For three days in late July 1950, US warplanes and ground troops under explicit orders to kill civilians slaughtered hundreds of South Korean refugees fleeing ahead of advancing North Korean troops.
For nearly three days in late July 1950, US Army and Air Force troops bombed, strafed, shelled and shot hundreds of Korean men, women and children to death at and around a bridge in the hamlet of No Gun Ri For nearly half a century, the US military denied any such massacre had occurred, although survivors and some of the GIs who took part in the atrocity had been fighting for the truth to be told for decades. Thanks to their persistence and the intrepid reporting of a team of investigative journalists, the world now knows that not only did a horrific massacre happen at No Gun Ri, but that the slaughter was part of a deliberate and official American policy of killing civilians.
On June 25, 1950 North Korean troops invaded South Korea in a bid to reunify the peninsula under communist rule. Seoul, the southern capital, fell three days later. A hungry, growing tide of hundreds of thousands of increasingly desperate refugees frantically tried to stay ahead of the rapidly-advancing Korean People’s Army as it advanced deeper into the South. Dressed in white and carrying whatever they could on their backs or in oxcarts, they had no way of knowing that high-ranking US military commanders had no intention of letting them through to the relative safety the beckoned to the south.
Although the Pentagon initially insisted that no US ground troops would be needed in the fight, a June 29th visit by MacArthur convinced the supreme commander that American boots on the ground would indeed be needed to repulse the Northern aggression. Truman then ordered US troops into the war without a congressional war resolution. The president called it a “police action.” It was the first major overseas military conflict without a declaration of war, and it set a precedent for unilateral executive power cited in nearly every US military action since.
The US military, puffed up with pride from its historic victory in World War II and swaggering with an air of atomic and racial supremacy, expected a short war. But this was not the army that stormed the beaches of Normandy or drove the Japanese out of the Philippines just a few years earlier. Many of the soldiers that would bear the brunt of battles to come were far more fit for the soft life of occupation duty in Japan than for the close combat that awaited them in Korea.
Fit is a poor word choice; flabby fits better. Some of these GIs hadn’t even finished basic training when they shipped off. To make matters worse, many units faced a shortage of vital weaponry including tanks and artillery. There was also a shortage of non-commissioned officers, and many soldiers were men with low IQs or of “questionable character.” In the field, they were plagued by inadequate intelligence; some reconnaissance units didn’t even have maps.
Such was the case with the 7th Cavalry Regiment, the famed Garryowens of Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand fame. It was a unit steeped in glory – and gore. Its history of atrocities included some of the most notorious massacres of Native Americans, including the rape and murder of Cheyenne women and girls at Washita River and the slaughter of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee. Later, the Garryowens would play a key role in both the US colonial occupation of the Philippines and the re-conquest of the archipelago after it was invaded by the Japanese during World War II.
In 1950, the Garryowens was still all-white. Although President Harry S. Truman had ordered the military to desegregate in 1948, it was slow to do so and many units remained segregated as the Korean War began. Racist attitudes toward Asians would factor heavily in the way US troops treated the civilians they encountered during the war.
‘Strafe All Civilians’
The men of the 7th Cavalry were enjoying the relative ease of occupation duty in Tokyo when they learned that North Korea had invaded the South and that they would be shipping off to war. After a rough sea journey, they landed without incident on July 18 at Pohang-dong and prepared for the fight to come.
By that time, there were reports that North Korean soldiers or agents were infiltrating US lines disguised as civilians. Although US intelligence found no evidence of this, the specter of communist infiltration seriously spooked US commanders. A secret memo from Col. Turner C. Rogers, commander of US Air Force operations in Korea, titled, “Policy on Strafing Civilian Refugees” affirmed an earlier directive ordering the killing of innocent civilians.
“The Army has requested that we strafe all civilian refugees parties that are noted approaching our positions,” the memo stated. “To date, we have complied with the Army request in this respect.”
That same day, US warplanes attacked a large group of refugees behind American lines, killing countless men, women and children. The following day, John J. Muccio, the US ambassador to Seoul, wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk to affirm to the policy of shooting refugees as a last resort. The Muccio letter proves that this policy was known by senior US government officials.
