Ex-GIs Tell AP of Korea Killings Associated Press Writers
By Sang-Hun Choe
CHARLES J. HANLEY
Thursday, Sept. 30, 1999; 6:59 a.m. EDT From freshly dug foxholes, the GIs looked out over their gunsights. Hundreds of civilians, many of them women and children, were moving toward their lines, trying to cross to safety.
The young American soldiers, new at the warfront, were wary. Orders had come down: No one crosses the line. "It was assumed there were enemy in these people," veteran Herman Patterson remembers.
A terrible episode was about to unfold in a "forgotten war," a chapter of the 1950-53 Korean conflict that would remain unwritten until a dozen ex-soldiers, in interviews with The Associated Press, corroborated the allegations of South Koreans who say they survived a mass killing at the U.S. Army's hands.
In late July 1950, the American veterans said, their Army battalion killed a large number of South Korean refugees beneath a railroad bridge at a place called No Gun Ri.
Ex-GIs speak of 100, 200 or simply hundreds dead. The Koreans, whose claim for compensation was rejected last year, say 300 were shot to death at the bridge and 100 died in a preceding U.S. air attack.
The veterans 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 the 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 ex-GIs 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 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.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said today that the claims could be examined if there were new evidence.
"I am not aware of any evidence that would support or substantiate those claims. But to the degree that any substantive information is forthcoming, we certainly would look at it," he told a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The U.S. military has said repeatedly it found no basis for the allegations. On Wednesday, after the AP report was released, Pentagon spokesman P.J. Crowley said, "We just have no information in historical files to lend any clarity to what might have happened in July 1950."
The AP's research also found no official Army account of the events.
The South Korean government said it will investigate whether the survivors' claims are true or not.
"With keen attention, we'll try to verify the truth of all related things concerning the case," Foreign Ministry spokesman Chang Chul-kyun said. "Any further action will be decided after those efforts are finished."
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.
From the start of the 1950-53 conflict, North Korean atrocities were widely reported the killing of civilians and summary executions of prisoners. But the story of No Gun Ri has remained undisclosed for a half-century.
Some elements of the No Gun Ri episode are unclear: What chain of officers gave open-fire orders? Did GIs see gunfire from the refugees or their own ricochets? How many soldiers refused to fire? How high in the ranks did knowledge of the events extend?
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. Although some ex-GIs poured out chilling memories, others offered only fragments, or abruptly ended their interviews. Over the three days, soldiers were dug in over hundreds of yards of hilly terrain, and no one Korean or American saw everything.
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.
"It was just wholesale slaughter," said Patterson.
Both the 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 their children into a narrow culvert beneath the tracks, the Koreans said.
Some ex-GIs 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 the AP, show that pilots also sometimes deliberately attacked "people in white," apparently suspecting disguised North Korean soldiers were among them.
Ex-GI Delos Flint said he and other soldiers were caught in the U.S. air attack and piled into the culvert with the refugees. Then "somebody maybe our guys was shooting in at us," he recalled. The soldiers managed to slip out.
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.
Two days earlier, 1st Cavalry Division headquarters had issued an order: "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children." A neighboring U.S. Army division, in its order, said civilians "are to be considered enemy."
Experts in the law of war told the 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 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, 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."
Chandler and other key officers are dead. The colonel who commanded the battalion, Herbert B. Heyer, 88, of Sandy Springs, Ga., told the 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."
Some ex-soldiers said gunfire was coming out of the underpasses, but others don't remember any. None of the ex-GIs interviewed supported one veteran's statement that he and others afterward discovered "at least seven" dead North Korean soldiers in the underpasses, in uniform under peasant white.
Some GIs didn't fire, veterans said. "It was civilians just trying to hide," said Flint, of Clio, Mich.
All 24 South Korean survivors interviewed individually by the AP said they remembered no North Koreans or gunfire directed at the Americans. One suggested the Americans were seeing their own comrades' gunfire ricocheting through from the tunnels' opposite ends.
Relevant U.S. Army documents say nothing about North Korean soldiers killed under a bridge or anything else about No Gun Ri.
The precise death toll will never be known. The survivors believe 300 were killed at the bridge and 100 in the air attack. Ex-GIs close to the bridge generally put the dead there at about 200. "A lot" also were killed in the strafing, they say.
One battalion lieutenant located by the AP said he was in the area but knew nothing about the killing of civilians. "I have honestly never, ever heard of this from either my soldiers or superiors or my friends," said John C. Lippincott of Stone Mountain, Ga. He said he could have missed it because "we were extremely spread out."
In authoritarian, U.S.-allied South Korea, the survivors were long discouraged from speaking out. In 1997, in a liberalized political atmosphere, 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 AP reconstructed U.S. troop movements from map coordinates in declassified U.S. war records, narrowed the possibilities among Army units, then spent months tracing veterans some 130 interviews by telephone and in person to pinpoint the companies involved.
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, legal experts note. But prosecution so many years later is a practical impossibility, they say.
EDITOR'S NOTE AP Investigative Researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press