By SAM ROBERTS
MARCH 7, 2015
Dean Hess, a flying preacher who unwittingly bombed a German orphanage during World War II and six years later helped rescue hundreds of Korean foundlings endangered by Communist troops converging on Seoul, died on Monday at his home in Huber Heights, Ohio, near Dayton. He was 97.
His death, after a short illness, was confirmed by his son Lawrence.
As a young minister of the Disciples of Christ Church, Mr. Hess preached his first sermon at 16 and flew a Piper Cub as he hopscotched from parish to parish in the Midwest. But after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he decided to enlist in the Aviation Cadet Program.
The church elders were incredulous. But he recalled telling them: “If we believe our cause is just and necessary, how in all conscience can I ask others to protect it — and me — while I keep clean of the gory mess of war?”
His wartime exploits — he flew more than 300 combat missions over Europe and Korea and retired as a lieutenant colonel — were immortalized in an autobiography, “Battle Hymn,” and a movie of the same name. (“Wing and a Prayer” was taken.) He was played by Rock Hudson.
In World War II, Col. Hess unwittingly bombed an orphanage. CreditU.S. Air ForceHe was also a consultant to the film and, for the airborne scenes, flew the plane at the center of the story: an F-51 bearing the number 18 and, on the engine cowling, Korean characters that translated as “By faith I fly.”
After enlisting, he was sent to France in 1944 and flew 63 combat missions there for the Army Air Forces. On one, he wrote in “Battle Hymn,” he was strafing railroad yards at Kaiserslautern, Germany, when a 1,000-pound bomb he had dropped overshot its target and struck a brick apartment building. Dozens were killed.
“A little hole appeared in the wall from the penetration of the bomb casing, and a moment later the insides of the building spilled out,” he wrote.
Sometime later, driving a jeep through Kaiserslautern, he learned that the blackened shell of the building that his bomb had destroyed had been an orphanage and a school for hundreds of children of local war workers. He tried not to look.
“But it seemed to stare at me like some malevolent eye,” he wrote. “I wondered if beneath the piles of bricks a few small bodies still lay, as yet undiscovered.”
After the war, he earned a master’s degree in European history at Ohio University and was working on his doctorate at Ohio State in 1948 when the military recalled him. (By then the Army Air Forces had become the Air Force, a separate branch.)
He was deployed to Korea, ostensibly to train the fledgling South Korean Air Force, but there was no keeping him out of combat — or from intervening to provide relief for starving and homeless children orphaned by the war.
According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Colonel Hess; Lt. Col. Russell L. Blaisdell, a command chaplain; Staff Sgt. Merle Strang; and other Fifth Air Force airmen and Korean social workers started what they called Operation Kiddy Car.
They rounded up orphans in Seoul, found them shelter and medical care, and collected contributions of food, clothing and cash. After commandeering 16 C-54 transports, they evacuated the children from Incheon to Jeju, an island off the southern Korean coast where Colonel Hess helped establish an orphanage.
President Syngman Rhee of South Korea awarded him a medal in 1951. Colonel Hess later donated the proceeds from the book and film to support a second orphanage near Seoul and adopted a 5-year-old Korean girl in 1960.
A reporter for The Air Force Times once conjectured that Operation Kiddy Car represented atonement of sorts for the accidental bombing in Germany.
“I do not know,” Colonel Hess said. Of course, anyone would be sympathetic to the plight of children, he said, but added, “At the time of the bombing, it seemed like just another mission, accomplished with a degree of success because at least one bomb had found its intended target in the railroad yard.”
As he flew back to France from Kaiserslautern, he recalled, he wondered whether he had killed anyone, but was more concerned about whether he had fulfilled his mission. “If I was suffering,” he wrote, “it was in some remote and subconscious part of my mind; for when I became a combatant, it was with the full knowledge that I had to accept killing in behalf of the way of life I had sworn to protect.”
Dean Elmer Hess was born on Dec. 6, 1917, in Marietta, Ohio. His father, Lemuel, was the city government’s electrician. His mother, the former Florence Miller, was a homemaker. Mr. Hess was a graduate of Marietta College.
After returning from Korea, Colonel Hess served in recruiting and public affairs roles until he retired from the Air Force in 1969. He later taught high school economics, history and psychology in Ohio. He never returned to the ministry. Besides his son Lawrence, he is survived by two other sons, Edward and Ronald; a daughter, Marilyn Hess; seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Mary Lorentz, died in 1996.
Lawrence Hess said his father had grown up wanting to be a pastor. According to an article in Life magazine in 1957, when the film “Battle Hymn” was released, Colonel Hess once said his life so far — it was not even half over — had been a confluence of flying and faith.
“Flight brought me many times closer to God,” he said.