Air Force chaplain credited with saving children honored at Gwangju

Retired Air Force chaplain Col. Russell Blaisdell meets with orphanage director Hwang On-soon (to his right, holding flowers) in Uijeongbu, South Korea, in January 2001. They are surrounded by some of the orphans Blaisdell rescued, and their family members. A memorial ceremony honoring the late chaplain, who helped save hundreds of orphans during the Korean War, was held Thursday in Gwangju, South Korea.



OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — The Air Force chaplain whose unflagging efforts saved nearly 1,000 orphans during the Korean War was memorialized Thursday in a ceremony at Gwangju.

Col. Russell L. Blaisdell is credited with getting nearly 1,000 children out of Seoul at a time when a communist ground offensive was expected to soon overtake the city. The rescue became the much-publicized Operation Kiddy Car in late 1950.

The ceremony in Gwangju city’s social welfare hall occurred exactly one year after Blaisdell died at 96.

Among those attending were members of the South Korean national assembly; a representative of the U.S. Embassy in South Korea; local officials; several of the orphans who were saved by Blaisdell’s actions; Blaisdell’s son, himself now a clergyman; and two Air Force chaplains stationed in South Korea.

“A modern-day Moses, Chaplain Blaisdell literally put his life on the line to rescue 950 orphaned Korean children and 80 orphanage workers,” Air Force Lt. Col. Charles R. Cornelisse said in a sermon. Cornelisse is 51st Fighter Wing chaplain at Osan Air Base.

According to an account of the episode the Air Force provided, Blaisdell, then a lieutenant colonel, and a fellow chaplain discovered that a large number of war orphans in their area needed immediate food and medical attention.

At first they placed many in a Seoul orphanage, but when that filled up, the two set up the Seoul Orphanage Reception Center. There, about 1,000 orphans eventually found food, clothing, shelter and medical attention.

When ill health forced the other chaplain to leave South Korea, Blaisdell kept up the work, managing the staff and children himself.

Weeks later, Chinese and North Korean forces were on the offensive driving south, putting Seoul at risk. Residents and local officials fled. Blaisdell’s unit, 5th Air Force, also was evacuating the city.

But Blaisdell refused to leave without the orphans.

He drove them to Inchon Harbor, but plans to transport them by ship fell through.

Desperate, he went back to Seoul and turned to Col. T.C. Rogers, 5th Air Force operations officer and one of the last Air Force officers still in the city. Rogers was the only one other than the commanding general who could order up aircraft for an airlift of the orphans.

“In 20 minutes, the colonel had laid on air transportation for us to Cheju to leave at 8 a.m. the next day,” Blaisdell told Stars and Stripes for an article published in January 2001.

Then, pulling rank, Blaisdell scrounged trucks that rushed the children and orphanage staff to nearby Kimpo Airport on Dec. 20, 1950.

“We were two hours late, but the planes had waited,” he told Stripes. Sixteen C-54s took off with all the children and orphanage staff aboard and flew them far south to safety on Cheju Island.

In 2001, Blaisdell was reunited in South Korea with several of the orphans and with the orphanage’s former director. The South Korean government honored him as a hero. In 2003, he received the Air Force’s highest award for chaplains, the Four Chaplains Award for extraordinary humanitarianism.

The sermon ...

Following is the text of the sermon Air Force Lt. Col. Charles R. Cornelisse delivered Thursday in Gwangju at a memorial ceremony for the late Chaplain Russell L. Blaisdell:

The story of Chaplain, Colonel Russell L. Blaisdell is a remarkable chronicle of faith, perseverance, and professionalism; in other words, integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do – the United States Air Force’s core values. Decades before today’s Air Force created these core values, Chaplain Blaisdell lived them, putting them into practice for children and adults others had overlooked and left behind. Yet Chaplain Blaisdell could not do that; something deep inside his soul drove him to risk his life to find safe passage for these abandoned ones in what is affectionately known as the “Kiddie Car Airlift.”

While the actual airlift process, including the gathering of children and supplies, and transporting them to Gimpo Airport, took just a matter of days, the account of Chaplain Blaisdell’s heroism and sacrifice went far beyond. According to accounts by BBC journalist Rene Cutforth, who actually accompanied Chaplain Blaisdell on his morning rounds, witnessed the chaplain picking up homeless, sick and dying children throughout the bomb-ravaged city of Seoul. From his own writings, Chaplain Blaisdell said, “After contacting Mayor Lee Kyu Bong and others, it was decided to establish a Seoul Orphan’s Center, at which the orphans were bathed, were given medical treatment, food, clothing, and shelter.” Yet as summer gave way to winter, he continued, “Action must be taken soon as the Chinese were crossing the 38th parallel and coming fast.”

So after spending grueling weeks and months, day after day, at risk to his own health and safety to rescue hundreds of abandoned children and find shelters for them, Chaplain Blaisdell was faced with his own heart-wrenching decision – to leave the children behind and fly off to the safety of the south, or to stand firm and to find some means to transport these children and workers to safety and shelter far away from the invading North Koreans and Chinese. Years later, in 2001, when Blaisdell was asked by a reporter from The Korea Times why he was the one who took charge of airlifting the children, Blaisdell said, “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.”

“I had no options.” Many people today would disagree. Blaisdell did in reality have options, but in his own heart and mind, he did not. In order to live with himself, to accept the call on his life that God had delivered into his hand at that time, for such a time as this, Chaplain Blaisdell had to do the right thing, and that was to exercise his only option – rescue the children.

A modern-day Moses, Chaplain Blaisdell literally put his life on the line to rescue 950 orphaned Korean children and 80 orphanage workers. As Moses was called by God to lead God’s people away from the harsh conditions of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land God had chosen for them, Chaplain Blaisdell led the orphaned Korean children away from certain enslavement under the invading communist forces to the freedom and safety of Cheju-do. As Moses spread his hand over the sea so that the Lord would drive back the waters and allow the Israelites to cross over to the other side on dry ground, Chaplain Blaisdell raised his hand to intercept trucks and to coerce commanders to provide airplanes with which to deliver the children to the “other side” of Korea. As Moses looked to his God for help and hope and strength, so too Chaplain Blaisdell looked to the faith of his Presbyterian heritage to do his duty to live in “daily obedience to God’s will, and corporately to reveal God’s grace in places of suffering and need, to resist the forces that tyrannize, for only so is the gospel most fully proclaimed.” (1958 Statement of the PCUA)

For me, the character of Chaplain Blaisdell is manifest most explicitly in what he did not do many years later. History tells us that another Air Force officer took credit for the rescue of these abandoned and orphaned children. Chaplain Blaisdell’s assistant, S/Sgt Mike Strang, after years of anger at someone else’s taking credit for what his chaplain did, wrote and asked Chaplain Blaisdell’s advice on whether he should say something and “blow the whistle” on the deception that had been portrayed in the media and even in a movie.

But Blaisdell responded to Strang’s letter writing: “The goal of our efforts, in regard to the orphans … was the saving of lives, which would otherwise have been lost. That was accomplished. In a sense, Mike, well-doing has its own reward, which is not measured in dollars, prestige, or good will…” In saving the orphaned children, Chaplain Blaisdell lived out the words of our Lord Jesus, “Let the little children come unto me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” May God bless the legacy and the memory of Chaplain Russell L. Blaisdell, and may He give each of us the courage and faith to do our duty, to bless and protect all of God’s children wherever they are. Amen.

Retired Air Force chaplain Col. Russell Blaisdell meets with orphanage director Hwang On-soon in Uijeongbu, South Korea, in January 2001.

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