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Land of orphans
How the Korean War forever changed American adoption practices
Adoption is an age-old practice, in normal times and in times of upheaval. But international adoption—the adoption
of children from abroad—is not as old as some might think. After World War II, Americans did take children from overseas into their homes—several thousand from Europe and Japan. But it was not until after the Korean War (1950–53) that international adoption became a significant phenomenon in the United States. Between the Korean War and the end of the century, Americans adopted approximately 100,000 children from South Korea. Indeed, Korea was the number-one sending country of children to the United States until 1995, when it fell to third, behind China and Russia. It may not have been the first country whose children found homes in America, but it was where organized, systematic international adoption began.
Overseas adoption on the scale that occurred in Korea changed the way Americans envisioned and constructed their families in the second half of the 20th century. It helped do away with the adoption gold standard of finding a child who looked “as-if-begotten,” and it altered ideas about kinship and race. Illegitimate “GI babies” were among the first Korean beneficiaries. Adoption rates in the United States were soaring in the baby boom that followed World War II, and the demand for healthy white infants exceeded availability. When it became clear that there were Americans eager to take in mixed-race GI children, assorted religious groups and voluntary agencies—including those with orphanages in Korea built by American servicemen and missionaries—stepped forward to advance the process.
Photographs and articles in mass-market magazines such as Life, Collier’s, and Look also played a role. It is difficult to overstate the deprivation, poverty, and destruction wrought by the Korean War. Regarded by the rest of the world as a geographically limited conflict—a United Nations “police action”—it was a total war for Koreans. At the war’s close in 1953, South Korea reported roughly $2 billion in property damage, the equivalent of the country’s gross national product in 1949. In newspapers, on newsreels, and on radio programs, from the moment the fighting erupted, Americans were inundated with coverage of the devastation: smoke rising from deserted villages, ancient city gates towering over smashed buildings, and, as fighting persisted, lines of laden refugees plodding through driving snow. Feature stories offered heartbreaking sketches: widows, lepers, a family sleeping on a single straw mat, bodies sprawled on the side of a road. Juxtaposed, always, were the faces of orphaned Korean children—babies wailing beside the bodies of their dead mothers, gangs of children roaming the streets, foraging for food and sleeping in the rubble. In almost every human-interest story about the Korean War, these “waifs,” “urchins,” and “moppets” were prominent. Korea was, one mission group declared, “a land of orphans.”
Initially, programs such as the Foster Parents Plan, Christian Children’s Fund, and World Vision provided ways for Americans to virtually adopt Korean children, through donations of food, clothing, and money. But soon servicemen began returning to the United States with adopted full-Korean children. These early adoptions were crucial: With them, the possibility of taking in a Korean child entered the thoughts of ordinary Americans. The children whom these men brought home—the vast majority of them boys—owed their good fortune to a little-examined aspect of the war: the semi-formal practice of U.S. military units “adopting” Korean mascots.
Drummer boys probably served as the first human mascots in the U.S. Army, during the Civil War. In the First and Second World Wars, American soldiers across Europe continued the mascot tradition, sharing shelter, clothing, food, and candy with local boys.
In Korea, servicemen and the media used the term mascot interchangeably with houseboy, but the two could be quite distinct. A mascot did the domestic labor of a houseboy, but his role was more complex. Servicemen fed, clothed, and even educated mascots, integrating them into their units. Sergeant Yo-Yo, for instance, was a pint-sized boy discovered in a Seoul gutter by members of the 55th Military Police Company, in January 1953. Two months later Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for military personnel, wrote that he had “a bed, footlocker, and clothing rack” and stood “inspections with the other members of his unit.” Servicemen could receive permission from superior officers to have mascots live in the barracks with them. Robert Mosier, a Marine sergeant, wrote about mascots for National Geographic in 1953. The arrangement he had with his mascot was typical: Kim “policed our quarters, washed my clothes, and guarded my belongings” in return for “tent space and part of my rations and whatever odd bits of clothing and gear I could scrounge.” Mosier’s broad use of the word “adopt” (Kim was not an orphan) to describe his informal relationship with Kim was also typical: “I adopted Kim. Or perhaps it was the other way around. At any rate, we took care of each other.”
