Honor for saving orphans came belatedly to Korean War chaplain and his assistant

Bellingham resident George Drake served in Korean from late summer 1952 to December 1953 with the U.S. Army Security Agency, intercepting Chinese and North Korean radio messages.
Bellingham resident George Drake served in Korean from late summer 1952 to December 1953 with the U.S. Army Security Agency, intercepting Chinese and North Korean radio messages. FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

When most persons think of veterans, they only think of them in their combat role.

There is another aspect to life in a combat zone, and that is dealing with the civilian population caught in the middle of the conflict. Our young men have to be taught to aim a rifle at another human being and shoot to kill. They do not have to be taught to provide solace to the crying child, feed the hungry child, and find aid for the injured child or shelter for the homeless child.

That comes with being American. It is part of our common values.

Our servicemen and women who went to Korea saved the lives of over 10,000 children, supported over 54,000 children in more than 400 orphanages, and brought from home thousands upon thousands of tons of material aid for the war children of Korea.

In my research on the relationship of our servicemen to the war children of Korea, I came upon the story of the Kiddy Car Airlift of Dec. 20, 1950, whereby over 950 children and more than 100 orphanage staff persons were rescued from certain death by Chaplain Russell L. Blaisdell and Staff Sgt. Merle Y. (Mike) Strang, his chaplain's assistant.

If there was any one incident that epitomized the compassion our servicemen had for the war children of Korea, this was it. I was quite distressed to find that Blaisdell and Strang had received no honors, no medals, no citations or recognition of any kind for this incredible rescue operation.

Why? Because Blaisdell was charged with misuse of Air Force resources in an operation that was not the responsibility of the Air Force, and faced a court martial for his action. Care and responsibility for the civilian population rested with the 8th Army.

The court martial was not held, but Blaisdell was embittered by the experience. It wasn't until 50 years later that he finally received the recognition he merited.

Strang, on the other hand, left the Air Force without ever getting a single piece of paper with a note of thanks from anyone for his role in saving the lives of over 1,000 persons, most of them Korean orphans.

I tried to find Strang, and finally found that he had died in 1998 in Milwaukee, Wis. Feeling that this was a gross injustice I began the process of getting Strang a posthumous Bronze Star. It took me four years of paperwork, documenting the event and getting support of the chief of chaplains of the U.S. Air Force for the award.

Since this was a posthumous award to be presented 53 years after the event, it took sponsorship by members of the U.S. Senate for approval. Washington state Sen. Patty Murray agreed to be one of the sponsors for the award, and eventually the chief of chaplains, U.S. Air Force, flew from Washington, D.C., to Bangor, Maine, to present Strang's Bronze Star to his brother, Homer.

On July 27, 2003, fifty years after the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War, Blaisdell and Strang were recognized for their bravery in saving the lives of over 950 orphans with the highest award of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains of the U.S. Air Force, the "Three Chaplain's Award."

The award was presented to Blaisdell here in Bellingham at the dedication of the Korean War Children's Memorial in Big Rock Garden Park. Unfortunately, Strang had been dead five years by then and could not savor the honor.

On Veterans Day, let us honor our servicemen and women for the good that they do for the civilian populations in the war zones where they operate. Too often it is only the screwballs and weirdos who get the headlines.

Our servicemen and women also represent the best of America. Let us thank them for their service, and not wait 50 years to do so.