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OPINION | KEN THORNTON: Veterans' stories go untold

by Ken Thornton Special to The Commercial | November 11, 2020 at 3:37 a.m.

I was raised in Warren County, Mississippi, just a short distance from the Vicksburg National Military Park. As a young teenager, I rode my bike and trekked through portions of the park too many times to count. I ran up and down hills where battles had raged. I crawled onto monuments, sat atop huge statues of cavalrymen saddled on their horses, stood next to monuments of soldiers with their weapons raised, and strolled through the Vicksburg National Cemetery and its near-17,000 graves honoring the fallen.

The glorious Illinois State Memorial rotunda is near my childhood home. It is modeled after the Roman Pantheon. I've walked up its massive steps and spent hours viewing the 60 unique bronze tablets lining its interior walls, reading the names of the 36,325 Illinois soldiers who participated in the Vicksburg Campaign. Each of those names represented a story ... a story of sacrifice and hardship, of separation from loved ones, of acts of valor, of service before self.

I wish I could talk to them and hear their stories. Their names being placed on the bronze tablets is the only recognition most of these soldiers ever received for their sacrifice and service. Many, no doubt, performed heroic deeds in the siege of Vicksburg and in their service as soldiers. We don't know all that they did. No doubt, many of these soldiers performed extraordinary, awe-inspiring acts of heroism and bravery. What they accomplished individually was generally not recorded, except maybe in personal diaries. Their stories were often unshared. War veterans don't often talk about their wartime experiences. These are the unheralded heroes.

Fast forward 87 years to another war raging on the Korean peninsula. It was December, 1950, and the U. S. Eighth Army had withdrawn from western North Korea due to pressure from overwhelming numbers of communist troops. By the end of the month, most of North Korea will be back in communist hands, with communist forces crossing the 38th parallel into South Korea and pressing toward Seoul.

Herculean efforts have historically been made by innumerable military members to protect the innocent from the ravages of war. The Korean War was no exception. There was grave concern regarding the evacuation of civilians in peril -- Americans in particular, the population in general, but especially for the children who were in the way of the military onslaught. Seoul had been nearly destroyed. Hunger, thirst, and disease was common. Babies and children were abandoned, or their parents killed by the war.

Chaplain Lt. Col. Russell L. Blaisdell and Chaplain Assistant Staff Sgt. Merle "Mike" Y. Strang worked together in what is today referred to as a Religious Support Team (RST). Along with Chaplain Col. Wallace I. Wolverton, they established an orphans' processing center. They would go into the streets, pick up abandoned boys and girls, and bring them to the center where the children were cleaned up, given food and shelter, and then take the children to the local orphanage. When Chaplain Wolverton left South Korea, Chaplain Blaisdell and Staff Sergeant Strang and volunteers continued the work of providing for the needs of abandoned children.

As the communist forces advanced, and Seoul was being evacuated, the citizens fled, and the children of the orphanage were again abandoned and left to die. When the communists invaded in June 1950, it is said they killed every child they found. Chaplain Blaisdell determined this would not happen again if he could do anything about it. He and Staff Sgt. Strang obtained a truck and made many round trips to transport the Korean children from Seoul to Inchon Harbor, some 20 miles away, where a ship was promised by the Korean government to transport the children to safety. They were the only U.S. military personnel to remain with the orphans during the grueling four-day wait for a boat that never arrived.

The danger to Chaplain Blaisdell, Staff Sgt. Strang, and to the children and volunteers in their care was very real and very present. They went days without food or sleep as they carried out their rescue. Whooping cough and measles broke out among the orphans. Eight of the weakest children died. The fate of over a thousand was in their hands. Their means of rescue was nowhere to be found. But leaving the children to the advancing Chinese would have meant their certain massacre.

Chaplain Blaisdell went to Air Force Col. T. C. Rogers, Chief of Operations, 5th AF, for help to evacuate the children. Col. Rogers directed Chaplain Blaisdell to take the children to the airport at Kimpo, another 28 miles away, where there were C-54s that could fly the children to safety. Chaplain Blaisdell pulled rank as he and Staff Sergeant Strang commandeered several trucks to transport the cold, starving and sick children to Kimpo, where 16 C-54 transport planes from the 61st Troop Carrier Group flew 950 Korean Orphans, six months to 11 years of age, and about 110 orphanage workers from Kimpo airfield to safety at Cheju-du, an island off the South Korean coast. The planes waited over an hour until the trucks bearing the children arrived. When they arrived at Cheju-do, the chaplain and chaplain assistant assisted in resettling the orphans.

