"SHOOT THEM ALL"
by Michael Dobbs
Washington Post – February 6, 2000, Pg. W08
[Michael Dobbs is an investigative reporter for The Post.]
HALF A CENTURY AFTER THE KOREAN WAR, MEMBERS OF THE 7th CAVALRY REGIMENT HAD HOPED FOR RECOGNITION. INSTEAD, THEY ARE HAVING TO ACCOUNT FOR WHAT HAPPENED AT Nogun-ri.
White-clad Korean refugees had been frantically following the American GIs along the winding railroad track for most of the sweltering summer day. They were fleeing a common enemy: communist troops from North Korea who had swept across the 38th parallel and, in four momentous weeks, had inflicted a series of stunning defeats on a disorganized U.S. Army and its South Korean allies.
To the bewildered American soldiers who had just arrived in South Korea, it seemed like an entire nation was on the move. The roads were clogged with civilians pushing rickety ox carts piled high with household goods. Men slumped forward under the weight of wicker suitcases crammed with their worldly possession and strapped to their backs on crude wooden A-frames. Mothers carried bundles of belongings on their heads and babies hitched precariously around their waists. Barefoot children ran alongside, struggling to keep up with the rushing flow of humanity.
In the confusion, it was often impossible for the Americans to distinguish friend from foe. The Koreans around them seemed harmless enough, but there were reports of communist guerillas infiltrating the refugees and attacking American soldiers from the rear or calling in artillery strikes by radio.
It was late July 1950. Sgt. Edward L. Daily and his comrades in the Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment had been in Korea for all of four days. The day after arriving at the front, they had taken part in a panicky retreat, provoked by rumors of a communist breakthrough in a neighboring sector. They had now been ordered to reassemble on a railroad track on the outskirts of a little village called Nogun-ri. The idea was that the 7th Cav – Gen. George Custer’s regiment at Little Big Horn – would make a stand at the village, allowing other U.S. units to withdraw in a more orderly way. Nobody else, refugees included, would be permitted through the American lines.
Later that day, Daily saw several American warplanes swoop out of the sky and strafe a crowd of refugees about 500 yards down the railroad. The refugees came pouring down the tracks toward Daily and his fellow GIs, stumbling over one another and pointing panic-stricken toward the sky. Looking for cover, they ran down the sides of the embankment and into a pair of concrete culverts underneath the track. Some 40 feet high and 30 feet wide, the underpasses were a natural hiding place from the planes.
"Keep a good eye on those refugees," yelled Capt. Melbourne Chandler, commander of the 7th Cav’s H Company, who was standing on top of the railroad track. "There may be commies among them."
Determined not to let the refugees through the American lines, Chandler ordered Daily to set up a machine-gun post on the eastern side of the culverts. Other soldiers took up positions on a hill that rose to the west of the railroad track. Each position was chosen so that it would have an angled line of fire into the underpasses, to avoid the risk of American GIs shooting at one another. "Don’t let anybody come out," barked Chandler. "If anybody tries to come out, shoot them."
As darkness began to fall, Daily heard three or four shots from the direction of the culverts. He saw what seemed like a muzzle flash, as if fired by someone inside the tunnel. Within minutes, a company messenger named Harold Skaggs had scrambled down off the railroad tracks, where the officers had established their command post. He was a diminutive man with blonde hair, and he was out of breath. "We have to shoot them all," he gasped. "Do we have to shoot the women and children?" a stunned Daily asked. "Shoot them all."
In the wake of "Saving Private Ryan" and the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the veterans of the 7th Cav had been looking forward to some respect and recognition for participating in the first major conflict of the Cold War. Instead, they have found themselves embroiled in controversy.
News of the massacre of civilians by U.S. troops at Nogun-ri, first reported by the Associated Press last fall, and Korean demands for an apology and compensation have swamped all else. While the controversy has certainly revived public interest in America’s "forgotten war," the rebirth of historical memory has been uneven. The sudden focus on alleged American atrocities has obscured the larger story of a war that America was ill-prepared to fight—and the chaotic circumstances that caused a group of GIs to open fire on civilians.
In the months since the story broke, Ed Daily, a former president of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Association, has been besieged by journalists, Pentagon officials, and other Korean War veterans seeking information about Nogun-ri. He has made a return visit to the site of the massacre at the instigation of NBC News, attended a church-sponsored reconciliation meeting with some of the Korean survivors in Cleveland, and sat patiently through countless interviews. Now 68, he says he wants to cooperate with people who are "seeking the truth" half a century after the war.
