SEOUL — Retired U.S. airman Richard Cadwallader finally got to hug the woman who earned his lifelong admiration for the way she bravely dealt with severe burns almost 60 years ago.
Since leaving South Korea in the wake of the Korean War, Cadwallader had always wondered what became of the young girl he did his best to help after she was brought to his base in December 1953 with third-degree burns from her chin down to her waist.
On Monday, the 81-year-old was reunited with the woman he knew only as the “burned girl” — Kim Yeon-soon, now 72 — at a Seoul hotel.
With two dozen members of the Korean media looking on, the two came together in a warm embrace. Kim, whose scars from the accident were easily seen Monday around her chin, seemed to take every opportunity during the half-hour proceeding to hug or hold onto Cadwallader and members of his family.
The two exchanged gifts: Cadwallader gave Kim a watch to remind her of their time together decades earlier, and she gave him and his wife, Nancy, hanboks, traditional Korean garb.
“I’m feeling very excited, very proud [and] very happy for Miss Kim,” Cadwallader told a news conference. “It’s just a marvelous, marvelous experience, and I’m so appreciative of what the Korean government has done to bring us back together again.”
Through a translator, Kim said, “I could never have imagined that I would have the opportunity to see him again. I’m very excited and very happy.”
It was just months after the end of the Korean War when Kim said a young relative accidentally knocked over an oil lamp, setting her on fire and leaving her in agony.
Kim said her mother carried her on her back about five miles to the nearest U.S. military installation, a remote base on the edge of the Yellow Sea, west of Suwon.
There, Cadwallader — an airman second class and radio mechanic — looked on in awe as the base medic tended to the young girl, peeling off a tar-like substance someone in the girl’s village had applied to the burn that had adhered to her flesh.
“The process was slow and agonizingly painful,” he told Susan Kee, who is working on a book about the personal stories of U.S. Korean War veterans. “She endured extreme pain in silence and without any tears.”
On Monday, Cadwallader said, “I can’t tell you what a brave young lady this woman was 60 years ago, in terms of recovering from her burns. They were very, very severe.
“She and her mother were two examples of the most courageous people I’ve ever known, so this is a monumental day for me.”
Cadwallader has said previously he did all he could to help the girl and make her comfortable then, and when she returned to the base for follow-up treatment in the weeks that followed. But, it was clear she needed more extensive treatment on the infected area, and to minimize scarring and facial disfigurement.
That opportunity came with the arrival of three helicopters from a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
Cadwallader said he was able to talk the major in charge into flying the girl to a burn unit in Pusan, which prompted the airman to lead a high-speed recovery mission via Jeep over muddy and washed-out roads to find the girl at her village and get her back to the base before the choppers left.
As he prepared to leave South Korea three months later, Cadwallader had a chance encounter with the girl, who waved at him from a passing military vehicle and gestured that her wounds were healing well.
Nevertheless, the Scottsdale, Ariz., resident said he wondered for decades how life turned out for the girl and, with the help of Kee and the South Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, she was located earlier this year. The ministry paid for the trip to South Korea for Cadwallader and his family.
His daughter, Dawn Girard, said her father often told her stories as she was growing up about the courageous littled burned girl.
“She’s had an impact on my life that she’s not even aware of,” Girard said. “She’s taught me a lot.”
Cadwallader and Kim were scheduled to be the guests of government officials at a number of ceremonies in the days ahead. The retired airman was also expected to visit Kim’s hometown and hit a number of tourist attractions during his five-day visit.
Ministry officials have said they hope to stage similar reunions in the future between allied servicemembers who helped the South during the Korean War and locals they want to see again.
Kim — who went on to marry, have three children and work in a variety of jobs, including farming and clam digging — has said she often thought about Cadwallader and the other Americans who helped her.
“If it were not for the U.S. troops … I might have died,” Kim said previously. “Richard helped save my life. He was heaven-sent.”
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.