In 1999 the Associated Press writers Charles Hanley, Martha Mendoza, and Choe Sang-hun made international headlines with their publication of the article “The Bridge at No Gun Ri” that alleged that the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment massacred South Korean refugees underneath a bridge during the opening weeks of the Korean War. The article was sourced with interviews of Korean refugees that survived the alleged massacre along with a host of ex-GI witnesses. The allegations in the article were truly shocking and reverberated around the world’s media outlets. The allegations caused anti-American protests in Korea along with demands for a $400 million dollar compensation package from the alleged victims. The trio of AP writers would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, but lost initially in the furor over No Gun Ri was whether the allegations were true or not?
AP journalist Charles Hanley
It took sometime for critics to research the allegations, but in May 2000 reports of the AP using testimony from fraudulent GI witnesses who could not have possibly been at No Gun Ri were first published[i]. More reports critical of the GI witnesses[ii] used by the AP followed and eventually culminated in a book written by then Army Major and West Point historian Robert Bateman that strongly challenged much of the witness testimony and documentary evidence that the AP presented in their article. The AP to this day continues to defend their witnesses and accuses the US military of committing war crimes during the Korean War.
Unsurprisingly the controversy over what happened at No Gun Ri expanded into a major issue of contention between the US and South Korean governments. In order to determine exactly what did happen that day in 1950, a joint investigation was launched by both governments to settle the No Gun Ri issue. The report from the investigation that was released in January 2001 was long and detailed, but it did not offer a definitive conclusion on what happened and how many people were killed due to differences between the Korean and US investigators.
The AP writers have consistently stated that “hundreds” died at No Gun Ri while the Korean claimants say four hundred people died that day under the bridge. The Korean government investigators put the number at one hundred and fifty people killed while the Pentagon review determined that an “unknown” amount of people died at No Gun Ri, but the review team also determined the number was not “hundreds” as the AP and the Koreans claim. Determining the accurate amount of people killed is important to uncovering whether what happened at No Gun Ri was a deliberate war crime or the actions of a few jittery soldiers responding to what they perceived as an enemy threat from within the refugee column.
Determining if there was an enemy threat from within in the refugee column is key to analyzing what really happened that day at No Gun Ri. The fact that North Korean soldiers disguised themselves as civilians to infiltrate the frontlines of American and allied forces is well documented. Another fact that is also well documented is the amount of South Korean communist guerrilla activity that was present before, during, and even after the Korean War. Were any of these forces present that day in the refugee column underneath the bridge at No Gun Ri? This is an important question in need of an answer.
Photo of 7th Cavalry soldier during the Korean War.
All the Korean witnesses say there was no enemy forces integrated with the refugees, however multiple 7th Cavalry soldiers offer convincing testimony that there was in fact enemy forces firing at them from the refugee column that caused some soldiers to return fire. One US soldier even explained how he went under the bridge to investigate after the soldiers returned fire and says he saw 4-9 bodies in the culvert along with some grenades and a machine gun.[iii] Uncovering whether enemy forces fired from the refugee column would go a long ways towards determining the motivations behind why the 7th Cavalry soldiers fired at the refugees in the first place.
The Case for Physical Evidence
The best way to determine what happened at No Gun Ri is not with witness testimony, but with forensic evidence. Arguing over whose fifty-year old memories to believe is a battle that neither side in the No Gun Ri issue will ever win. Though much debate has raged over the witness testimony and documentary evidence, no one including the AP has looked strongly at the forensic evidence of No Gun Ri. As has been shown in an increasing amount of legal cases over the years, witnesses’ memories can be faulty even though they believe what they say to be the truth, while others just flat out lie. Critics of the AP authors have already exposed a number of flat out liars and distortions, while the belief that much of the remaining witness testimony may be inaccurate is not far fetched. Forensic evidence on the other hand, does not lie. Forensic evidence has solved many criminal investigations that would not have been solved otherwise and should be used to settle the No Gun Ri debate as well.
If forensic evidence can prove that “hundreds” of people died at No Gun Ri, without a doubt a war crime occurred that day because killing four hundred civilians in response to a perceived North Korean threat from small arms fire coming should be considered an inappropriate amount of force used. If such a scenario did happen, it can only mean one of two possibilities: either the soldiers were ordered to continue firing on the refugees by their officers or their officers failed in their duties to control the actions of the soldiers underneath their command. Either way the officers of the unit were negligent in their duties and the killings were indeed deliberate and should be recognized as such.
