The American planes dropped from a hot summer sky as the villagers were fleeing a communist advance in the first, fearful weeks of the Korean War. The target was easy: a tight column of white-clothed Koreans, walking under orders of American soldiers who had searched them for weapons and directed them to an empty railroad bed.
The planes loosed their bombs. Chung Ku Hun, then 17, ran into a nearby culvert as blasts lifted the earth. But the bloodletting was just beginning.
American soldiers walked through the crying and wounded civilians. "They were checking every wounded person and shooting them if they moved," said Chung. Other soldiers climbed down toward a drainage pipe where dozens of villagers had taken shelter and began shooting into the families, according to the accounts of survivors.
These are among the painful stories that are now pouring out after a half-century of silence, stirred to life by a carefully documented Associated Press story on Sept. 30 describing a massacre of Korean civilians under a bridge trestle near this tiny village in July 1950, three weeks after the United States entered the Korean War.
The AP report, and its aftermath of grim stories, have served up hard questions for the United States and South Korea about how to judge the past and how to keep it from laying claim to present relations between the countries. Both sides are worried that the ugly secrets of the war may inflame resentment against the 37,000 U.S. troops now stationed here.
"There is room for anti-American elements to exploit this," South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Hong Soon Young said in an interview. "We don't want to lose sight of the fact that the U.S. was here to defend human rights and they were here at the invitation of my government and people."
The two governments also are worried about how many other such accounts may emerge from the brutal, inconclusive war that saw unprepared U.S. troops thrown into retreat as they tried to stem the North Korean offensive.
The United States and South Korea have begun separate investigations into what happened at No Gun Ri, 100 miles southeast of Seoul, from July 26 to 29, 1950. But in addition to the events at No Gun Ri, U.S. soldiers have confirmed that they blew up two river bridges filled with Korean refugees. The bridges were destroyed to try to stop the North Korean advance after desperate attempts to block refugees from streaming across had failed, the soldiers told the AP.
"This is a small Pandora's box; we open that, and there might be more," said Hyun In Taek, a political analyst at Seoul's Korea University. "It could be a very thorny issue between the two countries."
But public reaction in South Korea so far has been muted. "The Korean people know Americans saved Korea in the Korean War," Hyun said. "We will never forget that."
Besides, "it's not surprising news," Lee Shin Bom, vice chairman of the National Assembly's foreign affairs committee, said of the allegations. "In many, many hills here you will find the bones of massacres by North Koreans, South Koreans--and Americans." Lee said his father-in-law was among a large group of prisoners killed by their North Korean captors.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has promised that the U.S. investigation will expand beyond No Gun Ri if needed. And Hong, whose ministry is involved in the South Korean investigation, said it will deal with other allegations "as they come up."
Investigators face the delicate task of measuring a dirty war by standards that officials here say were violated by all sides during the three-year conflict. "We have to look into how much was necessitated by the conduct of the war," Hong said. "You have to hear the testimony of the officers on the line. Why did they have to issue orders [to shoot]? Why did they have to fire? Battlefield logic prevailed. It must have been chaotic and confusing."
But the No Gun Ri survivors worry that these concerns will squelch their demand for overdue justice. They are skeptical of the arrangement of dual investigations, in which American officials will research U.S. records and interview former GIs, and South Koreans will delve into the survivors' accounts here.
U.S. officials reportedly are considering blanket immunity to American soldiers in return for testimony. The Korean survivors say they do not seek prosecution of old soldiers, but they worry that the U.S. and South Korean investigations may be steered by pressures in each country to reach different conclusions.
Neither government welcomed the task. U.S. officials repeatedly ignored petitions from the survivors to acknowledge the massacre, and previous South Korean governments suppressed any criticism of their American ally. "Every time we raised the issue, the government tried to blame us," said Chung Eun Young, who said he lost a son, 6, and a daughter, 3, in the No Gun Ri attacks. He said his wife was wounded and disabled.
Chung and other survivors say they want an apology and compensation from the U.S. government. The apology takes on a particular importance here, where their complaints were seen in the past as pro-communist, a dangerous label in a country still officially at war with North Korea.
"It's important for America to admit what happened and apologize to restore the honor of the people of the village," said Lee, the foreign affairs committee member.
They also want a monument erected at the site of the killings. For now, it is unmarked and unremarkable, except for the gouges left by bullets in the trestle concrete.
After the AP report appeared, Korean survivors have returned to these sites to show reporters what happened. They recount how American soldiers said the North Korean advance would soon reach them and that they should retreat with the army.
They say they were herded from a road onto the rail line, which ran along an embankment. They already had been searched twice by GIs, they say, when the American planes roared overhead and dropped bombs. It is unclear if the pilots mistook the group for North Koreans, although the incident occurred several miles behind the front lines.
"I remember the American troops searching all of us, and I remember I was very hungry," said Yang Hae Suk, then a girl of 13. "Suddenly, there were planes and bombs. My uncle covered his child, and I heard him say, 'Oh, my God.' I looked and saw his intestines had come out. The bullet had passed through his back and killed his daughter."
Moments later Yang was hit and lost her left eye.
Some Koreans slid down the embankment to hide in drainage tunnels about 35 yards long. But American soldiers on both ends of the tunnel opened fire, the villagers say.
"They were shooting at us from this side. We ran out the other side, but they were shooting at us there, too," said Keom Choja, a woman who was 12 at the time. "I told my mother, 'I've been shot,' but she had my brother and sister, and she had to save them. She said, 'Follow me if you can' and went on."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this article.
CAPTION: Keom Choja says she and her family took cover in this culvert near No Gun Ri when U.S. planes attacked Korean war refugees there in 1950.
CAPTION: Yang Hae Suk, who was a 13-year-old refugee in 1950, says the American bombing at No Gun Ri left her sightless in one eye.