Many ask: What really happened at Nogun-ri?

By Charles J. Hanley & Martha Mendoza

The Associated Press

Central Maine Newspapers 10-3-99



Old soldiers have spoken out after a half-century, corroborating the Korean accounts of refugee killings at Nogun-ri.  But for U.S. Army investigators, many questions still hang in the air over the South Korean killing field—and in the corridors of the Pentagon itself. 

    What American officer gave the ultimate order to fire on the people packed beneath the Nogun-ri railroad bridge?  Did the hundreds of civilians pose any threat?  How high in the ranks did knowledge of Nogun-ri extend? 

    The Army investigation announced Thursday will seek more detail from veterans about those harrowing hours early in the Korean War.  But there’s one question that only the Pentagon itself can answer:  Why didn’t it uncover the basic facts of Nogun-ri before? 

    After months of research and interviews, The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a dozen ex-GIs, supporting Korean survivors’ accounts, said their battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment machine-gunned a large number of civilians at the hamlet of Nogun-ri in late July 1950.  The Koreans say 400 South Korean refugees were killed at the bridge and in a preceding air attack. 

    The U.S. troops, in only their third day at the warfront, feared enemy North Korean soldiers were hidden among the refugees as they fled south with retreating U.S. and South Korean forces. 

    Several 7th Cavalry veterans told the AP their company commander, Capt. Melbourne Chandler, issued an on-scene order to "eliminate" the refugees.  But they believe he discussed it with battalion headquarters by radio.  One veteran said he was told a battalion-level officer issued the order.  But was it cleared even higher—with the regiment, with the 1st Cavalry Division? 

    Chandler died in 1970.  Other battalion officers were killed in the war.  And investigators may learn little from the colonel who commanded the battalion, Herbert, Heyer, now 88 and ailing.  He told the AP he didn’t know about the killings. 

    Whoever ordered the refugees shot probably felt authorized by blanket "kill" orders passed down the chain of command. 

    In the 1st Cavalry Division, standing orders told troops to fire on anyone, including refugees, trying to cross their lines.  In a neighboring division, a general ordered that civilians be considered "enemy."  Military lawyers today call such orders patently illegal.