SEOUL — For almost 60 years, Richard Cadwallader wondered what happened to the brave little girl he watched endure agonizing treatment for severe burns without making a sound.
The Air Force veteran had taken a special interest in her after she arrived at his base in the wake of the Korean War, and at one point led a Hollywood-worthy effort to get her on a U.S. military helicopter so she could get the advanced medical treatment she needed.
He caught a brief smile from her during a chance meeting months later as he was preparing to leave the war-ravaged country, but it left him hungry for how her story turned out.
His daughter made an unsuccessful effort to find the adult that his “burned girl” had become. So Cadwallader recently enlisted the help of the South Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs and others in his quest to find her.
Kim Yeon-soon, now 72, finally was located. A reunion is in the works for late this month, something that Cadwallader, 81, says he “never dreamed would happen.”
Kim said she also considers it “something of a miracle” that she will be able to see the man she has always referred to, in talking with friends and family, as her “American father.”
“How could this amazing thing happen?” she said. “It’s the grace of God. I feel on top of the world these days, so I can’t even sleep at night.”
The MPVA, hoping this is not the last reunion of its kind, recently started a campaign to bring together other Korean War veterans from countries that were allied with South Korea and locals from that era with whom they would like to reconnect.
“We hope the image of South Korea is going to be enhanced through reunions like this between overseas veterans and their Korean friends and acquaintances,” an MPVA spokeswoman said.
Kim said she was 12 in December 1953 when a 3-year-old relative accidentally knocked over an oil lamp, setting her on fire. She was left with third-degree burns from her chin to her waist.
“It was so painful,” she said, her voice shuddering even six decades later.
With options for proper medical treatment limited in post-war South Korea, Kim said her mother put the girl on her back and carried her about five miles to the nearest U.S. military installation, a remote base on the edge of the Yellow Sea, west of Suwon.
“Save my daughter!” Kim remembers her mother yelling at the base’s entrance.
In an account written by Susan Kee - who helped Cadwallader in his quest and is working on a book of the personal stories of U.S. Korean War veterans - “She was covered in what appeared to be (a) black tar-like substance that a village person had applied to treat the burn,” but it had “adhered to her flesh.”
The base medic carefully peeled off the substance strip by strip.
“The process was slow and agonizingly painful,” according to the account.
“She endured extreme pain in silence and without any tears,” said Cadwallader, of Scottsdale, Ariz. “I have never seen such courage in a little girl. Her mother was also unforgettable because of her love, courage and perseverance in trying to get medical help for her daughter.”
Cadwallader — an airman 2nd class and radio mechanic at the base — helped as much as he could when Kim’s mother brought the girl back to the base once a week for more than a month for follow-up visits, but it was clear to everyone she needed more extensive treatment to cure the infected area and minimize the scarring and facial disfigurement.
“One day, I saw an opportunity to get her the real medical help she needed,” Cadwallader said.
Three helicopters from a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital landed at the base. Cadwallader said he was able to talk the major in charge to make an exception and fly the girl to a burn unit in Pusan, but only if he could get her back to the base before the choppers took off in two hours.
So, Cadwallader said he, a Marine and a Korean boy nicknamed “Ace” – who served as a translator at the base – jumped into a Jeep and sped to where they thought the girl’s village might be.
Negotiating muddy, washed-out roads, they found it. They did not know the girl’s name, but after they described her injuries, villagers were able to direct the group to her home. Without even time to pack, the girl and her mother joined the Good Samaritans for the frantic ride back to base, arriving with only moments to spare.
As the choppers flew off with the girl and her mother, Kee wrote, “Richard remembers feeling very sad at the thought that he would probably never see them again.”
Three months later, Cadwallader was preparing to leave Korea when he heard pounding on the window from inside a nearby military vehicle that was passing through – the girl was trying to get his attention.
“Looking through the window, he saw that she was making gestures trying to show him how well her neck and face had healed,” according to the account. “She had an enormous smile on her face.
“He blew kisses at her and said a tearful goodbye,” Kee wrote.
Cadwallader, who went on to get married and have two children, said he would periodically tell them the story about the brave “burned girl.”
In 1985, his daughter was living in South Korea with her Air Force husband, and she was able to track down Ace, but not the “burned girl.” The search continued until Kee, the MPVA and others got involved. Among other things, posters were put up in areas where officials suspected the “burned girl” might live, describing her injuries, treatment and the former airman looking for her.
Kim found out about the search from friends who saw media accounts of the efforts to find her.
Kim said she had no lingering problems related to her burns, other than scarring. She got married, had three children and worked a variety of jobs, including farming and digging clams.
“If it were not for the U.S. troops … I might have died,” Kim said. “Richard helped save my life. He was heaven-sent.”