Other US military documents ordered troops to “shoot all refugees coming across river,” ordered “all refugees to be fired on,” and declared refugees to be “fair game.”
The 7th Cavalry arrived at the front amid one of the greatest debacles in US Army history. The 24th Infantry Division, which preceded the Garryowens into battle, was routed and retreating southward, its numbers reduced by more than half. To the fresh-faced Garryowens, they looked like totally beaten men. It was a scary sight to behold, and it made a terrifying impression on the new troops.
With rumors of infiltrators running rife, the jittery, green GIs of the 7th Cavalry often fired at everything that moved in the night, including their fellow soldiers and South Korean allies, sometimes with deadly consequences. Gen. Hobart R. Gay, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, called some of the troops “somewhat hysterical,” although it was Gay who described refugees as “fair game” for killing.
In a preview of the “free-fire zones” of the Vietnam War, large swathes of South Korea were declared off-limits to civilians; anyone found there could be considered the enemy and killed. South Koreans were fast learning that their purported American allies were in fact capable of far worse outrages than the invading Northern troops, who at that time mostly treated the people in areas they occupied well in hopes of winning them over to the communist cause.
US troops from multiple units arrived in the valley near the village of No Gun Ri on July 22, 1950. In the tiny hamlet of Chu Gok Ri, members of the 5th Cavalry raped, rampaged and ransacked their way through the village. “The GIs seemed to go wild whenever they saw women, whether they were old women or young girls, they tried to grab them,” recalled Park Hee-sook, who was 16 years old at the time, and who hid in a large urn to avoid being raped.
Many Chu Gok Ri residents fled to what they thought was the safety Im Ke Ri, a hamlet in the nearby mountains, just as their ancestors had done when Japanese invaders marched into the valley 350 years earlier. After a July 23 order to evacuate all civilians from the area, US troops forced Im Ke Ri residents and refugees out of their refuge at gunpoint, even as Air Force and Navy warplanes were strafing civilians in the area. Some of the refugees died from setting off land mines or booby traps laid by the Americans. Others were shot dead when they wandered off the beaten path to relieve themselves.
A Living Hell
On July 26, the Garryowens had been at the front less than 48 hours. It was a terribly hot morning, with the shrill song of cicadas relentlessly whining in the air. Near No Gun Ri, a column of white-clad refugees stretched out for hundreds of meters as it approached a twin underpass railroad bridge that offered the inviting prospect of a shady pause. A US plane circled low and slow above the refugees; many of them thought it must be counting them so that the Americans would know how many trucks would be needed to transport them to safety further south.
Suddenly, more planes appeared from the horizon and, before the refugees knew what was happening, attacked them with bombs, rockets and machine guns. “The ground was shaking and both my legs shook like walking on a small boat,” remembered Chun Choon-ja, then a 10-year-old girl. Panicked refugees and screaming livestock fled in every direction as explosions from the furious onslaught blew them to bloody bits.
“I ran to my mother and found her breathing her last gasps,” said Choon-ja. “Part of her head was gone. I heard the ‘ping-ping’ sounds of bullets flying past me as people fell around me. I ran this way and that, trying to run away from the explosions. I cried. I couldn’t find my father.”
Yang Hae-sook, who was 13 years old, saw her uncle trying to shield his daughter, who had also been shot, as his intestines spilled out of his abdomen. Both were soon dead, and soon Hae-sook couldn’t see anything. Her right eye was caked shut with blood. Her left eye was blown out by an explosion. Hae-chan, her 10-year-old brother, saw the eye dangling from his sister’s face as she screamed for someone, anyone, to yank it out. Finding no takers, she ripped it from the socket with her own hand and tossed it aside.
Park Hee-sook, the 16-year-old who hid in an urn to avoid being raped, saw her sister lying on the ground, with “blood spurting from a hole in her left breast as her lips and legs were shaking and convulsing.” The mortally wounded young mother begged for water, which her younger sister scooped from a ditch with her hands and brought to her lips as she died.
Frantic refugees who tried to scramble up a nearby hillside were cut to pieces by American fire. Others tried to find refuge in a narrow culvert where the wounded, dying and dead lay all around, but incoming fired forced them to flee or die. The twin tunnels of the railroad bridge seemed to offer hope.
