War: Ill-trained and under attack, U.S. soldiers agonized by followed orders

By Richard T. Cooper, Judy Pasternak, Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1999



WASHINGTON – In late July 1950, during the disastrous early weeks of the Korean War, the runner for H Company, 7th Cavalry Regiment, was a little fellow with blonde hair named Skaggs.  When contact broke down, he was the one who delivered the orders. 

    Artillery and mortar fire were dropping so close that Cpl. Edward Daily thought the North Koreans had to have a spotter nearby.  Even so, when Skaggs skittered in beside him, Daily questioned the orders.  "Skaggs told me to shoot," Daily remembered.  "I asked, ‘Who in the hell gave those orders?’"  It was half a century ago, but the hurried exchange remains indelible in Daily’s memory:  "The answer came back, ‘Maj. Hitcher.’  "I questioned him, ‘Even the women and children?’  "The answer came back: ‘You shoot them all.  No survivors.’" 

    As Daily crouched on open ground behind his .30-caliber machine gun, he could see a railroad embankment with a big concrete tunnel-like structure spanning a small stream about 100 or 150 yards away.  Several hundred Koreans, many of them women and children and all wearing the white robes and baggy trousers of local peasants, had crowded inside the tunnel after the shelling had begun and P-51 Mustangs had strafed the area. 

    Daily’s machine gun was mounted on a heavy tripod, with two knobs to adjust its aim.  "I moved those little round knobs, one for elevation and one for traverse.  I stayed right in position.  It was a good, accurate weapon."  Others obeyed the orders too.  Within half an hour, he had stopped shooting.  "I did not go down after the shooting," Daily said. 

    Details of the episode, which may have claimed hundreds of lives, emerged last week, first in an investigative account by Associated Press and then in interviews with former soldiers.  It is now almost certain that Nogun-ri, the hamlet near the railroad overpass, will join the Vietnamese village of My Lai and a handful of other names on the list of atrocities committed against civilians by U.S. forces in combat. 

    The Pentagon, after years of stonewalling, has now promised a full-scale investigation.  President Clinton has expressed concern.  And in South Korea, which announced the formation of a high-level investigative task force Saturday, the incident is likely to set off political repercussions and renewed demands for reparations from survivors and descendants of the victims. 

    But for most Americans, more important than legal or political issues is the question of how it could have happened.  How could American soldiers, ordinary young men who returned home and lived normal lives, have deliberately poured hundreds of rounds of machine-gun and rifle fire into the bodies of men, women and children trapped inside a concrete tunnel? 

    The answer, as seen by historians who have studied the events of the Korean War closely and by some of the former soldiers themselves, lies in a tangle of factors great and small. 

    National leaders’ blindness to the gathering danger on the Korean peninsula and the arrogance of commanders who thought they could make short work of the invaders were part of it.  So was the disastrous conversion of the greatest fighting force in history into a hollow shell of ill-equipped, ill-trained and ill-led recruits.  Racism almost certainly played a role: The attitude toward Koreans and other nonwhites then was less than enlightened. 

    And, for individual soldiers, obedience to orders and the almost-unimaginable terror of unforeseen disaster on the battlefield were paramount.  Former machine-gunner Daily, now 68 and living in Clarksville, Tenn., summed it up.  "The confusion, the chaos.  There were men scared to death.  I was scared too.  You didn’t have time to really think about it.  You were trying to survive yourself.  You’re looking at your brothers.  You have to protect them."  In the end, Daily said, "when you’re in the Army, you’re disciplined.  You follow your orders, even though it’s hard to swallow and think about what did happen."  

    Maj. Omar Hitcher, who by Daily’s recollection handed down the order, died in the early 1950s, he said. 


Airy Predictions Overly Optimistic


Two days after Communist North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, historians recall that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of occupied Japan, airily declared he could whip the invaders with one arm tied behind him.  Troops dispatched to make good on that boast thought they would be back among the comforts of Japan within a couple of months—90 days, tops.  A "police action," President Harry S. Truman called it. 

    It was soon clear that such talk had little relationship to reality.  Far from the gang of hoodlums that Truman’s phrase implied, the North Korean army was then one of the best-equipped, best-led and most battle-hardened forces in the world.  And the troops MacArthur commanded in 1950 bore no resemblance to the forces he had led to victory in World War II.  "There was a lot of bravado.  And, of course, it didn’t happen that way," said William Stueck, a University of Georgia historian and author of "The Korean War: An International History."

    Experts favorably compared the North Korean army with the Imperial Japanese Army of World War II.  In particular, the divisions sweeping into the area southwest of Seoul and hurtling down on H Company at Nogun-ri had fought in the Chinese civil war under Mao Tse-tung.  Some North Korean officers had even fought with the Russians in World War II, taking part in the liberation of Berlin.  "The North Korean soldiers could crawl farther on their bellies than the American soldiers could walk," one U.S. officer said later. 

    Historians say North Korea’s master plan for the invasion reflected Maoist doctrine: massive frontal assaults by main-force army units, combined with a large-scale uprising in the rear by pro-Communist guerillas and North Korean infiltrators disguised as peasants. 

    To stop such a combination of forces, the United States initially had only the military units stationed in Japan and nearby Pacific bases.  And, in the five short years since the end of World War II, the fighting effectiveness of its once-invincible armies had been systematically degraded in response to congressional budget cuts.  "Many of these units went into battle under-strength and under-equipped," said Col. Cole Kingseed, a West Point historian. 

