Everything else: scroll down to find a number of articles here including this brief article I wrote for publication in the Bellingham Herald for Veterans’ Day 2009.
VETERANS’ DAY THOUGHTS NOVEMBER 2009
By George F. Drake
Korean War Veteran
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 solace the crying child, feed the hungry child, 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 in from home thousands upon thousands of tons (not packages but TONS of packages) of material aid for the war child of Korea.
In my research on the relationship of our servicemen to the war child of Korea I came upon the story of the Kiddy Car Airlift of December 20, 1950 whereby over 950 children and more than 100 orphanage staff persons were rescued from certain death by Chaplain Russell L. Blaisdell and S/Sgt. Merle Y. Strang, (Mike) his Chaplain’s Assistant. If there was any one incident that epitomized the compassion our servicemen had for the war child of Korea this was it. I was quite distressed to find that Chaplain Blaisdell and S/Sgt. Strang had received no honors, no medals, no citations or recognition of any kind for this incredible rescue operation. Why? Because Chaplain 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 was the responsibility of the 8th Army. The court martial was not held but Blaisdell was embittered by the experience. It wasn’t until fifty years later that he finally received the recognition that he merited.
S/Sgt. 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 the 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, Wisconsin. Feeling that this was a gross injustice I began the process to get Mike 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 54 years after the event it took sponsorship by members of the U.S. Senate for approval. Washington State Senator 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 Maine to present S/Sgt. Merle (Michael) Strang’s Bronze Star to his brother, Homer.
On July 27th of 2003, fifty years after the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War, both Chaplain (Colonel) Russell L. Blaisdell and S/Sgt. Merle Y. 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 “Four Chaplain’s Award.” The award was presented to Chaplain Blaisdell here in Bellingham, Washington at the dedication of the Korean War Children’s Memorial located in Big Rock Garden Park. Unfortunately Strang had been dead five years by then and could not savor the honor.
One day I spotted a note in the local newspaper asking Veterans to share stories with classes at the local high school on Veteran’s Day. I decided to volunteer and went to the school at the appointed time on that November day a number of years ago. I was one of about 50 veterans from various wars, some in uniforms with all their medals pinned to their jackets or shirts, some in ragged jeans, some, like me, in casual attire. We were each assigned to a class and a student escorted us to our appointed classroom.
In the room I was introduced as a Korean War Veteran. I was in front of the class sitting cross legged on the top of the teacher’s desk.
‘Well, you have a live one.” I said. “What do you want?”
“Tell us war stories.” called out one kid.
“I don’t tell war stories.” I responded. “War is not entertainment.”
“Did you enlist or were you drafted?” asked another.
“Because I had a sense of duty to my country and wanted to help in the fight to protect our democracy. This is a Senior Civics class is it not? Will one of you please define ‘democracy’?”
No one ventured to do so.
“OK,” I said, “Let us take a different approach. Next week I will be hosting a delegation of visitors from Latin America including the Minister of Education from Panama, a newspaper editor from Costa Rica and a State Senator from Guatemala. They will be in Bellingham for three days to learn a bit about democracy in a small town in America. What should I do with them?” One student suggested that I could take them to the movies.
“Last year I saw the movie ‘Rambo’ in Chungking, China.” I said. “Would you suggest that the Chinese learned anything about American democracy by seeing that film?” Silence.
“You could have a beer bust” suggested one of the boys.
“This is almost the anniversary of ‘Krystallnacht’ which was in November of 1938. I am sure that began with a beer bust, or ended with one. No, having a beer party is not a symbol of a democratic society.”
I pointed to a boy in the back of the room and asked him what I should do with my visitors to show them democracy in Bellingham. The teacher intervened and said “Juan just arrived from Spain as an exchange student and speaks little English. It would be better to call on someone else. I responded, “En la semana entrante voy a tener un grupo de visitantes de America Latina. Que hago yo con ellos para muestrar a ellos la vida democratica en Bellingham?” Immediately he responded, “Se puede llevar los a un reunion del ayuntamiento.” [You could take them to a meeting of the city council.]
A girl in the front row asked if I would translate for her what he said and I responded “No. Too many people think that the only way to defend or to fight for your country is to shoot someone. You might begin by learning another language. Visit other countries. Sit on a rock in a slum and chat with the residents. Find out what their dreams are and how they feel about Americans. Learn something about their culture, their social systems and their values. In learning about them you will also learn more about yourselves. You might even learn what it is to be an American.”
We spent the rest of the period discussing how America treats her veterans. Not a happy time was had by all.
