Tales of Adventure 1st Place: My Korean Adventure by Anita Martin-Harvey

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2014 15:52


This story was the first-place winner in our Winter 2014-’15 Tales of Adventure Contest, which asked FAN readers to write about a real-life adventure. Anita Martin-Harvey, 83, reaches back more than a half-century to tell the story of flying halfway around the world to adopt a pair of Korean children amid the tumultuous 1960s. “It squeezed my heart and made me realize that beyond adrenaline and suspense, adventure can remind us that we are human and connected by common needs and bonds,” says judge Chace Anderson.

By Anita Martin-Harvey

On a cool fall day in 1963, my husband and I stood on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport, waiting to board a turbo-prop Flying Tiger Line plane for Seoul, Korea. We would be joining 54 other couples. Our mission – to adopt Korean children and bring them back to the U.S.

This was a historic flight. It had never been done before. We already had adopted three Korean orphans who joined our three biological children. But gone were the days of simple proxy adoptions. A new immigration bill required both prospective parents to travel to the country of origin to complete the proceedings.

As we boarded the plane on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, we were well aware that our historic event had been overtaken by a tragedy that would change our world forever.  The day before, President Kennedy had been killed in Dallas.

Our trip would be a challenge even without this world-shattering event. Korea was in turmoil with continuing student riots against the military regime. We had committed to stay until the adoptions could be completed. We would bring back two little girls. Rebecca, 2, had been placed in the orphanage at Il San after removal from the City Baby Home, where the mortality rate was more than 80 percent. Robin, 9 months, whose mother left her with a neighbor but never returned to pick her up, was now in a rented facility at a Seoul hospital.


A few of the more than 800 orphans at the Il San orphanage

It was with much apprehension that we took off on the 24-hour flight. We landed several hours later on an airstrip in Cold Bay, Alaska, to refuel. We then sat for hours huddled in blankets as the icy wind whipped through the plane’s open doors. No explanation was given.

Finally we were told that the crew had been working to thaw the plane’s frozen water lines. This put us much behind schedule. There was a curfew at Kimpo Airport in Seoul. No planes could land between midnight and 6 a.m. Flying Tiger announced that it would fly us to Tokyo and put us up in a hotel that night.

Next morning at breakfast in Tokyo, the Associated Press correspondent traveling with us came into the room looking shaken and told us in a quavering voice that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot and killed by Jack Ruby. Our world was turning upside down.

There was much turbulence on the flight from Tokyo to Seoul, but my mind was taken off my queasiness with the first glimpse of Korea from the air. Brown, snow-dusted rice fields dotted with thatched huts spread out below me. Later, climbing down from the plane, we were greeted with an icy gale. It was the coldest I have ever been – even chillier than Cold Bay.

As we slowly traveled by bus through streets congested with multitudes of people, dilapidated cars and oxcarts, I could not help noticing the remaining evidence of the devastating war that had ravaged this land. It was my first experience in a third-world country.

I will never forget meeting my new daughters. First, Becky at the Il San orphanage next to the DMZ. She was asleep on a pad on the ondal (heated floor). I held her briefly but had to leave her there until later. We made many trips to the orphanage, and I still carry pictures of that place. Home to more than 800 orphans, it was crowded and bleak.


Anita’s first look at 9-month-old Robin

I remember Thanksgiving Day when so many small ones, after receiving bowls of oatmeal served from huge outdoor cooking pots, bowed their heads and sang “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” in Korean.

I remember the unheated room over the chapel where many older children lived with chapped cheeks and runny noses. They flocked toward us Americans, crying “Omoni? Aboji?” (Mother? Father?). It broke my heart.

Next, we met Robin. At the rented hospital facility in Seoul, 30 little ones were in what looked like apple boxes laid out around the room. Most were apathetic, but Robin poked her little head over the edge of the box and took in everything with her huge brown eyes. She had been sick with pneumonia and dysentery, but even that could not quench her bright spirit.

After many days of red tape and frustration, we were ready to leave with our children. Robin was running a fever, but the doctor told us to “get her out of here,” giving us some outdated liquid penicillin. It was all they had.


Anita and Robin on plane heading for home

The return flight was packed. Added to the 110 adults and Flying Tiger crew were 98 children between a few weeks and 10 years old. The bathrooms were overtaxed and by the time we landed in Anchorage to go through the public health inspection, the smell was overpowering. I was concerned that Robin would not pass the inspection, but she did and we were finally on our way back to Los Angeles.

We landed at midnight. Our AP correspondent stood and with tears running down his face, told us that this experience had touched him as no other had ever before.

We bundled our two new ones into our car, and we were on our way to introduce them to their siblings.

My Korean adventure was over, but to this day, so many, many years later, I remember every bit of it and feel the many emotions I experienced: anxiety, terror, compassion, wonder and an overwhelming love.


Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
By Guest Contributor December 15, 2014 15:52
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