As soldiers approached them with bayonets fixed to their M1 Garand rifles, little Hae-chan led his blinded and bewildered sister Hae-sook and their mother into the tunnel. “I kept tripping over bodies because I couldn’t see well,” Hae-sook recalled. The heat inside the tunnel was suffocating. Hee-sook called it “a living hell.” There were hundreds of people inside, many of them dead or mortally wounded.
Amid this scene of unimaginable suffering, two women gave birth. One of the newborns was left to die after her mother and other relatives were shot. The other was killed along with her parents. Other babies clung to their dead mothers’ breasts, while Chun Choon-ja’s father drowned her wailing baby brother in a shallow stream that ran beneath the trestle.
As US warplanes rained down death from the sky above, the men of the 7th Cavalry unleashed hell on earth with small arms and mortar fire. “Word came through the line, open fire on them,” recalled Buddy Wenzel, who at the time was a 19-year-old from South River, NJ. “[Refugees] were running toward us and we opened fire. We understood that we were fighting for these people but we had orders to fire on them and we did.”
The image of a little girl caught in the sights of his M1 remains indelibly seared in Wenzel’s mind. “I think I shot her,” he said.
Some Garryowens were deeply disturbed by what was happening, others seemed to relish the slaughter. Some refused to fire on civilians, others took to the task full of bloodlust. “A feeding frenzy took place once it started,” said Larry Levine, a staff sergeant. “Guys were shooting because they hadn’t shot before, and they had permission to… shoot anything that moves.
“Women, children, old people; we had to eliminate them… and when we did, there wasn’t nothing standing but a couple of cows,” said Melvin Durham of F Company. “We fired for about an hour, an hour and a half.” Norm Tinkler, a big brawler from Cloud County, Kansas, admitted that “we annihilated them,” just like “an Indian raid back in the old days.”
James McClure of 2nd Battalion recon remembered how some men were having trouble killing one particular child. “You should have seen guys trying to kill that little girl with machine guns,” he said. “She was crying and she ran back into that mess, and I guess the mortars got her.”
Some of the Americans finished off wounded men, women and children with point-blank executions by bullet or bayonet. Meanwhile in the tunnel, survivors endured unspeakable horrors.
“The entrance to the tunnel was so thick with bodies strewn everywhere,” remembered Park Sung-yong, mother of Koo-pil, a 4-year-old boy and a girl, Koo-hee, age 2. Some people who dared to venture out of the tunnel were shot. This was the fate of Koo-hee and her grandmother when the old woman carried her out of the tunnel amid the confusion and chaos of the attack.
Others were luckier. Im Ke Ri villager Park Chang-rok, who was 13 at the time, was hiding in a shallow hole. He’d lost track of his parents but was doing his best to protect his 4-year-old sister. “I thought both of us were dead because I saw people killed by GIs,” he said. But the Americans, who were surprised to discover the two children in their makeshift foxhole, saved them instead. Some Army medics also tried to treat wounded refugees.
As Park Sun-yong tried to escape, Koo-pil was shot in his tiny legs. Then they ran into an American soldier. Sun-yong pleaded for their lives but the soldier couldn’t understand them and he shot the 4-year-old boy dead. More GIs came. Sun-yong was sure she was about to die. But instead of shooting Sun-yong they covered her son’s body and took her to an ambulance.
“That day I saw the two faces of America,” she said. “I just don’t know what got into their heads to kill my boy like that… the Americans must have gone crazy.” Sun-yong, a devout Christian, believes the GIs saw that she was carrying a Bible and decided to spare her life.
After a short reprieve, the order came down to “eliminate” the survivors as night fell. Yang Hae-sook remembered bullets flying around her “like bees” as the shooting resumed. Fire was coming from both ends of the tunnel. Then the artillery shelling resumed. People were blown apart as desperate survivors huddled along the tunnel walls, praying for the slaughter to end.
The shooting, shelling and killing continued through the night. As the sun rose on a new day, Yang Hae-chan built a wall out of bodies to protect half-blind Hae-sook and their wounded mother as their aunt Yang Mal-soon, who was eight months pregnant, lay dying, begging her 9-year-old daughter Hwa-ja to strangle her to death. The child was carrying her 4-year-old sister when incoming fire blew half of her head off. Incoming fire kept the survivors pinned down among the stinking, decaying bodies and growing pools of blood.