Other surviving members of H Company—the 7th Cav sub-unit of 200 or so men that manned the machine guns and was at the center of the action—have been less tolerant of all the attention. When a reporter calls Daily’s former lieutenant, Robert Carroll, now retired at home in Leesburg, there is a strained silence at the other end of the line. "The Pentagon has ordered an inquiry," he says finally. "Until it is complete, I will have nothing to say."
In Clio, Michigan, a former GI named Delos Flint says the memory of what happened that summer day in Nogun-ri is too painful to recall. "I have spent the last 50 years trying to forget about it."
And in Geer, South Carolina, former rifleman Herman Patterson answers a reporter’s questions about the war by laboriously removing his left shoe and then taking off his sock. His foot is a mass of swollen body tissue. He explains that he has been disabled ever since he was hit by a North Korean bullet in October 1950, after just four months on the front lines. "They call it the forgotten war, but I haven’t forgotten it," he says. "I don’t forget a damn thing. Every time I try to take a step, I remember that I was in Korea."
By any measure, the Korean War was a major war. American casualties were staggering: 33,870 killed and 103,284 wounded by the time the war ended in 1953. Korean casualties were far higher: more than a million dead throughout the peninsula. The first year of the war was particularly brutal, "surpassing the toughest battles of any war in American history," wrote author Clay Blair in The Forgotten War. Korea had a large impact on America and the world, intensifying the Cold War, validating the Truman doctrine of "containment," boosting the political fortunes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and paving the way for American intervention in Vietnam. And yet, in Blair’s words, for most Americans, the Korean War is "little more than a phrase in the history books."
Korea was the first major war waged by the United States that did not result in an unambiguous American victory. It was fought under United Nations auspices. Unlike World War II, it did not lend itself to heroic morality tales of Good triumphing over Evil. Unlike Vietnam, it did not trigger a soul-searching debate about the direction in which America was headed.
It has always been difficult to make sense out of the chaos of war. Leo Tolstoy once remarked that there are as many different accounts of a battle as there are participants. "Make a round of the troops immediately after a battle, and ask how it went … and you will form a majestic, complex, infinitely varied, depressing, and indistinct impression. From no one – least of all the commander-in-chief—will you learn what the whole affair was like."
And so it was in Korea. Everyone who served with the 7th Cav—one of the oldest and most distinguished regiments in the U.S. Army—has his own private version of events. Refracted through half a century of indifference mingled with amnesia, the memories are fragmentary, tortured, sometimes contradictory. But pieced together, they tell the story of a group of young Americans who went to war and found themselves confronted with the hardest of choices—between military discipline and moral responsibility.
In some respects, the story of the 7th Cav is also the story of the Korean War, at least as seen from an American soldier’s perspective. At first, the troops were ill-prepared for combat, overcome by the chaos. But over time, tested by battle, they gelled into an effective fighting unit.
Herman Patterson has a vivid memory of going to war. A country boy from South Carolina who was sent to Korea at age 19, he served with the7th Cav in U.S.-occupied Japan as part of the personal honor guard for Gen. Douglas MacArthur. One summer day, soon after North Korean troops launched their attack across the 38th parallel, MacArthur assembled the men on parade in Japan and told them they were likely to be sent to Korea for a little "police action."
MacArthur depicted the communist troops as an ill-armed rabble that would disintegrate the moment it spotted a few American uniforms. "You’ll be back in time for Thanksgiving, with a victory parade in Tokyo," Patterson recalls his promising.
Although most members of the regiment had received between six and ten weeks of basic training in the United States, they were hardly a fighting unit. Few of them had any combat experience. Most of the noncommissioned officers who had served in World War II had been transferred to other units. Because of budget cuts by the Truman administration, the regiment was seriously under strength.
Chief of Staff Omar N. Bradley later wrote that demobilization and budget slashing after World War II had reduced the Army to a "shockingly deplorable state" in which it "could not fight its way out of a paper bag." Many senior officers agreed. Lt. Gen. Hobart R. Gay, who commanded the 1st Cavalry Division in Korea, called the Army’s lack of combat readiness an "utter disgrace."
