G.I.'s Tell of a U.S. Massacre in Korean War
Published: September 30, 1999
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For almost 50 years, South Korean villagers have insisted that early in the Korean War, American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians under a railroad bridge near a hamlet some 100 miles southeast of Seoul.
When survivors and victims' relatives told their story, and sought redress, they met only rejection and denial, from the United States military and from their own Government.
Now, after The Associated Press spent months tracing veterans in some 130 interviews by telephone and in person, a dozen former G.I.'s have spoken out. Although none gave a complete, detailed account of the events under the bridge near No Gun Ri in late July 1950, their memories support the villagers' accounts.
These American veterans say that in the first desperate weeks of the Korean War, American soldiers killed 100, 200 or simply hundreds of refugees, many of them women and children, who were trapped beneath the bridge.
The Korean survivors and relatives, whose claim for compensation was rejected last year by the South Korean Government, say that 300 were shot to death at the bridge and that 100 died in a preceding air attack.
One American veteran, Eugene Hesselman of Fort Mitchell, Ky., recalled his captain as saying: ''The hell with all those people. Let's get rid of all of them.''
Norman Tinkler of Glasco, Kan., a former machine gunner, said, ''We just annihilated them.''
A third veteran, Edward L. Daily of Clarksville, Tenn., who went on to earn a battlefield commission in Korea, said: ''On summer nights when the breeze is blowing, I can still hear their cries, the little kids screaming.
''The command looked at it as getting rid of the problem in the easiest way. That was to shoot them in a group,'' he said. [''How many North Koreans were in there, I can't answer that,'' he said last night in an interview with The New York Times. ''But we ended up shooting into there until all the bodies we saw were lifeless.'']
Six veterans of the First Cavalry Division said they fired on the group of refugees at No Gun Ri, and six others said they witnessed the shootings. More said they knew or heard about it.
Some veterans recalled that American soldiers, in only their third day at the front, feared North Korean infiltrators who their commanders had said were among the fleeing South Korean peasants.
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 A.P. in months of researching military archives.
Several of the veterans interviewed 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 do not 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.
The 30 Korean claimants 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.
If so, No Gun Ri would be one of only two known cases of killings of noncombatants by American ground troops this century. At My Lai in Vietnam in 1968, more than 500 Vietnamese may have died.
From the start of the Korean War, there were numerous reports of North Korean atrocities, including the killing of civilians and summary executions of prisoners. But the story of No Gun Ri was not told, beyond sketchy news reports in 1950 implying that American troops might have fired on refugees. The reports were apparently not pursued.
For decades in South Korea, an important American ally, the No Gun Ri claimants were discouraged from speaking out. After they filed for compensation in 1997, their claim was rejected by the South Korean Government on a technicality.
The United States military repeatedly said it found no basis for the allegations. Told generally of the A.P.'s findings, Kenneth Bacon, a spokesman, said recently that the Pentagon stood by a statement made last March, that Army historians checking military archives ''found no information to substantiate the claim that U.S. Army soldiers perpetrated a massacre of South Korean civilians.''
A.P. research also found no official Army account of the events. It is unclear, for instance, which officers gave orders to open fire, whether G.I.'s saw gunfire from the refugees, or ricochets of bullets fired by other American soldiers, how many soldiers refused to fire and how high in the ranks knowledge of the events extended.
The war, which cost nearly 37,000 American lives and left an estimated one million South Koreans dead, wounded, or missing, ended in a stalemate in 1953. It began on June 25, 1950, when the Communist North invaded and sent the South Korean Army and a small American force reeling southward toward the tip of the Korean peninsula.
American units were rushed in from Japan. They included the poorly equipped, ill-trained First Cavalry Division, which went in with little understanding of Korea. Teen-age riflemen and young officers with no combat experience were thrust overnight into war, told to expect guerrilla fighting and to be wary of the tens of thousands of South Korean civilians pouring south.
The untested Seventh Cavalry, part of the First Cavalry Division, reached the front on July 24, 1950. Within a day, many of its Second Battalion infantrymen were scattering in panic 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. Word was circulating among American soldiers that North Korean soldiers disguised in white peasant garb might try to penetrate American lines with refugee groups.
South Korean survivors and relatives of victims say that the refugees who approached the battalion's lines on July 26 were South Koreans rousted from two nearby villages by American soldiers, who warned them the North Koreans were coming. Declassified records show that First Cavalry Division soldiers did move through that village area the previous three days.
As the refugees neared No Gun Ri, American soldiers ordered them off the southbound dirt road and onto a parallel railroad track, the South Koreans said. George Preece, a sergeant at the time, remembered that the way was being cleared for American Army vehicles.
Koreans and several of the veterans said the killing began when American planes suddenly swooped in and strafed an area where the refugees, who like most South Korean peasants at the time were clad in white, were resting.
Bodies fell everywhere, and terrified parents dragged children into a narrow culvert beneath the tracks, the Korean claimants told the A.P.
Declassified United States' Air Force mission reports from July and August 1950 show that pilots sometimes attacked ''people in white,'' apparently because of suspicions that North Korean soldiers were disguised among them. The report for a mission of four F-80 jets on July 20, for example, said the airborne controller ''said to fire on people in white clothes. Were about 50 in group.''
