Still bearing disfiguring wounds, three survivors of an alleged massacre of Korean refugees by American troops at No Gun Ri, South Korea, a half-century ago had their first face-to-face encounter today with three aging ex-soldiers who have acknowledged their unit was involved in the incident.
Standing before the altar of the Old Stone Church in a symbolic "encounter" aimed at washing away decades of pain, anguish and guilt, the veterans were somber as the Rev. Joan B. Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, read a confession on their behalf.
"With heavy hearts, we as American Christians confess our complicity and indifference to the suffering of the Korean people across these many years," declared Campbell, who later said the veterans had approved the statement. "We know even our confession cannot address the lifetimes denied, the promise extinguished, the pain endured."
In turn, the Rev. Syngham Rhee, the council's president and himself a war refugee, declared on behalf of the survivors in equally conciliatory tones, "War is devastating. It is void and darkness [and] we recognize today our mutual suffering. We today confess our shared responsibility and rejoice in our common humanity."
With that, Robert "Snuffy" Gray, 75, a master sergeant with a reconnaissance platoon at the time of the No Gun Ri massacre, and Yang Hae Sook, 60, who lost an eye and watched as her grandmother and two brothers were killed in a barrage of rifle and machine gun fire, lit candles to celebrate their reconciliation.
But after meeting in private for more than two hours, the veterans and survivors seemed less than reconciled. Gray erupted at a news conference where the survivors graphically described a slaughter of men, women and children.
"I came to reach an understanding of what happened at No Gun Ri. May I ask what they came for?" he said. "My regiment was a proud regiment and they fought like hell, and they don't need anyone throwing rocks at them."
For their part, the survivors made it clear that forgiveness was not yet forthcoming. They said in a statement that when the veterans of No Gun Ri and the U.S. government apologize, the "last step would be that the victims forgive them."
In the end, Campbell said the reconciliation was "a beginning," and that a dialogue had begun among people who have not talked for over 40 years.
The two sides were brought together at a 50th anniversary conference of the council, which last December brought the villagers' testimony of atrocities to the Pentagon and demanded reparations. In March, the Army command replied it had "found no information to substantiate the claim," but since then it has opened a new investigation.
It did so on the strength of details of the alleged mass killing disclosed on Sept. 29 by the Associated Press, which reported that a dozen U.S. Army veterans, corroborating the accounts of Korean villagers, admitted their unit killed a large number of refugees huddled beneath a railroad bridge at No Gun Ri. The villagers say about 400 men, women and children were killed, including 100 in an earlier attack by U.S. warplanes.
Some of the veterans of the poorly equipped and ill-trained 7th Cavalry Regiment, part of the 1st Cavalry Division that had been rushed to Korea in the early and chaotic days of the war, said they were told by their commanders that disguised and armed North Korean soldiers had infiltrated among the refugees. Some of the veterans said they were fired on from the civilian throng, although the Koreans dispute this.
Speaking to the victims at today's church service, Gray, who now lives in Bayonet Point, Fla., said that when details of the alleged massacre began to surface, he had only a "vague remembrance that something happened." But he said that after talking with other veterans, "we determined something did happen."
Earlier, in an interview, he said he was not at the tunnel at the time of the alleged mass killings. But he stressed that in the chaos of the American retreat in the war's early days, such breakdowns in command and control "were happening to all of us."
Another veteran, Edward Daily, 68, of Clarksville, Tenn., said he was a corporal manning a machine gun position at No Gun Ri when an order came down "that we had to shoot them all" because North Korean soldiers had infiltrated the area.
He said he saw what he believed were three or four muzzle flashes inside the tunnel before firing erupted from the frightened U.S. soldiers.
"No Gun Ri wasn't an isolated incident, either," Daily said.
"We have a great deal of sympathy for these people, a lot of anguish and pain," he added. "But a lot of American soldiers lost their lives in those days, too. In any war you are going to have civilian casualties."
In interviews, the Korean survivors denied that communist troops had infiltrated the refugees, or that shots had come from the tunnel.
"There were no enemies among us. Some people are not fair to us in this fact," said Chung Ku Hak, 55, who lost his nose and part of his face in the shooting. "That is a lie."
CAPTION: TRAPPED UNDER THE TRESTLE (This graphic was not available)
CAPTION: Yang Hae Sook, left, and Keum Cho Jo, survivors of a Korean War massacre reportedly carried out by U.S. troops, attend meeting in Cleveland intended to foster reconciliation.