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This Month in AFMS History: Operation Christmas Kidlift

U.S. Air Force Capt. Tone Nobile, a flight nurse, comforts a tiny war victim aboard a Far East Air Forces 315th Air Division transport, during Operation Christmas Kidlift, the evacuation of almost 1,000 orphans from Seoul to safety in South Korea. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Tone Nobile, a flight nurse, comforts a tiny war victim aboard a Far East Air Forces 315th Air Division transport, during Operation Christmas Kidlift, the evacuation of almost 1,000 orphans from Seoul to safety in South Korea. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Mary Spivak, a flight nurse, hands out candy to orphans during Operation Chirstmas Kidlift. Almost 1,000 orphans from Seoul were evacuated by air before the Chinese Army retook the city. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Mary Spivak, a flight nurse, hands out candy to orphans during Operation Chirstmas Kidlift. Almost 1,000 orphans from Seoul were evacuated by air before the Chinese Army retook the city. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- In mid-December 1950, Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Russell Blaisdell knew the deadly fate his orphans faced. When North Korean troops overran the South Korean capital in June 1950, it was widely reported that the North Korean army indiscriminately killed civilian men, women and children. Now, the Chinese Army approached.

The chaplain didn’t believe the outcome would be any better this time around. “I did what I had to do,” he later wrote. “What any good person would have done.”

When American forces first entered Seoul, they found a city leveled to the ground. The city contained approximately 4,000 orphans. Blaisdell and Chaplain (Col.) Wallace Wolverton, aided by generous donations from U.S. service personnel throughout the Far-East, set up the Seoul Orphanage Reception Center to provide food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. When China entered the war on Nov. 25, its forces rapid advance threatened to overrun Seoul again. The Fifth Air Force prepared to evacuate Seoul. Seoul’s orphans faced a very real possibility of being left on their own, cold and starving, in the middle of a war.

Blaisdell and Air Force Col. Dean Hess, a pilot who had worked with the Seoul orphanage, planned to evacuate the children and their caretakers. Hess suggested Cheju-do, the island southwest of the Korean mainland. Blaisdell and his Chaplain assistant, Staff Sgt. Michael Strang took charge of more than 900 orphans, ranging from a few weeks to 12 years old, plus their 80 caretakers. They planned to send the orphans by ship to the ROK air force station on Cheju-do.

On Dec. 15, using a single Army truck, they transported the entire group 20 miles to the Port of Inchon where they waited for their ship. As Chinese and North Korean troops closed in on Seoul, it became clear the ship would not be there in time. Blaisdell realized he needed a new plan to get the orphans out of the path of the advancing army.

On Dec. 19, a day before the Americans abandoned Inchon, Blaisdell returned to Seoul. Fortunately, he encountered Col. T.C. Rogers the Fifth Air Force Chief of Operations. Rogers pulled strings, and Lt. Gen. William Tunner, commander of Combat Cargo Command ordered 12 C-54 Skymasters from the 61st Troop Carrier Group in Japan to assist. They were to be at Seoul’s Kimpo Airfield the next morning to evacuate the children.

Chaplain Blaisdell needed to find a way to move the orphans and staff 28 miles from Inchon to Kimpo. He arrived at Inchon harbor early the next morning, found six trucks, and began loading supplies salvaged from the orphanage. By 8:30 a.m., not one orphan was on a truck. Blaisdell had no way to communicate with the arriving planes at Kimpo. He was unsure if the pilots would wait for them. Twelve large cargo planes, sitting on the tarmac, would be an inviting target. In desperation, Blaisdell went down to the docks to help unload ammunition. As each truck emptied its cargo, he pulled the drivers aside and led them to the orphans. Blaisdell snagged 14 trucks in this manner. They arrived at the airfield at 10:00 a.m. At great personal danger, the pilots and crew had waited for their arrival.

Flight nurses and medics from the 501st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron helped load the children. They laid rice straw mats on the plane’s floors and used air evac blankets to warm them. With passengers so small, occupancy limits were forgotten. One aircraft carried 122 passengers. Nurses and crewmembers donated their rations, dividing their flight lunches among the children along with any candy and gum they could find. The aircraft went wheels up to the sound of approaching artillery fire. By the next morning, all the planes arrived in Cheju, landing on a grass strip in the shadow of a 7,000 mountain. The orphans were safe.

Caring for the young orphans during their flight from war-torn Seoul had a profound effect on the flight nurses from the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron. “Those kids were so helpless and so pitiful,” said Capt. Mary Wilfong, one of the nurses aboard the planes. “It’s even worse than seeing our own wounded men.”

The 1957 Hollywood movie Battle Hymn, starring Rock Hudson, told the story of Operation Christmas Kidlift. The film contained many inaccuracies, but in a letter to Strang, Blaisdell explained his decision not to correct the record.

“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.”

On Nov. 5, 1989, the Chapel of Four Chaplains awarded Blaisdell their Legion of Honor Award. On June 19, 2018 they upgraded Blaisdell’s award to their Humanitarian Award in recognition for his dedicated service to the orphans of Korea. The Air Force posthumously awarded the Bronze Star to Strang.

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