South Korea set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in December 2005 under the late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun to investigate long-suppressed allegations of atrocities by Koreans and Americans before, during and after the Korean War (1950-53) to "reconcile the past for the sake of national unity." It had a broad mandate to expose human rights abuses from Korea's pre-1945 Japanese colonial period through South Korea's military dictatorships into the 1980s. The commission, staffed by 240 people with an annual budget of US$19 million, was expected to release a final, thorough report on their findings in 2010 but at that time commission was abruptly shut after its tone and investigation softened under the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak, elected in December 2007. [Source: Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010, Wikipedia]

Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, “ More than 500 petitions, some describing the same actions, were filed to demand the investigation of allegations of mass killings by American troops, mostly in airstrikes. Separately, the commission has also ruled that the South Korean government summarily executed thousands of political prisoners and killed many unarmed villagers during the war. “If you say these killings were not deliberate and were mistakes, how can you explain the fact that there were so many of these incidents?” asked Park Myung-lim, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 3, 2008]

“Under South Korea’s earlier authoritarian and staunchly anti-Communist governments, criticism of American actions in the war was taboo. But after investigations showed that American soldiers killed South Korean civilians in air and ground attacks on the hamlet of No Gun Ri in 1950 — and after the United States acknowledged the deaths but refused to investigate other claims — a liberal government set up the fact-finding commission in 2005.

When the commission was closed down in July 2010, according to Associated Press reported: “In a political about-face,” it “ruled that “Americans in case after case acted out of military necessity. In a small number of cases, in which hundreds of innocent civilians were killed, a commission majority found 'low levels of unlawfulness' by the U.S. military, but did not recommend seeking compensation.” [Source: Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010]

Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: “Shutting down the inquiry into South Korea's hidden history, the commission also” left “unexplored scores of suspected mass graves believed to hold remains of tens of thousands of South Korean political detainees summarily executed by their own government early in the 1950-53 war, sometimes as U.S. officers watched. The four-year-old Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea probed more deeply than any previous inquiry into the country's bloody past. But a shift to conservative national leadership changed the panel's political makeup this year and dampened its investigative zeal. The families of 1950's victims wanted the work continued. "The truth about all these past incidents must be revealed, so this national tragedy won't be repeated," said Yang Won-jin, 82, whose father was believed shot and dumped into a mass grave 60 years ago.

Thousands Killed in the National Guidance League Incident

In 2009, the South Korean government admitted that the opening months of the Korean War, the South Korean military and the police executed at least 4,900 civilians who had earlier signed up — often under force for re-education classes — meant to turn them against Communism, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “The government killed the civilians out of fear that they would help the Communists who were invading from the north and forcing South Korean and American forces into retreat during the first desperate weeks of the war, the commission said.” It was “the first time that a state investigative agency confirmed the nature and scale of what is known as “the National Guidance League incident” one of the most horrific and controversial episodes of the war. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, November 26, 2009]

“The anti-Communist and authoritarian government of President Syngman Rhee had set up the league to re-educate people who had disavowed Communism in the months before the war, and forced an estimated 300,000 South Koreans to join. At the time, the government was facing a vicious and prolonged insurgency by leftist guerrillas. But the commission reported that many of those who joined the league had never been Communists. They either were swept up because they had provided food or other aid to Communists hiding in the hills, often at gunpoint, or were required to join by local officials seeking to meet a government quota for the number of Communists being re-educated. In some instances, the panel said, peasants were lured into joining with promises of bigger rice rations. “The authorities pressed us to join the league,” said Kim Ki-ban, 87, at a news conference called by the commission on Thursday. “We had no idea that we were joining a death row.”

“Mr. Kim, who at the time was a villager in Cheongwon, 60 miles south of Seoul, said that he and more than 60 other league members had been locked up in a warehouse in the second month of the war, but that he escaped during the confusion caused by an allied aerial bombing. The next day, he said, all the others were shot to death, their hands tied behind their backs with wire. As with many of the other victims of government massacres during the war discussion of the fate of the league members was taboo during the postwar decades of military rule. “Given the number of victims and unlawfulness, this is the worst tragedy of 20th-century South Korea,” Kim Dong-choon, a commission member, said at the news conference.