After resigning from the United States Information Agency I volunteered to be a local/regional host for the USIA International Visitor Program which brought influential visitors from countries all over the world for a 30 day visit to the US to ‘see democracy in action’ and to get to know the American way of life and culture first hand. I served in that role as a volunteer for over 30 years and hosted more than 100 delegations from nations all over the globe. One visitor was Amalia Garcia, currently governor of the state of Zacatecas but at that time she was a Senator in the Mexican Congress and the Vice President (later to become President) of the PRD, the left leaning political party of Mexico. I had one of our Washington State Senators tell her about the laws and ordinances that we had delineating how one files for public office, the paperwork one had to fill out about one’s wealth, property, etc., public disclosure of money donated to one’s campaign war chest, who it was from and how it was spent, etc, etc, etc. I took her to meetings of supporters of the Republican candidate for office and a neighborhood gathering for a Democrat candidate. She went door-belling with one of our women candidates for public office. On election day she went to the polls with me, entered the booth with me, watched me punch the ballot card and watched as I dropped it in the ballot box. She then went with that box in the car to the courthouse where she followed the box to the room where the lock was opened, where each ballot was checked for ‘chads’, where there were observers from both parties. She watched as the cards were put into the counting machine and then went outside to the public area and watched the results being posted on the bulletin board. When the results were all in we went to several parties of the winners of the various contests.
She spent 30 days touring the US but when she was debriefed by staff in the US Embassy on her return to Mexico City all she wanted to talk about was her four days in Bellingham! The following year when my wife and I were in Mexico City we called her Senate office and asked if we could have lunch together. She asked us to meet her at a certain restaurant and on arrival we found that joining us were about ten members of the Mexican Congress, all members of the PRD political party and also the Public Affairs Officer of the U.S. Embassy who had arranged her trip to the US. At the end of the delightful lunch she said that since we had shown her anything she wanted to see in Bellingham she wanted to know what we would like to see in Mexico City. I responded that I wanted to see one of the poorest barrios of the city. I said I wanted to see where the people who picked through garbage in the city garbage dumps lived. “That’s easy,” she replied. “Those people are all members of our party.” Turning to one of the delegates at the table she asked him to show us some of the poor sectors of his district later that day. That visit is a story for another day.
I was in Washington, DC, attending a meeting of Directors of University Year for Action programs. We had been asked to bring two or three students with us so they could talk to the press about their experiences in the program. One of the students I took was a young Native American woman, member of the Colville Tribe, named Charlotte Godfriedson. We were in the hotel lobby waiting for someone to meet us when Charlotte came running to me saying “George, Senator Goldwater is in the barber shop! He is one of my heros. Oh, how I would love to meet him.” “Come on,” I said, “show me where he is.”
We went down the hall to the barber shop and yup, that was him all right. “Come with me” I said to Charlotte as I entered the barber shop. “Senator Goldwater” I said and paused. “Yes,” he responded. “Senator I would like to introduce to you Charlotte Godfriedson, a young member of the Colville Tribe in Washington State who thinks you are the greatest Senator ever.” “What a pleasure to meet you,” said the Senator as he held out his hand to a startled Charlette. After an exchange of a few pleasantries we left and once in the hall Charlotte asked how I came to know the senator. I responded that I had never met him before but that I did not have to know him to make an introduction.
She found this hilarious but when I told her how I learned this ‘trick’ she laughed even more. Back when I was working with the Inter-American Geodetic Survey in Panama I was attending a local fiesta in a small town and was in a bar with a fellow named Guillermo. I was standing with my back to the bar surveying the crowd and Guillermo was on my right talking to the bar tender. Up comes a lovely young senorita to my left and orders a drink. I give Guillermo a light poke and point to my left. His eyes light up and he runs around me and says “Senorita, may I introduce my good friend George Drake?” And she responds as we shake hands, “Mucho gusto, soy Maria Sanchez.” We chatter a bit when Guillermo gives me a hefty kick and whispers “Now you introduce me, you pig!” Now that I have her name I introduce the two of them to each other. Oh, well, I learned fast.
I guess I had always been a bit forward, though. I recall being in Princeton, New Jersey, one Saturday when I was about 15 or 16 years old with a crew that was conducting an inventory at a hardware store. The gang of us, all employees of the same chain of hardware stores, moved all over the state doing that on Saturdays. After my lunch I went for a brief stroll when I noted coming toward me a person who could only be Albert Einstein. “Good Morning, Dr. Einstein,” I said as we came close to each other. “Good Morning young man” said Dr. Einstein as he passed. So now I can tell folks that I once met Dr. Einstein and exchanged pleasantries with him. Name dropper!