Time Opens the Sluice of Memory: Nogun-ri
Nogun-ri was practically unheard of before the Associated Press’s report of the bridge massacre was published on September 29, 1999. The report earned the AP a Pulitzer Prize.
The Pulitzer did not protect the authors from criticism. The story’s main source, a US veteran named Edward Daily, was proven to be a fraud—he claimed to have been a machine-gunner at Nogun-ri, but in fact had been working as a mechanic elsewhere. Before he was exposed, Edward Daily had gone so far as to meet with Nogun-ri victims in Korea. The press reported accounts of tearful embraces and Daily’s passionate words of remorse and friendship.
Mistakes aside, the AP report, citing declassified military documents, carried implications of outright and deliberate war crimes, condoned if not ordered by the US Army. This prompted a full investigation by both the US and South Korea.
In fact, growing numbers of people had known of the massacre over the years. Following the 1953 truce, the repressive regime of Syngman Rhee forced civilians to silence their claims against the ROK and its US allies for war injustices. In the feverish year of 1960, when April saw a student-led revolution topple Rhee, survivors tried to file a claim for compensation, but efforts were thwarted when the military seized power in 1961. After the democratic presidential elections of 1993, survivors sent petitions to US officials and President Clinton.
In a letter to President Clinton dated September 10, 1997, petitioners described the incident according to the recollections of victims. They described US soldiers evacuating them from several villages and leading them to a stream. Overnight, the villagers observed long lines of troops and vehicles passing in the direction of Pusan. At dawn, finding none of their previous night’s chaperones about, the villagers left the stream and began walking down the Seoul-Pusan highway with other evacuees. When they reached Nogun-ri, several US soldiers appeared, stopped the group, and instructed them to stand on the railroad tracks atop the bridge where the soldiers then searched them for weapons. The victims claim that the soldiers then radioed for an aerial bombardment and then fled. Soon, fighter jets arrived and strafed the group. Of those who were not killed, many escaped to the tunnel beneath the bridge, where for the next four days, July 26-29, soldiers fired at them. Those who survived the four days did so by using dead bodies as shields. US medics visited the group, but did not offer help; they merely checked out the situation under the bridge. The petitioners estimated that 400 died. Individual accounts included horrific details: a young woman plucking her dangling eyeball from a thin tether of nerves; another, surrounded by bleeding bodies, lapping at the ground to relieve her thirst.
After the initial shock of the AP story, people began seeking human logic behind the inhumane killings by looking for common elements in the stories of the veterans and survivors and by examining available evidence.
Guerillas had been known to infiltrate ROK and US positions disguised as civilians in white peasant clothing. Soldiers duly feared that guerillas were harbored among civilians, particularly during retreats, or when groups approached suddenly, or attempted to cross front lines.
Likewise, regarding refugee management, it was common practice to prevent them from crossing front lines and approaching troop positions. In a July 26 communications log, General Kean gave orders that all civilians moving around in combat zones would be considered unfriendly and were to be shot. The daily log notes that the ROK chief of police was to be summoned and informed of these orders, presumably so that the police could manage refugees accordingly.
Regarding strafing by US fighter jets, a CBS reporter uncovered a July 25 memo, written by Colonel Turner Rogers, entitled “Policy on Strafing Civilian Refugees.” The memo notes that, at the request of the Army, all civilian refugee parties that approached troop positions were being and would continue to be strafed. Several pilots’ logs noted the strafing of targets who were dressed in white peasant clothing, or who had loads of possessions and appeared to be civilians. Upon receiving orders that appeared to target civilian refugees or evacuees, many pilots questioned the choice of targets, and some claim to have refused. “[W]e didn’t have a system and communications network to control and coordinate air and ground operations,” said one pilot veteran.
While the circumstances of guerilla threats, unmanageable numbers of refugees, and questionable strafing targets could mostly be agreed upon, the charge lingered unresolved that soldiers on the ground had intentionally and under specific orders killed civilians.
More and more, veteran interviews corroborated that charge of intent. Several veterans recalled shooting the civilians at Nogun-ri, and up to 20 recalled having orders to shoot civilians (though neither these veterans nor the Pentagon investigators could figure out from whom or from which level of command the orders came). One veteran recalled shooting on his own volition, without orders, based on the belief that guerillas among the group would kill him if they were not completely eliminated. “We got orders to eliminate them,” said veteran Eugene Hesselman, recalling a similar event a week after the Nogun-ri incident. “And we mowed them all down. The Army wouldn’t take chances.”
In January 2001, the Pentagon wrapped up its yearlong investigation in its “No Gun Ri Review.” The Review opens matter-of-factly with the AP story and the Korean survivors’ accounts. It chronicles activities all around the bridge area. Aerial photographs and tactical maps uncovered in their “1-million document” study illustrate the report. While no remains or mass graves were detected in the area, the Review ultimately concluded that US soldiers shot unknown numbers of civilians at the bridge at Nogun-ri. The Review does not say that orders were given to do so.
As regards management of refugees, “The task of keeping innocent civilians out of harm’s way was left entirely to ROK authorities,” states the Review. In considering all the reported evidence, the Review assigned blame for the deaths to nearly every party involved—the US Army for shooting; the ROK for mismanaging refugee movement; North Korea for instigating the war, and their guerillas for masquerading as civilians; and the individual US soldiers for joining the Army, for moral decrepitude, and for murder. Though no one doubts the innocence of the civilians, some accounts suggested that soldiers returned fire after believing they had received small arms fire from the group.
Following upon the conclusion of their respective investigations, the US and ROK announced a “Statement of Mutual Understanding” on the Nogun-ri incident. The report states that at the time of Nogun-ri, refugee control was a “major concern.” Strafing could not be confirmed on July 26, as survivors had claimed, and none of the pilot veterans recalled the policy outlined by Colonel Rogers’ memo on strafing. Forensics, it reports, evidences US bullets in the wall of the bridge tunnel. However, it reports further that both US and Soviet munitions were found throughout the vicinity, widening the possibility that US soldiers may have thought they were returning fire received from the group (regardless of whether or not the soldiers had really received fire). The Statement concludes that US soldiers killed an “unconfirmed” number of civilians “during a withdrawal under pressure….” President Clinton offered an unprecedented apology for the deaths and announced that, in remembrance and honor of the victims, scholarships would be awarded and a memorial built at the site.