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The Korean War: Humanitarian Heroes Fighting Hunger

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It is June 1950, and North Korean troops have crossed over the border to attack South Korea. Heavy artillery and tanks move in. War has erupted that would soon involve U.S. forces coming to the aid of the South, and the Communist Chinese army joining with the North.

If you are a civilian trapped in between this conflict, you would be in shock. You could try to outrun the enemy and flee to safer ground. Maybe you can escape. Maybe not.

A Reuters article described the mass exodus of Korean civilians in the summer of 1950 as a blanket of dust “raised by the trudging feet of thousands of refugees trekking south.”

A long stream of refugees moves along a road leading south after receiving evacuation orders from the South Korean army. (photo from Truman Library)

A long stream of refugees moves along a road leading south after receiving evacuation orders from the South Korean army. (photo from Truman Library)

But when war comes, there is always more than one enemy. With the chaos of armed conflict comes hunger. This foe can be the most relentless and hardest to escape. And so it was for Koreans.

United Press reporter Peter Kalischer witnessed Captain Mary Wilfong of Selma, Alabama with tears in her eyes caring for a malnourished orphan Korean child. Wilfong and other members of the U.S. Air Force were trying to evacuate 1000 children from the South Korean capitol of Seoul as the enemy was bearing down in December 1950.

Kalischer described the plight of these orphan children, who were originally left stranded at a port in Inchon when they could not get a rescue boat. U.S. Air Force chaplain Russell Blaisdell of Hayfield, Minnesota took charge and organized an airlift to take these children out of harm’s way.

L3-B/Korea 1951

A Korean toddler climbs aboard a C-54 bound for Cheju-do. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Kalischer wrote the children “had faces pinched by hunger and the devastation they had been through.” The orphans were flown to the island of Cheju-do.

Reporter Hal Boyle did a follow-up story on the orphans the following month. Some of the children under one year of age were too weak to survive. Malnutrition striking a child at that young age is particularly devastating, but the majority of children did make it.

Two C-47 transport planes brought in tons of food and gifts for the children from Americans. Blaisdell returned to Korea in 2001 for a tearful reunion with many of the children he had saved.

Americans reached out to help the suffering people of Korea. The CARE package, a powerful symbol of recovery for the World War II nations, was deployed for the Korean conflict. The CARE-for-Korea campaign was launched.

President Harry Truman said: “The great need in a war-devastated country leaves much that our people, as individuals, can do. I strongly urge all Americans to contribute to the CARE-for-Korea campaign to provide gift parcels of food, clothing, blankets, and similar needed items. Every CARE package delivered to a family in Korea, in the name of American donors, is proof of democracy in action to help its fellow man.”

Refugees needed as many humanitarian heroes as possible, whether those on the front lines or those organizing CARE packages and clothing drives back in the U.S.

On the island of Koje-Do, off the coast of South Korea, 70,000 refugees found their heroes in the UN Civil Assistance team led by U.S. Major Charles Arnold. Many of these refugees fled from the communist North Korea. The UN team arranged distribution of food, clothing and other supplies to the refugees.

In March 1951, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on how Major Arnold’s UN team fought hunger and malnutrition. Feeding stations were set up for the most vulnerable: Children, nursing mothers and the aged. The stations would serve a free rice and hot milk combination for the needy.

Arnold, a Cincinnati resident, described how children would arrive at the stations rubbing their stomachs crying the word “hungry.” But day after day of meals led to a dramatic change. The children were arriving at the station smiling and saying “hungerhaveno.”

The Enquirer reported, “After only a few weeks of this milk-and-rice diet you could actually see the children’s cheeks fill out and a healthy sparkle come to their eyes.”

Need more be said on why ending child hunger should be achieved in this world?

The fighting in Korea came to an end in 1953 and an armistice was declared. However, the fight against hunger would wage on, as there was tremendous destruction and displacement with which to contend.

There was a long rebuilding process ahead for Korea. In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the Food for Peace program. South Korea was one of the countries that benefited from this hunger-fighting initiative. CARE brought food and self-help measures to South Korea, including programs aimed at increasing local food production.

By the time of the Kennedy administration, there were two million children in South Korea receiving school meals from Food for Peace. This meant food for both body and mind as school meals increased class performance and attendance.

An international food for peace effort also saw some its earliest work back in Cheju-do during 1966. A food for work project was used for road construction. Workers would be given extra food rations in exchange for working on this key development project. The international food for peace mission was in a trial run at that time. But it is now officially established and known as the United Nations World Food Programme, the largest food aid organization.

Just this year the World Food Programme gave rice to the hungry in the conflict-torn Ivory Coast. One of the donors for this rice was South Korea.

They say the Korean War is the forgotten war. Nothing should ever be forgotten about the courage and sacrifice of those who fought in the war, and the humanitarian heroes who saved and changed the lives of a generation.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.