As war ravaged the Korean peninsula in the waning days of July and the early days of August 1950, an event — little-noticed and still largely unknown — unfolded that would undermine the integrity and efficacy of U.S. intervention in the conflict from the very start, and would reverberate for decades into the future. The No Gun Ri massacre — an archetypal tale in the annals of U.S. military exploits — was a horrific crime against humanity that somehow evaded public notice for many years, is still rarely recognized, and for which restitution has never been made.
Korea, which had been a protectorate of the Japanese Empire since 1910, gained its formal independence when Japan surrendered to Allied forces in the summer of 1945. But the nation was politically and geographically fractured by U.S. occupation of the southern portion of the peninsula and the Soviet presence in the northern portion.
The Allied powers had agreed at the Potsdam Conference, held earlier in 1945, that, as a part of the ongoing effort to subdue Japan, the United States and the USSR would jointly seize control of opposite ends of Korea, with the eventual goal of unifying and liberating the country after Japanese surrender. But as the Cold War began in earnest and the Iron Curtain descended across Eastern Europe, hopes for the establishment of a single Korean state quickly faded as relations between the United States and the USSR broke down.
Thus, Korea became the epicenter of a global confrontation and the frontline of a proxy war between two world powers. The U.S.-installed South Korean government and the Soviet-backed Communist regime in North Korea both claimed the legitimate right to rule the entire peninsula and insisted upon the invalidity of their counterparts. In June 1950, following years of clashes and skirmishes along the border, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, and the Korean War began.
The North Korean invasion, backed by the USSR and China, was initially swift and successful. The South Korean capital city of Seoul fell to North Korean troops in only a few days. Desperate to prevent the entire peninsula from becoming a Soviet stronghold, the U.S. intervened and, on July 1st, the first American soldiers entered Korea.
As towns and villages across the combat zone were devastated by the North Korean advance and allied resistance, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled south, passing through an extremely porous and unprepared U.S.-South Korean front along the way. When retreating U.S. and South Korean troops were harassed and attacked from the rear, military personnel began to suspect that North Korean guerrilla fighters were disguising themselves and infiltrating groups of refugees to secure safe passage through enemy lines. In response, the Pentagon determined that any Koreans who remained in combat zones were to be regarded as “enemy agents.” U.S. soldiers were instructed to fire upon civilians in these zones.
On July 26th, 1950, several hundred Korean refugees who were evacuating villages in the vicinity of No Gun Ri were stopped at a roadblock installed by U.S. forces. U.S. troops escorted the refugees to the adjacent railroad tracks. The refugees were suddenly attacked by U.S. aircraft, which, without warning or provocation, began to strafe and bomb the bridge from above.
Panicking, the refugees scrambled down an embankment and sought the cover of the bridge. But as they sheltered under its arches, U.S. infantry with the 2nd Battalion, 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment began firing at them. Now pinned down by aerial and ground assault, the refugees resorted to stacking the dead bodies of their families and friends to form a makeshift barricade underneath the bridge.
The barrage persisted for over three days. The refugees were trapped without food, and were forced to drink water from a small stream that had filled with blood. Those who moved or attempted to escape were almost immediately shot and killed. One U.S. soldier, describing the slaughter, remarked that he and his peers were ordered to “‘fire on everything, kill 'em all,’” adding that he “didn't know if they were soldiers or what. Kids, there was kids out there, it didn't matter what it was, eight to 80, blind, crippled, or crazy, they shot 'em all.”
In all, somewhere between 250 and 400 refugees were brutally slain during the No Gun Ri massacre, which only ended when U.S. troops withdrew from their position near the bridge on July 29th. Despite the maelstrom that its members had unleashed upon the refugees, the 2nd Battalion reported “no important contact” during the period between July 25th and July 29th, and no formal documentation of the incident by the 2nd Battalion has ever been discovered.
Although officials at the Pentagon were at least vaguely aware of the incident, which was briefly and obscurely referenced in the New York Times a few months afterwards, there is no evidence that a formal investigation was launched into the event at the time. It received almost no media attention until decades later, when a 1999 story by the Associated Press uncovered numerous damning details, including testimony from U.S. military veterans who recounted explicit directives to shoot at civilians. Some veterans also recalled carrying out orders to blow up other bridges while civilians were still crossing them. In addition, the story contained a memo that supported the accounts of both soldiers and survivors at No Gun Ri; written by U.S. Air Force Col. Turner C. Rogers, it read, in part, “The army has requested that we strafe all civilian refugee parties.” Turner noted that pilots had “complied…to date.”
After almost 50 years of silence and denial, the U.S. government finally acknowledged the deaths of an “unknown number” of Korean civilians in a report, which subsequently described those deaths as “an unfortunate tragedy inherent to war and not a deliberate killing.” Then-President Bill Clinton expressed his “regret” over the incident, but did not apologize. In a sheer masterclass on vaguery, buck-passing, and the use of the past exonerative tense, the president sagely noted that “things happened which were wrong.” And while the U.S. government offered to construct a memorial to the victims of the massacre, it refused to offer survivors or their relatives any compensation. No such payments have ever been made.
This summer marked the 73rd anniversary of the No Gun Ri massacre. In the nearly three-quarters of a century since, the U.S. government has never accepted responsibility for its actions. The passing of another year since the occurrence of this atrocity — another year in which its perpetrators have declined any and all forms of accountability — offers a perfect opportunity for reflection on a crucial fact: the casualties of war are seldom who we expect or believe them to be. Often, those casualties are people just like us.
And often, those casualties include our own humanity.