“The commission said that it believed thousands more civilians died in the league killings but that it was afraid the true scale might never be known because it feared that President Lee Myung-bak would scale back its investigations. The commission said it could identify only 4,934 victims so far and could not confirm who had ordered the systematic, nationwide killings, though Mr. Kim suggested that the orders came from the “top” of the government.

Eyewitness Accounts of the National Guidance League Incident

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “During decades of military rule in postwar South Korea, the families of many victims remained silent, branded untrustworthy members of society. Even as the panel began its work, many were afraid to come forward. Many former police and military officers refused to cooperate with the commission, which had no power to compel testimony or indict. But others broke the silence. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, November 26, 2009]

“Lee Joon-young 85, a former prison guard who witnessed assembly-line-like executions near Taejon, south of Seoul, in July 1950, was one who stepped forward. “Ten prisoners were carried to a trench at a time and were made to kneel at the edge,” he said in an interview. “Police officers stepped up behind them, pointed their rifles at the back of their heads and fired.” Another man, Choi Woo-young, 82, a former police officer who supervised 59 league members in the southern town of Hapcheon, said the civilians did not deserve to die. “They were not a threat to the government,” he said.

“On July 31, 1950, Mr. Choi said, his police contingent was ordered to kill all league members before retreating. But he saved them, he said, when he secretly alerted them not to heed a police siren that was supposedly signaling them to gather for another session of “re-education.” The police had regularly used sirens to gather league members for re-education classes or just to ensure that they had not fled to join the Communists. When they were called to gather for the last time, many did not suspect that they were going to be detained for up to several months and, in many cases, to be executed, survivors said.

“The commission unveiled old government documents that contained partial lists of league members who had been killed. Documents showed that the police kept surveillance on the league members’ relatives as late as the 1980s to ensure that their children did not get government jobs, the panel said. “A national association of victims’ families lamented that the commission had revealed only “the tip of an iceberg” and demanded that the commission’s term, which ends next spring, be extended.

Killing Prisoners Near Taejon

In July 1950, over 1,800 political prisoners and North Korean sympathizers were massacred over a three day period in the Dokchon area near Taejon by South Korean troops and police. Many of the victims were rounded up and gunpoint, loaded onto truck and taken to fields where they were executed by firing squads.

The victims were leftist who were held in Taejon’s overcrowded prison. It was decided that rather than leaving the prisoners to be reed by the North Korean forces it was more advantageous to kill them all. When the North Koreans arrived they filled the prison with rightists. When the Americans began advancing on them two months later, they executed their prisoners, mostly by drowning them in a nearby well.

The mass executions were observed and photographed by U.S. Army officers. Documents on the atrocity were only released in early 2000. One American observer saw victims shot in the head and pushed din a canyon. “t about thee hours after the execution were completed, some of the condemned persons were sill alive A.D. moaning,” he wrote. “the cries could be heard coming from somewhere in the mass of bodies piled in the canyon.” Reports of mass killing reached Gen. MacArthur. He referrer reports to U.S. diplomats “for consideration” and “such action as you deem appropriate.”

There were also reports of massacres in the North Korea town of Shin Chon. The North Korean claimed that the American GIS slaughtered 33,383 residents. What actually happened there is not known because seeking the truth is a difficult tanks in North Korea but many that a mass killing did indeed take place but the killers wee not Americans; they Korean rightist, many of then Christians, were enrged from hiding to kill Communists.

Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: In 2007-2009, the truth commission “oversaw excavations at 13 suspected mass graves and exhumed some 2,000 sets of remains of victims of the South Korean government executions. But about 140 other sites remain unexplored. "Thousands are still buried in the Daejeon area. This is really heartbreaking for the victims' families," said Kim Jong-hyun, head of the bereaved families group in that central city, where up to 7,000 people were slaughtered in assembly-line executions in July 1950 and dumped into pits stretching for a mile down a valley. Investigations and exhumations should continue, family representatives said. [Source: Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010]

Account of Killing of Prisoners Near Taejon

The killing of prisoners apparently by South Koreans also took place in places under American control. Denis Warner, a reporter during the Korean War, wrote: “Ten miles down the road toward Taejon, the Americans began to lay a minefield in front of Chochiwon, held for the moment by Colonel Stephens. Women were running in and out of the houses. Children were crying. Men were carrying too much and throwing half away after the first 100 yards. [Source: Denis Warner, Military History, June 12, 2006]

