Early in the Korean War, American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians under a railroad bridge in the South Korean countryside, villagers said.
When the families spoke out, seeking redress, they met rejection and denial, from the U.S. military and their own government in Seoul. Now a dozen ex-GIs 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 130 interviews, the Associated Press could not determine the precise death toll. Ex-GIs 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 North Korean infiltrators among the fleeing South Korean peasants, veterans told the 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 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; others said they don't remember hostile fire. One said they later found a few disguised North Korean soldiers among the dead; others disputed this.
The 30 Korean claimants -- survivors and relatives of victims -- 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.
The reported death toll would make No Gun Ri one of 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 Pentagon said it had found no substantiation for the No Gun Ri allegations.
"We have no evidence that this alleged event occurred," Kenneth Bacon, the chief spokesman for Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, told reporters in Jakarta as he traveled with Cohen.
"It's been investigated time and time again," Bacon said. "These are not new allegations," although the charges "are obviously disturbing." But he added that "to the extent we've been able to investigate them, we've not been able to corroborate them.
Col. Edwin Veiga, an Army spokesman in Washington, said: "The U.S. Army Center for Military History has researched its files and has found no information that substantiates the claim that U.S. Army soldiers perpetrated a massacre of South Korean civilians at No Gun Ri."
The troops dug in at No Gun Ri, 100 miles southeast of Seoul, 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," former 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 pilots were supposed to strike enemy artillery miles up the road. But declassified U.S. Air Force reports from mid-1950 show that pilots also sometimes deliberately attacked "people in white," apparently suspecting disguised North Korean soldiers were among them.
Ex-GI Delos Flint of Clio, Mich., 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 said that 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. "It was mainly women and kids and old men."
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, ` . . . 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."
Chandler and other key officers are dead. The colonel who commanded the battalion, Herbert B. Heyer, 88, of Sandy Springs, Ga., said he knew nothing about the shootings and "I know I didn't give such an order."
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. All 24 South Korean survivors interviewed said they remembered no North Koreans or gunfire directed at the Americans.
The No Gun Ri 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.
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.
investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.