GIs Massacred Civilians in S. Korea, Veterans Say
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 from their own government in Seoul. Now a dozen veterans have spoken too, and support their story with haunting memories from a “forgotten” war.
American veterans of the Korean War say that in late July 1950, in the conflict’s first desperate weeks, U.S. troops killed a large number of South Korean refugees, many of them women and children, trapped beneath a bridge at a hamlet called No Gun Ri.
In interviews with Associated Press, former soldiers speak of 100 or 200 or “hundreds” dead. The Koreans, whose claim for compensation was rejected last year, say 300 were killed at the bridge and 100 in a preceding air attack.
American soldiers, in their third day at the war front, feared that North Korean infiltrators were among the fleeing South Korean peasants, veterans told AP.
The ex-GIs described other refugee killings as well in the war’s first weeks, when U.S. commanders ordered their troops to shoot civilians, citizens of an allied nation, as a defense against disguised enemy soldiers, according to once-classified documents found by AP in U.S. military archives.
Six veterans of the 1st Cavalry Division said they fired on the civilians at No Gun Ri, and six others said they witnessed the mass killing.
“We just annihilated them,” said ex-machine gunner Norman Tinkler of Glasco, Kan.
After five decades, none gave a complete, detailed account. But the veterans agreed on such elements as time and place, and on the preponderance of women, children and old men among the victims.
Some said they were fired on from among the refugees 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 what happened July 26-29, 1950, was unprovoked 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.
Reported Death Toll Is Less Than at My Lai
The reported death toll 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.
The U.S. military has said repeatedly that it found no basis for the allegations.
“We have no evidence that this alleged event occurred,” Kenneth H. Bacon, chief spokesman for Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, told reporters traveling with Cohen on Wednesday in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“It’s been investigated time and time again,” Bacon said, indicating that the Army and U.S. Forces Korea had done all they could to find the truth. “These are not new allegations.”
The troops dug in at No Gun Ri, 100 miles southeast of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, were members of the 7th Cavalry, a regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. The refugees who encountered them had been rousted by U.S. soldiers from nearby villages as the invading army of communist North Korea approached, the Korean claimants said.
It was the fifth week of the Korean War. Word was circulating among U.S. troops that northern soldiers disguised in white peasant garb might try to penetrate American lines via refugee groups.
“It was assumed there were enemy in these people,” ex-rifleman Herman W. Patterson of Greer, S.C., said of the civilian throng.
As they neared No Gun Ri, leading ox carts, with children on their backs, the hundreds of refugees were ordered off the dirt road by American soldiers and onto parallel railroad tracks, the Koreans said.
What then happened under the concrete bridge cannot be reconstructed in full detail.
But the veterans corroborated the core of the Koreans’ account: that American troops kept the large group of refugees pinned under the No Gun Ri railroad bridge and killed almost all of them.
Both the Koreans and several ex-soldiers 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 their children into a narrow culvert beneath the tracks, the Koreans said.
Some of the former soldiers believe the strafing was a mistake, that the pilots were supposed to strike enemy artillery miles up the road. But declassified U.S. Air Force reports from mid-1950, found by AP, show that pilots also sometimes deliberately attacked “people in white,” apparently suspecting disguised North Korean soldiers were among them.
Retired Col. Robert M. Carroll, then a first lieutenant, remembers 7th Cavalry riflemen opening fire on the refugees from nearby positions.
“This is right after we get orders that nobody comes through, civilian, military, nobody,” said Carroll, of Lansdowne, Va.
According to documents obtained by AP, two days earlier, 1st Cavalry Division headquarters had issued an order: “No refugees to cross the front line. Fire [on] everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children.”
Experts in the law of war told AP that such orders, to shoot civilians, are plainly illegal.
Carroll said he got the rifle companies to cease fire. “I wasn’t convinced this was enemy,” he said.
He then shepherded a boy to safety under a double-arched concrete railroad bridge nearby, where shaken and wounded Koreans were gathering. He saw no threat.
“There weren’t any North Koreans in there the first day. . . . 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 80-foot-long bridge underpasses and after dark opened fire on them from nearby machine-gun positions, the Koreans said.
Veterans said the heavy-weapons company commander, Capt. Melbourne C. Chandler, after speaking with superior officers by radio, had ordered machine-gunners to set up near the tunnels and open fire.
“Chandler said, ‘ . . . Let’s get rid of all of them,’ ” said Eugene Hesselman of Fort Mitchell, Ky. “. . . 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.”
Commander Denies Knowledge of Killings
Chandler and other key officers are dead. The colonel who commanded the battalion, Herbert B. Heyer, 88, of Sandy Springs, Ga., told AP he knew nothing about the shootings and “I know I didn’t give such an order.” Veterans said the colonel apparently was leaving operations to subordinates at the time.
The Korean claimants said those near the tunnel entrances died first.
“People pulled dead bodies around them for protection,” said survivor 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.”
All 24 South Korean survivors interviewed individually by AP said they remembered no North Koreans nor any gunfire directed at the Americans. One suggested the Americans were seeing their own comrades’ gunfire ricocheting from the tunnels’ opposite ends.
In authoritarian, U.S.-allied South Korea, the survivors were long discouraged from speaking out. In 1997, they filed a claim with South Korea’s Government Compensation Committee. But the committee rejected it in April 1998, saying a five-year statute of limitations had expired long ago.
The U.S. government’s civil liability may be limited. It is largely protected by U.S. law against foreign lawsuits related to “combatant activities,” although the claimants say the killings were not directly combat-related.
War crimes prosecution appears even less likely. The U.S. military code condemns indiscriminate killing of civilians, even if a few enemy soldiers are among a large number of noncombatants killed, experts note. But prosecution so many years later is a practical impossibility, they say.
AP Investigative Researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.
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