As part of the joint American and Korean governmental investigation into what happened at No Gun Ri, it was agreed upon between the two governments that a Korean forensics team would be formed to recover and most importantly analyze any possible evidence that could draw any firm conclusions of what happened and how many people died at No Gun Ri that day. Even though it had been fifty years since the tragedy at No Gun Ri, the area should have still provided a wealth of forensic evidence, considering the AP and the Korean witnesses estimated that “hundreds” of people were killed there.
In the North Korean newspaper article that the AP used to verify their original No Gun Ri reporting, the newspaper stated that North Korean soldiers:
“encountered… indescribably gruesome scenes under the railway tunnels and in nearby fields… About 400 bodies of old and young people and children covered the scene so that it was difficult to walk around without stepping on corpses.” [iv]
Additionally, the Korean witnesses claim that animals such as oxen were killed by the aerial strafing and firing from soldiers:
“dirt and gravel rained down. Oxcarts were burning… Dead bodies and cows were everywhere, spewing blood.”[v]
Also the Korean witnesses claim that they were not only strafed by US aircraft, but bombed as well:
“the planes came, raining down bombs and big bullets. The planes shrieked past repeatedly. People ran for the shrubs and trees. A lot of people died.”[vi]
If the Korean witnesses and the North Korean newspaper that the AP quotes to corroborate their version of events is taken as fact, than it is reasonable to expect that even after the passing of fifty years huge quantities of bullets, bomb fragments from the aerial attack, and bones from people and animals that supposedly died during the attack would be recovered. Additionally, the area should also be littered with artifacts from the victims themselves such as remains from the ox carts, buttons from the victims’ clothes, decomposed sandals and boots, tin cans, bowls, coins, and other personal effects. The amount of physical evidence left over from four hundred people killed along the railroad tracks and the tunnels should be quite significant.
Prior Cases of Using Forensic Evidence
Finding such evidence after the passage of fifty years is not unreasonable considering Korean War battlefields are routinely excavated by the Korean government in their effort to locate the remains of Korean soldiers still missing from the Korean War. In fact authorities responsible for recovering artifacts from various battlefields display the items occasionally at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul.
Recovered Artifacts from a Korean War Battlefield [vii]
The most recent example of recovering Korean War remains comes from the Korean government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This commission was established to investigate allegations of war crimes against Korean civilians during the Korean War. In their most recent report published in November 2007 the report claims United States aircraft bombed and killed approximately fifty civilians near the South Korean hamlet of Yecheon[viii]. Though much of the claims of who was responsible for the bombing are dubious, it cannot be denied that a tragedy did happen there with such definitive forensic evidence human bones and items of personal property recovered from the victim’s remains. With such evidence appearing fifty-seven years after the fact, it is not unreasonable to expect similar evidence to be found at No Gun Ri as well.
The First Forensic Investigation
The Korean government’s first forensic investigation at No Gun Ri was launched in July 2000. The government sent its Defense Investigative Command (DIC) team to conduct a forensic assessment of the No Gun Ri site. Upon the completion of the DIC team’s investigation they determined that marks on the culvert southwest of the bridge site and the bridge site itself were in fact from bullets fired at a close distance. At both the culvert and the bridge they discovered a total of 316 bullet marks with 59 of them still embedded with bullet fragments. The Korean investigators removed 20 of the 59 bullets and determined that all 20 bullets were either US made .30 caliber or .50 caliber bullets.[ix]
Upon the completion of its forensic investigation at No Gun Ri the DIC team sent a report of their findings to the Pentagon review team. The Pentagon review team in turn had forensic experts from both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) review the DIC teams findings. The FBI did not agree with the methods used by the DIC team to determine how far the bullets were fired. The DIC team determined the bullets were fired from weapons at close range because of how deeply embedded the bullets were in the concrete. The FBI experts expressed a view that gunshot residue and the angle from which the bullets were fired are what accurately determines the distance of firing. Additionally the FBI did not agree with the finding that all 316 marks on the walls of the culvert and the bridge were in fact bullet marks because the DIC team did not test for trace amounts of copper and lead that would be left on the wall if they are in fact bullet marks.[x]
Determining if the bullets were fired at close range or not is important because from the positions the 7th Cavalry soldiers were located at they had to be at close range in order to shoot into the tunnels. Also finding only a combined 316 bullets marks at both the culvert and tunnel seems to be quite a low number considering the thousands of rounds that allegedly were fired at the refugees at both the culvert and the bridge. The Korean witnesses claim that the 7th Cavalry soldiers fired at them for up to four days with both machine guns and small arms weapons for hours at a time. The AP writers in their own original article about the events that transpired at No Gun Ri say that the .30 caliber Browning machine gun fires 700 rounds per minute. If such claims of hours and days and continuous shooting at the refugees are to believed surely more than 316 marks would be left at the scene. The bullet markings left at both the culvert and the bridge should have totaled in the thousands not the low hundreds.
