Korean War survivor continues search for GI who saved him
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea -- While his aging body stood in front of an audience at the Dragon Hill Lodge Aug. 4, Mr. Chang's mind was with a boy in the midst of a war almost 70 years away. Silent and red-eyed, he lingered there alone for a moment before inviting the spectators to join him.
Chang (full name withheld by request) was there to recount a story of tragedy and hardship punctuated by what he described as "miraculous" interventions by individuals who helped him survive the Korean War and its aftermath to a gathering of about 50 service members at the Eighth Army Prayer Luncheon.
"I was born in Itaewon and grew up there," Chang began. "At that time, it was just a small farm village and my father raised cabbages, strawberries and other things. My family was very happy and had no worries at all."
His peaceful and worry-free life was shattered when North Korean forces invaded the south June 25, 1950. Chang was 11-years-old.
The North Korean army took Seoul within three days of the invasion. By that time, Chang's family had joined the flood of evacuees fleeing south -- the direction they believed would lead to safety.
Chang described the road south as narrow and packed with frightened people screaming for help and shouting the names of the missing. Life, he said, was all about survival at that point.
"It was just like a mad exodus," he said. "My mom kept telling me and my siblings to hold hands and stick together. Otherwise, we would never find each other again."
It wasn't long before his mother's fears became a reality. Near the city of Anyang, caught amongst the press of people fleeing south from the North Korean invaders, Chang was pushed down from behind. With more than 2.4 million people fleeing south it was nearly impossible for a small child to pick out individuals in the crowd. When Chang got back to his feet, his family was no longer in sight.
Chang went on to describe an increasingly desperate and miserable situation.
"I was hungry, lonely and hopeless. I have seen so many dead bodies. The smell of death was everywhere and I thought there was no meaning of my life anymore," he said. "I decided to give up everything and die."
Chang lay down on the ground waiting to die until a Korean Soldier found him and offered him half of his hard-tack ration -- crackers called "geonppang". He then told Chang to keep walking.
"I still eat [geonppang] everyday so I don't forget my gratitude toward him. It was the very thing that revived me and pulled me out from the desperate darkness when I gave up," he said.
Chang made it as far as Suwon, where he waited until U.N. forces recaptured Seoul in September, 1950. He and a group of about half a dozen war orphans then started the journey back to Seoul in hope of reuniting with any surviving family members.
By 1952 the group was living in Yeouido, where they stayed for several months. During the day they begged, scavenged and stole food. At night they slept under a bridge on the Han River.
Chang said it was common for U.S. service members from nearby K-16 Air Base to visit the riverside to wash their vehicles. Sometimes, Chang said, the Soldiers would pay him to help.
It was while washing a Jeep for an Airman who Chang only remembers as Votow, that his life changed for the better. Chang said Votow took a liking to him and "adopted" him.
"He treated me like his son and named me Shorty," he said.
Votow, who Chang said was assigned to the 6167th Air Police Squadron, moved Chang into a tent on K-16 where he lived with eight other airmen. He fed Chang, clothed him and paid for him to go to school. Chang said Votow did all of this without asking anything in return.
"I still don't get what made Votow decide to help a boy in need who was nothing different from others," Chang said. "He truly opened the second path for my life. I wouldn't have been able to make it without him."
When it was time for Votow to leave Korea, he told Chang he wouldn't be able to go back to the United States with him, but promised the other members of his unit would continue taking care of him and ensuring he continued his education. The Airmen of the 6167th continued to assist Chang until he left to resume the search for his family near the end of 1954.
He returned to Itaewon and found his parents in 1955.
Hearing the stories of how he survived and the people who came to his aid, Chang's parents thanked God for all the miracles that had happened to him.
Chang said the name "Votow" is deeply engraved in his heart that he is still looking for him 66 years after the start of the Korean War.
"Now that I've grown up and become a successful man, I have tried so hard to find Votow. But I haven't found him yet. I have never been to the States," he said. "And I will not go there until I find where Votow is."
Chang said in the 1970s and 80s he spoke to many Air Force officers asking how he could locate Votow. He also requested information from the National Archives in St. Louis, Mo., and has placed ads in several American newspapers and magazines. So far, Chang said, he has received no useful information.
He said the examples set by Votow and the Korean Soldier who shared his rations have played a major influence in his life.
He's done charity work in his local community, donated money and food to orphanages and helped people in need. He's also served his community as a city councilman and a district representative. He now owns a tailor shop at the Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Garrison.
Chang said he wanted to serve his community and country after overcoming so many difficulties.
"If it were not for Votow and the Korean Soldier who gave me those crackers that made me not give up hope for my life," he said "I wouldn't have been able to make it so far. I truly thank God for sending them to me."
Historical Note: While K-16 is currently located near Songnam, prior to 1971 it was located in Yeouido.