HUBER HEIGHTS, Ohio — Dean E. Hess, an ordained minister turned Air Force fighter pilot whose role in helping save the lives of hundreds of orphans in the Korean War was immortalized in a Hollywood film, died this week in Huber Heights.

Hess, a retired colonel, was 97. Hollywood film star Rock Hudson played him in the 1957 film “Battle Hymn,” based on the autobiographical book of the same name.

Hess died at his home Monday night surrounded by family members, said his son, Larry D. Hess, 71, who lived on the same street as his father.

“He was a very humble man who did his best to avoid the spotlight,” Hess said. His father, a Marietta, Ohio, native, agreed to the film and book deal in the 1950s because proceeds went to build an orphanage in Korea, his son said. “He truly loved children,” he said.

Among other honors, Dean Hess has a spot on the Dayton Walk of Fame, joining the likes of Wilbur and Orville Wright, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and former Gov. James M. Cox. A gold Navy flight helmet he wore in Korea, and Hudson wore in the film, is on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force as part of the Korean War exhibit. Also there is a Korean Order of Merit for National Foundation medal the president of South Korea presented Hess in 1951.


In the winter of 1950, then Lt. Col. Hess devised a plan with Lt. Col. Russell L. Blaisdell, a chaplain, to bring orphans from the Korean mainland to the coastal island of Cheju-do as part of “Operation Kiddy Car,” according to an Air Force historical narrative.

The orphans faced a crisis as communist forces pushed in from North Korea, fought through the lines of U.N. troops and threatened to take over the South Korean capital of Seoul.

“Misery resulting from the Communist onslaught touched upon millions all along the peninsula, but upon the little ones most harshly,” Hess wrote in his book.

He raised money, food and clothing for the relief effort and made arrangements to receive the orphans on the island as 15 C-54 transports and a C-47 cargo plane evacuated nearly 1,000 children, the Air Force and his book noted. He used the donations to start an orphanage on Cheju-do.


Larry Hess said his father’s biggest regret in Korea is that not more children were able to make it alive to the airfield to fly them to safety on the island.

Hess, who flew 250 combat missions in Korea and flew 63 missions in Europe in World War II, also had a lead role in training Korean pilots during the war. The film, “Battle Hymn,” references Hess accidentally bombing an orphanage in Germany during World War II. Larry Hess said his father regretted what happened, but also saw it as what happens in war.

Miami Township Police Chief Ronald L. Hess, 58, another son, remembers traveling in 2002 to South Korea with his father and strangers thanking Dean Hess for saving one of their relatives in Korea.

“He admired the Korean people and still had until this day friends that he met back then,” he said.

Larry Hess recalled a trek to South Korea where he and his father met the nation’s highest leaders in 1999. “For me, it was like traveling with a rock star,” the retired Army lieutenant colonel said.

Hess spoke about his experiences in Korea and about the movie at the Reel Stuff Film Festival at the Dayton Convention Center in 2008, festival organizer Ron Kaplan remembered.

The former combat pilot shunned public attention and “he was very gentle, kind and quiet, but he certainly wasn’t shy,” Kaplan said.


Larry Hess said his father once expected a life in the ministry.

“He knew from the age of 16 that he was going to be a pastor, but I don’t think he ever contemplated a military career,” Hess said. That changed when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, and killed more than 2,000 U.S. service members, sunk warships, destroyed warplanes and ushered in the U.S. declaration of war against Japan and Germany.

In a June 2000 interview with the Dayton Daily News, Dean Hess said he couldn’t ask his parishioners to join the military if he didn’t. “When you’re working with young people serving their country, then you have to look at yourself,” he said then.

Already having a civilian pilot’s license in hand, he planned to become a Marine Corps aviator in the war. But the directions a postal carrier gave him sent him to the Army Air Corps recruiting station in Cleveland. “So, OK, I thought, they fly and they fight,” Hess wrote in his book. “What difference does the color of a uniform make? This is the way great decisions are made.”

In July 1948, Hess received a telegram ordering him back into uniform while he was studying for his doctorate at Ohio State University. Once the Korean War was over, he stayed in. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was his last military assignment, Larry Hess said.

Dean Hess taught high school for five years after he retired from the Air Force in 1969. His wife, Mary, preceded him in death.