Numerical strength was not the only problem. The U.S. Army in the Far East was barely equipped to fight a war against an enemy spearheaded by 140 Soviet T-34 tanks. U.S. troops were desperately short of heavy armor. Much of their equipment was obsolete. They had no effective weapon to use against the squat yet highly maneuverable T-34, an updated version of the tank that destroyed a powerful German army at the Battle of Kursk in World War II.
The 7th Cav landed on July 22, 1950, at the port of Pohang, on the southeastern coast of the Korean peninsula. First impressions of the country they had come to rescue from communist aggression were appalling. Korea was primitive and smelled terrible. The rice paddies were full of human feces, making the whole country stink of manure. Everyone and everything was dirty, even worse, it seemed than in defeated Japan. It wasn’t difficult to think of these people as "just gooks," as many GIs disparagingly called them.
On the train en route to the front, a rumor began to spread that the 24th Infantry had been wiped out by the North Korean advance. "From being happy and gay, we began to start worrying," James Kerns, a communications sergeant, recalls. "We figured we would be going straight into combat."
Capt. Chandler used the time to give the men of his H Company a warning. "Be extremely cautious of refugees," he told them. "There are rumors that North Korean soldiers are posing as peasants."
By the time the 7th Cav reached the front, the troops the regiment had been sent to reinforce were in full retreat. North Korean forces had taken the strategic town of Yongdong, about 10 miles away, and were pressing eastward and southward. The 24th Infantry commander, Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, had been captured. In some parts of the battlefield, American GIs simply threw down their weapons and ran.
As the men of the 7th Cav marched toward the front, they ran into exhausted GIs moving in the opposite direction. They looked drained, defeated, terrified.
Normally, commanders like to ease untested troops into action gradually, to prevent outbreaks of panic. But the U.S. Army was desperately short of manpower during the early weeks of the Korean War and had no choice but to throw the 7th Cav into combat near Yongdong.
It was the first time that most of the men had ever faced enemy fire. The sight of a T-34 tank lobbing a ball of fire across the rice paddies toward them was terrifying. The Americans were so poorly equipped that they lacked suitable weapons for destroying the enemy tank. "I was scared to death," recalls rifleman Eugene Hasselman. "It was pitiful. Nobody knew anything. We were so green, unorganized."
Then there were the refugees, huge crowds of them, fleeing the North Korean advance and clogging the winding mountain roads. The Americans were convinced that the communists used the refugees as a cover for military operations, and there is evidence that this was often the case. "There were so many refugees that it was impossible to screen and search them all," noted an entry in the 1st Cavalry Division war diary for July 24. "No one desired to shoot innocent people, but many of the innocent-looking refugees dressed in the traditional white clothes of the Koreans turned out to be North Korean soldiers transporting ammunition and heavy weapons in farm wagons and carrying military equipment in packs on their backs."
On the night of July 25, headquarters ordered a withdrawal to more secure positions. Commanders of the 7th Cav roused everyone from their foxholes at 1 a.m. for an immediate retreat. The men reacted with undisguised panic, even though only sporadic fire was coming from the North Koreans. "It was embarrassing," Daily recalls. "It ended up in utter chaos and confusion. Men were stumbling around, not knowing where to go."
Suddenly a new cry started going around: "Every man for himself." Men reacted by abandoning their weapons and fleeing to the rear. "There were rumors that the North Koreans were all around us," remembers George Preece, a sergeant who abandoned a heavy machine gun on a hill because it was too hot to move.
According to an official Army history, truck drivers and platoon sergeants returning to the front the following day recovered more than a dozen machine guns, 120 M-1 rifles and a dozen radio sets that had been left beside the road. The incident was sufficiently serious to stick in the memory of Gay, the division commander. In a 1958 report, he criticized several 7th Cav units, including H Company, for "behaving badly when they received the order to withdraw" and becoming "somewhat hysterical."
As the men staggered toward the rear, they were met by a furious Chandler, H Company’s commander. A World War II veteran, he was steeped in the blood-and-guts tradition of the 7th Cav. He attempted to rally the unnerved men by getting them to chant the words "Garry Owen," the title of the frolicking Irish folk song that Custer had chosen as the regimental anthem.
"We came to Korea as a fighting unit, and we are going to remain a fighting unit," Chandler yelled. "I want to hear Garry Owen from your lips. When you start fighting from now on, I want to hear Garry Owen, Garry Owen."