Forward controllers in light planes directed pilots to such unplanned targets in midflight. The Korean claimants say a light plane circled their area just before the strafing.
The strafing may have been a mistake. Veterans said a company commander had called for an air strike, but against enemy artillery miles up the road. One veteran, Delos Flint, remembered being caught with other soldiers in the strafing, and said he piled into a culvert with refugees. Then ''somebody, maybe our guys, was shooting in at us,'' he said. He and his comrades eventually slipped out.
Some veterans poured out chilling memories of the scene under the bridge, but others offered only fragments, or abruptly ended the discussion. Over the three days, no one saw everything: Koreans were cowering under fire, and Americans were dug into positions over hundreds of yards of hilly terrain.
But old soldiers in their late 60's or 70's identified the No Gun Ri bridge from photographs, remembered the approximate dates and corroborated the core of the Koreans' account: that American troops kept the refugees pinned under the bridge and killed almost all of them.
''It was just wholesale slaughter,'' Herman Patterson, a former rifleman, told the A.P. in an interview at his home in Greer, S.C..
Retired Col. Robert M. 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 Mr. Carroll, who now lives in Lansdowne, Va.
That morning, the Eighth 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, First Cavalry Division headquarters had 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, Maj. Gen. William B. 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 members relayed this as ''considered as unfriendly and shot.''
Mr. 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,'' Mr. Carroll recalled. ''It was mainly women and kids and old men.'' He said he then left the area and knows nothing about what followed.
The Americans directed refugees into the bridge underpasses -- each 80 feet long, 23 feet wide, 30 feet high -- and after dark opened fire on them from nearby machine-gun positions, the Korean claimants said.
Veterans said that Capt. Melbourne C. 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.
''We didn't know if they were North or South Koreans,'' Mr. Hesselman recalled. ''We were there only a couple of days and we didn't know them from a load of coal.''
Veterans said they believe the order to shoot was cleared at battalion headquarters, a half-mile to the rear, or at a higher level. Mr. Chandler and other key officers are now dead, but the A.P. was able to locate the colonel who commanded the battalion, Herbert B. Heyer, 88.
Mr. Heyer, of Sandy Springs, Ga., denied knowing anything about the shootings and said, ''I know I didn't give such an order.''
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, a survivor who said his mother died on the second day of shooting. ''Mothers wrapped their children with blankets and hugged them with their backs toward the entrances.''
During three nights under fire, some trapped refugees managed to slip away, but others were shot as they tried to escape or crawled out to find clean water to drink, the Korean claimants said.
James T. Kerns of Piedmont, S.C., a former sergeant, said the Americans were answering fire from among the refugees. Mr. Hesselman recalled occasional sounds like rifle shots. Others recalled only heavy barrages of American firepower, not hostile fire.
''I don't remember shooting coming out,'' said Louis Allen of Bristol, Tenn., who was a rifleman.
Mr. Preece, a career soldier who later fought in Vietnam, said it was possible the Americans saw their own comrades' fire ricocheting from the ends of the tunnel, as the South Korean survivors have suggested.
Not everyone fired, veterans said.
''Some of us did and some of us didn't,'' said Mr. Flint, of Clio, Mich., the soldier who had been briefly caught in the culvert with the refugees. ''It was civilians just trying to hide.'' Mr. Kerns, a machine gunner, said he fired over the refugees' heads. ''I would not fire into a bunch of women.''
Mr. Kerns said that he and Mr. Preece and another G.I. later found at least seven dead North Korean soldiers in the underpasses, wearing uniforms under peasant white.
But Mr. Preece, of Dunville, Ky., said he does not remember making such a search or even hearing that North Koreans were found. None of the other veterans, when asked, remembered seeing North Koreans.
Mr. Kerns also said weapons were recovered. Mr. Hesselman said someone later displayed a submachine gun. Mr. Preece recalled only ''hearsay'' about weapons.
All 24 South Korean survivors interviewed individually by the A.P. said they remembered no North Koreans or gunfire directed at the Americans.
American military intelligence reports from those days, since declassified, place the North Korean front line four miles from No Gun Ri on July 26, when the refugees entered the underpasses.
Early on July 29, the Seventh 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. The South Koreans said the North Koreans buried some dead in unknown locations. Families scattered across South Korea, meaning the claimants have the names of only 120 dead, primarily their own relatives.
Some veterans today estimate 100 or fewer were killed. But those close to the bridge, from Mr. Chandler's H Company, generally put the total at about 200. They say ''a lot'' also were killed in the strafing.
In August 1997, a claim signed by the 30 petitioners was filed with South Korea's Government Compensation Committee. Having researched histories, they pointed a finger at the First Cavalry.
In response, the United States Armed Forces Claims Service said there was no evidence to show that the First 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 American involvement. In April 1998, the national panel rejected the case, saying a five-year statute of limitations expired long ago.
The A.P. subsequently reconstructed unit movements from map coordinates in declassified war records. They showed that four First Cavalry Division battalions were in the area at the time.
The bridge at No Gun Ri still stands today. For 49 years, its concrete was deeply scarred by bullets -- until railroad workers this month patched over the holes.
This article was reported by Sang Hun Choe, Charles J. Hanley and Martha Mendoza, of The Associated Press.