Another oddity is that the bullet markings were said to be a mixture of 30 caliber and .50 caliber rounds by the Korean investigators. American aircraft at the time fired .50 caliber bullets. The .50 caliber bullet markings could just as easily be from a strafing attack by American aircraft. However, no Korean or veteran witness has recalled a strafing attack on the bridge. The claimed strafing attack occurred before the refugees reached the bridge. It is possible many of the bullet markings on the bridge are from an aircraft strafing after the events of No Gun Ri had transpired. Additionally, when you take into consideration that the DIC team did not do a proper investigation to determine if the marks are in fact bullet marks, the actual number of bullet marks on both the bridge could be even lower.
The FBI team also disagreed that all 59 bullets were fired by US weapons because the Korean DIC team only extracted 20 of the 59 bullets. The Korean investigators did a visual inspection of the remaining 39 bullet marks and concluded they were all American bullets. The FBI believes that all the bullets should be extracted and analyzed before declaring them all US manufactured bullets. What is also important to realize is that much US equipment was left behind and captured by the enemy during the early stages of the Korean War including equipment from the 1st Cavalry Division. It is a known fact that North Korean soldiers at times used American weapons.[xi] Due to this fact it is impossible to conclude with absolute certainty that every American round recovered at No Gun Ri, was fired by an American soldier. It is additionally impossible to conclude that every observable bullet mark at No Gun Ri was the result of the 7th Cavalry. How can anyone conclude an alleged bullet mark under the tunnels at No Gun Ri wasn’t made by a Soviet weapon if all the bullets are not extracted? Finally, it is impossible to determine if the marks were made before or even after the events that transpired between 26-29 July 1950.
Personal Observations from No Gun Ri
I have personally visited the site where the alleged massacre at No Gun Ri occurred as part of my research into what happened underneath the bridge that day. Visiting the site makes it much easier to picture where the soldiers and refugees were located and the distances in between. The various bullet markings are still visible on the walls and outlined with white paint. Something I found odd analyzing the bullet marks, is the distribution of the markings on each side of the tunnels. On the east side of the tunnel facing the American frontline positions there are fewer bullet marks then what would be expected for a massacre of the scope alleged.
On the contrary, the west side of the tunnel facing away from the Americans’ frontline positions is littered with more bullet holes than the east side.
The west side of the tunnel has a staircase that was constructed that provides easy access to where the American positions were located. From those positions the soldiers could not have fired and hit the west side of the tunnel, yet the west side of the tunnel has more bullet markings than the east side they were oriented to. To try and determine where the bullet markings on the west side of the tunnel came from I went and walked to the most likely position that the bullets could have been fired from.
I walked along the side of the railway track opposite from the east side of the bridge. I walked as far back as I could on the side of the railroad tracks before the ground gave way to the rice paddies behind me and the actual village of No Gun Ri.
These same rice paddies existed back in 1950 and thus no firing position would have been beyond the mud of the rice paddies. Thus the bullet markings had to come from somebody firing from the side of the railway tracks from where I was standing. The first question that came to mind was why would you set up a firing position here that is within the engagement area of the soldiers positioned on the hillside opposite from the position? Vice versa, why would you set up a position that is firing back at the soldiers on the hillside? It doesn’t make sense. What does make sense is that the bullet markings came from a possible strafing attack or an engagement later on in the war. To suggest that these bullet markings on the west side of the tunnel came from the soldiers of the 7th Cavalry between 26-29 July, 1950 I find to be unlikely.
