50-Year-Old War Crimes
Associated Press reporters Sang-Hun Choe, Charles Hanley and Martha Mendoza this month won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for stories on a massacre of Korean civilians in the 1950s by U.S. troops. What follows is some of that reporting.
It was a story no one wanted to hear: Early in the Korean War, villagers said, American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians under a railroad bridge in the South Korean countryside.
When the families spoke out, seeking redress, they met only rejection and denial from the U.S. military and their own government in Seoul. Now a dozen ex-GIs have spoken too, and support their story with haunting memories.
These veterans of the Korean War said that in late July 1950, in the conflict's first desperate weeks, U.S. troops - young, green and scared - killed a large number of South Korean refugees, many of them women and children, trapped beneath a bridge at a place called No Gun Ri.
In interviews with The Associated Press, ex-GIs speak of 100, 200 or simply hundreds dead. The Koreans, whose claim for compensation was rejected in 1998, said 300 were shot to death at the bridge and 100 died in a preceding air attack.
American soldiers, in their third day at the front, feared North Korean infiltrators among the fleeing South Korean peasants, veterans said. "It was assumed there were enemies in these people," ex-rifleman Herman Patterson of Greer, South Carolina, told the AP.
American commanders had ordered units retreating through South Korea to shoot civilians as a defense against disguised enemy soldiers, according to once-classified documents found by the AP in months of researching U.S. military archives and interviewing veterans across the United States.
Six veterans of the 1st Cavalry Division said they fired on the refugee throng at the South Korean hamlet of No Gun Ri, and six others said they witnessed the mass killing. More said they knew or heard about it.
"We just annihilated them," said ex-machine gunner Norman Tinkler of Glasco, Kansas.
After five decades, no one gave a complete, account. But ex-GIs agreed on such elements as time and place, and on the preponderance of women, children and old men among the victims.
They also disagreed: Some said they were fired on from beneath the bridge, but others said they don't remember hostile fire. One said they later found a few disguised North Korean soldiers among the dead. But others disputed this.
Some soldiers refused to shoot what one described as "civilians just trying to hide."
The 30 Korean claimants - survivors and victims' relatives - said it was an unprovoked, three-day carnage. "The American soldiers played with our lives like boys playing with flies," said Chun Choon-ja, a 12-year-old girl at the time.
Armed with new evidence that U.S. GIs had confirmed much of their account, the Korean claimants called for a U.S. investigation into the killings. "We hope the U.S. government will meet our demands and console the wandering souls of those who died an unfair death," the claimants said in a statement.
In the end, the Koreans have said in a series of petitions, some 300 refugees lay dead under the bridge's twin arches. About 100 others were killed in a preceding attack by U.S. Air Force planes, they said.
That would make No Gun Ri one of only two known cases of large-scale killings of noncombatants by U.S. ground troops in this century's major wars, military law experts note. The other was Vietnam's My Lai massacre in 1968, in which more than 500 Vietnamese may have died.
Other Korean Atrocities
From the start of the 1950-53 conflict, North Korean atrocities were widely reported. But the story of No Gun Ri has remained undisclosed for a half-century, despite sketchy news reports in 1950 implying U.S. troops may have fired on refugees.
No Gun Ri's dead were not alone. Veterans told the AP of two smaller but similar refugee killings in July and August 1950. They also told of refusing orders to fire on civilians in other cases.
Hundreds more South Koreans were killed Aug. 3 1950, when retreating U.S. commanders blew up two bridges as refugees streamed across, according to ex-GIs, Korean eyewitnesses and declassifed documents.
Poorly equipped, ill-trained
The Korean conflict, which ended in a stalemate, began June 25, 1950, when the communist North invaded and sent the South Korean army and a small U.S. force reeling southward toward the peninsula's tip.
American units rushed from Japan to stop the North Koreans were poorly equipped and ill-trained. The 1st Cavalry went in with little understanding of Korea. Half its sergeants had been transferred to other divisions. Teenage riflemen and young officers with no combat experience were thrust overnight into a hellish war, told to expect guerrilla fighting and be wary of the tens of thousands of South Korean civilians pouring south with retreating Americans.