Off the base, mascots sometimes had military value. Eleven-year-old Butch Chango saved two Marine corporals in 1950 when he warned them that enemy soldiers were nearby. They asked how he knew, and he responded, “Because the crickets have stopped chirping over there in the rice field.” At that, reported Stars and Stripes, “The Marines turned a machine gun on the rice paddy and smoked out a squad of Red Koreans.” Grateful, the two corporals subsequently wrote to the U.S. immigration service, according to the newspaper, seeking “permission to bring Butch back to the United States.” Mascot Joseph Anthony was riding with his company toward a bridge when a Korean man warned that the communists had wired it with explosives. Anthony quickly interpreted in his pidgin English—”Capi-tan, we go back, hubba hubba! This boom!” June 1953 saw the mascot on his way to Boys Town, Nebraska.
Mascots came to their units in a variety of ways. The First Cavalry Division received their seven-year-old as a gift. “A bunch of us guys were sitting around the fire one night when some South Korean walked up with Henry hand in hand and said, ‘Presento,'” recalled a corporal. “He just gave him to us.” Link S. White, who was adopted by an Air Force sergeant and immigrated to the United States in 1955, progressed from houseboy to mascot to adopted son in the space of four years. One day, without checking with anyone first, he had begun sweeping up the mess tent at the base of the Army’s 30th Ordnance Detachment near Hamhung (now in North Korea). He returned and worked the next day, and on the third day he was offered a paying job as a full-time mess boy. Eventually he developed bonds with the men around him that allowed him to make the transition—arguably, the promotion—to mascot.
Servicemen were buddies or big brothers to their mascots, but the men also acted in a parental capacity. The 19th Quartermaster Company in Taegu made sure that its mascot, eight-year-old Bonzo, “was in bed by 9 p.m. and took regular showers” (discipline was stern: Bonzo was demoted from the rank of honorary master sergeant to corporal when he missed reveille). In April 1953, two bachelor “dads” went to a parent-teacher association meeting at a school in Seoul to represent their “adopted” son, Mike.
The press unfailingly depicted mascots as spunky, pint-sized characters out of Horatio Alger—”amiable Oriental orphan(s)” who took to American ways. This was the image epitomized by the plucky orphan sidekick Short Round in Hollywood’s first Korean War film, The Steel Helmet (1951). Mascots impressed servicemen with their cheekiness and endeared themselves through hard work, earnest imitation of their caretakers, and loyalty. When his Marines pulled out without him, Butch, the 11-year-old mascot of the First Marine Band, walked nearly 25 miles from Seoul to Inch’on. There, he found an Army unit that was moving out by ship and convinced them to take him along. Dressed in a cut-down uniform, Butch then hopped a train and rode almost a hundred miles through guerrilla country until he found his Marines. Servicemen showed dedication to their mascots, too, but they left the boys behind in orphanages when their units pulled out or their superiors ordered them to. Often, the mascots ran away from the orphanages and returned to life on the streets, or found a new unit. As a serviceman explained, “You can rename these kids without any trouble or money because they don’t have birth records.”
These were children to be teased, played with, and cared for—a semblance of family and a source of down-home fun for servicemen who were weary and often miserable. Link White recalled, “I did a lot of horse-playing with the unit’s GIs. . . . We wrestled and . . . even cussed at each other, just for the fun of it.” Mascots might entertain GIs by putting on boxing matches. Sambo Pribbenow’s “adoptive” father bragged about the boy’s ability to “sketch portraits, juggle, sew, [and] sing.” Speculating on the reasons for keeping mascots, Stars and Stripes wrote in a 1951 article titled “GI Buddies”: “Perhaps they serve as symbols of the clean and decent things homesick soldiers have left behind. Perhaps to see these tattered, hungry, sick in heart and body, war waifs regain the healthy, happy radiance which is childhood’s birthright, compensates to some extent the soldiers’ daily contact with war’s senseless waste and drudgery and suffering.”