“Late on Saturday night the town appeared to be deserted. It was, except for the American headquarters in a bank, the police and the jail with its political prisoners. I spent the night in an abandoned shop house opposite the police station. At dawn, after a sleepless and hungry night, I came out and found myself next to a collection of 30 men and women who had been led out of the town jail. They were roped together with their hands tied behind their backs. I counted seven girls, mostly in their late teens to judge by their appearance, but battered and dirty. South Korean military police with white armbands and ordinary civil police were there. Both seemed equally dissatisfied with the way the prisoners were boarding the waiting truck. The boot and the gun butt were used many times before one policeman went off for a box for the prisoners to step up on while they struggled aboard.

“Later, I learned from U.S. troops that they had found an open grave, semicircular in shape and about 3 feet deep, south of town that afternoon. In it were bodies that matched the description of the 30 prisoners I had seen being loaded into the truck that morning. The grave was also said to have contained another 70 bodies.

Revenge Killings By Police and Villagers During the Korean War

Killings during the Korean War were not just done by troops; they were also carried out by police and rival villagers. A team led by Park Sun-joo, a physical anthropologist and bone specialist at Chungbuk National University, recovered the remains of 400 people in six killing sites since 2014, including 208 executed in an abandoned gold mine in Asan, about 80 kilometers south of Seoul, in what the truth commission called a “crime against humanity. Of those found in the mine, 58 were 12 years old or younger. Of the rest, more than 80 percent were women. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times,July 5, 2019]

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “When North Korean invaders swept down into the south, the South Korean police executed thousands of political prisoners and people suspected of sympathizing with North Korea to prevent them from joining the North’s side. Then, as the rival armies swept up and down the Korean Peninsula in the early months of the war, towns changed hands and more blood baths followed.

“North Korean supporters slaughtered the relatives of the South Korean police and soldiers with spears and pitchforks. When the South Korean police came back, they and right-wing villagers who had lost their relatives quickly ferreted out and executed those they accused of being Communist collaborators and their family members. Sometimes the revenge killings were fueled not just by political ideology, but also by prewar family feuds. Villagers often wiped out entire families so that there would be no one left to retaliate.

”““Villagers were mobilized to dig anti-air-raid trenches when their towns were under Communist rule,” said Ahn Kyung-ho, a former truth commission investigator who still works with Mr. Park in excavating burial sites. “When South Korean forces took over, they were taken to the same trenches and executed.”

Mr. Park’s team excavated a hillside near a village called Daedong-ri at Asan. “They bludgeoned the victims, adults and children, indiscriminately,” a witness identified only by his last name, Lee, told the truth commission, describing the execution of 80 people by fellow villagers at the site in 1950. “They then threw dirt over them, some still alive and writhing in pain.” “For years, the victims’ families could not dare come near this site for fear of being called reds,” said Hong Nam-hwa, 53, a Daedong-ri resident who lost several relatives. and watched Mr. Park’s team work on a recent Saturday.

“After the war ended, those murdered by the Communist invaders and leftist vigilantes were treated like martyrs in South Korea. “But military dictators who ruled South Korea after the war banned any public discussion of the atrocities committed by the South Korean police and right-wing vigilantes. The police put the victims’ families under surveillance and kept secret files on them into the 1980s. The families themselves hid their backgrounds, fearful of the stigma of being labeled the “reds’ offspring.”

Mass Killings in South Korea in 1950 Kept Secret

At the outbreak of the Korean War, South Korean authorities secretively executed, usually without legal process, tens of thousands of political prisoners, southern leftists and accused of being sympathizers. A report of mass murder by a journalist in South Korea in 1950 was blocked by his British publisher. Another correspondent was denounced as a possibly treasonous fabricator when he did report it. Today a government Truth and Reconciliation Commission is working to dig up the facts, and the remains of victims. [Source: Charles J. Hanley, Associated Press, May 18, 2008]

Charles J. Hanley of Associated Press wrote: “How could such a bloodbath have been hidden from history? Among the Koreans who witnessed, took part in or lost family members to the mass killings, the events were hardly hidden, but they became a "public secret," barely whispered about through four decades of right-wing dictatorship here. "The family couldn't talk about it, or we'd be stigmatized as leftists," said Kim Chong-hyun, 70, leader of an organization of families seeking redress for their loved ones' deaths in 1950.