The 7th Cavalry Regiment, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, reached the front July 24. Within a day, many of its 2nd Battalion infantrymen were scattering in panic, tossing away weapons, at word of an enemy breakthrough nearby.
Records show that on the third day, July 26, the battalion's 660 men were regrouped and dug in at No Gun Ri, a hamlet 160 kilometers southeast of Seoul, South Korea's capital. Word was circulating that enemy soldiers disguised in white peasant garb might try to penetrate U.S. lines via refugee groups.
The refugees who approached the 2nd Battalion's lines July 26 were South Koreans ordered out of two nearby villages by American soldiers, who warned them the North Koreans were coming, Korean claimants told the AP.
Declassified records show that 1st Cavalry Division soldiers did move through that village area the previous three days.
As the refugees neared No Gun Ri, leading ox carts, some with children on their backs, American soldiers ordered them off the southbound dirt road and onto a parallel railroad track, the South Koreans said. Ex-Sergeant George Preece remembers that the way was being cleared for U.S. Army vehicles.
What then happened under the concrete bridge cannot be reconstructed in full detail five decades later. Some ex-GIs poured out chilling memories of the scene, but others offered only fragments or abruptly ended their interviews. Over the three days, no one saw everything: Koreans were cowering under fire, and Americans were dug into positions over hundreds of meters of hilly terrain.
But old soldiers in their late 60s or 70s identified the No Gun Ri bridge from photographs, remembered the approximate dates and corroborated the core of the Koreans' account: American troops kept the refugees pinned under the bridge in late July 1950, and killed almost all of them.
"It was just wholesale slaughter," Patterson said.
Both Koreans and several ex-GIs said the killing began when American planes suddenly swooped in and strafed an area where the white-clad refugees were resting.
Bodies fell everywhere, and terrified parents dragged children into a narrow culvert beneath the tracks, the Koreans told the AP.
Retired Colonel Robert Carroll, then a 25-year-old first lieutenant, remembers battalion riflemen opening fire on the refugees from their foxholes. "This is right after we get orders that nobody comes through, civilian, military, nobody," said Carroll, of Lansdowne, Virginia.
That morning, the U.S. 8th Army had radioed orders throughout the Korean front that began, "No repeat no refugees will be permitted to cross battle lines at any time," according to declassified documents located at the National Archives in Washington.
Two days earlier, 1st Cavalry Division headquarters issued a more explicit order: "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children."
In the neighboring 25th Infantry Division, the commander, Major General William Kean, told his troops that since South Koreans were to have been evacuated from the battle zone, "all civilians seen in this area are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly." His staff relayed this as "considered as unfriendly and shot."
Military experts in the law of war told the AP they had never heard of such blanket "kill" orders in the U.S. military. "An order to fire on civilians is patently an illegal order," said retired Colonel Scott Silliman of Duke University, an Air Force lawyer for 25 years.
'The hell with these people'
Carroll said he "wasn't convinced this was enemy," and he got the rifle companies to cease firing on the refugees. The lieutenant then shepherded a boy to safety under a double-arched concrete railroad bridge nearby, where shaken and wounded Koreans were gathered. He said he saw no threat.
"There weren't any North Koreans in there the first day, I'll tell you that. It was mainly women and kids and old men," recalled Carroll, who said he then left the area and knows nothing about what followed.
The Americans directed the refugees into the bridge underpasses - each 24 meters long, 7 meters wide and 9 meters high - and after dark opened fire on them from nearby machine-gun positions, the Koreans said.
Veterans said Captain Melbourne Chandler, after speaking with superior officers by radio, had ordered machine-gunners from his heavy-weapons company to set up near the tunnel mouths and open fire.
"Chandler said, 'The hell with all those people. Let's get rid of all of them,'" said Eugene Hesselman of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. "We didn't know if they were North or South Koreans. ... We were there only a couple of days and we didn't know them from a load of coal."
