Late in July 1953, a newly born infant in Inchon, Korea was found abandoned in a dumpster. Filthy, covered in rash, with burns on his back and suffering from malnutrition, the helpless infant was in dire straits and would die if something was not done to care for him. Enter three Navy corpsmen with the 1st Marine Division.
Carrying the baby into sick bay, the chief corpsman, an experienced father, set about telling his two companions what needed to be done immediately to help the baby. A Coke bottle was sterilized by one while the chief put together a formula of milk, sugar and water. Attaching a rubber thumb cot to the bottle, the formula was offered to the baby, who eagerly consumed the nourishing contents. Once his hunger was satisfied, it was time to introduce the little tyke to the likes of soap and water. Old t-shirts were then fashioned into diapers and a nearby footlocker became a makeshift crib.
Having “battened down the hatches” temporarily, it was time to deal with the situation of the baby’s welfare. The chief began by contacting the provost marshal, who directed him to the Korean authorities. These individuals offered him absolutely no help. Left with no other recourse, the chief took the baby, now referred to as “George”, to the Star of the Sea Orphanage.
When the chief arrived at the orphanage with George, he spoke with the director, Sister Philomena de la Croix. An Irish nun who had been caring for Korea’s orphans since 1934, she already had more than 400 children under her care and told the chief she could not handle another child; especially one as young as George. Part of the reason for the sister’s response was due to the fact George had fair skin and light hair, indicating he was an American child; thus the Korean sisters would refuse to care for him.
Rather than turning the sailor away with babe in arms and no hope for help, she placed a call to a friend of hers, Father Edward O. Riley. Father Riley was the resident chaplain on the escort carrier, USS Point Cruz (CVE 119).
Receiving a call to report to the skipper’s office, Father Riley was told by Captain John T. (Chick) Hayward of the call made to him by Sister Philomena at the Star of the Sea Orphanage. He then instructed the chaplain to carry a number of supplies to the orphanage, in the company of the ship’s doctor. Upon arrival, the two men were introduced to baby George, who received a thorough examination by the doctor. Both men realized George would need much greater care than Sister Philomena could hope to offer and being a man of action, Father Riley told her he would help with the situation. The two men then returned to their ship.
On July 27, 1953, a truce was signed between Communist Korea and the United Nations. With the war now technically over, the crew of the Point Cruz quickly began to anticipate their upcoming journey home, likely in the not-too-distant future. So much for the “best laid plans of mice and men”. These hopes were dashed when they learned the ship had been given reassignment orders The Point Cruz was to be part of “Operation Platform”, a prisoner exchanged program which would involve transporting Indian troops by way of helicopter to an established camp at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Learning the assignment would require a number of months caused the crew’s morale to plummet.
In the meantime, Father Riley updated Captain Hayward about George’s situation. The skipper sent the chaplain ashore to obtain a visa for the baby so he would be allowed to enter the United States. He also said for Father Riley to bring the baby onboard to be cared for so his health would improve. His actions would place the captain in the crosshairs of Navy regulations, due to the fact it was forbidden for a civilian to be aboard ship in a combat zone. The captain, however, had chosen to follow his heart and told Father Riley, “A good leader knows when to intelligently disregard regulations.”
The skipper’s thoughts were now centered on the crew. How were these 1,000 men going to react to having a baby aboard ship? Father Riley met with the crew and explained the situation, which became a great solution for both sides involved. In George’s case, he now had 1,000 uncles who watched over him, spoiled him, and somehow managed to meet his needs with what they had to work with aboard ship. The crew benefited as well. George’s needs gave them a new focus. Rather than bemoaning the fact they would not be returning home as quickly as hoped, they now focused on George.
A portion of sickbay was set aside as a makeshift nursery for the crew’s smallest sailor. The ship’s carpenters built him a crib and used a bomb cart to construct a stroller. Due to the fact his nursery was in sickbay, visitation was not possible for the majority of the crew. To compensate for that, George was wheeled out onto the hangar deck at regular intervals. Over the ship’s intercom, the announcement was made, “Attention all hands! Baby-San on the hangar deck from now until 1430.”
After washing George’s diapers, the crew would hang them on the signal flag yardarm to dry. Needless to say, this caused passing ships to radio the Cruz for translation as to the reason for the white flag. The response they received was “Baby-San onboard!” with no further explanation offered. While the crew was busy with the tasks at hand, Father Riley headed for Inchon, Korea in an effort to obtain a passport and visa for George; which would prove to be no easy task.
The ship’s orders required it to be in and out of port on a regular basis. When the Cruz shipped out, Sister Philomena cared for George. During one of the ship’s departures, Lieutenant Hugh “Bud” Keenan, M.D., paid a visit to the orphanage. Assigned to the hospital ship USS Consolation (AH-15), Dr. Keenan gazed upon the mass of cribs and their occupants. George’s light-colored hair and blue eyes quickly caught his attention. Sister Philomena began to explain the situation and the fact the baby now had 1,000 uncles stationed on the USS Point Cruz.