“Kim, whose father was shot and buried in a mass grave outside the central city of Daejeon [Taejong], noted that in 1960-61, a one-year democratic interlude in South Korea, family groups began investigating wartime atrocities. But a military coup closed that window, and "the leaders of those organizations were arrested and punished." Then, "from 1961 to 1988, nobody could challenge the regime, to try again to reveal these hidden truths," said Park Myung-lim of Seoul's Yonsei University, a leading Korean War historian. As a doctoral student in the late 1980s, when South Korea was moving toward democracy, Park was among the few scholars to begin researching the mass killings. He was regularly harassed by the police.

Scattered reports of the killings did emerge in 1950 — and some did not. British journalist James Cameron wrote about mass prisoner shootings in the South Korean port city of Busan — then spelled Pusan — for London's Picture Post magazine in the fall of 1950, but publisher Edward Hulton ordered the story removed at the last minute. Earlier, correspondent Alan Winnington reported on the shooting of thousands of prisoners at Daejeon in the British communist newspaper The Daily Worker, only to have his reporting denounced by the U.S. Embassy in London as an "atrocity fabrication." The British Cabinet then briefly considered laying treason charges against Winnington, historian Jon Halliday has written.

Associated Press correspondent O.H.P. King reported on the shooting of 60 political prisoners in Suwon, south of Seoul, and wrote in a later memoir he was "shocked that American officers were unconcerned" by questions he raised about due process for the detainees. Some U.S. officers — and U.S. diplomats — were among others who reported on the killings. But their classified reports were kept secret for decades.

South Korea Says U.S. Killed Hundreds of Civilians

Among other things South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission accused the United States military of using indiscriminate force on three separate occasions in 1950 and 1951 as troops were fighting against Communists from the North and from China that killed at least 228 civilians, and perhaps hundreds more. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 3, 2008]

Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, “In one case, the commission said, at least 167 villagers, more than half of them women, were burned to death or asphyxiated in Tanyang, 87 miles southeast of Seoul, when American planes dropped napalm at the entrance of a cave filled with refugees. “We should not ignore or conceal the deaths of unarmed civilians that resulted not from the mistakes of a few soldiers but from systematic aerial bombing and strafing,” said Kim Dong-choon, a senior commission official. “History teaches us that we need an alliance, but that alliance should be based on humanitarian principles.”

Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: “Declassified U.S. documents uncovered over the past decade do, indeed, show commanders issuing blanket orders to shoot civilians during that period. In 2007-2009 the commission verified several such U.S. attacks, including the napalm-bombing of a cave jammed with refugees in eastern South Korea, which survivors said killed 360 people, and an air attack that killed 197 refugees gathered in a field in the far south. [Source: Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010]

“In a small number of cases, a commission majority found "low levels of unlawfulness" by the U.S., Lee said, but the panel did not recommend seeking compensation. Those cases included: 1) A U.S. air attack on a refugee ship docked at the far-southern port of Yeosu on Aug. 3, 1950, in which witnesses say hundreds were killed. 2) The killing of some 300 civilians on July 11-12, 1950, by U.S. bombers attacking the Iri railway station in southern South Korea, many miles from advancing North Korean troops. 3) A U.S. Navy destroyer's shelling of a refugee beach encampment near the southeastern city of Pohang on Sept. 1, 1950, in which survivors say 100 to 200 people were killed. A shipboard document shows the crew reluctantly fired on the civilians at U.S. Army direction.

“Such incidents fit a pattern of indiscriminate U.S. attacks on South Korean civilians evident in declassified wartime files uncovered in archival research by the AP and other journalists and historians. The U.S. archives show clear proof of intent, including 1950 communications from the U.S. ambassador in South Korea and a top Air Force officer saying U.S. forces, to guard against infiltrators, had adopted a policy of shooting refugees approaching their lines, and a series of orders from U.S. commanders to fire on all civilians. Refugees are "fair game," said the 1st Cavalry Division's Maj. Gen. Hobart R. Gay.

“The commission also confirmed that North Korean occupation forces and southern leftists executed southern rightists, including police and other officials, though in lower numbers than in the South Korean government killings.”

