Baby on Board

UPDATED 12/08/1997 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/08/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

DAN KEENAN STILL RECALLS THE moment he learned he was adopted. It was 1960 and he was 7, helping his father, Hugh, a surgeon, paint the fence in back of their house in Spokane, Wash., while his mother, Genevieve, and sisters Coleen and Marny were out shopping. "My dad said, 'Let's take a break,' " says Keenan, now 44." And then he said, 'Danny I want to tell you a story' "

Hugh's tale began in Inchon, Korea, where he had been stationed during the Korean War. "My dad went into this whole thing about how he went to this orphanage and saw this baby and fell in love with it," says Keenan. His father related how the 5-week-old, part-Caucasian infant came to live aboard an aircraft carrier en route to the United States. "That baby," Hugh told him, "was you." Says Keenan today: "It was like a fairy tale."

Now a newspaper sports editor in Ephrata, Wash., where he lives with his second wife, Shirley, 50, Keenan remembers nothing of his three weeks of carrier duty. But he has heard about it plenty from his old shipmates, who phone, write or just drop by to recount babysitting the infant many of them still consider a surrogate son. Now their story has been turned into a TV movie. A Thousand Men and a Baby, airing Dec. 7 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS, stars Richard Thomas as Hugh Keenan. "The idea that one baby could be that important for all those people," says Thomas, who met Keenan on location in San Diego last June, "gives you faith."

The real Dr. Keenan, now 78 and retired, recalls feeling a bit blue right before he first saw his future son. It was July 1953. The Korean War armistice was in negotiation, and Keenan, stationed aboard the hospital ship U.S.S. Consolation, missed his daughter Coleen, then 9, and his wife, who had recently suffered a miscarriage. To boost his spirits, friends urged him to visit the Star of the Sea Children's Home, an orphanage run by an Irish nun named Sister Philomena.

In the nursery, he recalls, "there were apple boxes everywhere with kids in them. Danny's head was sticking up. He looked different from the others." Encouraged by Sister Philomena, who knew that a biracial child would have a hard time getting adopted in Korea, Keenan quickly bonded with the boy, then named George for the sentry who had found him bawling inside an Army supply depot.

But Keenan wasn't the only American to take a shine to the blue-eyed baby. Lt. (jg) Edward O. Riley, chaplain of the Point Cruz aircraft carrier, which was anchored across the bay from the Consolation, had heard about the war orphan and, along with the carrier's skipper, John T. Hayward, decided to find a stateside home for him. In the meantime, they arranged to have him stay on the carrier. In September 1953, George Ascom (from the name of the depot) Cruz was piped aboard.

The baby's arrival could hardly have been timelier. The 850-man crew had been in a funk since July, when their orders to sail to Hong Kong for two weeks of R&R before heading back to the States were suddenly rescinded; the carrier was now to remain in Inchon till the end of the year. "People sat around moping," recalls Claude Bonner, 63, a radar man. "There was a lot of fighting and cussing."

The newcomer they dubbed Little George changed all that. The men were still quarreling. Only now, says Bonner, their arguments centered "on how you make a formula and how you hold the baby." Not to mention where they would hang up the diapers to dry. "We ran them out on the yardarm where we put the signal flags," says Bonner. "Other ships would signal us, 'What does that white flag mean?' And we'd tell 'em, 'Babysan on board!' "

Sick bay, where George slept in a crib the crew had fashioned from a bomb crate, became the ship's most popular compartment. There, four sailors—volunteers who first had to pass a diaper-folding demonstration—took turns babysitting. Others, many bearing homemade rattles and toys, would peek in regularly. "Everyone from the captain on down would play with him and make goo-goo eyes," says Bonner. "That baby gave us time to reminisce about the things we missed at home," says Bill Powers, 73, then a petty officer first class. "It was a little godsend."

Meanwhile, Hugh Keenan told Father Riley of his interest in adopting Little George. When the plan was announced over the ship's loudspeakers, the mess hall erupted into cheers. But securing papers for the baby meant cutting through red tape. In a 4 a.m. poker game with a Korean government official, Father Riley (now deceased) bet $200 and a watch—an heirloom borrowed from the ship's doctor—against a passport for babysan. The official drew a full house. The chaplain beat him with four threes.

George Ascom Cruz, IBfc (Infant Boy, first class), was piped off the carrier to board another ship bound for Seattle. "When he left," recalls Bonner, fighting back tears at the memory, "every single man was on deck." Renamed Daniel (for Hugh's father) Edward (for Father Riley) Keenan, the tyke grew up, says his father, "bright, alert and a lot of fun." Except for the trauma of Genevieve's death from pneumonia when Danny was 15, "he was a happy kid," says Hugh, who remarried four years later and remains close to Dan.

Admittedly "not a model student," Keenan majored in communications at Washington State University, graduating—after six years—in 1977, three years after marrying first wife Kathy. Their seven-year union produced two sons, Rob, now 19, and Ryan, 17, who live with their mother in Tacoma. In 1988, while on vacation, Keenan met Shirley Dragoo, who works for a traffic-control company. Wed in 1988, they settled in Ephrata, where Keenan had once covered high school sports for the Grant County Journal. Now, after stints as a life insurance salesman, sawmill worker and cabbie, he has gone back to the Journal as its sports editor.

But it wasn't until 1993—when Bill Powers invited Keenan to be the surprise guest at the 48th-anniversary reunion of the Point Cruz—that he caught up with his Navy dads. At first he worried he'd disappoint them. But his fears proved groundless. "They made me feel so welcome," he says. "It was overwhelming." Bonner agrees. "It's like we're a bunch of proud parents," he says. "We did something good."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
PAULA YOO in Ephrata

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