Unveiling the Unknown War
By John Kim (Reviewer)
The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare From the Korean War
By Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe and Martha Mendoza
(Henry Holt & Company, 2001)
In the midst of the September 11 tragedy, many people may not have noticed the publication of an outstanding book in the same month, dealing with another great tragedy that is, perhaps, more shocking and cruel. To understand the implications of September 11, it is imperative for us to learn more about other massacres our government has perpetrated on other innocent civilians around the world. The U.S. massacre at No Gun Ri, South Korea in July 1950 clearly stands out as a classic example, unknown to the American public, that paved the way for more massacres later such as the one at My Lai, in Vietnam.
Although a half-century separates the two events, there are certain similarities between the Sept. 11 massacre and the U.S. massacre at No Gun Ri. In the recent attack on the World Trade Center, the setting for the attack was the twin towers, while at No Gun Ri it was the twin trestles under a railroad. Both attacks targeted innocent civilians and used airplanes. At the same time, there are certain aspects that make the No Gun Ri massacre more cruel: the killing was carried out by supposedly friendly forces and this heinous crime was buried, with the victims, for the last half century. There were no public services for the victims nor any assistance to the surviving victims or the victims' relatives. Above all, the Korean victims could not seek justice from their government, since they would have been accused of being communists if they complained to the extreme anti-communist regime of Syngman Rhee or Park Chung-Hee in the South.
In "The Bridge at No Gun Ri," the original AP reporters - Charles Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe and Martha Mendoza, who broke the story on No Gun Ri in September 1999 and whose report won them the Pulitzer Prize - succeed in presenting a more compelling and comprehensive picture of the cold-blooded war crime that killed some 400 Korean civilians in the early part of the Korean War. Their investigative book completely demolishes the misleading, self-serving conclusion of the U.S. Army's investigation report of January 2001, which stated that "U.S. commanders did not issue oral or written orders to shoot and kill Korean civilians in the vicinity of No Gun Ri." No wonder that the victims' relatives condemned the report as a "whitewash." This sentiment was shared by one member of the American civilian advisory board to the Pentagon investigation, former Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-Cal.), himself a veteran, who dissented from the report by stating publicly that "there is no question that there were orders."
This nonfiction book is based on some 500 interviews with the South Korean victims and American veterans who were involved in the No Gun Ri killing, along with newly-discovered U.S. documents from the National Archives. The resulting story is a gripping, convincing history that brings to life the men, women and children who were caught up in the three days of continuous shooting and killing. The book shows that the No Gun Ri slaughter was a deliberate result of a refugee control policy of the U.S. 8th Army and MacArthur's Far East Command. It also shows that the incident is only a tip of the iceberg of the widespread, indiscriminate killing of Korean civilians during the Korean War that have resulted in some three million civilian deaths. By early 2001, 61 complaints of U.S. massacre were made to the South Korean Defense Ministry.
According to the book, the American units directly involved in the No Gun Ri slaughter were the Air Force 35th Fighter-Bomber Squadron which recorded three air attacks in the area on July 26-27, 1950. The Army unit directly involved in the attack is identified as H company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, which was commanded by Captain Melbourne Chandler. When the refugees fled into the two concrete underpasses below the railroad track after being attacked by American airplanes, Capt. Chandler radioed Battalion headquarters to ask what to do with the refugees. His clerk, Gene Hesselman, remembers Chandler saying "we got to get rid of all of them."
Capt. Chandler emerges as one of the key characters in the book. Instead of receiving any punishment, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and ended his Korea tour as commander of the same 2nd Battalion that was involved in No Gun Ri. In 1960, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Korean War, using his own money, Chandler publishes a book entitled "Of Garry Owen in Glory: The History of the 7th U.S. Cavalry." Interestingly, the 7th Cavalry was once commanded by Lt. Col. George A. Custer who is well known in American history as a tragic warrior who attacked the Sioux Indians at Little Bighorn in 1876. In December 1890, the same unit massacred some 370 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. No wonder the infamous history of the 7th Cav. repeated itself at No Gun Ri in Korea more than a half century later. Chandler devotes 93 pages to the regiment's history in Korea, but he never hints at the killing of South Korean civilians at No Gun Ri. Perhaps he wanted to hide the massacre from the unit's history permanently. In the end, Chandler succeeded in killing himself: alcoholism claimed him in 1970 at the age of 49.
The true dimension of the No Gun Ri massacre is as follows according to the new book: some 100 refugees were killed in the strafing by U.S. planes, some 300 were killed under the railroad trestles, about 200 escaped in the night, and two dozen survived the three-day ordeal. A Korean reporter wrote a news story about the massacre in the leftist paper Cho Sun In Min Bo on August 19, 1950. He said, "Shrubs and weeds in the area and a creek running through the tunnels were drenched in blood." This dreadful scene reminds one of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings goes one step further: "This Korean War, I think, was a far dirtier war than the Vietnam War."
There are some mistakes in the spelling of Korean names in the book, but those can be forgiven. This book could have been more valuable if it contained footnotes for the various historical facts, but that would be too much to ask for a book intended for the general public. Fortunately, for those who want to read the full text of the various declassified military documents, the publisher maintains a webpage at http://www.henryholt.com/nogunri/documents.htm.
The unfinished chapter in the story is how the Korean victims of No Gun Ri will realize full justice. The Korean victims sent their first petition letter to the U.S. Embassy in 1960, asking for an investigation and compensation. After several denials of their claims, the National Council of Churches (United States) took up their cause and asked the Defense Department for an investigation into the No Gun Ri massacre. The Pentagon's response on March 22, 1999 was that it "found no information to substantiate the claim." When the Army released its investigation report in January 2001, President Clinton only offered his "regret" but no apology. Furthermore, he decided against any compensation for the victims. Thus, the Korean victims such as Chung Koo-Hak, Chun Choon-Ja, Park Hee-Sook, and Yang Hae-Sook are left with a bitter feeling toward America. Chung Eun-Yong, who lost a son in the massacre, summed up their feeling: "America has no justice or conscience."
It is now up to the American people to raise their voice on behalf of the Korean victims of the cruel war which still continues in Korea today. True peace and reconciliation between Americans and Koreans will be impossible without a full understanding and accounting of the dark history of America's role in Korea. It is sad to note that the Pentagon is currently spending about $7 million in celebration and glorification of the American military role in the Korean War, in observance of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. The best way to observe the anniversary for the American people would be, in fact, to read this painful but powerful story.
John Kim is a board member of Veterans For Peace and chairman of VFP's Korea Committee; he is also a member of the Clarence Fitch Chapter of VVAW. He served in the U.S. Army in South Korea.