Monday, May 19, 2008

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.


PCSSEPA said...

Fellow travelers always operate as the AP does. The left never speaks of the atrocities of their communist handlers. Most of the media outlets are charter members of the HAFC (Hate America First Club). Nothing new to report there. Look at their portraits of GIs and Marines from Vietnam, Iraq, and any other conflict we have had over the last 40 years. The MSM paints them all the same, unless they turn on the military or claim prior service without proof.

David Pelfrey said...

Greetings All,

This is my first post here and I find the discussion on this particular topic both interesting as well as instructive. Last weekend I saw a program from an earlier date on BookTV where Messrs. Hanley and Bateman appeared, and despite their differences, carried on a civil discussion regarding their monographs. I hope I may respectfully add to the comments already made. First, with respect to the State Department document cited above and excerpted below:

"If refugees do appear from north of US lines they will receive warning shots, and if they then persist in advancing they will be shot," wrote Ambassador John J. Muccio, in his message to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

This document does not refute professor Bateman’s argument nor does it demonstrate that U.S. policy in South Korea condoned the killing of refugees. First, the sentence quoted above is conditional: “[i]f refugees do appear.” Second, this conditional clause limits the class of refugees to that class appearing “from the north of U.S. lines.” Third, such a class of refugees appearing from this direction “will receive warning shots.” Fourth, if such a class of refugees “persists in advancing they will be shot.” Thus, if refugee advancing from the north of a U.S. position fails to head warning shots, they will be classified as combatants. These rules of engagement do not indicate an official U.S. policy to fire on refugees; however, the misinterpretation of this policy could easily result in such an outcome.

One point regarding Professor Bateman’s work that bears repeating: his footnotes allow historians to not only check his primary sources, as well as the conclusions drawn from his primary source material, these citations allow the discussion to move forward.

One of the interesting aspects about this debate concerns the presence or absence of North Korean gorillas intermixed within fleeing groups of civilian refugees.

At this early stage of the war, the North Koreans, the South Koreans, the Soviets, and the Chinese Communists (the latter two groups not yet openly involved in the conflict) conducted a portion of their combat activities armed with weapons inherited from Imperial Japanese arsenals previously located in Manchuria as well as Korea (a Japanese province until 1945):

“In Shenyan, for instance, Lu Zhengcao [Communist Chinese PLA General] remembers that the Soviet Union had opened up Japanese Army warehouses in order to distribute grain, clothing, and bedding to the people of the city even before Communist troops arrived. In the chaos, some of the citizens of Shenyang also helped themselves to guns and ammunition." [note 1]

It is also well-known that elements of the North Korean Army campaigned with Chinese Communist forces against Chang Kai-shek through the Nationalist Chinese collapse in 1949. Moreover, Japanese military equipment was used to arm the South Korean Army as well:

“President Truman had before the Soviet proposal of withdrawal, in April 1948 approved a planning paper saying the U.S. would train and equip a South Korean armed force. This force should be large enough to maintain internal order and public safety, but not so large as to strain the country's economy or so powerful as to provide means for aggression against North Korea. Japanese rifles and ammunition as well as American surplus equipment were used to equip Republic of Korea military forces. The most important of this had been 20 liaison airplanes, 90,000 rifles, 3000 machine guns, 700 mortars, 91 105-mm howitzers, 3000 radio sets and almost 5,000 trucks. The South Korean Coast Guard had received a total of 80 vessels ranging from mine sweepers to landing craft and picket boats. Republic of Korea's military force of June 1950 had 82.000 men, but no weapons like tanks, fighter aircraft, or medium and heavy artillery.” [note 2]

It might be of interest to determine how the United States disposed of the Japanese armaments among the Republic of Korea forces.

Thus, the presence of Japanese weaponry alone is, from my point of view, equivocal with respect to determining whether North Korean infiltrators were indeed the agents from whence these weapons came: in July of 1950, North or South Korean military elements may have carried Japanese armament southward (I do note that the Japanese rifle appears associated in the cited document with a Russian sub-machine gun, however, this is still circumstantial evidence.).

This discussion of Japanese weapons turning up in South Korea along U.S. military perimeters illustrates a point: the United Nations forces, predominantly American, were wading into a tangled bank of politics on the Korean peninsula whose physical manifestations, i.e., Japanese WWII weaponry, would be easy to misinterpret without a high degree of experience with Korean history since the Meiji Restoration (1867) and the annexation of Korea by Imperial Japan in 1910 in particular.

The Hanley monograph purports to be non-fiction; professor Bateman’s criticism of the authors’ lack of citation is on point and is, from the point of view of historical craft, the lack of documentation on such a hot-button topic is to be lamented. One may reasonably ask whether or not the Hanely et al. work actually adds more confusion to the historiography of the topic.

That being said, the Hanely work is noteworthy in the role it plays in recording the oral tradition associated with No Go Ri and it would be a great historical service to see this source material made accessible to the general public as well as the scholarly community. Ed Daily’s testimony has a place in such a work; however, such testimony, as professor Bateman suggests, should be highly qualified as it has little to bear on the events at No Gun Ri. Rather, Mr. Daily’s confabulation of his military service in Korea is part of a larger phenomenon of military psychology not thoroughly studied in conjunction with historical events such as the Korean War, Vietnam, and later conflicts. Such embellished after-the-fact testimony should be analyzed for its redactive intent and either discarded if outside the scope of the work to which the author seeks to use the narrative, or else placed within proper context within the work. Daily’s narrative is interesting, and as professor Bateman pointed out, the AP authors missed an opportunity to analyze a revealing aspect of the oral tradition one finds among veterans of America’s so-called forgotten wars, i.e., what one might call embellishment syndrome. Historiographically, how do such oral histories affect writers of later generations? What do these embellished narratives tell us about the historical viewpoint of the source? While Daily can not be said to be a primary source or witness to the events at No Gun Ri, he is nevertheless, a primary source of dubious quality for the Korean War as experienced at his level in the rear echelons of the U.S. Military. Did Daily’s embellished narrative result from a guilt at not having served in a combat arms unit?

In any event, I look forward to further discussion and comment on this topic.


1. Harold M. Tanner, Guerrilla, Mobile, and Base Warfare in Communist Military Operations in Manchuria, 1945-1947 , The Journal of Military History, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp.1195-1196. This secondary source quotes the memoirs of General Lu Zhengcao in text.
·Stable URL: http://

2. Max Hermansen, United States Military Logistics in the First Part of the Korean War (Dissertation in HistoryUniversity of Oslo
Spring 2000), Chapter 2, p.1

Very Best Regards,

David Pelfrey