Dr. Keenan quickly envisioned a life for this little sailor. He knew in his heart he and his wife, Genevieve, would make excellent parents for the baby and shared this thought with Sister Philomena, who was elated to hear it. She also told him of Father Riley’s efforts to acquire the necessary documentation for George so he could enter the United States. Obtaining the visa was the most exhausting of the tasks required and without it; the American Consul would not issue a passport for the infant. Dr. Keenan quickly became little George’s best hope for success.
Returning to his ship, Dr. Keenan conferred with his commanding officer to inform him of what he had learned in town. Unfortunately, his skipper dumped a verbal bucket of cold water on the good doctor’s efforts by reminding him Navy regulations forbid American military personnel who are serving overseas from adopting foreign children. If the necessary paperwork was to be obtained, it would be the task of Father Riley and Captain Hayward to make that happen. In the meantime, Dr. Keenan wrote his wife and told her of the situation. Her reply was one of excitement as she anticipated the prospect of a new son.
Operation Platform ended in November. This resulted in a major challenge, due to the fact neither Captain Hayward nor Father Riley had obtained George’s visa or passport, and the ship was scheduled to depart for Japan within a few days. Time was now of the essence; but thankfully Divine Providence was waiting in the wings to help.
On November 14, both Captain Hayward and Father Riley were invited to a formal Navy dinner, scheduled to take place at the home of the American Ambassador. The special occasion was to celebrate the Armistice; in addition to honoring the captain and crew of the USS Point Cruz for their efforts during Operation Platform. Numbered among the guests were a host of flag officers, all of whom were well acquainted with the situation on the Cruz and how the skipper had defied regulations to help George. As he began to share more details about the situation, his words reached the ears of one very special VIP in attendance – Vice-President elect Richard M. Nixon.
After hearing the story about baby George, Nixon turned to the Ambassador and stated for all to hear that there had to be something which could be done to help this baby. What happened next is known only to a select few in the chronicles of history. When Captain Hayward and Father Riley returned to the USS Point Cruz, the elusive visa had already arrived. The morale of the crew immediately hit an all time high because their “nephew”, George Cruz Ascom, would be spending his first Christmas in the United States. (George’s passport was secured during a poker game when the South Korean in charge of issuing passports lost the game to one of George’s “uncles”.)
The skipper now made new arrangements for Father Riley and George. Rather than travel home on the Cruz, they were transferred to the USS Gaffey. Though leaving Yokosuka the same day as the Cruz; the Gaffey was on a bee-line track to Seattle, whereas the Cruz would be traveling a longer route.
On November 30, 1953, the starboard quarterdeck of the Cruz was populated with a formal party decked out in their Navy blues and white caps to bid goodbye to ib/fc (Infant Boy First Class) George Cruz Ascom and pipe him over the side. Hospital Corpsman First Class John Peters carried ib/fc as they walked through the aisle of men while the whistle blew and six side boys, along with the officer of the deck saluted. Father Riley now took over as he and George went aboard the USS Gaffey on their way to Seattle and George’s new life. The Gaffey docked two weeks later.
In January 1954, Captain Hayward paid a visit to baby George in his new home. Genevieve informed Hayward the child’s name had been changed to Daniel (after Hugh’s father) Edward (after Father Riley) Keenan.
In 1960 when Daniel was seven, he and Hugh were in the backyard of their home painting the fence. Taking a break, Hugh said, “Danny, I want to tell you a story,” and then began to share the events which took place for Daniel to come to the United States. As Daniel listened to the story, he thought Hugh was telling him a fairy tale and expected to hear, “and they lived happily ever after.” Instead, the ending came as a total shock when he heard Hugh say, “Danny, that baby was you.”
Daniel was in San Diego during 1996 to attend a reunion with the crew of the USS Point Cruz. After being invited to come to the podium, Daniel heard someone shout, “ATTENTION ON DECK!” As everyone in the room sprang to their feet, Daniel looked around and spotted . . . Vice Admiral John T. “Chick” Hayward USN (Retired). Overcome with emotion, Daniel made his way to the admiral and wrapped him in a tight embrace. When he was able to speak, Daniel finally had the opportunity to tell this great man, “Thank you! Thank you for my life!”
A made-for-television movie, "A Thousand Men and a Baby," aired in 1997 on CBS and tells the story of Daniel Keenan. Richard Thomas plays the part of Dr. Hugh Keenan. On DVD it is entitled, "Narrow Escape".
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“None of us knows what influence our lives have upon others. Neither are we completely aware of the sources of the positive impressions that have caused us to seek more worthwhile goals in life. Occasionally, however, there comes an experience or challenge that is of such unmistakable force that we can say with definiteness, ‘This (or this person) changed the course of my life.’”
Vice Admiral John Tucker Hayward, USN (Retired)