History has a long and bitter tradition of forgetting those events it deems too shameful to address. In a small village some 100 miles outside of Seoul, and an unfathomable distance from our collective consciousness, historic amnesia came to a sudden awakening as a number of American veterans of the Korean War, not in the twilight of their years, joined a handful of survivors, who had been shouting into unhearing ears for nearly half of a century, and proclaimed that an unspeakable atrocity had been committed there.
Repeatedly, the victims were told by both the U.S. and South Korean government that there was no information in military archives to substantiate their claims. For 50 years, the events at No Gun Ri were a forgotten blotch in history.
After a lifetime of denial and regret, the facts are hazy and blurred. However, one thing not in dispute is that in the chaos and confusion of the early weeks of the “forgotten war,” a small band of young, under-trained American soldiers opened fire on hundreds of refugees who were cowering underneath a small, concrete bridge spanning a small creek. According to witnesses, nearly 300 refugees were gunned down by U.S. soldiers during three blisteringly hot days in July 1950. Another 100 were killed by war planes, making the No Gun Ri incident the second deadliest massacre on civilians committed by the U.S. army, trailing only the My Lai massacre in Vietnam where nearly 500 civilians lost their lives.
“Bullets ricocheted off the concrete and hit the people like popcorn in a frying pan,” Yang Hae Sook told the Associated Press (AP). She further described how she hid beneath a pile of dead bodies to avoid being shot herself.
Hours after the AP uncovered the story in September, Defense Secretary William Cohen stated that the Pentagon would investigate “any substantive information” about the event. President Clinton added that Cohen “wants to get to the bottom of it.”
The official historic documents of the United States Army paint a discouraging picture. Only four days after landing in Korea, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry was deployed near No Gun Ri, a small village about 100 miles southeast of Seoul to hold the line of retreat for the 1st Cavalry Division. In the early weeks of the war, American forces were driven back hundred of miles and were rapidly losing ground. Only days earlier, the 1st Cavalry Division had issued a command dictating that no refugee were to cross the front line. “Fire at everyone trying to cross lines,” the order stated.
According to the veterans, hundreds of civilians, including women and children, hid under the bridge at No Gun Ri seeking protection from U.S. air raids. As U.S. forces near the bridge came under regular enemy attack, they were :ordered to kill them all,” Edward Daily, who was a corporal in the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, told “Time Magazine.”
George Preece, then a sergeant, told “Time,” “All of a sudden, machine guns started firing into the crowd of people under the bridge.”
“They [the civilians] were hugging the concrete floor, and I could hear screams—of pain and horror—coming from women and children,” Daily added in the “Washington Post.” “No Gun Ri wasn’t an isolated incident, either.”
Citing U.S. veterans, Koreans witnesses, and declassified documents, the AP states that “hundreds of other South Korean refugees were killed by U.S Army troops in mid-1950 as the retreating Americans struggled to defend South Korea invasion.” Once-secret documents founded by AP in declassified military archives show that some troops were ordered to shoot approaching civilians based on suspicions that North Korean infiltrators were hiding among “people in white” to penetrate American front lines, a fact that survivors dispute.
“There were no enemies among us,” Chung Ku Hak told the “Washington Post.” That is a lie.”
Since the No Gun Ri report was first published by the AP in September, at least 37 incidents of U.S. Army massacre of civilians in Korea have been reported to the South Korean Defense Ministry including attacks on school houses full of children.
“I want to ask the U.S. government why,” survivor Hong Won-ki told AP. “It was clear that we were refugees.” According to Hong, U.S. airplanes opened fire on a group of refugees killing both of his parents in the village of Yong-in, 30 miles south of Seoul.
Survivors from Youngchoon village, 90 miles southeast of Seoul, stated that 300 civilians were killed at a cave where they were taking refuge on Jan. 20, 1951. According to witnesses, four planes dropped incendiary bombs near the cave’s entrance, setting fire to household goods inside. “People yelled and cried for their children,” Cho Bong-won told AP. “People chocked and fell.”
Other accounts detail how hundreds of Korean refugees were killed on a single day when two bridges in the south were detonated by US. Soldiers to prevent North Korean infiltrators from entering behind the front lines. “It was like slow-motion movie,” Daily told the AP. “All those refugees went right down into the river.”
According to the AP, another 300 Korean civilians were killed by U.S. air raids as they took refuge in a storage house at the village of Doon-po, only 60 miles west of Youngchoon.
“It was troubling. It truly was,” Alvin Wimer, an F-80 pilot told the AP. “Twice we were directed to strafe these people who were dressed like civilians. Now whether they were [civilians] or not, we have no way of knowing.”
How Can Such a Thing Happen?
According to experts, there was an overall absence of discipline and experience among the U.S. troops in the early phase of the war. “The first U.S. units in Korea were not much more than a mob in uniform,” Bernard Trainor, a military scholar, told Time. “They’d frighten quickly and when they’d come under fire, they’d panic.”
“We were ill-prepared to fight that war,” Herman Son of the 35th Squadron told the AP, “not only in terms of equipment and personnel, but we didn’t have a system and communications network to control and coordinate air and group operation.”
Robert Gary, a former master sergeant with a reconnaissance platoon stressed during a meeting with No Gun Ri survivors that in the confusion of the early weeks of war, breakdowns in command and control “were happening to all of us.” During this confusion, rank and file soldiers were commanded to fire on civilians based on fears of enemy infiltration of the front lines. This set up a scenario of tension and mistrust.
Daily told “Newsweek,” “Thousands of refugees were fleeing south… the roads became jammed and impassable. Being surrounded by so many Koreans made us a little jumpy.” Soldiers were constantly nervous that North Korean infiltrators were disguised in the traditional white clothing of Korean peasants. Sung Ho Suh told “KoreaAm Journal,” “What I heard was that communist soldiers used to cross over to the South at night by hiding among the refugees. So the Americans would kill a hundred refugees just to get two communists.”
On Jan. 9, a 19-member U.S. probe team, including Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera, made a four-day trip to Seoul to meet top Korean officials and begin an investigation into the massacre at No Gun Ri. They join the official Korean investigation that began in October. At stake are the demands of the survivors for appropriate compensation for what happened to them under the bridge nearly a lifetime ago. However, more important to the victims is a formal apology for the suffering they endured and years of neglect and denial of their stories.
In November, for the first time since the incident 50 years ago, the victims and perpetrators met face-to-face at the Old Stone Church in Cleveland to take the first step toward recovery.
Rev. Joan B. Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, read a confession written by the American veterans. “With heavy hearts, we as American Christians confess our complicity and indifferences to the suffering of the Korean people across these many years,” the statement stated. “We know even our confession cannot address the lifetime denied, the promise extinguished, the pain endured.” Still, reconciliation is a far distance away. Just hours after the symbolic meeting, Gray interrupted a news conference where the survivors were graphically describing the massacre of civilians.
“I came to reach an understanding of what happened at No Gun Ri. May I ask what they [the victims] came for?” he was quoted in the “Washington Post.” “My regiment was a proud regiment and they fought like hell, and they don’t need anyone throwing rocks at them.”
In response, the Korean victims made it clear that a reconciliation and a true understanding was still only an illusion. They told the “Washington Post” that when the veterans of No Gun Ri and the U.S. government apologize, the “last step would be that the victims forgive them.” After a half of a century of denials and broken promises, this forgives may not come so easily.