- It was a story no one wanted to hear: Early in the
War, villagers said, American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds
civilians under a railroad bridge in the South Korean
- 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 interviews with The Associated Press, 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 warfront,
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
according to once-classified documents found by the AP
- Six veterans of the 1st Cavalry Division said they fired
civilians at No Gun Ri, and six others said they witnessed the
- "We just annihilated them," said ex-machine
Norman Tinkler of Glasco, Kan.
- After five decades, none gave a complete, detailed
But the ex-GIs agreed on such elements as time and place, and
preponderance of women, children and old men among the
- Some said they were fired on from among the refugees
the bridge. But others said they don't remember hostile fire.
they later found a few disguised North Korean soldiers among
But others disputed this.
- Some soldiers refused to shoot what one described as
"civilians just trying to hide."
- The 30 Korean claimants _
survivors and victims' relatives
_ said what happened July 26-29,
1950, was an unprovoked, three-day carnage.
soldiers played with our lives like boys playing with
said Chun Choon-ja, a 12-year-old girl at the time.
- The reported death toll would
make No Gun Ri one of only
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.
- From the start of the
1950-53 conflict, North Korean
atrocities were widely reported _ the
killing of civilians and summary
executions of prisoners. But the
story of No Gun Ri has remained undisclosed
- The Pentagon, told generally of the AP's findings, said
found no substantiation for the allegations in the official record.
The AP's research also found no official Army account of the
- Some elements of the No Gun Ri episode are unclear: What
of officers gave open-fire orders? Did GIs see gunfire from the
refugees or their own ricochets? How many soldiers refused to fire? How
high in the ranks did knowledge of the events extend?
- The troops dug in at No Gun Ri,
100 miles southeast of
Seoul, South Korea's capital, 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
among U.S. troops that northern soldiers disguised in
white peasant garb
might try to penetrate American lines via refugee
- "It was assumed there were enemy in these people,"
ex-rifleman Herman W. Patterson of Greer, S.C., said of the civilian
they neared No Gun Ri, leading ox carts, with children
on their backs,
the hundreds of refugees were ordered off the dirt road
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
- Both the Koreans and several ex-GIs said the killing
American planes suddenly swooped in and strafed an area where
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 strafing was a mistake, that
were supposed to strike enemy artillery miles up the road.
declassified U.S. Air Force reports from mid-1950, found by the AP,
show that pilots also sometimes deliberately attacked "people in
white," apparently suspecting disguised North Korean soldiers were
- Ex-GI Delos Flint said he and other soldiers were caught
U.S. air attack and piled into the culvert with the refugees. Then
"somebody _ maybe our guys _ was shooting in at us," he
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
- "This is right after we
get orders that nobody comes
through, civilian, military,
nobody," said Carroll, of Lansdowne,
- 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
- Experts in the law of war told the AP that such orders,
shoot civilians, are plainly illegal.
- Carroll said he got the rifle
companies to cease fire.
"I wasn't convinced this was
enemy," he said.
- He then shepherded a boy to safety under a double-arched
concrete railroad bridge nearby, where shaken and wounded Koreans were
gathering. He saw no threat.
- "There weren't any North Koreans in there the first
day. ... It was mainly women and kids and old men," recalled
who said he then left the area and knows nothing about what
- The Americans directed the refugees into the 80-foot-long
bridge underpasses and after dark opened fire on them from nearby
positions, the Koreans said.
- 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
- "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. ...
We were there only a couple
of days and we didn't know them from a
load of coal."
- Chandler and other key officers are dead. The colonel
who commanded the battalion, Herbert B. Heyer, 88, of Sandy Springs,
Ga., told the AP he knew nothing about the shootings and "I know I
didn't give such an order." Veterans said the colonel apparently
was leaving operations to subordinates at the time.
- The Korean claimants said those
near the tunnel entrances
- "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
but others don't remember any. None of the ex-GIs
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, of Clio, Mich.
- All 24 South Korean survivors
by the AP said they remembered no North
Koreans or gunfire directed at
the Americans. One suggested the
Americans were seeing their own comrades'
gunfire ricocheting through
from the tunnels' opposite ends.
- Relevant U.S. Army documents
say nothing about North
Korean soldiers killed under a bridge or
anything else about No Gun Ri.
- The precise death toll will never be known. The
believe 300 were killed at the bridge and 100 in the air
close to the bridge generally put the dead there at
about 200. "A
lot" also were killed in the strafing, they
battalion lieutenant located by the AP said he was
in the area but
knew nothing about the killing of civilians. "I have
never, ever heard of this from either my soldiers or superiors
friends," said John C. Lippincott of Stone Mountain, Ga. He
he could have missed it because "we were extremely spread
- In authoritarian, U.S.-allied South Korea, the survivors
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
statute of limitations had expired long ago.
- The AP reconstructed
U.S. troop movements from map coordinates
in declassified U.S. war
records, narrowed the possibilities among Army
units, then spent
months tracing veterans _ some 130 interviews by telephone
person _ to pinpoint the companies involved.
- The U.S. government's civil
liability may be limited.
It is largely protected by U.S. law against
foreign lawsuits related to
"combatant activities," although
the claimants say the killings
were not directly
- War crimes prosecution appears even less likely. The
military code condemns indiscriminate killing of civilians, even
few enemy soldiers are among a large number of noncombatants killed,
legal experts note. But prosecution so many years later is a practical
impossibility, they say.