Napalm Dropped on Civilians on Wolmi Island

Reporting from Wolmi Island, near Inchon where Gen. Douglas MacArthur led an invasion that changed the course of the Korean War, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: When American troops stormed this island more than half a century ago, it was a hive of Communist trenches and pillboxes. “When the napalm hit our village, many people were still sleeping in their homes,” said Lee Beom-ki, 76. “Those who survived the flames ran to the tidal flats. We were trying to show the American pilots that we were civilians. But they strafed us, women and children.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 3, 2008]

“The attack, though not the civilian casualties, has been corroborated by declassified United States military documents recently reviewed by South Korean investigators. On Sept. 10, 1950, five days before the Inchon landing, according to the documents, 43 American warplanes swarmed over Wolmi, dropping 93 napalm canisters to “burn out” its eastern slope in an attempt to clear the way for American troops.

“The Wolmi victims’ demands for recognition tap into complicated emotions underlying South Korea’s alliance with the United States. “We thank the American troops for saving our country from Communism, for the peace and prosperity we have today,” said Han In-deuk, chairwoman of a Wolmi advocacy group. “Does that mean we have to shut up about what happened to our families?”

“The airstrikes came during desperate times for the American forces and for the South Koreans they came to defend....In September, when the American military planned the landing at Inchon to relieve United Nations forces cornered in the southeastern tip of the peninsula, it decided it first had to neutralize Wolmi, which overlooks the channel that approaches the harbor. “The mission was to saturate the area so thoroughly with napalm that all installations on that area would be burned,”

“Marine pilots said in one of their mission reports on Wolmi that were retrieved by the commission from the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States.They also reported that no troops were seen, “but the flashes observed on the ground indicated the intensity of the fire to be accurate enough to destroy any about.” The reports describe strafing on the beach but make no mention of civilian casualties. The Inchon landing helped United Nations troops recapture Seoul and drive the North Koreans back.”

“Regarding the Wolmi attack, the commission said that while it recognized the need for the landing at Inchon, it could find “no evidence of efforts to limit civilian casualties.” Wolmi survivors said the North Korean officers’ housing was about 1,000 feet away from their village. They say the American pilots, whose mission reports noted “visibility unlimited” and firing altitudes as low as 100 feet, should not have mistaken villagers, including many women and children, for the enemy.

They said the American troops later bulldozed their charred village to build a base. The victims’ grievances found an outlet in 2005, when left-leaning civic groups tried to topple the MacArthur statue. But Wolmi survivors said they did not join the protest for fear they might be branded anti-American. “We consider MacArthur a hero to our country, but no one can know the suffering our family endured,” said Chung Ji-eun, an Inchon cabdriver whose father died at Wolmi. “Both governments emphasize the alliance, but they never care about people like us who were sacrificed in the name of alliance.”

Attacks on Tanyang and Sansong

Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, Two attacks “the commission ruled on, in Tanyang and Sansong, south of Seoul, occurred as Communist forces barreled down the peninsula. As the allies fell back, they were attacked by guerrillas they could not easily distinguish from refugees. Fearing enemy infiltration, American troops stopped refugees streaming down the roads and told them to return home or stay in the hills, or risk getting shot by allied troops. On Jan. 14, 1951, the Army’s X Corps under Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond ordered the “methodical destruction of dwellings and other buildings forward of front lines which are, or susceptible of being, utilized by the enemy for shelter.” It recommended airstrikes. “Excellent results” was how American pilots summarized their strikes at Sansong on Jan. 19, 1951. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 3, 2008, Wikipedia]

“The same day, however, one of General Almond’s subordinates, Brig. Gen. David G. Barr of the Seventh Infantry Division, wrote to General Almond that “methodical burning out poor farmers when no enemy is present is against the grain of U.S. soldiers.” At least 51 villagers, including 16 children, were killed in Sansong, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“The attack on Tanyang followed the next day, when, survivors say, American planes dropped napalm near the entrance of the cave where refugees had sought shelter. “When the napalm hit the entrance, the blast and smoke knocked out kerosene and castor-oil lamps we had in the cave,” Eom Han-won, then 15, said in an interview. “It was a pitch-black chaos — people shouting for each other, stampeding, choking. Some said we should crawl in deeper, covering our faces with wet cloth. Some said we should rush out through the blaze. Those who were not burned to death suffocated.”

