IN RETROSPECT, there is a tinge of inevitability to the report by the Associated Press that American soldiers massacred perhaps hundreds of civilians early in the Korean War at a place called, ironically, No Gun Ri. Communist North Korea had just invaded. Ill-equipped and -trained Americans, rushed to the front, were retreating in disarray. Particularly vexing was the North's tactic of ignoring the rules of war and infiltrating soldiers in peasant garb into columns of fleeing refugees, then attacking American forces from the rear. Some commanders gave orders to shoot suspect refugee groups. This is apparently what happened at No Gun Ri.

At the time, it seems, the incident drew no special attention. A war was on that otherwise, at least at the outset, was supported broadly if not warmly by a majority of Americans. It is possible to believe that American soldiers were not as sensitive to local populations as they subsequently became and that a single atrocity in Korea did not stand out against the real-life backdrop of multiple crimes against civilians on both sides. Later applications by No Gun Ri survivors for compensation were evidently brushed off by American and Korean authorities alike.

This reported massacre of 1950 floats on a line between memory (witnesses' testimony) and history (contemporary documents). The AP's carefully prepared story will now be tested and presumably expanded by the quick and full investigation ordered by Defense Secretary William Cohen. Army Secretary Louis Caldera says survivors will be compensated if appropriate grounds are found.

Any flaws shown in the American military's performance must be measured against the American success in rescuing South Korea from Communist aggression and enabling it eventually to become a democratic and prosperous country. There is no call for a showy guilt trip, but the truth needs to be told. The public record ought to be made reasonably complete, and the compensation question must be handled fairly, too.