Some mascots grasped this. Former Washington State senator Paull H. Shin, who was a mascot from the age of 15 until his adoption and emigration to the United States at 18, said that, in addition to his domestic work, he helped servicemen “find some comfort in what was an otherwise difficult situation.”
The bonds of affection that developed between members of the military and their mascots led to some of the first intercountry adoptions from Korea. Photos of grinning servicemen and their adopted or soon-to-be-adopted Korean sons appeared regularly in Stars and Stripes. Sergeant Bernard L. Cook, it was noted, began adoption proceedings shortly after six-year-old mascot Wild Bill joined the 724th Ordnance Battalion; Cook told the paper in 1954 that he would not go home “until I can take Billy with me.” Stories often went on to describe the adopter’s patience and persistence in navigating the military and immigration bureaucracies. As pioneers, these servicemen had little guidance in how to adopt, so they wrote letters to any authority they could think of—the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the U.S. embassy, their ministers, priests, and representatives in Congress—and shared advice with one another.
In its coverage, Stars and Stripes emphasized the mascots’ metamorphoses from “Oriental” orphans to Americans, a trope picked up by mainstream magazines such as Life. One mascot appeared in Stars and Stripes in a cowboy outfit. So Yong Chong, a six-year-old who was being adopted by Sergeant Raymond L. Hill, was photographed taking his turn at the plate during a game of baseball, clad in fatigues, suspenders, and a cap and flanked by similarly dressed GIs. The message was that these boys could cross from one world into another and assimilate into American society.
Seven-year-old Ernie Joe, who had been adopted by Sergeant Ravil B. Branham and his wife, Dorothy, of San Antonio, Texas, had his picture taken in 1954 in a cut-down Army uniform, with JOE stenciled over the left side of his chest; per Stars and Stripes, he would “switch to khakis . . . for the flight to the States.” And he would visit the zoo before starting school. Chief Boatswain’s Mate Vincent J. Paladino’s adoption of Kyung Soo Lee was covered by both Stars and Stripes and mainstream media. Renamed Lee James Paladino, the four-and-a-half-year-old came “home” to New Rochelle, New York, in 1953. Stars and Stripes described Lee as “a first grader, proud possessor of a new bike, and avid follower of television Western serials, and the pride and joy of Paladino’s parents, grandparents, and about 30 uncles, aunts, and cousins.” Accompanying the article were photographs of a beaming Lee standing on a swing, riding a bicycle with streamers fluttering from the handlebars, and striding down a sidewalk jauntily swinging his schoolbooks. The New York Times heralded Lee’s arrival with the caption “Future citizen arrives.”
Although the children were depicted in proverbial American ways, many mascot adoptions were in fact quite unconventional. For one thing, people who were ordinarily not allowed to adopt under regular social work criteria—single individuals and older couples—were adopting. Lee Paladino was adopted by a bachelor, and Ernie Joe’s new parents were 43. Additionally, some servicemen arranged for others in their families to take in mascots. The Beauchamps adopted Kim, who had been their son’s stretcher bearer in Korea. When their son died of his injuries, his parents fulfilled his “last wish,” that they “bring Kim to the States and give him a home.” Lieutenant Robert W. Field’s parents adopted 10-year-old Rocky, his company’s mascot, and another soldier asked his parents to adopt a seven-year-old mascot who, he said, was like a brother to him.
