I Am Not a Hero

“When I opened my photo exhibit in the main lobby of the new city hall of the Metropolitan City of Gwangju, South Korea, there were a lot of speeches given, by Mayor Park Gwang-tae, by the Vice Mayor, by an officer of the US Forces, Korea, etc.  All the speeches had been printed in the program for the event, in English and in Korean. When I read what was to be said I was shocked. It was “George this, George that, etc, etc,” ad nauseum. I immediately rewrote my speech and gave a copy to the interpreter. When I got up to speak I said “If a messenger comes bearing bad news it is not nice to shoot the messenger.” I paused and the sentence was put into Korean. A number of persons laughed. I continued “and if the messenger comes bringing good news it is totally inappropriate to make the messenger into a hero.” [pause, translation] “I am not a hero. I am merely a messenger. I am a sociologist. I tell stories. Focus on the story, not on George Drake. Thousands, nay, tens of thousands of GIs did as much and even more than I for the children of Korea during the war. THAT is the story. Focus on it.” And I sat down.

I can understand the need of a reporter to interview a single person, or a few persons for a story. You can’t interview a thousand persons. The real story that I have to tell is the immense and formerly totally unknown scale and scope of what we GIs did for the children. As a professional sociologist I am interested in collective behavior, what the group did, not what any one individual did or does. I collected almost 2,000 documents on this subject and very few of those articles attempted to take the broad view and make a generalization to US Forces Korea. That is what I tried to do. I am fully aware of the limitations of my data but I can still say with confidence that the UN Forces in Korea saved the lives of over TEN THOUSAND CHILDREN, helped sustain upwards of 54,000 children in orphanages. Helped build or repair over 400 orphanages. Donated millions of dollars from our pay of about $50 a month, wrote thousands upon thousands of letters home seeking help for the orphans and brought in thousands of TONS of material aid. On one occasion the army had to lease an additional freighter to bring to Korea all the packages for the orphanages that were piling up in San Francisco! THAT is the story, not what George Drake did. What “Professor,” “Doctor” “Sociologist” George Drake did was to add two and two and come up with four. I put the story together. I am a story teller, not a hero. Get it?”

Since writing those two paragraphs I have given more thought as to why I am so sensitive about this issue.  Sure as hell, I am not shy around reporters and have hundreds of articles written about me and my various projects.   As I look over the matter I discern two main underlying reasons for my irritation about being called a “hero” by reporters writing about the War Child of Korea.  The first reason is that when a reporter does that he/she doesn’t ‘get’ the real story.  The story I am trying to tell is one about the compassion of our forces in Korea during the war years (and following).    I want to ensure that the story of the compassion of our young men and women who served in Korea and their aid to the children that suffered so greatly in those times becomes part of the history of the Korean War.   When a reporter focuses on me rather than on the story I feel that I have failed to achieve my goal of making the world aware of the incredible efforts expended by the men and women of our armed forces to aid the war child of Korea.

But there is a second reason I get really upset with this false emphasis on George Drake rather than on the US ‘Army of Compassion’ which represented the finest values of American society.  There is a personal, egotistical danger in such reporting.  Everyone (?) loves to have their ego stroked, get their name in the paper, win a medal, receive letters of commendation, etc.  When such is fully deserved it is OK.  The problem is that George Drake does not warrant such recognition for his work for the orphans, the collective men and women of the armed forces we sent to Korea deserve that recognition.  When I accepted the honor of being made an “Honorary Citizen” of the Metropolitan City of Gwangju, South Korea, I made it clear to Mayor Park Gwang-tae that I was accepting it on behalf of the US Forces in Korea during the war years.  I wanted it made clear that I was merely the person who ‘told the story’ of the efforts of our men and women to save the lives of the children.

I guess I have a fear of allowing what happened to Col. Dean Hess happen to me.  He wrote a book (Battle Hymn) about his experiences in Korea and included in it a section on the Kiddy Car Airlift.  He wrote it in such a manner that, without actually saying so, the inference was that he was the one who was responsible for the rescue of the 950 orphans and 100 orphanage staff whose lives were saved in that rescue.  The book was followed almost immediately with a film of the same name in which the innuendo became transferred into the true story of the rescue operation.   Immediately Hess became a hero.  He was given the highest medals of the Korean government.  Scores of articles appeared telling how he rescued the children.  All of it was false and the tragedy of it all was that not once did Col. Dean Hess say “Stop.  That is not the way it happened.  You have to talk to Chaplain Russell Blaisdell or his Chaplain’s Assistant to get the ‘on the ground’ report of that rescue.”

Hess got so caught up in the glory of being a hero that he shamelessly accepted credit for what he did not do and never backed off from the fraud that was now being perpetrated in his name.  Hess began to believe the press reports of his role in the rescue of the children and to this day (December, 2009) he has not publically stated the well documented truth, namely that it was not he who saved the kids, it was Chaplain Blaisdell and SSgt Strang.  The problem is, once these stories get published in the press and appear in a popular movie the story has a life of its own that feeds on itself.  The movie was a gross travesty of justice and a fiction passed off as a true story.  It showed Dean Hess walking with the children from Inchon to Kimpo Airport.  Not a single child walked.  They all came by trucks.  Later, as Hess was getting medals for his rescue of the children the reporters cited the movie story for ‘facts’ on the rescue.  And Hess never corrected them.

I have no intention of becoming a second Dean Hess, accepting recognition for acts that I did not do.  Yes, I was a very active members of our little company orphanage committee but I was merely the corresponding secretary.  I was not the chairperson.  I was not the treasurer.  I was not on the committee that supervised the orphanage.  I was just one more committee member.  On a larger scale, I was just one of thousands upon thousands of US servicemen and women doing as much and even more than I.   A few, such as Chaplain Blaisdell and Mike Strang are true heroes.  The body of individuals who made up the ‘army of compassion’ is, collectively, the hero.  It is the group that warrants special recognition and not one or another individual who did no different than the rest.