Col. Dean Hess dies at 97; helped rescue Korean War orphans

Dean Hess
Dean Hess, center, points out a target area on a map as he briefs two American-trained South Korean pilots while Brig. Gen. Kim Chung Yui watches.
(Jim Pringle, Associated Press)

Retired Air Force Col. Dean Hess, a fighter pilot who helped rescue hundreds of orphans in the Korean War and whose exploits inspired a Hollywood film starring Rock Hudson, has died in Ohio. He was 97.

Hess died March 2 at his home in Huber Heights, a suburb of Dayton, after a short illness, his son Lawrence Hess said.

Hess, an ordained minister, was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel when he helped arrange the evacuation of Korean orphans from their country’s mainland to safety on a coastal island, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

He was a significant figure in Air Force history, and his efforts to help Korean children are a “shining example” of the Air Force’s humanitarian airlift capabilities, museum historian Jeff Underwood said.


“What is less well-known is the instrumental role he played in training the fledgling South Korean Air Force,” Underwood said in a statement.

Hudson, one of Hollywood’s top leading men, portrayed Hess in the film “Battle Hymn” in 1957.

“Battle Hymn” was also the title of Hess’ autobiography. He used the proceeds from the movie and book to build an orphanage in South Korea, his son said.

“He was a humble man who loved children and never cashed in on his notoriety,” Lawrence Hess said.


A medal presented to Hess by South Korean President Syngman Rhee in 1951 for his service during the war is displayed at the museum near Dayton. Other Hess artifacts there include a flying helmet that he wore in Korea and that Hudson wore in the movie, which also featured Martha Hyer as his wife and Alan Hale Jr. as a mess sergeant.

The museum said Hess and Lt. Col. Russell Blaisdell, a chaplain, devised a plan to transport hundreds of orphans to refuge on the coastal island as part of Operation Kiddy Car. U.S. planes airlifted the children, and the men arranged food, money and clothing contributions for them, the museum said.

Hess was born in Marietta, Ohio, in 1917. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Hess was a pastor with a civilian pilot’s license. He joined the Army Air Forces and flew 63 missions in Europe.

In July 1948, Hess received a telegram ordering him back into uniform while he was studying for his doctorate at Ohio State University. He flew 250 combat missions in Korea.

He remained in the military once the war ended, serving at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton until he retired in 1969. He then taught high school for five years.

Hess is survived by three sons, a daughter and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His wife, Mary, died in 1996.

Material from the Associated Press and the Dayton Daily News was used in compiling this report.