    In the case of H Company, most of its equipment dated from World War II.  Daily’s unit had to rely on old Rand McNally maps of South Korea.  The company’s old weapons were no match for North Korean armaments: U.S. bazookas fired antitank shells that couldn’t penetrate North Korea’s tanks. 

    Even if they had been well-equipped and up to strength, the U.S. soldiers were woefully unprepared.  "This was an entirely new Army," said military historian Allan R. Millett of Ohio State University.  Except in the officer ranks, the World War II veterans had been demobilized, replaced by green recruits, many of them very new to the Army. 

    Moreover, Millet said, "the Army was starved for training funds.  They were doing garrison duty in Japan.  The kinds of training they could do there were very circumscribed."  "These folks had spent most of their time in Japan standing on street corners whistling at girls," a senior U.S. officer later said. 


Racial Attitudes May Have Played a Role


The American Army of 1950 was a product of the America of 1950 in other ways as well.  Its members had grown up in a culture far different from the one that exists at the end of the 20th century, not least in its attitudes about race and color. 

    Few, if any, experts see the incident at Nogun-ri as racial killing.  But many believe that the prevailing beliefs about people of color in general and Koreans in particular played a part in the decisions that led to the massacre.  Only a few years before, a senior U.S. official had returned from a visit to Korea and confided in his diary that "Korea is a strange land, filled with strange-looking people."

    "There’s no question that white American soldiers were still fundamentally segregated, even though President Truman had ordered the Army desegregated, and they saw people of color as inferior," said Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, author of "The Origins of the Korean War." 

    At the time of the war, 12 states included Koreans among those prohibited from marrying Caucasians.  In parts of New York, they couldn’t buy property.  "Fear and hatred travel side by side," Millett said. 

    Racial differences also compounded the unnerving difficulty that U.S. troops had in distinguishing friend from foe.  In the Pacific fighting of World War II, the enemy had been easily recognizable and civilians had rarely been combatants.  In Korea, all such distinctions were blurred from the beginning.  "Korea was Vietnam before Vietnam," Cumings tells his students. 


A Landscape of Frightened Confusion


The night before H Company got to Nogun-ri, Defense Department archives show, it had joined the rest of the 7th Cavalry’s 2nd Battalion in a night retreat.  The unit, which proudly traced its lineage to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, was to relieve remnants of Task Force Smith, the unprepared collection of troops rushed to Korea immediately after the invasion.  Task Force Smith had been knocked to pieces by the North Korean onslaught and was fleeing south. 

    Like everything else, however, neither the relief efforts nor the repositioning had gone well.  Unaccustomed to night operations, the unit had lost weapons and men as it struggled against oppressive heat, rugged terrain and inadequate supplies of water, as well as pursuing North Korean units.  Records show that "the battalion had apparently fallen into considerable disarray," Ohio State’s Millett said. 

    As daylight broke and H Company struggled to set up defensive positions near the railroad embankment and the narrow dirt road leading south, its men confronted a landscape of frightening confusion.  "You couldn’t go nowhere," Daily said.  "The road was jammed with the 24th Division retreating . . . Thousands of vehicles and thousands of refugees.  There was no room to pass.  We ended up getting fire."  

    Sgt. James T. Kerns, who was near Daily for a time, said, "We had been letting everybody come through until we started getting artillery fire."  He particularly remembers the accuracy of the North Korean mortars.  "With two shots, they were zeroing in on us.  We had some of the best mortar men in the Army, and it took them three shots."  Kerns, now 69 and living in Piedmont, SC, saw two Americans killed by the mortars. 

    Rumors of approaching tanks spread through the exhausted ranks.  "We had nothing to stop them," Kerns said.  "We had two rocket launchers."  To make matters worse, the area was strafed by U.S. planes; the fire hit refugees streaming down the railroad tracks but hit H Company as well.  "I’m sure they were all scared to death," Millett said "and then they get strafed by friendlies…. Add to that anxiety, ignorance, horror stories of atrocities committed by the North Koreans and you have troops in a condition not to exercise very good judgment." 

    The most immediate test of judgment involved the several hundred white-robed refugees jammed under the bridge.  U.S. troops had come to regard everyone in white as a potential enemy, and they had trouble distinguishing women and larger children from men.  In the days leading up to the massacre, Daily said, "I saw civilians firing.  They had this white garb, this robe and these baggy white pants, and they were slipping it on over their uniforms."

    It may never be known whether the dead included some North Korean troops or guerillas in civilian clothing or whether anyone in the underpass fired at H Company, but historians agree that the threat was real.  A few days after the Nogun-ri episode, a U.S. command post not far away was overrun and a senior officer killed by guerillas in peasant garb. 

    And although the men of H Company knew nothing of local history, Cumings said the area "had been a hotbed of leftism in the 1940s" and was rife with supporters of the Communist North.  Daily, who was later held as a prisoner by the North Koreans for a month before escaping, has been haunted by the memory of what happened at Nogun-ri.  But he said of the victims’ descendants: 

    "I cannot apologize to those people.  I’m sympathetic with them.  They’re very fortunate to be alive.  They are living in a free democracy and many American soldiers died so they could.  It was something very tragic that happened.  Admit the truth.  It did happen—a bit of military history that has been hidden all these years."