There was more bombing and strafing on the second day, and into the second night, of the massacre at No Gun Ri The Americans couldn’t hold back the North Korean advance and in the predawn hours of July 29 the Garryowens fled the area while under heavy tank and artillery fire. Later that day, Korean People’s Army troops arrived at the tunnel and helped those who were still alive. According to most local accounts, the North Koreans treated the villagers well during their brief two-month occupation.
Yang Hae-sook, her little brother Hae-chan and both of their parents survived the massacre at No Gun Ri But 10 of their relatives were killed, and when the shooting and strafing stopped the grisly task of gathering and burying loved ones began. Amid the unimaginable scene of bomb- and bullet-ravaged bodies rotting in the humid heat, Hae-sook found the remains of her father and reverently gathered them up for burial.
Meanwhile, US troops and hundreds of thousands of Korean refugees streamed southward toward the safety of the Busan perimeter. Villages, towns and even entire cities were burned or bombed into rubble as the retreating Americans implemented a scorched-earth policy meant to slow the enemy advance. Hundreds of civilians were killed when the retreating Americans blew up strategic bridges over the Nakdong River at Waegwan on August 3 and Tuksong-dong the following day. Gen. Gay, who gave the order to “blow the son of a bitch,” later admitted that it was a tough call, because “up in the air with the bridge went hundreds of refugees.”
Flight of Refugees Across Wrecked Bridge in Korea, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Associated Press photographer Max Desfor.
The South Korean regime of dictator Rhee Syngman was also killing shocking numbers of its own people, waging a campaign of state terrorism against leftists, both real and imagined. There had already been around 100,000 political prisoners in the South by the time the war broke out; during the war, the police state reign of terror only accelerated. Tens of thousands of suspected and actual communists were murdered, sometimes in mass executions that shocked US military officers who witnessed – and tolerated – them. All the while, the United States claimed to be the champion of freedom while depriving Koreans of their liberty.
As bad as things were in the South, the situation was soon even worse in North Korea, whose people endured not only their own increasingly repressive ruler, Kim Il-sung, but also one of the most ferocious aerial bombardment campaigns in human history perpetrated by the US Air Force. General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, who commanded firebombing raids on Japanese cities that killed more civilians than the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, served as strategic air commander during the Korean War. He would later acknowledge that the US “killed off 20 percent of the population” of North Korea, or about 1.9 million men, women and children, while reducing the nation to ruins.
The Korean War, largely forgotten in the United States, claimed the lives of some 33,000 US, 200,000 South Korean and nearly half a million North Korean and Chinese troops. Nearly a million South Korean civilians died. Many of the young Americans, and many more Koreans, who survived the war are haunted to this day.
Buddy Wenzel still sees visions of the children he and his fellow Garyowens killed at No Gun Ri. “Those people never did anything to us,” he lamented half a century later. Korea veterans were plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and alcoholism. Some drank themselves to death.
Koreans fared even worse. “I’ve lived my life in tears,” said Yang Hae-sook, who got a glass eye when she was 17 but endured a hellish decades-long marriage to an abusive husband. “Since No Gun Ri I’ve never been able to hold up my face with pride.”
Like most humans, Koreans hold deep supernatural beliefs. “I sometimes think I hear the whispers of the ghosts,” said Hae-sook. “It used to terrify me, but not any longer. The hills and tunnel look empty, but in fact they’re filled with the spirits of the dead.”
“I knew I was never going to have another happy day in my life,” said Chung Eun-yong, husband of Chung Sun-yong, after reuniting with his wife only to learn that their two young children, Koo-pil and Koo-hee, were killed at No Gun Ri
Eun-yong would dedicate his life to finding the truth about No Gun Ri. “It never escaped my mind one single day,” he said. However, Koreans who tried to seek redress or compensation, or who even talked too much about what happened at No Gun Ri, were threatened with imprisonment or death under the dictatorship of Rhee and his successors, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. Criticism of the US military was taboo, even as American troops stationed in Korea continued to commit atrocities over the following decades.