"Garry Owen, Garry Owen," the jittery troops responded in unison, as if their lives depended on it.
By the time H Company and other units of the 7th Cav reached the outskirts of Nogun-ri on the afternoon of July 26, commanders were attempting to enforce a new policy on controlling the huge numbers of fleeing civilians. "No refugees to cross the front line," read an order from division headquarters. "Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in the case of women and children." The commander of the neighboring 25th Division told his troops that "all civilians seen in this area are to be considered as enemy."
Precisely how these orders came down the chain of command may never be known; the key commanders are now dead and many of the relevant records have not survived. Because of the hilly terrain, and the panic earlier in the day, electronic communications systems had either not been installed or were not functioning. Orders were transmitted by runner, an obvious source of confusion and misunderstanding.
Two machine-gun posts had been established on the hilly western side of the railroad culverts. One was manned by Norman Tinkler. The other had been set up by Jimmy Kerns, the communications sergeant, when his unit was under enemy sniper fire. Kerns recalls receiving orders by messenger from Chandler to "keep the refugees pinned down." He fired off half a dozen rounds into the tunnel, over the heads of the refugees, and then turned the weapon over to more junior soldiers. "I’ll be back," he told them. "Fire four or five rounds in there every 30 or 40 minutes. Don’t change the leverage on that machine gun."
On the other side of the culverts, Ed Daily was in charge of the lone machine-gun post. He says he received the "shoot them all" order after seeing "muzzle flashes" from the direction of the tunnel. He was convinced that the fire was coming from North Korean soldiers hidden among the refugees. But Korean survivors are adamant that there were no soldiers in their midst. In retrospect Daily concedes that his fellow GIs on the opposite side of the railroad track may have fired these early shots, and that what he saw was the bullets then ricocheting off the concrete walls of the culverts.
When Daily asked the company runner, Harold Skaggs, "who the hell gave the order" to shoot the refugees, he says he was told that it had been issued by Maj. Omar Hitchner, one of Chandler’s superiors who later was killed in the war.
At first, Daily aimed over the refugees’ heads. They responded by crouching down in terror, as low as they could get. But Daily had his orders; he twiddled the knob on his machine gun to lower the barrel. Every fifth bullet was a tracer, making the line of fire perfectly visible against the gathering darkness. Then, in Daily’s words, "all hell broke loose."
Machine-gunners and riflemen poured a steady stream of fire into the culverts from all directions for what seemed like 15 to 20 minutes. Just as suddenly, the firing stopped. All that could be heard were moans and cries from inside the tunnels. Then came a few random rifle shots, followed by more massive shooting from the GIs. "I don’t know how anyone survived that shooting," Daily says now. "When the firing finally stopped, I didn’t hear anything." "We just annihilated them," Tinkler told the Associated Press recently.
In fact, there was still life in the culverts. Chung Goo-Hak, who was 8 years old at the time, remembers how the survivors built a kind or rudimentary fortress of dead bodies at the entrance of the tunnel. He himself was hit in the face by a bullet, which permanently disfigured his nose. His mother was killed by machine-gun fire. Chung still has a vivid memory of his 2-year-old sister nursing from his dead mother, and then being killed herself in a later burst of gunfire.
Yang Hae-Sook, 11, was hit in the eye with shrapnel as she hid under an acacia tree to escape the strafing from American warplanes. Her younger brother led her into the tunnel, because she could not see. "I thought I could save my life if I squeezed in between the dead bodies," she recalls. Her grandmother and two brothers were killed during the shooting, and her mother was wounded.
Korean survivors say the shooting continued, sporadically, for three days. Most of the American GIs, including Daily, say they were not there for that long. U.S. military records, however, show that the 7th Cav remained in position around Nogun-ri for all three days, so it seems likely that other members of the regiment were rotated in at various points to guard the culverts after the first day. Korean survivors recall being visited on several occasions by American medics, who treated some of them in an Army field hospital.
Drawing up a full list of the victims of the Nogun-ri massacre, or even estimating their number, is next to impossible. Several weeks after the incident, survivors compiled a list of 122 people known to have died, more than 70 percent of them women and children. But the actual figure, they say, was probably at least 300. "Entire families were wiped out at Nogun-ri," says Chung Eun-Yong, who lost two sons there. "And there was no one to report their deaths."
