CINCINNATI — Retired Air Force Col. Dean Hess, who helped rescue hundreds of orphans in the Korean War and whose exploits prompted a Hollywood film starring Rock Hudson, has died at age 97.
Hess died Monday at his home in Huber Heights, a suburb of Dayton, after a short illness, his son Lawrence Hess said Thursday.
Hess, an ordained minister, was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel when he helped arrange 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, a year after he starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in "Giant."
"Battle Hymn" also was the title of Hess' autobiography. He used the movie and book proceeds 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.
Lawrence Hess said he accompanied his father to South Korea in 1999 and saw Koreans' respect for him.
"It was like traveling with a rock star," he said.
Hess, who was born in Marietta, flew 250 combat missions in Korea and 63 missions in World War II. He is survived by three sons, a daughter and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His wife, Mary Hess, died in 1996.
A funeral is scheduled for Saturday in Huber Heights.