Impunity was, and remains, the order of the day for the American perpetrators of No Gun Ri and other war crimes. The US Far East Command defined “war crimes” exclusively as acts committed by enemy forces. “I think we’ve done very badly on trying our own people for war crimes,” said Col. Howard Levie, who investigated atrocities during the war. Levie said this is “because American soldiers considered Orientals to be ‘gooks,’” a slur that dated back to the brutal conquest of the Philippines, and that would become even more ubiquitous during the Vietnam War. “They considered them to be lesser beings,” the colonel said.
US journalists did visit the No Gun Ri area shortly after the massacre. They also witnessed the Tuksong-dong bridge massacre but failed to fully report it. Famed newsman Edwin R. Murrow reported from Korea that US forces were creating “dead valleys” in South Korea and wondered if Koreans would ever forgive the United States. CBS refused to air his report.
Telling the World
It would be journalists, both Korean and American, who would eventually tell the world about No Gun Ri In the spring of 1998 Choe Sang-hun, a South Korean correspondent for the Associated Press who heard stories about US and South Korean wartime atrocities from his grandparents while growing up, contacted Chung Eun-yong. AP editors and reporters including Kevin Noblet, Bob Port, Randy Herschaft (who discovered written US orders to shoot civilians), Martha Mendoza, Charles J. Hanley, Reid G. Miller and Paul Shin worked diligently on the story.
After dozens of cold calls to US veterans, a former sergeant finally told Mendoza about the massacre of refugees at the bridge at No Gun Ri. Others vets followed. The AP story on No Gun Ri was finished in July 1998, but it was not published until September 29, 1999, largely due to the chilling effect of the Operation Tailwind scandal. The story made worldwide headlines and, almost immediately, US Defense Secretary William Cohen and the South Korean government, now democratic, ordered investigations.
“I have never been happier before,” said Park Sun-Yong, who, at 75 years old, said “now I can rest in peace when I die.”
Additional AP reports followed. By early 2001, at least 60 incidents of war crimes had been reported in citizen complaints to the South Korean defense ministry. The AP team won numerous awards for what turned out to be a series of articles, including the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Three of the AP reporters – Hanley, Choe and Mendoza – would dive even deeper into the massacre in their acclaimed 2001 book The Bridge at No Gun Ri, from which all of the survivor and veteran quotes in this article are sourced.
No Justice, No Conscience
Thanks to the testimonies of Korean survivors, US veterans and the intrepid reporting of the AP team, the US military eventually admitted that it killed and wounded “an unknown number” of South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri No one will ever know exactly how many people were killed during the massacre, but the South Korean government-funded No Gun Ri Peace Foundation says 250-300 people died, most of them women and children. For this, President Bill Clinton expressed his “deep regret,” but offered no formal apology or compensation for the victims.
Adding insult to literal injury, a 300-page US Army report argued that the massacre was “an unfortunate tragedy inherent to war and not a deliberate killing.” Pentagon officials also falsely claimed that there were “no orders to kill refugees” at No Gun Ri It would be several more years before the smoking gun memos proved them liars.
Rep. Pete McCloskey Jr. (R-CA), a decorated Korean War combat veteran, called the Army report a “clear failure to report the truth.” But did Americans not directly involved even care?
“The evidence of the No Gun Ri story quickly melted into the amnesia that is the American collective memory of the Korean War,” asserts Suhi Choi in her book Embattled Memories: Contested Meanings in Korean War Memorials.
Chung Eun-yong, whose two children were shot dead by Garryownens at No Gun Ri, has a simpler explanation: “America has no justice or conscience,” he said.
Today there is a 33-acre spread of flowers, trees and water near the massacre site. No Gun Ri peace park, built at a cost of $17 million, features a memorial tower and museum where visitors can see, among other displays, the US military orders to kill civilians.
Awareness of US and South Korean atrocities is greater than ever among Koreans. For many Americans, however, this will be the first they’ve heard of No Gun Ri, or of the total destruction of Korea by US forces. In the United States, the incident is treated, when it is treated at all, as what Choi calls “an anecdotal war tragedy that can be allowed to fall into the domain of forgetfulness.”
Koreans won’t soon forget the hundreds of innocent men, women and children killed at No Gun Ri, or the millions of their compatriots on both sides of the 38th parallel who died over what was essentially an ideological dispute between the world’s two superpowers.