Mostly, GIs’ efforts to rescue Korean children were about simple decency, the desire to do something in the face of suffering. But there was also the sense, touted in Stars and Stripes and elsewhere, that these servicemen were representing their nation by their actions. “Will the Korean people . . . remember the GIs whose job it was to break and smash and burn things, but who tried to mend what they could and to blot the tears off at least a few grimy cheeks?,” Mosier asked rhetorically in his National Geographic article. Intentionally or not, their child welfare efforts wordlessly served a political function for the military and the nation—justifying, mitigating, and projecting positively the country’s new position as a superpower in the Cold War.
Mascots lived with servicemen in a hypermasculine environment, and not all the young men around them assumed the role of parent or big brother. One GI criticized his fellow servicemen for failing to curb their obscene language around mascots. Social workers in Korea—American, British, and Korean—regarded mascots as having been corrupted by their contact with the military. The boys were described by a member of the profession as being “domineering, bullying, boastful, and recalcitrant.” Mascots had difficulty adjusting to nonmilitary life in the orphanages and “almost without exception gave trouble,” the same social worker said. In one extreme case, a 12-year-old former mascot was shuttled around the United States after his adoptive parents decided they could not accept him. In the end, the boy was returned to Korea, where he was reported to be living in another Army camp. The irony for some mascots, then, was that while contact with the U.S. Army presented opportunities for adoption that very contact made them seem unsuitable to it in the eyes of social workers in their own country.
Six months into the Korean War, a Canadian journalist met a two-and-a-half-year-old mascot—fattened on Army rations, dressed in a corporal’s uniform—whom he described as unable to speak intelligibly in Korean or English. The journalist noted, “Nobody seems to have figured out what’s to become of him when the U.S. Army moves out . . . but that’s a detail.” His dismissive (or perhaps ironic) attitude about what might happen to a child like that highlighted the uncertainties of mascot life. Mascots might eat and live well while they were associated with the military, but it was unclear what would happen to them when they had neither the protection of their American benefactors nor the support of a Korean family network. Social workers in Korea and the United States tended to discourage mascot adoptions, suggesting alternatives such as sponsorship.
As early as 1951, soldiers received warnings from military authorities against becoming too fond of their mascots, since U.S. immigration law would prevent the entry of even legally adopted Korean children. Even so, between 1950 and 1953, an uncounted number of full- and mixed-Korean children came to the United States through special dispensations.
In the mid-1950s, the U.S. military was moving toward prohibiting the practice of keeping mascots altogether, and mascot adoptions no longer dominated adoptions from Korea. By then, servicemen were adopting full-Korean boys and girls and GI babies of both sexes.
The servicemen who adopted Korean mascots paved the way for these and the thousands of intercountry adoptions to come. On a practical level, their adoption requests helped lay the procedural groundwork in the United States. Because U.S. immigration law at that time barred most Asians, members of Congress often had to pass a private bill to allow the entry of an adopted Korean child. Lawmakers’ familiarity with Korean adoption proved useful as Congress undertook to craft permanent orphan legislation throughout the 1950s. The Refugee Relief Act of 1953 (RRA) provided the first crucial opening. Although the RRA named most of its intended beneficiaries—refugees, escapees, expellees, and so on—by nationality, it did not do so for orphans. “Orphan” became an exceptional, apolitical category that superseded both nationality and race. Congress added the orphan language to the RRA at the last minute, in response to the hundreds of private bills that had been introduced by prospective American adoptive parents. As historian Carl J. Bon Tempo put it, the RRA provided a critical “back door” for Korean children, who would otherwise have been subject to a total annual quota of 100 immigrants from their country.
The servicemen who adopted Korean children also contributed to the expansion of international adoption on an imaginative level, helping to broaden notions of family, race, and nation in the United States to include racially mixed adoptive families. Americans’ growing acceptance of these families has in turn abetted transnational adoptions from other countries and other continents. The language of humanitarianism, rescue, and colorblind love first deployed in the service of Korean mascots lives on.
Arissa H. Oh is an assistant professor of history at Boston College. Her article is drawn and adapted from her new book, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoptions, by permission of Stanford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.