How should we respond when someone else receives all of the praise and accolades for something we actually accomplished? I confess my natural, human reaction is to resent them for it. The example of one outstanding Korean War chaplain, however, clearly reveals how it is much more noble to simply reject resentment and move forward in life.
This column continues a story introduced in my last post, so if you missed it, you may find it helpful to pause and read that piece before continuing. It’s available here.
In discussing the plight of the orphans during the Korean War, I mentioned the name of Chaplain Russell Blaisdell. He and his ministry partner, Staff Sergeant Mike Strang, saved nearly a thousand orphans during a single heroic action in December of 1950.
The full story of the Kiddy Car Airlift can be found on the website of the Korean War Children’s Memorial.
Here are the highlights. For months Chaplain Blaisdell and Sergeant Strang had been rescuing homeless children from the streets of Seoul. Due to the rapid advance of Communist forces, the fall of the capital city became imminent.
The military was rapidly attempting to redeploy its assets, to minimize the resources which were destined to fall into the hands of the enemy. Transporting noncombatants to safety fell far down the long list of urgent missions. The children were nonessential. To everyone, that is, except these two men.
The details of their heroic effort are the stuff of movies. And a movie that included this great escape was indeed made. The only problem is that it did not reflect the true story, and neither of the true heroes received their due.
The story of this injustice is related online here. Briefly, another Air Force officer, a pilot who assisted Blaisdell with finding quarters for the refugees behind friendly lines, received the credit due to the ministry team. So, exactly how did this travesty come about?
Colonel Dean Hess wrote a book, entitled Battle Hymn. It sold well, and included many significant actions in which the author had presumably been directly involved. However, the most significant event, in which he was involved only indirectly, was a focal point of book and its subsequent film (starring Rock Hudson, no less).
Only in very recent years, and unfortunately after Strang had died, has the story been set straight. Blaisdell has received overdue recognition from the Air Force and the Republic of Korea. Strang’s recognition has necessarily been posthumous.
Dr. George Drake wrote an article on this unfortunate tale, and although he entitles it “Hess: Fraudulent Hero,” he does offer a less critical rationale for how misperceptions may have been carried so far.
Once the movie was released it seemed impossible for Hess to say “This is not a true portrayal of what happened.” Hess had become a captive of his own earlier mis-statement of the facts of the rescue. Recently Hess has privately, but not publicly, stated that he was upset with the way the movie distorted the story of the rescue but the truth of the matter is that his concern for that distortion of the facts did not prevent him from accepting the honors due someone else.
Drake reproduces correspondence between Strang and Blaisdell related to the matter. In 1957, Strang wrote his friend about having dinner with Hess in California, in the hopes that he might get a role in the film. “I went out there and he met me one night for dinner and asked me a few questions about what happened on Kiddy Car Operation and I never heard from him after that, as a matter of fact I called him any number of times and he never even had the courtesy to return my call or even leave a message for me.”
Blaisdell’s response brings us back to the question with which I began this column. Based on how the two of them had been overlooked, and especially in light of Strang’s disappointment at failing to get a break in a hoped for civilian career, what should the two of them do? Blaisdell took the high ground and wrote to his comrade in arms:
In regard to doing anything about it, I have decided in the negative. Although I agree with you in principle, the goal of our efforts, in regard to the orphans and also in the evacuation of the Koreans by convoy, 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 . . . This does not mean that I would not be willing to state the facts as they existed to anyone who might properly request them to substantiate your story.
Strang joined his chaplain on the high moral ground, and did not create a scandal. I hope that, had I been in their combat boots, I would have joined them there.
There is something quite alluring about fame. Not everyone is vulnerable to it—we all have our own weak links in our personal armor—but many are. Writers, I suspect are particularly susceptible to the wounds pride and renown can inflict. After all, who among us who writes does not desire a large audience? (Or at least a small but clearly “devoted” one.)
Even C.S. Lewis was not impervious to the assault of fame. In a letter to his friend Don Giovanni Calabria, Lewis describes how personal concerns prevented him from doing much writing at the time. With great personal insight and wisdom, he adds that this may not be such a bad thing.
As for my own work, I would not wish to deceive you with vain hope. I am now in my fiftieth year. I feel my zeal for writing, and whatever talent I originally possessed, to be decreasing; nor (I believe) do I please my readers as I used to. I labour under many difficulties. . . .
These things I write not as complaints but lest you should believe I am writing books. If it shall please God that I write more books, blessed be He. If it shall please Him not, again, blessed be He. Perhaps it will be the most wholesome thing for my soul that I lose both fame and skill lest I were to fall into that evil disease, vainglory.
Like Lewis, we are well served when we ponder the effects of fleeting fame and worldly success on our lives and souls. And, like Strang and Blaisdell, we should carefully weigh our own motivations whenever we desire to seize the recognition we believe we deserve.
After all, in the end what is untrue will be dispelled like the morning mists . . . and when that bright Light shines upon us all, only what is true and selfless will glow with the reflection of God’s own glory.