The 7th Cav received orders to pull back from Nogun-ri on July 29. That same day, the commander of American forces in Korea, Lt. Gen. William H. Walker, summoned his subordinates to a schoolhouse in the town of Kumchon to put some steel in their spines. "There will be no more retreating," he told them. "If some of us must die, we will die fighting together." The remarks became celebrated as Walker’s "stand or die" speech, ridiculed by some GIs as a "stand and die" speech.
The following day—July 30—was one of the bloodiest days of the war for H Company. It began at dawn when the men heard sounds of heavy equipment moving through the hills. They assumed that the noise was combat engineers building a road network. All of a sudden, GIs realized, "Hell, they’re not bulldozers, they’re enemy tanks."
H Company was still learning the rudiments of combat, and, contrary to normal procedures, its mortar platoon had dug in on the forward slope of the hill, facing the enemy, where it was a much easier target than it would have been on the backside of the hill. An 85mm round fired from one of the North Korean T-34s hit a nearby tree, splattering shrapnel all over the men. The platoon leader was killed instantly, along with three privates. Half a dozen other platoon members were seriously injured. "The fire from the mortar tubes was a perfect target," says Kerns, who observed the action from a nearby slope. "The whole mortar platoon was wiped out."
Although the company was retreating, life at war began to settle down into a semblance of routine. The men began to understand, says retired Col. John C. Lippincott, that "either they did their job or they wouldn’t come back home." As soon as they arrived in a new place, everybody would dig foxholes as protection against artillery or mortar attack. They even adjusted to the food: WWII-era K rations, which consisted of a square packet containing a small can of cheese, a chocolate bar, some instant coffee, four cigarettes, and a box of matches.
Promotions, at least, were plentiful. In order to fill the gaps caused by casualties, the Army pulled men out of the ranks and put them in charge of squads and platoons. Ed Daily was promoted from corporal to sergeant, and then from sergeant to 2nd lieutenant in the space of two weeks that summer. Three other H Company NCOs received battlefield commissions in the first weeks of the war.
One thing remained the same: the swirling masses of refugees, filthy, frightened and, at the same time, frightening. As H Company and the rest of the 7th Cav retreated toward the Naktong River, Chandler became convinced that a nearby refugee column had been infiltrated by communist soldiers and posed a threat to his men. This would explain why the Americans kept on being hit by uncannily accurate artillery fire. Seeing a group of four or five white-clothed people behaving suspiciously, Chandler ordered his men to fire on them, according to Daily and others. Sure enough, they turned out to be wearing refugee clothing on top of the mustard-green uniforms of the North Korean army. One of the women had a radio hidden among her clothing. Others had hand grenades and a short Russian rifle.
Taking no chances, Chandler decided to wipe out the entire column. His men, by now unable or unwilling to distinguish friend from foe among the masses trailing them, complied. "There were a lot of innocent people killed," recalls Daily. "Some of them, in the back, may have been enemy, but the rest were ordinary refugees."
Still, thousands of refugees continued to follow the 7th Cav down to the Naktong River, where U.S. commanders had decided to set up their last line of defense. Lt. Gen. Gay was determined not to let the refugees cross, because he worried that the North Korean army was too close behind. He ordered the bridges along the river mined and blown up as soon as the last U.S. soldier was safely across.
Daily was one of the last to cross the bridge at Waegwan. As he and the other Americans came across, the refugees closed in behind. The soldiers fired over their heads to scare them away. The refugees retreated, but then started coming again. The human wave moved back and forth two more times. Finally, just as it was getting dark, Gay shouted into his radio set. "Blow that son of a bitch. Blow it, blow it."
One of the spans of the bridge disintegrated in a roar of flame, tipping hundreds of refugees into the muddy water. It was a disaster in slow motion. Many were killed in the explosion or drowned in the swirling river. "There was nothing else to be done," Gay wrote in a 1958 letter to a U.S. Army historian. "It was a tough decision because up in the air with the bridge went hundreds of refugees."
Once across the Naktong River, the troops set about organizing a defense. This was the last line of retreat. If the U.S. Army withdrew any further, it would find itself pushed off the peninsula altogether. The front line became known as "the Pusan Perimeter," after the port city in the southeastern corner of Korea that was the Americans’ principal logistical base.