Like Mr. Eom’s family, most of the people there were refugees who had been turned back at an American roadblock south of Tanyang, survivors said. In the days before the attack, the cave was packed with families. When the American warplanes flew in from the southwest, children were playing outside amid cattle and baggage. That day, the Seventh Division’s operations logs noted that 13 planes attacked “enemy troops” and “pack animals and cave.” It reported “many casualties and got all animals.” Mr. Eom, who rushed out of the cave into a hail of machine-gun fire from the planes but survived, said, “The Americans pushed us back toward the enemy area and then bombed us.” He said he lost 10 family members.

“Shortly afterward, South Korea’s Second Division reported 34 civilians killed and 72 wounded at Sansong, but “no enemy casualties,” prompting the American military to open an investigation. The American investigators did not dispute the South Korean report but concluded that the airstrike was “amply justified.” They said that Sansong was considered an enemy haven and that its residents had been warned to evacuate.

“The case appeared closed until several years ago, when, in the course of a Korean television reporter’s investigation, villagers acquired a copy of the American military’s wartime report and read that they had been told to evacuate. They insist, and the commission agreed, that this was not true. They say the village where North Korean troops were sighted was elsewhere and was never bombed.”

Massacre at No Gun Ri

On July 26-29, 1950, in the opening weeks of the war, American soldiers and planes opened fire on unarmed Korean civilians near the hamlet of No Gun Ri, 320 kilometers (195 miles) southeast of Seoul, according to some American soldiers and South Korea survivors. An estimated 50 to 300 civilians — including women and children — were killed. It was the second most deadly massacre performer by American troops on innocent civilians after the Ma Lai massacre in Vietnam, which left around 500 dead.

The South Koreans were refugees fleeing the North Korean advance. As bombs exploded and bullets whizzed by many sough refuge under a twin-arched concrete bridge that spanned a small creek near No Gun Ri. The terrified refugees huddled there for three days. American soldiers, who were afraid of North Korea infiltrators and were told not to let them cross the front line.

The story of No Gun Ri first appeared on the Internet in South Korea in the mid-1990s. In 2000, it became a big story after a team of Associated Press reporters wrote a Pulitzer-Prize-winning story about it. U.S. President Bill Clinton expressed grave remorse over the issue but failed to issue a formal apology. Survivors and relatives are seeking compensation from the United States. They also wanted a formal apology from the U.S. president.

Book: “A Hidden Nightmare form the Korean War” by Charles Hanley, Sang Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza, the three AP reporters that broke the story of No Gun Ri in the U.S.

No Gun Ri Soldier Stories

The American soldiers who were at No Gun Ri were inexperienced. They were poorly trained. Most had never experienced combat. Some were just off the ship from Japan. Edward Daily, a soldier quoted in the AP story, told Newsweek. “Thousands of refugees were fleeing south. With so many refugees mixing with GIs, trucks and equipment, the roads became jammed and impassable. Being surrounded by so many Koreans made us a little jumpy. Reports had filtered down that North Korea regulars were masquerading as civilians, donning the traditional white clothing worn by peasants. It was impossible to tell friend from foe.”

“Panic hit us when we got the news two North Korean tanks had started to strafe civilians on the side of the road. We were also hearing sporadic rifle fire from the front. There was a lot of confusion and people started looking for a place to hide from the attacking U.S. aircraft. About 200 people, mostly women and children crowded under a concrete railroad bridge.”

“We were ordered to set up machine-gun positions on each end of the bridge to keep any enemy soldiers who had mixed in with the civilians from escaping....Just before dusk, we received sporadic enemy rifle fire. Then the company runner came by with orders to shoot and kill everybody.” The orders he said came from a battalion commander.

“I adjusted the dials of my machine to fire over the heads of the Koreans and squeezed the metal trigger. At the sound of gunfire, they all fell to the ground, trying to protect their bodies. I knew there were women and children in there, but I also kept thinking there were enemy soldiers there, too...I again adjusted the dials on my machine gun, lowering the weapon so it would hit the Koreans spread on the concrete floor and fired for what seemed to be 30 minutes. I could hear the frightful screams of women and children. Their dying voiced echoed out of the tunnels. It was horrifying.”

