In 1950-51, as war refugees flooded South Korea's roads, American jets repeatedly attacked groups of Koreans in civilian clothes on suspicion they were harboring enemy infiltrators, according to declassified U.S. military documents and Korean and American witnesses.
Large numbers of refugees were killed in some cases, witnesses told The Associated Press. In one strike, they said, U.S. firebombs killed 300 civilians trapped in a cave.
After-mission reports from the Korean War show that U.S. Air Force pilots, flying in support of retreating U.S. troops in mid-1950, sometimes questioned their targets.
In one, pilots said a Korean group that was strafed at an airborne controller's instruction "could have been refugees." In another declassified report they said their target "appeared to be evacuees."
Some of those pilots, in recent AP interviews, said they did worry at times they were machine-gunning innocents.
"We were concerned, very concerned," said Air Force retiree Herman Son of St. Louis. He said it "was by no means clear on the surface who these people were."
Some ex-pilots said they remember breaking off attacks when they realized their targets were civilians.
American ground commanders feared that enemy soldiers, disguised in the common white clothing of civilians, were joining South Korean refugee columns in order to penetrate U.S. lines. Documents found in declassified military archives show that some troops were ordered to shoot approaching civilians - orders that military law experts say were illegal.
"People in white" became Air Force targets as well, according to the once-secret Air Force files examined by the AP.
The AP located the declassified debriefings at the U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, and at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, while investigating what happened at No Gun Ri, South Korea, July 26-29, 1950, when witnesses say U.S. warplanes killed about 100 refugees and U.S. Army troops then killed about 300 more.
Advised of the AP's report on the air war, chief Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon reiterated that completing the No Gun Ri probe is the first priority. "Then the department will decide if other incidents warrant further study," he said.
Some of the reported U.S. air attacks on refugees occurred in January 1951, a period of retreat, when U.S. forces and South Korean refugees were driven deeper into South Korea by an offensive by North Korea's Chinese allies, but when American warplanes still monopolized South Korean skies.
Villagers said American bombing and strafing killed about 300 civilians on Jan. 20, 1951, at a cave where they took refuge in Youngchun, 145 kilometers southeast of Seoul, South Korea's capital. The Chinese front was several kilometers to the north, a U.S. Army history shows.
The area outside the cave was busy with people coming and going, villagers said. An observer plane circled and then four planes dropped incendiary bombs near the cave's entrance, setting fire to household goods just inside, they said. Most victims suffocated from smoke. "People yelled and cried for their children," said Cho Bong-won, 64. "People choked and fell."
Earlier that week, 100 kilometers to the west, another 300 South Korean refugees were killed by a U.S. air attack as they jammed into a storage house at the village of Doon-po, said survivor Kim In-tae, 58, now a Presbyterian minister.
The petition from Hong Won-ki, a retired newspaper executive, describes an air attack on Yong-in, 45 kilometers south of Seoul, after refugees rushed outside to wave at approaching U.S. planes, and a second strafing the next day, Jan. 12, 1951, after his family left the village and trekked south with other refugees.
As American planes neared, the group crouched down with their baggage over their heads "to show that we were just refugees," said Hong, 14 at the time. But one plane strafed them, killing Hong's parents and other refugees, he said.
On Jan. 15, villagers said, planes returned to Yong-in, still crowded with refugees. They described strafings and napalm attacks. "Each time a plane swooped down and sprayed bullets, about 20 or 30 people fell," said Kim Young-kyu, then 14.
A former AP war correspondent described the aftermath of a large-scale strafing around the same time, a few kilometers from Yong-in. Jim Becker, 74, said in an interview he saw the frozen bodies of at least 200 Koreans in civilian clothes along a road south of Seoul as he traveled north with U.S. troops on Jan. 26, 1951. "There were women and children. It was a dreadful sight," said Becker, now chairman of Hawaiian public television.
His AP report at the time noted the U.S. military's contention that the refugee column had been strafed by American planes more than a week earlier because "intelligence learned that Chinese soldiers were hiding among them."
But no weapons could be seen, and an Air Force press officer who returned to the scene with him couldn't point to evidence of infiltrators, Becker said.
American military photographs from that area and time period show Korean civilians badly burned from U.S. napalm attacks. The photos, found by the AP at the National Archives, originally were classified for U.S. Army staff distribution only.
Other South Korean reports have surfaced about air attacks on civilians in July and August 1950, around the time of No Gun Ri, including attacks on a schoolhouse full of children and on refugees heading south near No Gun Ri a few days before the strafing and killings there.
- Sang-Hun Choe, Charles Hanley and Martha Mendoza.