What I do find likely is that the bullet markings on the east side of the bridge did in fact come from the time period in question. Notice how on the east side of the tunnel the bullet markings are much lower compared to the bullet markings on the opposite side. You can almost imagine someone trying to escape from under the bridge by running through the creek bed and using the road as cover. The bullet marks indicate aimed shots towards the creek bed since only a few of the marks are half way up the wall while none of the bullet marks are on the top of the wall. Could civilians at No Gun Ri fifty-seven years ago have been killed by the guns that left these bullet marks? It is impossible to say for sure, but this theory cannot be discounted either. Either way, the overall low numbers of marks does not support the body count mythology of “hundreds” of people killed underneath the bridge.
Key Physical & Imagery Evidence
The most interesting thing the DIC team disclosed in their report was that they unearthed 193 items around the culvert and the bridge. The items included .30 caliber empty cartridges, bullets, unfired cartridges, one M1 rifle cartridge clip, one light machine gun link, and other fragments. Interestingly enough the DIC team also found Soviet material located on the north side of the bridge that included empty cartridges and bullets for the Soviet made Mosin-Nagant rifle and DP/DT machine gun.[xii] This is an important discovery because US witnesses say that they came under fire from the north side of the bridge. If one is to believe that the American manufactured bullets found at the scene confirm the Korean witnesses testimony of taking fire from 7th Cavalry soldiers, one has to also believe that the Soviet bullets found at the scene confirm the GI witnesses testimony of fire being directed at them from among the refugee column.
To further determine what happened at the double railway tunnel at No Gun Ri, the Pentagon review team requested that the Defense Intelligence Agency research their photographic archives for any imagery taken during the timeframe of the No Gun Ri incident. DIA was able to locate two sets of aerial reconnaissance missions that were flown in the vicinity of No Gun Ri on August 6, 1950 and September 19, 1950. Upon the discovery of this film, the Pentagon review team had the Department of Defense’s National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) analyze both sets of film. Additionally the Pentagon review team had aerial imagery experts from the South Korean 39th Tactical Reconnaissance Group analyze the film as well.
Considering that the film is from 1950 the quality is actually quite good. The NIMA imagery analyst that was tasked with analyzing the film concluded that the film was “good quality” and that bodies 4-6 feet in height would be easily visible.[xiii] Obviously the August 6th imagery would prove to be the most interesting imagery since the pictures were taken only one week after the events that transpired at No Gun Ri.
After a careful examination of the film, the lone NIMA analyst made some key findings. First of all, the analyst was able to confirm that the film was in fact of the Yongdong-Hwanggan corridor that included the area in question, No Gun Ri. The analyst was also able to confirm that the No Gun Ri area was the scene of military operations. He identified various fighting positions in the vicinity of the railway track along with evidence of bomb craters in the vicinity of the openings of the tunnel.
Additionally, the analyst concluded that there were signs of a probable strafing in two locations along the railroad tracks. The first location was approximately two hundred meters southwest of the No Gun Ri railway bridge in question. The second probable strafing location was located 1,200 meters southwest of the No Gun Ri bridge. The length of both the probable strafing areas was approximately 50 meters. The NIMA analyst ruled out the possibility that mortars, artillery, or aerial bombs caused the marks due to the density of craters and the size of soil disruption in both locations. The analyst also ruled out that the markings were the remains of refugee belongings because any such belongings would leave a gray tone instead of a white tone on the image.[xiv]
In the September 19th footage the marks remained, but appeared more weathered. The analyst also commented that the rails in the strafed area “appeared intact”[xv]. This is a significant finding because Korean witnesses claimed that not only were they strafed, but also that they were bombed. During an interview with a Korean reporter Korean witness Chung Gu-shik said the refugee column was bombed by a fighter jet, approximately one hundred people and many animals were blown to pieces, and that the railway was bent like “steel chopsticks”. He goes on to say the bombing lasted for a total of 20 minutes.[xvi] The NIMA analyst found no signs of rails bent like “steel chopsticks”, no bomb craters, no left over refugee items, no dead animals, and most importantly no dead bodies.
Even more intriguing was that the NIMA analyst found no evidence of any bodies or mass graves anywhere near the bridge or in the general vicinity of the No Gun Ri area.[xvii] The NIMA analyst looked for things such as long trench lines to indicate the location of mass graves and found none. He also analyzed the condition of the fighting positions. The fighting positions around No Gun Ri would have been a readily available means to dispose of the bodies since the holes had already been dug. The analyst found that the fighting positions were still intact and not filled in on the August 6th film. Additionally, he concluded that the fighting positions were still not filled in the September 19th film either; they had just shown signs of weathering.