While the Naktong formed a natural defense line, it was not impregnable. The river was low because of sever drought, and there were several places where the North Koreans could wade across. The 7th Cav was responsible for the defense of river frontage opposite a destroyed bridge at Tuksong-dong. As the heavy-weapons company inside the 7th Cav, the men of H Company were ordered to occupy front-line positions on high ground known as Hill 209.
For the first few days and nights, all was quiet. On the night of August 12, a moonless night, the troops who were dug into foxholes on Hill 209 sensed that the enemy was creeping about in the darkness. "You could smell the body odor," Daily remembers.
The attack came just before dawn. "We heard screaming, yowling," he says. "Then a bunch of white-clothed men were pushed forward in attack." The North Koreans used swarming tactics, sending in untrained peasants as cannon fodder and keeping their professional soldiers in reserve for the second wave.
The company suffered 70 percent casualties that day, including 15 killed. But it managed to hold on to Hill 209, killing hundreds of the enemy. Gay, who died in 1983, called it "one of the most courageous"—and crucial –battles of the war. Had H Company failed to hold the hill, the consequences could have been disastrous. They way to the provincial capital, Taegu, would have been open to the North Koreans, a possibly fatal breach in the Pusan Perimeter.
Ed Daily saw only the first half hour of the action; he was captured while scouring the hill for a discarded North Korean rifle. That night, his captors took him back across the river and marched him northward. Fortunately for Daily, several weeks later U.S. warplanes strafed a camp where he was being held. In the ensuing confusion, he and a companion escaped, making their way back to American lines.
The successful defense of the Naktong marked a turning point in the American campaign to repel the North Korean offensive. It allowed MacArthur to launch his celebrated amphibious landing at Inchon on September 15, outflanking the communist army and liberating the South Korean capital, Seoul. A week later, the 7th Cav began chasing the North Koreans back up the peninsula.
The 7th Cav went on to play a distinguished role in the Korean campaign. It crossed the 38th parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Korea, on October 9, taking 2,000 prisoners, and capturing a North Korean cavalry unit, complete with all its horses. By the middle of November, the 7th Cav came within 60 miles of the Chinese border, although it retreated when the Chinese entered the war on the North Korean side soon afterward.
For the next two years, Korea settled into a war of attrition and the area around the 38th parallel was eventually declared a demilitarized zone. By this time, many of the veterans of the 7th Cav—men like Ed Daily, Jimmy Kerns, and Herman Patterson—were back in the United States nursing their wounds and struggling with their memories.
Fifty years later, Daily is sitting at the dining room table of his nondescript bungalow in Clarksville, Tennessee, surrounded by Korean War memorabilia and Elvis Presley kitsch, recalling Nogun-ri. "You have got your conscience," he says. "Something like this eats away at you, because of the women and children. If you are not truthful, it means you are not showing dignity and respect for the people who are seeking the truth."
It has taken a long time for the truth to come out. During the few brief weeks that North Korean forces occupied the area, their propagandists did their best to publicize reports of an American atrocity at Nogun-ri in newspapers under their control. But most Westerners dismissed the stories as a clumsy attempt to divert attention from amply documented communist atrocities against both South Korean civilians and American POWs.
The American soldiers who took part in the massacre avoided talking about Nogun-ri, even among themselves. Most of them put it on the back of their minds as soon as they moved on to new battles. It was just one incident in a long and terrible war. "We all lived right next to each other, and saw each other 24 hours a day, but this thing was never mentioned," says Col. John W. Callaway, who took charge of one of the 7th Cavalry’s units soon after U.S. troops launched their successful breakout north from the Pusan Perimeter.
Nor was there anything but a passing mention of the massacre in the contemporaneous reports filed by U.S. commanders that are now stored in the National Archives and the National Personnel Records Center. The morning report for H Company on July 26, the day when the unit opened fire on the refugees in the culverts, refers only to an "exchange of small arms fire with the enemy." Chandler, the former H Company commander, came as close as anyone to acknowledging what happened in a regimental history he wrote in 1960: "Refugees and friendly Korean troops entered our positions in their march rearward and were fired upon by our own troops because they were unable to establish their identity."
After the war, the men of the 7th Cav faced the challenge of reintegrating themselves into American society. It wasn’t easy. Many had severe injuries, which made it difficult to find a job. Once the war was over, few Americans seemed to care about the U.S. soldiers who had fought in the first major confrontation between communism and capitalism.
