The Ghosts of No Gun Ri
Nine years ago, a team from the Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation into the "massacre" at No Gun Ri, in the early days of the Korean War. Based on months of research—and extensive interviews with American soldiers at the scene, the AP reported that U.S. troops massacred scores of South Korean refugees, on the orders of superiors.
What actually happened at No Gun Ri remains controversial, and in dispute. This much we know: between 27-29 July 1950, members of the Army’s 7th Calvary Regiment were defending a bridge near the village of No Gun Ri, in central South Korea. North Korean divisions, who had crossed the 38th Parallel just weeks earlier, were attempting to drive U.S. and ROK units from the peninsula. Thousands of refugees were also flooding south, ahead of the North Korean advance. The ROK Army had largely collapsed; U.S. units, poorly trained and equipped, were desperately trying to stem the enemy invasion.
Based on their experiences in previous battles, U.S. commanders knew that North Korean soldiers often infiltrated refugee columns, attempting penetrate allied lines. That prompted directives that refugees would not be allowed to pass through American lines. Records from the 1st Calvary Division stated "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children." An Air Force memo reported that it had complied with an Army request to strafe "all civilian refugee parties who are approaching our positions."
Six decades later, it is unclear if those orders were disseminated to all units, and how they were implemented. But members of the 7th Cav did fire on civilians at No Gun Ri during that period in late July and there were casualties. Depending on whose account you believe, the number of refugees who died was anywhere between eight and 400.
The AP series prompted investigations by the U.S. and South Korean governments. It also attracted the attention of Army Major Robert Bateman, a former 7th Calvary Officer and history instructor at West Point. Bateman’s subsequent book on No Gun Ri, which won a Colby Prize for military history in 2004, raised serious questions about key elements of the AP report.
While acknowledging the civilians were killed at No Gun Ri, Bateman found that the 7th Calvary (among other units) did not receive orders to fire on refugees. The "fire on everyone directive" was actually a radio log entry from another regiment that was miles away from No Gun Ri.
As for the Air Force, it strafed "anything that was bipedal in Korea" during the summer of 1950. That included North Korea forces, South Korean refugees and ROK formations, as well as U.S. Army and Marine Corps units. Bateman also noted that it would have been impossible for the 7th Calvary to call in an airstrike on the refugees; at that point in the war, the unit did not have a Tactical Air Control Party to communicate with Air Force pilots, and the regiment’s tactical radios were incompatible with USAF equipment.
But most importantly, Major Bateman proved that three of the AP’s "eyewitnesses"—former soldiers Edward Daily, Delos Flint and Eugene Hesselman—were not present when the massacre reportedly occurred. Wounded in action, Flint and Hesselman were evacuated before the incident took place. Daily, who claimed to have fired a machinegun directly into a crowd of refugees, was exposed as a fraud and liar. He never served in the 7th Cav until 1951, and was not awarded a battlefield commission, as he claimed. Mr. Daily was later convicted on fraud charges stemming from claims of PTSD (he received over $400,000 in benefits) and served a 21-month prison sentence.
In return for exposing the AP’s inaccuracies, Major Bateman was vilified by the wire service team, led by "special correspondent" Charles Hanley. At various points, Hanley attempted to block Bateman’s research, get his book contract cancelled and wrote scathing letters who favorably reviewed the Major’s published work. So much for an honest examination of what happened at No Gun Ri.
Undeterred, Mr. Hanley and his wire service colleagues have returned to the story on several occasions. In April of last year, they published a triumphant article, detailing a recently-discovered, high-level document that described an American policy of shooting approaching civilians in South Korea.
The document, a letter from the U.S. Ambassador in Seoul, was dated on the same day when the No Gun Ri shootings occurred. However, the AP account did not explain why so many units were unaware of the order, as evidenced by Bateman’s research, and the absence of similar incidents near other American units.
Why does this matter? Because the AP is back on the case. Yesterday, the wire service published a lengthy "Impact" piece, co-authored by Mr. Hanley, which examines South Korea’s atrocities against its own people in the summer of 1950. The article is based (in large part) on the work of a ROK government commission, formed to investigate the killings of prisoners and alleged communists. In two years of work, the panel has uncovered "hundreds" of sets of remains, but its chairman believes as many as 100,000 people were executed by ROK soldiers and police.
Hanley’s report even includes comments from "remorseful old men" who claim they participated in the massacre. As with the No Gun Ri incident, there is little doubt that innocent civilians were among those who died—the question is how many, and how widespread such executions were, in the chaotic early days of the Korean conflict.
With documentation from the ROK commission, the AP’s latest report on wartime atrocities appears less speculative than its prize-winning series on No Gun Ri. But, given the questions that surfaced after that first expose, we can only hope that South Korea can find its own Robert Bateman, willing to cast a critical eye at the historical record—and the investigative work of the Associated Press.
ADDENDUM: We also wonder when the AP will address the question of communist atrocities committed during the Korean War. More than 5,000 American POWs died as the result of war crimes, including maltreatment by North Korean and Chinese forces. The death toll for ROK civilians was even higher; by one estimate as many as 100,000 were killed during the initial communist occupation of Seoul in 1950. Thousands more perished over the years that followed, but apparently that isn’t enough of a story for the Associated Press.