain, and on with life after the war. He returned several times to visit the orphans and Whang in the years immediately following the war. But it wasn't until this winter that he was reunited with the group and confirmed as a hero in the annals of Korean history.

In a whirlwind trip to Seoul in January, he was honored by the government, veterans and a university. Whang, now 102, and several orphans were also there to see him, hoist bouquets to him and cry with him.

"The orphans were just overwhelmed," he said. "It was very emotional."

One of the orphans had grown up to be a Buddhist monk, another an artist. Still another became a Full Gospel Christian pastor, and another a government accountant.

"Most people would only have thought of themselves," Yang Yun-hak, who was 17 years old when he was airlifted to Cheju island, told the Korea Times. "The American soldiers' love for Korean children was very impressive. They did everything to take care of us. (Blaisdell) was a savior. He was like a father to us."

The retired chaplain returned to his home in Las Vegas, where he keeps a briefcase full of photos and mementos from the war. When asked to reflect on the decision to risk his life to save the orphans, he shrugs. "It's very simple. I've been asked many times, 'Why did you do it?' The answer is, 'It was my job.'

"I'm a minister," he said. "I help people."

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