A story of how countless U.S. soldiers helped save the lives of thousands of orphaned Korean children during the Korean War, nearly 60 years ago.

BELLINGHAM —

First of all, this story is not about George Drake.

Yes, the colorful 80-year-old retired sociology professor tells a great tale, one in which he plays an important role — even if he insists it’s a minor one.

Rather, this is the story of how countless American soldiers helped save the lives of thousands of orphaned Korean children during the Korean War, nearly 60 years ago.

It is a forgotten story, Drake says, because that war itself was so brutal and horrific that soldiers did not want to talk about it when they came back home. And because stories of selflessness and humanity in a war zone decades ago are trumped in the headlines by atrocities on today’s battlefields.

So, on this Veterans Day, we turn to Drake to learn how he and countless other U.S. soldiers, working independently of one another, helped build and assist Korean orphanages across that country during the war.

By one count, U.S. troops aided 100,000 children who were set adrift after their families were split by warfare, their parents killed by bombs, rampant disease or hunger. The war, fought between 1950 and 1953, was the first significant armed conflict of the Cold War.

It took Drake 12 years of research, and trips to Washington, D.C., and Tokyo. In the end, he has quantified the breadth and scope of help U.S. soldiers gave to roughly 400 Korean orphanages.

“I’m a sociologist, I’m interested in collective behavior,” Drake said. “I put together 1,800 of these stories. It’s a story that’s never been told.”

Documentary

One day in October this year, a South Korean film crew arrived at Drake’s Bellingham house at the tip of Lake Whatcom, next to Big Rock Garden Park.

Korean-American producer Jessica Oh, with CJ Media in Seoul, was the fourth South Korean journalist to trek to Bellingham to interview Drake. In South Korea, the story of the Korean orphans has been spreading.

Oh’s documentary, expected to air on TV in South Korea in December, will tell the story of the war from a Korean-American woman’s perspective. Oh was intrigued to learn about the children orphaned by the war.

“What amazed me was … that George Drake had such an unbelievable attachment with these kids, which he still does,” Oh said.

With her was Bob Rue, a retired Bellevue dental technician and Korean War orphan. Rue lived in the orphanage where Drake was a volunteer.

“I love these people — they took care of me,” said Rue, who later changed his Korean name to an American one and immigrated to the United States. “I had no clothes. No food. Looked like a wild doggy.”

Rue pulled from his wallet two well-worn photos of himself at age 10 — dressed in surplus GI clothing and a captain’s hat, he poses with several grinning U.S. soldiers.

“How sweet, how warm their hearts,” he said.

Drake does not know if he met Rue in the camp. As many times as he insists the story is not about him, he has had trouble redirecting the gratitude of Koreans whose lives were saved by somebody in a soldier’s uniform. He has become for many orphans the embodiment of all compassionate American soldiers — a kind of GI everyman.

“I’ve met six kids who said I saved their lives,” Drake said. “Sometimes, I think they’re mistaken. But that’s all right. They need closure also. They need somebody to say thank you to.”

Starved

George Drake was 22 when he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Korea in 1952. He’d studied Chinese in college and did well on an Army aptitude test, so he was given a job in intelligence, in the 326th Communication Reconnaissance Company in the city of Uijeongbu.

Not long after he arrived, Drake and other soldiers volunteered at a nearby orphanage, where they were warmly greeted by a dozen children. “They were starved for affection,” he said.

But also, literally, they were starving — malnourished, diseased, barely clothed and dirty. Drake had never seen such poverty, or such desperation.

The soldiers wrote letters home, describing the conditions and asking for help from churches, Rotary clubs and other organizations. Americans began shipping clothes and supplies to the orphanages in such quantity that at one point, with the packages stacking up on the wharf in San Francisco, the Army had to lease a freighter to bring it all over, Drake said.

William Asbury directed field operations in Korea during the war for the Christian Children’s Fund. He estimates that about 100,000 Korean orphans were aided by soldiers’ efforts.

“I refer to them as an army of compassion, and it really was exactly that,” said Asbury, 86, who later became editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and now lives in Olympia, where he is retired.

Asbury, a veteran of World War II, thinks American aid to orphans in Korea was unlike humanitarian efforts in World War II because the troops were dug in during long stretches. That gave the GIs time to get to know the orphans.

There’s a darker side to this story, too, Asbury notes: Thousands of children were born to Korean mothers and American military fathers during the conflict. Some of these children ended up in orphanages, too.

Aiding the orphans helped the soldiers assuage their own conflicted feelings about the brutality of the war, Drake said. More than two million people were killed, including countless civilians, and 37,000 U.S. soldiers.

“The GIs had to convince themselves they were not killers,” he said. “They needed the kids to reconfirm to themselves that they were caring human beings.”

Back to U.S.

After the fighting stopped, Drake went back to school, getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of California, Berkeley. He married and starting teaching at Western Washington University. He was the founding director of WWU’s China Teaching Program, director of the school’s Center for East Asian Studies and a member of the Bellingham City Council from 1974 to 77.

In 1998, shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, Drake, now retired, began to think about the orphans’ story. He had a hunch that the soldiers’ humanitarian aid had been more widespread than anyone knew, but that the story had been lost to history.

He began digging into microfilm at WWU. He went on research trips: to the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Md., and the archives of the Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo. Packing a portable scanner, he scanned about a thousand photos and newspaper stories about the war orphans. And he began to collect stories from GIs and former orphans.

He developed a Web page, and in 2005, helped create an exhibit of photos that was displayed in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas called “GIs and the Kids — A Love Story.”

Drake phoned Asbury out of the blue one day. The two men became good friends. Asbury says Drake has been relentless, and selfless, in his work to tell the story about the GIs and the orphans.

Drake has been to South Korea six times since the fighting stopped, and “I’m somewhat in awe of the amount of interest in Korea,” he said. But he’s also wary of the attention that’s been showered on him.

During a visit to Gwangju, South Korea, he was made an honorary citizen of the city. But he tore up his prepared speech at the ceremony and begged people to realize that he was just one of thousands of servicemen who aided Korean orphans.

And when Jessica Oh and her camera crew visited Drake in Bellingham, he kept reminding her that he was just a bit player, just the historian.

I am not the story,” he said to Oh. “Remember that.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219