This finding is also significant because six Korean witnesses claim that mass graves were used to bury the dead.[xviii] According to the footage, these mass graves do not exist. Additionally, Korean witnesses say that they returned to retrieve bodies between July 29, 1950 and November 15, 1950. They claimed the bodies were inside the railway bridge, along side the dirt road and railway tracks, and lying in other areas near No Gun Ri. Seven Korean witnesses testified that they returned to the scene four to seven days after the incident and saw “many dead decomposing bodies in the area and that some bodies had been temporarily buried.” Another Korean witness claimed the bodies from villagers that were not from the two villages of Im Gae Ri or Joo Gok Ri that comprised the majority of the people in refugee column, were not buried until some time in mid-August.[xix]
None of these claims could be substantiated by either the August 6th or September 19th aerial footage.
Korean Attempts to Discredit Evidence
Analyzing Shifting Witness Statements
[i] Joseph Galloway, “Doubts About A Korean Massacre”, U.S. News & World Report, 12 May 2000
[ii] Brian Duffy, “Memory and Its Flaws”, U.S. News & World Report, 12 June 2000, Vol. 128, No. 23, page 22
[iii] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Chapter 4 Analysis of Interview Data, page 125
[iv] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix B Analysis of Forensic Evidence, page B-4
[v] Choe Sang-hun, “Korean Villagers Recall Death and Terror Beneath Bridge”, Associated Press, 29 September 1999
[vi] Choe Sang-hun, “Korean Villagers Recall Death and Terror Beneath Bridge”, Associated Press, 29 September 1999
[vii] Author attended display of recovered Korean War era artifacts held at the Korean War Memorial in Seoul on June 25, 2007 (picture provided by author)
[viii] Korea Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Report of US War Crime During the Korean War, 22 November 2007, http://www.jinsil.go.kr/Information_Notice/article2/read.asp?num=87&pageno=1&stype=&sval=&data_years=2007&data_month=
[ix] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix B Analysis of Forensic Evidence, pages B-7 – B-8
[x] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix B Analysis of Forensic Evidence, page B-9
[xi] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix B Analysis of Forensic Evidence, page B-6
[xii] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix B Analysis of Forensic Evidence, page B-8
[xiii] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix C Imagery Research and Analysis, page C-6
[xiv] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix C NIMA Imagery Analysis Report, page12
[xv] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix C NIMA Imagery Analysis Report, page17
[xvii] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix C NIMA Imagery Analysis Report, page10
[xviii] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix B Analysis of Forensic Evidence, page B-3
[xix] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Chapter 4: Analysis of Interview Data, page 153
[xx] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix B Forensic Pathology Analysis page B-13
[xxi] Judith Greer, “What Really Happened at No Gun Ri”, Salon.com, 06 June 2002, http://dir.salon.com/story/books/feature/2002/06/03/nogunri.index.html
[xxii] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), NIMA Imagery Analysis Review and Comments on the Republic of Korea’s No Gun Ri Investigation Team’s “Analysis on Overhead Imagery”, page 4
[xxiii] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), NIMA Imagery Analysis Review and Comments on the Republic of Korea’s No Gun Ri Investigation Team’s “Analysis on Overhead Imagery”, page 10
[xxiv] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), NIMA Imagery Analysis Review and Comments on the Republic of Korea’s No Gun Ri Investigation Team’s “Analysis on Overhead Imagery”, page 11
[xxv] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), NIMA Imagery Analysis Review and Comments on the Republic of Korea’s No Gun Ri Investigation Team’s “Analysis on Overhead Imagery”, page 11
[xxvi] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), Appendix C Imagery Research and Analysis, page C-6
[xxvii] Judith Greer, “What Really Happened at No Gun Ri”, Salon.com, 06 June 2002, http://dir.salon.com/story/books/feature/2002/06/03/nogunri.index.html
[xxviii] No Gun Ri Review, (Department of the Army Inspector General, January 2001), NIMA Imagery Analysis Review and Comments on the Republic of Korea’s No Gun Ri Investigation Team’s “Analysis on Overhead Imagery”, page 6
[xxix] “Nogeun-ri Excavations Begin”, Hankyoreh, 10 May 2007, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/208110.html
[xxx] “Search for Remains of Nogeun-ri Massacre Likely to End with No Remains Found”, Yonhap News, 22 August 2007, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2007/08/22/0200000000AEN20070822002500315.HTML