W A S H I N G T O N, Dec. 6, 2000 -- An Army investigation has found that American soldiers panicked and fired into a group of unarmed refugees near the hamlet of No Gun Ri in the early days of the Korean War, but it did not find conclusive evidence that they had orders to kill the civilians, a newspaper reported.
The story, in today’s edition of The Washington Post, said military investigators were unable to determine how many civilians perished in the incident at a railroad bridge in late July 1950.
The Pentagon report, a year in preparation, would be “the first formal acknowledgement by the U.S. military of its involvement in the massacre at No Gun Ri,” The Post said. Military officials had previously denied the involvement of American troops.
The report, based on more than 100 interviews and a review of more than a million pages of documents, is expected to be released in the next six weeks, and could come sooner, depending on talks in Seoul, the paper said.
A Pentagon spokesman was not immediately available to comment on the report of the Army findings.
Questions of Responsibility
Former Rep. Pete McCloskey, R-Calif., a member of an eight-member civilian advisory panel to the Pentagon inquiry, confirmed that the Army’s draft report says there is no evidence that orders were given to fire on the refugees at No Gun Ri. He said he disagreed with that conclusion and urged a revision.
“We have seen statements from one officer and nine enlisted men at No Gun Ri who referred to those orders,” McCloskey said. “Unless the Army has information we have not yet seen, I can’t understand how they reached their conclusion.”
Three other members of the panel, reached by The AP, declined to comment.
Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered the Army inquiry after an AP report a year ago told of the shooting of many civilians by American GIs at the hamlet during a chaotic retreat southward from invading North Korean forces.
The AP report said former GIs estimated the number killed as 100, 200 or simply “hundreds,” while Korean survivors said 300 died by shooting and 100 by strafing by U.S. planes.
About 170 Korean families are seeking compensation from the United States.
Varying Death Tolls, Vague Memories
While the draft report reaches no conclusion on the number killed at No Gun Ri, The Post said members of the advisory panel said they believe the number probably was between 50 and 300, with most leaning toward the lower end of that range.
The paper said that, according to several people familiar with the draft report, U.S. veterans had widely varying memories of No Gun Ri, and the Pentagon could not verify some elements of the original AP story of September 1999.
It quoted one unnamed person familiar with the draft report as saying the AP was “too definite” about what happened, and may have left an impression that there was conclusive evidence that hundreds were killed.
The AP’s original story did not estimate the number killed on its own, but cited accounts by ex-GIs and survivors. It also said there were a number of unanswered questions, including what officers gave orders to open fire.
Kelly Smith Tunney, a spokeswoman for The AP, said the news service had not seen a copy of the draft report, but noted that “for many years, the Pentagon denied the involvement of American soldiers in the deaths of villagers at No Gun Ri.”
She added, “We are confident that any fair investigation will confirm AP’s central finding that the U.S. military was involved in the killing of a large number of Korean refugees at No Gun Ri.”
Following the Chain of Command
Some former members of the 2nd battalion, 7th Cavalry regiment, interviewed by AP, told of fears that the refugee columns had been infiltrated by enemy troops in order to ambush the Americans, and said they had orders to prevent any Korean civilians from approaching U.S. positions.
The AP also found in government archives declassified orders issued at the time by three high Army headquarters including the 1st Cavalry Division and an Air Force command to treat the Korean refugees as hostile. It was not immediately known whether the Army’s report acknowledges the existence of these orders, including a 1st Cavalry Division order to “fire everyone trying to cross lines.”
Two former 2nd battalion headquarters radiomen told the Army, and the AP in recent interviews, that they knew such orders came down the chain of command from higher headquarters and were delivered to the rifle companies. They, and two other former signal men, also told AP that written orders were all but nonexistent in Korean combat.
The Korean Investigation
Meanwhile, U.S. and Korean officials met Wednesday in Seoul to discuss their findings in separate investigations conducted over the past year. The talks focused on a proposed “joint memorandum of understanding.”
A Korean-language draft copy, obtained by The Associated Press, reflected divisions between the two sides over the number of people killed and whether U.S. troops acted under orders.
It quoted the U.S. version as saying both sides “understand that from July 25 to 29, 1950, there was no written or verbal order to kill any noncombatant Korean personnel around No Gun Ri, but some U.S. soldiers assumed that there was an attack order after watching mortar and howitzer bombs (shells) falling in the crowd of refugees.”
The Korean document also said U.S. investigators had concluded that “in areas around No Gun Ri, an unspecified number of Korean refugees were shot to death due to American combat action (but) no American Army or Air Force personnel were given any orders to shoot to kill” Korean civilians.
It said Korean investigators so far found that 248 people died, suffered injury or went missing at No Gun Ri, while the Americans said there were fewer casualties. But both sides referred to an “unknown number.”
A source close to the South Korean investigation affirmed the document was authentic, but said the U.S. position reflected in the document dated from early November and could have changed since then.