Ex-GIs believe the order was cleared at battalion headquarters, a kilometer to the rear, or at a higher level. Chandler and other key officers are now dead
The bursts of gunfire killed those near the tunnel entrances first, the Korean claimants said.
"People pulled dead bodies around them for protection," said Chung Koo-ho, 61. "Mothers wrapped their children with blankets and hugged them with their backs toward the entrances. ... My mother died on the second day of shooting."
Recalled machine-gunner Edward Daily: "Some may have been trying to crawl deeper for protection. When you see something like that and you're frightened, you start to claw."
On July 28, the 7th Cavalry was told to prepare to pull back again early the next morning. The final barrage still echoes in the memories of old soldiers. "On summer nights when the breeze is blowing, I can still hear their cries, the little kids screaming," said Daily, of Clarksville, Tennessee, who went on to earn a battlefield commission.
Sounds of slaughter haunt Park Hee-sook's memory, too. "I can still hear the moans of women dying in a pool of blood," said Park, then a girl of 16. "Children cried and clung to their dead mothers."
After the Killing
Early July 29, the 7th Cavalry pulled back. North Korean troops who moved in found "about 400 bodies of old and young people and children," the North Korean newspaper Cho Sun In Min Bo reported three weeks later.
Some ex-GIs today estimate 100 or fewer were killed. But those close to the bridge, from Chandler's H Company, generally put the total at about 200. "A lot" also were killed in the strafing, they said.
The North Koreans buried some dead in unknown locations and surviving relatives buried others, the villagers said. Because families then scattered across South Korea, the claimants said, they have the names of only 120 dead, primarily their own relatives.
The war, in all, claimed an estimated 1 million South Korean civilian casualties - killed, wounded or missing. Almost 37,000 Americans died.
At 1st Cavalry headquarters, division commander Major General Hobart Gay was told South Korean refugees were killed by North Korean troops in a crossfire at No Gun Ri, the division information officer recalled. "I think that's what he believed," said Harold Steward, an ex-colonel from San Diego, California.
Relevant unit documents say nothing about a crossfire, North Korean soldiers killed under a bridge or anything else about No Gun Ri.
The villagers said they tried to file a compensation claim with a U.S. claims office in Seoul in 1960, but were told they missed a deadline. Later, they said, Korean police warned one man, survivor Yang Hae-chan, to keep quiet about the 1950 events. But as authoritarian South Korea liberalized in the 1990s, they revived their case and sent petitions to Washington. None was acknowledged, they said.
In August 1997, a claim signed by 30 petitioners was filed with the South Korean government compensation committee. Having researched histories, they pointed a finger at the 1st Cavalry.
In response, the U.S. Armed Forces Claims Service said there was "no evidence ... to show that the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division was in the area." A lower-level South Korean compensation committee said people were killed at No Gun Ri, but it had no proof of U.S. involvement. In April 1998, the national panel rejected the case, saying a five-year statute of limitations expired long ago.
The AP subsequently reconstructed unit movements from map coordinates in declassified war records. They showed that four 1st Cavalry Division battalions were in the area at the time of the alleged incident.
Months of tracing veterans - some 130 interviews by telephone and in person - then pinpointed the companies involved. The AP also pored through hundreds of boxes of once-secret documents at the National Archives and other repositories to find pieces of the story.
The laws and customs of war condemn indiscriminate killing of civilians, even if a few enemy soldiers are among a large number of noncombatants killed. The Korean War record shows Army courts-martial only for individual murders of Koreans, nothing on a large scale.
One ex-GI objected that "a bunch of lawyers" can't run a war.
"War is not just," Tinkler said. "There's things that go on that we can't comprehend, but it has to be done. And it's the individual that has to make the decision."
But others who were there said No Gun Ri didn't have to happen, and the refugees could have been screened up on the road or checked out under the bridge.
"The command looked at it as getting rid of the problem in the easiest way. That was to shoot them in a group," Daily said. Today, he said, "we all share a guilty feeling, something that remains with everyone."
AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.