This airlift, known as "Operation Christmas Kidlift" and also as, "Operation Kiddie Car" and as "Operation Little Orphan Annie" took place 20 December 1950.

Precious lives were saved, and just in time for Christmas. To quote from an article published in Airman Magazine, December 2000, entitled, "A Christmas Story ... Chaplain Saves Orphans During Dark Days of Korean War by Senior Airman Elaine Tarello, "And it was the beginning of a new life for the children, like Choi Chu-ja, who was on a plane that day. "The only memory I have of that plane ride is sitting with the other children on the floor," she said. Now named Susie Allen and the mother of four living in Chico, Calif., she owes her life to Chaplain Blaisdell. "I don't know how to describe the feelings in my heart. They have just always been a part of me," she said. "They were my heroes."

No doubt, all of those rescued would agree.

Senior Airman Elaine Tarello continues to write, "One year after the rescue ... Chaplain Blaisdell returned to Cheju-do. The head of the orphanage, On Soon-whang, and the children held a parade in his honor ... The orphanage moved back to Seoul soon after the invasion. ..."

Chaplain Blaisdell returned to a hero's welcome in South Korea in 2001, where he was greeted by the First Lady of South Korea, and awarded an honorary doctorate of social welfare. He has been referred to as the "Schindler of Korea" after Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. In 2003, he received the Air Force's highest award for chaplains, the Four Chaplains Award for extraordinary humanitarianism. Chaplain Blaisdell died in 2007.

Staff Sgt. Strang died in 1998 without ever receiving any official recognition for his role in saving the orphans during his lifetime. He was involved in rescuing many of the estimated 6,000 orphaned and homeless children found in the streets, alleys and bombed buildings of war-torn Seoul. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star in 2003. Then-Air Force Chief of Chaplains, Major General Charles C. Baldwin, presented the Bronze Star to Sgt. Strang's brother, the Rev. Homer Strang. Rev. Strang said his brother was a humble man, not one given to talk about his wartime experiences.

In a personal letter written from Chaplain Blaisdell to now-civilian Mike Strang in 1957, Chaplain Blaisdell writes, "I would like to take this opportunity to say again that I have the highest respect and admiration for you in your integrity, devotion to duty, and especially in your self-sacrifice during the time we worked with and transported the orphans. No one could have conceived of a more devoted, hardworking individual to have by his side during such a strenuous, uncertain and, at times, dangerous job than I had in you."

These sentiments were mutual, as Staff Sgt. Strang wrote in another letter of his highest regards for Chaplain Blaisdell.

As I read those post-war letters between chaplain and chaplain assistant, brothers-at-arms, and the accounts of the Operation Christmas Kidlift, I thought again about the bronze tablets within the Illinois State Memorial, and the stories behind the names on the tablets. Veterans who aren't always recognized for their service and sacrifice, who have stories that need to be told ... and told again.

The story of these two fellow warriors have inspired many others through their faith, perseverance, and professionalism. Chaplain Blaisdell and Staff Sgt. Strang didn't save the children and volunteers from certain war-time death for personal credit, or recognition, or a medal. In fact, credit for their heroic accomplishments was claimed by another, even a movie was made about it. But that is another story I won't go into here.

Chaplain Blaisdell added in his letter to Staff Sgt. Strang, "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..."

This Veteran's Day, I think of these two Airmen, among so many others, who have faithfully served and defended our nation, and the multitudes of veterans who have even died for our nation in time of war. They did it because it was the right thing to do, and they could do nothing less.

With grateful appreciation to Mr. William Chivalette, Curator/Historian, Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL, for his assistance in writing this article.

Ken Thornton is pastor at First Baptist Church Pine Bluff. Also known as Chaplain, Lt. Col. William K. Thornton, USAF (retired), he wrote this article that was originally printed in Air Combat Command "Combat Edge" Magazine, Winter Edition 2016.

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