A Hero’s Christmas – Chaplain Russell L. Blaisdell, U.S. Air Force (1910-2007)

Retired Air Force chaplain Col. Russell Blaisdell meets with orphanage director Hwang On-soon in Uijeongbu, South Korea, in January 2001. Photo courtesy of Stars & Stripes
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Retired Air Force chaplain Col. Russell Blaisdell meets with orphanage director Hwang On-soon in Uijeongbu, South Korea, in January 2001. Photo courtesy of Stars & Stripes

BY DUANE A. VACHONI have written over 46 articles for Hawaii Reporter about heroes this year. When you write that many stories about heroes, you pick up some insight into what makes a hero. There is not a single person that I have written about that I would not enjoy a beer with. They were each, in their own way, special people.


I have been saving today’s “hero” for a few months. He is one of my favorite. He has a Christmas story, so December is a good time for this report to appear.

Born on September 4, 1910 to John Blaisdell and Jenny Goutermont Blaisdell, Russell L. Blaisdell was the seventh of eight children.

Religion was a passion of his. Blaisdell studied at the McCormick Theological Seminary and became an ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA in 1937. He was a pastor in Coggan and then Wilton Junction, Iowa, 1937-1940. He then became a US Army Air Corps chaplain in July 1940. His assignments during World War II were out of Spokane, WA; Edmonton, Alberta; and Hickam Field, Hawaii.

In July 1950 he was sent into the Korean War to be the Fifth Air Force staff chaplain from July 1950 to May 1951. His later assignments were out of Waco, TX; Tripoli, Libya; Langley Air Force, VA; McGuire Air Force Base, NJ; and Scott AFB, IL. He retired as a US Air Force chaplain in 1964 and moved to Syracuse, NY.

For the most part, the heroes that I have written about are the ones who fought valiantly and heroically against the enemy. Blaisdell will be the first Chaplain I have written about because he was a great and brave humanitarian.

A little known fact, unless you were there, is that after the recapture of Seoul in September 1950, there were thousands of orphans in Seoul left without parents by the North Koreans who killed the adults when they occupied the city. These orphans were living in destroyed buildings in the Korean capital and got by on what little food they could beg from people passing by, particularly American soldiers.

It was clear that these orphans, who were wearing rags and were disease ridden, would over time only get worse as they lived in the rubble of Seoul with the heart of winter approaching. Those that hadn’t succumb to the conditions and disease, would soon, if help wasn’t provided for them quickly.

The Air Force chaplains spearheaded an effort to provide help and resources to rescue these orphans. The Air Force chaplains along with the American Red Cross, the Korean Red Cross, YMCA, Catholic Missions, Protestant Missions, and what was remaining of the local Seoul government, worked together to establish a large facility to house orphans. Seoul Mayor Lee Kyu-bong provided the Air Force with a large school in which to house, clean, and care for orphans. This was to be a stop gap arrangement until a more permanent arrangement could be organized.

Many of the Chaplains from the 5th Air Force moved through the streets of Seoul every day, locating and picking up orphans to bring back to what became known as The Seoul Orphan Centre. One of the chaplains out there working hard to locate the orphans was Chaplain and Lieutenant Colonel Russell Blaisdell.

The tiny orphanage was soon over-flowing with children dying from neglect, barely clinging to life. And every morning, Chaplain Blaisdell and his volunteers dropped off more children. The situation was about to get worse – much worse. “The North is coming” was the word on the street in December. First rumors, then warnings. The North was about to invade Seoul again.

As Chaplain Blaisdell was battling to save children, the North and South were locked in a battle to the death in the serene countryside of their divided country. Already living in constant fear, the citizens of Seoul had little choice — get out or die. They fled.

“No one was going to stick around to see what would happen,” Chaplain Blaisdell soon realized. The city decided to abandon the orphanage and leave the kids to fend for themselves.

“It never crossed my mind to abandon the children,” he said. After the North invaded in June, troops killed every child they found, including those the U.S. military had helped, he said.

The Chaplain was determined not to let this happen again. He arranged for a boat to transport the children to safety. But it was at Inchon, 20 miles away. And he had some 1,000 people to move with just one truck. So he, Sgt. Michael Strang, his clerk, and some volunteers started piling children into the truck, and then racing them to the harbor city.

Deciding to personally check out the situation, Chaplain Blaisdell “decided to scout out the situation ‘appropriated’ a jeep and went to the dock.” But, when he got there, his heart sank. The ship was an old scow that didn’t seem safe. The captain didn’t know anything about an evacuation.

As the situation grew worse with each passing hour, the Chaplain appropriated an old school building and temporarily moved the children there. The situation continued to deteriorate. He thought maybe it was the wrong boat and that they’d just have to wait awhile. But he was wrong. Now the whole group was in danger. And Chaplain Blaisdell still had to drive back to Seoul to pick up two teen-age girls he’d promised to take care of.

When he arrived in Seoul, it was a ghost town, eerily quiet and still. But time wasn’t just running out for him. He picked up the girls and he went to his headquarters, where he spotted Colonel T.C. Rogers. Rogers later became Air Force Brigadier General, one of the last military members left in the city.

“He took one look at me and said, ‘My God, what’s the matter?'” Chaplain Blaisdell said. “I hadn’t slept in five days and looked like the wrath of God. I just blurted out, ‘I’m in trouble and I need help.'” The weary chaplain told the Colonel his story.

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 in January 2001.

Then, pulling rank, Blaisdell scrounged for 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.

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 credit being given where it was not due, 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.

He died May 1, 2007 at his winter home in Las Vegas at the age of 96. His memorial service was held at the base chapel, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada with a military escort. He was buried with full military honors at the Veterans Cemetery, Boulder City, Nevada.

The author of these articles will be taking a break until the second week in January. I want to wish each of you a merry, holy and safe Christmas.