Other incidents of refugees killed by GIs during Korea retreat
Wednesday, October 13th 1999, 12:00 am
News On 6
EDITOR'S NOTE -- The Associated Press recently reported on the
killings of up to 400 South Korean refugees at the hamlet of No Gun
Ri during the 1950-53 Korean War. That story briefly mentioned
other incidents in which witnesses said refugees died at U.S.
hands. Here is a follow-up report on those episodes.
On a single deadly day in August 1950, six weeks into the Korean
War, a U.S. general and other Army officers ordered the destruction
of two strategic bridges as South Korean refugees streamed across,
killing hundreds of civilians, according to ex-GIs, Korean
witnesses and U.S. military documents.
An old soldier recalled the critical moment at one bridge.
"I said, `There are people!' And they said, `You have to blow
it! There's no other way!" ex-Army engineer Joseph M. Ipock of
Jackson, N.J., told The Associated Press.
Ex-GIs told the AP of the bridge blowings and two other
incidents, machine-gun and mortar attacks on refugees, during
interviews about what happened at No Gun Ri, South Korea, in late
July 1950. In that case, as reported Sept. 29, veterans
corroborated Korean accounts of hundreds of refugees killed at U.S.
One bridge blowing, with its refugee deaths, was recorded
briefly in an official Army chronicle, but not until 10 years after
The trail of dead civilians, many of them women and children,
has been a hidden underside to a well-known chapter in U.S.
military history, the southward retreat from advancing North Korean
forces of three Army divisions into a defensible perimeter across
South Korea's Naktong River in July-August 1950.
The withdrawal was often confused. The U.S. Army itself told
South Korean civilians, citizens of an allied nation, to head
south. But the AP found in researching declassified Army documents
that U.S. commanders also issued standing orders to shoot civilians
along the warfront to guard against North Korean soldiers disguised
in the white clothes of Korean peasants. Military lawyers call
those orders illegal.
Just days into his first combat command, the 1st Cavalry
Division's Maj. Gen. Hobart R. Gay told reporters he was sure most
of the white-clad columns pressing toward American lines were North
"We must find a means to hold these refugees in place," the
division commander said.
Days later, on Aug. 3, 1950, Gay waited on the east bank of the
Naktong River as his division retreated across the bridge at
Waegwan, the last crossing open to North Korean units reported
massing more than 15 miles to the west.
His troops had failed in repeated efforts to turn back the flood
of refugees, even firing warning shots over their heads.
"Finally, it was nearly dark," Gay later wrote to an Army
historian. "There was nothing else to be done."
Then he gave a fateful command.
"Gen. Gay stood up in the front of his jeep and shouted out,
`Blow the son of a bitch!'," veteran Edward L. Daily recalled.
The preset charges exploded, rapid fire, shattering the
supports, dropping one of the bridge's hulking spans into the muddy
waters of the Naktong.
"They went right down," remembered ex-lieutenant Daily, of
Clarksville, Tenn. "It was like a slow-motion movie. All those
refugees went right down into the river."
"It was a tough decision," Gay wrote to the historian,
"because up in the air with the bridge went hundreds of
The division's 1950 war diary did not report the refugees'
deaths. But the later narrative by Gay, who died in 1983, led to a
brief mention in an official war history published in 1960.
What happened earlier that August day, however, 25 miles
downriver at the village of Tuksong-dong, has never been reported.
Ex-sergeant Carroll F. Kinsman remembers the streams of
white-clad humanity shuffling across the 650-foot-long Tuksong-dong
bridge -- women clutching children, old men, overloaded ox carts.
"We stayed up all that night and searched them," Kinsman, a
veteran of the 14th Combat Engineers Battalion, said in an AP
interview. They found no infiltrators, he said.
Retreating Americans had not yet sighted North Korean units near
the river around Tuksong-dong on Aug. 3, the declassified record
shows. But American officers knew the enemy would arrive
eventually. Pressed by a timetable, they proved unable to keep the
refugees back from the bridge, rigged for instant demolition.
Soldiers fired over the heads of those crowding across, and
tried to warn them the bridge would be blown up, said the veterans,
men in their 60s or 70s.
"They tried to stop the refugees from coming across and they
wouldn't stop. They were abutment to abutment," ex-engineer Leon
L. Denis of Huntsville, Ala., recalled in an AP interview before
his death Aug. 31.
The men of Company A, 14th Engineers, had taken two days to set
7,000 pounds of explosives on the steel-girder bridge. When the
detonation order came at 7:01 a.m., "it lifted up and turned it
sideways and it was full of refugees end to end," said Kinsman, of
"These people were on the bridge, and you saw the spans of
steel flying and you knew they were killed," said ex-GI Rudolph
Giannelli of Port Saint Lucie, Fla., driver for Col. Richard W.
Stephens, the 21st Infantry Regiment commander who was the last
officer across the bridge.
In separate AP interviews, Kinsman, Denis and Giannelli said
hundreds of civilians were killed. Ipock said he could see only 30
or 40 refugees from his vantage point.