Daily’s accounts were the basis for much of the AP report. He also did lengthy interviews with NBC News and the Washington Post. But later, questions were raised as to whether Daily was really at No Gun Ri at the time of the massacre.

No Gun Ri Survivor Stories

A survivor named Joo Gong Ri told Newsweek, “I was 13 years old. My mother, father, younger sister and I were walking south along a railway near No Gun Ri. Accompanied by U.S. soldiers, we were part of a group of about 500 people who were trying to escape invaders from North Korea. Suddenly, several U.S. warplanes began firing at us, dropping their bombs.” [Source: Newsweek, October 11, 1999]

“In only a few minutes, the world became a kind of hell; there were bodies falling and blood splashing everywhere Perhaps a hundred people died there and another hundred fled into the mountain hills. The U.S. soldiers told us to go under the two 10-meter-high tunnels below a railway bridge. About 300 people waited there. Leaving was impossible; late that afternoon, American soldiers in nearby trenches shot and killed some people when they tried to run away.”

“When it got dark, the soldiers aimed searchlights on us. Then they began shooting at the crowd. About 100 people who could run fast, including my father, fled. But most of the women and children had to remain. the shooting continued sporadically for three days and nights, and the bodies started piling up, from the entrance inward. To dodge bullets we tried to hide behind corpses. I thought I was gong to die.

“On the second night, my mother was shot. At the time, she was hugging me and my younger sisters to her breast to protect us from the gunfire. She was killed by four bullets to her head and her back. My sister and I could nothing but wait. We had nothing to eat and we drank bloody water out of a nearby stream. When the U.S. soldiers retreated on the third day, we were among only about 20 people who were still alive.”

The stories by the survivors were generally consistent with each other and records from archives.

Orders to Kill at No Gun Ri

The AP team uncovered documents that U.S. pilots had orders “that groups of eight to 10 people were to be considered troops, and were to be attacked.” For soldiers on the ground there was a formal order from the First Cavalry Division Headquarters: “No refugees to cross the front line. Fire at everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in the case of women and children.”

At No Gun Ri, it is unclear whether direct orders were given to shoot the civilians. One soldier told U.S. News and World Report, “I was located on the right side of the railway tracks facing the bridge, between a quarter and half mile away. And yes, I fired at them. Nobody gave me orders, Nobody was there to give men any orders.”

After No Gun Ri the killing of civilians continued. Many were killed trying to cross the Naktong River after a bridge had been blown up there. Soldier at the rear had orders to “shoot all refugees” trying to cross.

Investigation of No Gun Ri

A Pentagon investigation of No Gun Ri was ordered. Some of the soldiers who talked to AP admitted they had fabricated parts of their story and other admitted that their memories were a little hazy. This admission called into question whether soldiers dis kill hundreds and whether they had orders to do so.

Investigators concluded that it was likely a massacre did take place and placed the blame on U.S. soldiers who were “young, under-equipped and new to combat” and their officers had “limited proven experience in combat.” They cast no blame on particular individuals and failed to clear up the issue on whether the soldiers had been ordered or not. Instead they described a chaotic situation which “greatly reduced the possibility that we will ever know all the facts.”

Bernard Trainor, a former soldier hired to monitor the Pentagon investigation, concluded in a Washington Post piece: “American soldiers, on retreat and under terrible stress...did indeed shoot an unknown number of refugees. It was not a deliberate murder but an act of desperation by frightened, green troops who acted out of self-preservation. It was impossible to determine whether anyone in authority ordered the firings but in my view...the blame ultimately feel on some level of leadership.”

Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: “In interviews with journalists and a Pentagon team that investigated No Gun Ri, Army and Air Force veterans also attested to indiscriminate killings. Pilots who strafed refugee columns on South Korea's roads had been told to attack "people in white," the garb of Korean peasants, because they might harbor infiltrators. "Those U.S. warplanes attacked us even though they knew we were refugees. That's a war crime. They cannot just cover it up," said Lee Won-woo, who was 2 years old when his parents and older sister were killed with 70 other refugees attacked by U.S. aircraft near Gyeongju, behind U.S. lines in the south, on Aug. 14, 1950. The U.S. government has investigated only the No Gun Ri refugee case, acknowledging in 2001 the killing there of an "unknown number," but rejecting survivors' demands for an apology and compensation. [Source: Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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