George Preece was so shot up in Korea that he decided to remain in the Army because he did not think he would be employable elsewhere. Eventually, after 22 years in the service, he started a lawn-mower shop. It took Herman Patterson, injured in the foot, 10 years to find a decent job. Jimmy Kerns took advantage of the GI Bill to go to school, but had trouble settling down. He changed colleges half a dozen times, gave up his dream of becoming a teacher, and eventually found work as a sales manager with a freight company. Mel Chandler retired from the Army at the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1963 and died in 1970 at age 49.
Over time, some of the men at Nogun-ri began displaying symptoms of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. Delos Flint, who says he refused an order to fire at the refugees, was so shaken by what he saw at Nogun-ri that he returned down a monthly $280 pension from the government. But, until recently, he never talked about his experiences to his family, even though he was often afraid to sleep at night, because of nightmares about terrified civilians running for shelter.
Of all the former members of the 7th Cav’s H Company, the one most steeped in the history and tradition of the regiment is probably Ed Daily. But despite his evident pride in his military service, he, too, has been tormented by memories of Nogun-ri. He found it impossible to talk about his Korean War experiences with his wife, and they eventually divorced.
The nightmares began in the ‘60s, when he was working as a foreman for Bethlehem Steel. In one recurring dream, he saw a halo of light, a peaceful symbol beckoning him. He approached the halo but found his way barred by two North Koran soldiers, weapons at the ready. They laughed at him. He desperately wanted to burst through to the halo, but when he tried, the enemy soldiers pushed him away.
And then there was a more sinister nightmare that came to him on hot summer nights, particularly when there was a light breeze blowing. However much he tried to block out the sounds, he could not help but hear the cries of women and children.
He had difficulty sleeping and digesting his food; stress accumulated at work. He would yell at subordinates for not performing properly, and hurl his hard hat against the wall for no particular reason. Once, at a time when the factory was struggling to complete orders before a steel strike, he fell to the floor with terrible chest pains. He was rushed to the hospital with what everybody thought was a heart attack—but it turned out to be nervous exhaustion.
Eventually, Daily turned for help to the Veterans Administration, which has experience in dealing with stress disorders from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The VA put him on medication and, most importantly, had him attend group therapy sessions with other veterans. "It was obvious to me that these men need talk therapy more than medication," says David Shepard, a clinical pharmacy specialist who treated Daily at the VA hospital in Nashville. "They needed to bond with other vets. They have trouble talking about their experiences. There is a kind of self-protectiveness at work. They figure, ‘If I don’t talk about it, I won’t think about it, and therefore it won’t affect me.’"
In the therapy sessions run by Shepard, himself a Vietnam veteran, Daily talked about his recurring nightmares, and finally mentioned the killing of refugees at Nogun-ri. But he did not describe the incident in detail. "It happened early in the war, and may have been pushed aside by other even more traumatic things," says Shepard. "It was trauma on top of trauma. He was a POW, he had a lot of friends and comrades who were killed. There were other things that he was also thinking about."
The subject of Nogun-ri came up more directly at a small 7th Cav reunion in 1986, when Daily suggested writing a book about the regiment’s experiences in Korea. Another veteran said that sounded like a good idea but cautioned, "One thing we don’t want to write about is killing all those damn refugees. Whoever reads the book will get the wrong impression that we are nothing but a bunch of woman and baby killers." When the book eventually came out, it omitted any mention of the massacre.
And there the matter rested until one summer day in 1998 when Daily received a telephone call from AP reporter Charles Hanley, who had been checking out South Korean claims of wartime atrocities by the 7th Cav. Although Daily did not seem to want to talk about Nogun-ri, Hanley realized that "he was very knowledgeable, with a terrific memory, and very good recall of settings." After several telephone conversations, the reporter visited Daily in Tennessee, bringing with him a picture of the bridge at Nogun-ri.
"That seemed to draw him out, and elicit details of where everybody was," Hanley recalls. Daily’s reaction was similar to those of other veterans who were initially reluctant to talk, Hanley says. "But once they had time to think about it, they seemed ready to get it off their chests."
While the 7th Cav veterans were doing their best to forget Nogun-ri, Korean survivors of the massacre were waging a long campaign of remembrance. They wanted the U.S. government to acknowledge what had happened and make restitution.
Commemorating the massacre at Nogun-ri became a particular obsession of Chung Eun-Yong, who came from the same village as many of the victims. A South Korean policeman, Chung hid in the mountains instead of joining the column of refugees for fear he would be killed if captured by the communists. But two of his sons were killed at Nogun-ri, and his wife was severely injured.