"There was people on that bridge when it went up," Ipock said.
"And during war that's the story. They're up there and they pull
the plunger and that's it."
Kim Bok-jong, 73, a Korean who said he was 200 yards from the
bridge, out of view around a hill, remembered that "people rushed
back toward us and said many people died when the Americans blew up
The dying did not end there, he said. Panicked refugee families
stranded on the far shore after the bridge was destroyed tried to
swim the river, Korea's largest.
"Many -- I mean many -- people drowned," Kim told the AP. "...
Women with kids were exhausted before reaching the southern bank
and disappeared under water. Sometimes kids were abandoned in the
middle of the river."
The veterans said they don't know who gave the detonation order
at Tuksong-dong. The operation was noted in the 14th Engineers
report with a simple "Results, excellent."
From the bridges, the U.S. Army units moved into defensive
positions along the Naktong, in what came to be known as the Pusan
Perimeter. They had arrived at the river after weeks of retreat
through South Korea -- and after countless, sometimes bloody
encounters with refugees.
Four 1st Cavalry Division veterans told the AP that on Aug. 2,
the day before the bridge blowings, they were among several dozen
soldiers retreating toward the Naktong and being trailed by perhaps
80 white-clad Koreans.
In mid-afternoon, five North Korean soldiers -- disguised in
white -- appeared in front of the Americans, they said. Veteran
Edward L. Daily said the North Koreans opened fire and were quickly
killed. Another ex-GI, Eugene Hesselman, remembered it differently,
saying the intruders surrendered and were led away.
Because it was believed they came from among the refugees, said
Hesselman, of Fort Mitchell, Ky., "we got orders to eliminate them
(the refugees). And we mowed them all down. The Army wouldn't take
Scattering too late, every man, woman and child was killed,
Daily said. He and veteran Robert G. Russell said they found about
10 disguised North Korean soldiers among the dead. Hesselman said
he doesn't recall that infiltrators were found.
"I didn't like to do it," said Russell, of West Fargo, N.D.
"It was just pure survival at the time."
About a week earlier, a half-dozen 1st Cavalry Division veterans
recounted, mortar fire was directed at possibly a few hundred
refugees moving down a railroad track about 100 miles southeast of
Americans had been ambushed the night before by North Koreans
who mingled with refugees, said ex-GI James McClure. Now, he said,
he spotted another white-clad group, including women and children,
through his binoculars, and put in a call to a command post.
"The colonel contacted mortar and decided to kill them instead
of allowing them through the line," said McClure, of Federal Way,
Wash. He could not recall the colonel's name.
When the mortar fire hit, "there were legs, arms and bodies
flying everywhere," McClure recounted. Veteran Henry Matthias of
Baltimore said he believes about 70 refugees were killed.
Matthias said he and GIs around him didn't fire because "the
North Koreans were coming in, but they were a long way away."
Other ex-GIs said North Korean uniforms and weapons were found on
Some officers and other Korean War veterans drew a distinction
between killing civilians simply because of suspicions of enemy
among them, and destroying a bridge -- a strategic necessity -- with
refugees on it.
But others, looking back, said refugees on targeted bridges
should have been protected -- for example, by deploying soldiers to
hold them back and retrieving the soldiers later by boat.
Three days after blowing the Waegwan bridge, Gay did send boats
across the Naktong, to bring over 6,000 stranded refugees from the
west bank, the declassified record shows.
The North Koreans did not appear in force on the west bank
between Waegwan and Tuksong-dong until Aug. 7, four days after the
bridges were blown, the record shows.
From a 50-year vantage point, historians are beginning to look
anew at those first desperate weeks of the Korean War.
"Civilians were in the way, their friendliness could not be
counted on, they were scary and it was unclear who the enemy was,"
Marilyn Young, a New York University history professor, said in an
interview. "The U.S. Army was taking the population as a whole as
the potential enemy."
Killing of noncombatants was then -- as now -- a crime under the
international law of war and the U.S. military code, military law
Although reports of North Korean atrocities were widespread at
the time, possible war crimes by American troops were not an issue
during the 1950-53 war, a West Point expert said.
"This now will change the way we look at the Korean War," said
Gary D. Solis, a law professor at the U.S. Military Academy.
Last year the South Korean government rejected, on a
technicality, a compensation claim filed by survivors of the
bloodshed at No Gun Ri in July 1950. But after the AP published its
No Gun Ri report, in which U.S. veterans said their unit killed a
large number of refugees under a railroad trestle at that South
Korean hamlet, the U.S. Army and Seoul government announced
In addition, since the Sept. 29 AP report, accounts have
surfaced in South Korea and the United States of still other
civilian killings at U.S. hands in the Korean War.
Those reports have yet to be corroborated. But Defense Secretary
William Cohen said last week that after investigating No Gun Ri,
"we'll see if there's substance to the other allegations." He did
not specify what new allegations the Pentagon may look at.