U.S. Crimes in the Korean War

The Massacre at No Gun Ri

Revolutionary Worker #1028, October 31, 1999

"The American soldiers played with our lives like boys playing with flies."

Chun Choon Ja, who was 12
in 1950 when she witnessed
the No Gun Ri massacre

"We just annihilated them."

Norman Tinkler,
former machine gunner, U.S. Army

On July 25, 1950, U.S. soldiers of the First Cavalry division rampaged through the villages of Korea's mountainous Yongdong county--ordering the villagers to leave their homes. After only a month of war, the U.S. forces were being badly beaten and driven back by fighters of the Korean People's Army, who were advancing southward from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea based in northern Korea.

The First Cavalry troops had just arrived from Japan in those last days of July, but they were already falling apart in panic. On July 26, about 600 men of the First Cavalry dug in near the town called No Gun Ri. A column with hundreds of Korean villagers approached the U.S. lines along a dirt road. They were overwhelmingly women, older men and children dressed in the traditional white clothes of Korean farmers.

U.S. troops ordered the people to leave the road and gather on the nearby railroad tracks. The U.S. command called in an air strike that strafed the people--killing 100.

The U.S. troops ordered the survivors underneath a bridge, into a tunnel about 80 feet long and 30 feet high. The U.S. commander consulted with his superiors and moved his machine guns into position. As night fell, he ordered his machine gunners to open fire. For three days and nights, the people were pinned down in that tunnel. Hundreds died. People dragged the bodies of the dead around them as protection. U.S. riflemen killed people as they crawled out to escape or find drinking water. One survivor, Chung Koo-ho, said many women protected their children with their bodies. Her own mother died on the second day.

Suddenly, on July 29, the U.S. troops disappeared--fleeing before the advancing Korean People's Army. Three weeks later, the revolutionary Korean paper Cho Sun In Min Bo reported that troops of the People's Army had discovered "about 400 bodies of old and young people and children."

This war crime was part of the unjust war the U.S. waged from 1950 to 1953 to conquer Korea and to threaten the newly victorious Maoist revolution in China. Back and forth across the Korean peninsula, the U.S. forces and their UN allies fought the Korean People's Army and volunteers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army. The war ended with a major and historic setback for the U.S.--which had been proclaiming itself the atomic superpower of the world.

A Half Century of Coverup and Suppression

For almost 50 years, not a word has been said about this war crime in the U.S. press or history books. For decades after the war, survivors of the massacre lived under the military dictatorship that the U.S. imposed on southern Korea. In the 1990s, 30 determined survivors and family members publicly accused the U.S. Army's First Cavalry Division. They filed a petition with the South Korean "Government Compensation Committee." The U.S. military authorities answered that there was no evidence that the First Cavalry was in the area, or that they had ever shot at civilians.

The petitioners succeeded in getting parts of their story told in the media. On September 30, the story broke in the U.S. when the Associated Press released a report documenting the massacre--including eyewitness reports of 12 U.S. war veterans who were there.

One former U.S. soldier, Eugene Hesselman, recalled his captain saying: "The hell with all those people. Let's get rid of all of them." Retired Colonel Robert M. Carroll, who was a 25-year-old lieutenant at No Gun Ri, recalled his riflemen opening fire on the refugees: "This is right after we got orders that nobody comes through, civilian, military, nobody."

After hearing of the AP's findings, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said the U.S. military stood by its earlier statement--that its researchers had no evidence of any massacre of Korean civilians.

A Hidden Story of the American Way of War

By denying the massacre at No Gun Ri, the Pentagon is trying to hide the truth of its brutal methods during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. The No Gun Ri massacre was, in fact, part of a campaign of genocide launched by the U.S. military. As U.S. forces were being routed in the opening campaigns of the Korean War, the U.S. command ordered soldiers to treat any Korean person in the war zone as an enemy--to shoot them down.

Why was the U.S. targeting the Korean people themselves? Because the active support of the Korean people was a key reason the revolutionary armies were defeating the U.S. forces. Millions of Korean people were determined to liberate their country from foreign occupiers.

In the Nation magazine (Oct. 25), historian Bruce Cumings reports that, by the end of World War 2, the rural people of Yongdong country had built a powerful movement against the Japanese occupiers. When Japanese imperialism collapsed in August 1945, a Yongdong County People's Committee seized power from the Japanese. Similar uprisings took place in many parts of the country.

However, U.S. armed forces quickly moved to occupy southern Korea. They sent in "civil affairs teams" to take power away from the local people in areas like Yongdong. The U.S. occupiers quickly re-armed the hated Korean traitors who had worked as colonial cops for the Japanese. Over the next three years, people in places like Yongdong started to wage guerrilla war against these new colonial masters. The pro-U.S. police hunted down communist activists in Yongdong and executed them.

In late June 1950, war broke out between the U.S. and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea which had been formed in the liberated northern part of the country. As battered U.S. troops fell back, the local guerrillas liberated Yongdong county, deep in the heart of the U.S. occupied zone. One New York Times reporter wrote that there were about 300 guerrillas, in and around Yongdong, shooting the retreating Americans as they moved through.

By late July, as the front approached Yongdong, the U.S. command ordered their soldiers to kill civilians. The AP investigative team reports that the morning of the No Gun Ri massacre, "the Eighth Army had radioed orders throughout the Korean front that began, `No--repeat no--refugees will be permitted to cross battle lines at any time."' Two days earlier, First Cavalry Division headquarters had issued the order: "No refugees to cross the front line. Use discretion in case of women and children." Maj. Gen. William B. Kean issued orders to the nearby 25th Infantry Division saying, "All civilians seen in this area are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly." His staff members relayed this as "considered as unfriendly and shot." The aerial strafing of refugees at No Gun Ri was no isolated incident. The AP writes: "Declassified United States Air Force mission reports from July and August 1950 show repeated air attacks on groups of `people in white."'

The U.S. military had learned to fear the anti-imperialist consciousness and revolutionary organization of the Korean people. The massacre of civilians was routine, widespread and officially approved during this war--as it has been in every U.S. war of conquest, from the murder of Native peoples in the U.S., to the 1898 invasion of the Philippines, to the 1965 invasion of Vietnam... on down to the recent air war on the people of Yugoslavia.

Bruce Cumings notes that the massacre of No Gun Ri may not have been the first U.S. massacre in Yongdong county. He reports that the Korean People's Army fighters entering Yongdong were told of an earlier U.S. operation that forced 2,000 civilians into the mountains and killed them--mostly from the air, though several women were reportedly raped before being shot. Cumings adds that a secret U.S. intelligence memo has surfaced, addressed to Maj. General Clark Ruffner, discussing the formation of "assassination squads" to hunt down and execute people identified as leaders of the guerrillas. This same technique was widely applied by the CIA's notorious Operation Phoenix almost 20 years later in Vietnam.

In August 1950, Maj. General Hobart R. Gay ordered his soldiers to blow up a bridge over the Naktong River--killing hundreds of refugees. His report on the incident did not mention any civilian dead. Later, along the same river, the men of A Company, 14th Engineers had spent two days setting 7,000 pounds of explosive on a second bridge. The detonation order came at 7 a.m., and according to ex-Sgt. Carroll F. Kinsman of Gautier, Mississippi, "It lifted up and turned it sideways and it was full of refugees from end to end." A simple entry appears in the records, "Results, excellent."

Since 1950, the Pentagon has tried to deny the ugly truth of its war on Korea. But the people of Yongdong have not forgotten. They want the world to know the vicious nature of U.S. imperialism. And they demand justice--for the dead and for the living.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)