At first, it was difficult for Chung to publicly accuse the U.S. Army of committing the massacre. South Korea was run by an authoritarian, pro-American military regime that tolerated little dissent. But in 1960, Chung filed his first compensation request with the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. He got no response. In 1994, after the advent of democracy in South Korea, Chung decided to push the issue more aggressively. He organized many of the survivors into a "Committee for Unveiling the Truth About the Nogun-ri Massacre." Again his petitions got nowhere. In 1997, the U.S. Armed Forces Claims Service formally rejected the demand for compensation, asserting in a letter that there was "no evidence" that "the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division"—of which the 7th Cav was a part—"was in the area where the incident allegedly occurred."
Assisted by church groups and human rights organizations, Chung succeeded in getting some media coverage in South Korea. But without confirmation by American soldiers of the events he described, few people took his campaign seriously.
Over the last few months, prodded by the AP investigation, dozens of former American GIs have confirmed the essential details of the Korean survivors’ accounts. The Pentagon has opened a formal investigation, which is due to be completed by June, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the war. But there is still a huge gulf between the two sides over whether the U.S. government should compensate the survivors and issue a formal apology.
Efforts by church organizations to arrange a "reconciliation" between Nogun-ri survivors and 7th Cav veterans have been only partially successful. "My regiment was a proud regiment and they fought like hell, and they don’t need anybody throwing rocks at them," said Robert "Snuffy" Gray, after a strained meeting with a delegation of Korean survivors in Cleveland in November organized by the National Council of Churches.
The Americans argue that communist forces committed much greater atrocities than any carried out by the U.S. Army. They tortured and murdered American prisoners of war and slaughtered their political opponents. According to U.N. figures, some 25,000 South Korean civilians were killed by the communists. The Pentagon believes that almost 8,000 U.S. military members died while prisoner of the North Koreans or their Chinese allies. Although these outrages received a lot of publicity during the war, they have been overshadowed in recent months by the Nogun-ri revelations.
Few of the 7th Cav veterans believe the Korean survivors are entitled to monetary compensation. Amounts of up to $150,000 have been suggested by the Korean side. "To compensate a country where you lost 40,000 of your own men is nonsense," says Herman Patterson. "Who compensated me? Nobody."
"I don’t think the Koreans deserve any compensation," agrees Kerns. "If I had been killed over there, my parents would have gotten $10,000. Civilians are going to suffer in any war. I haven’t noticed many South Koreans wanting to go and live in North Korea. They got a free country, thanks to us."
Daily, who has gone further than most of his fellow GIs in discussing what happened at Nogun-ri, says he has no opinion either way on the compensation issue. "It is up to the government to work out."
Perhaps the most effective gestures are the personal ones. In November, Daily flew to South Korea, and visited Nogun-ri for the first time since July 1950. He inspected the spot where he set up his machine gun and walked through the underpasses where the refugees huddled for safety. It was a chilly day; the atmosphere inside the tunnels was even chillier. Daily felt strange, he said, as if there were demons around.
Later the former GI met with survivors who challenged him to "tell us why you fired at us." Daily was nervous about encountering people he had left for dead half a century earlier. They sat around in a large circle. On Daily’s immediate left was a woman named Park Sun-Yong, the wife of the South Korean policeman who founded the committee to establish the truth about Nogun-ri. She described a terrible burning sensation in her arm as she was hit by one of the bullets. Daily recalled that every fifth bullet fired from his machine gun had been a tracer bullet—which would produce a sensation similar to the one that Park described. He had to struggle to come to terms with the unsettling idea that he might have fired the bullet himself.
At first, the atmosphere in the room was frigid, with the Koreans barely acknowledging Daily’s handshake. The survivors shook their heads in disbelief when he described how he had seen the flash of muzzle blasts coming from the culverts and assumed that there must be North Korean soldiers hidden among the refugees. But they nodded affirmatively when he conceded that the muzzle blasts could have been ricochets from bullets fired by American soldiers on the other side of the culverts.
By the end of the meeting, the survivors embraced the former machine-gunner with hugs and kisses. And Daily was overwhelmed. "I thought everybody had died under the Nogun-ri bridge," he told them. "Thank God you survived and you can tell your story."