By Sang-Hun Choe, Charles J. Hanley & Martha Mendoza

Associated Press Writers

Sun Journal, Lewiston, MEOctober 14, 1999



EDITOR’S NOTE – The Associated Press recently reported on the killings of up to 400 South Korean refugees at the hamlet of Nogun-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 Nogun-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. hands. 

    One bridge blowing, with its refugee deaths, was recorded briefly in an official Army chronicle, but not until 10 years after the event.  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 Korean guerrillas.  "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 refugees." 

    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 down river 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 Gautier, Miss. 

    "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 bridge." 



By the Associated Press

October 14, 1999, page A7, Sun Journal, Lewiston, ME


North Korean atrocities made headlines and outraged much of the world during the 1950-53 Korean War.  Some of the first reports, in July 1950, told of captured U.S. soldiers bound and summarily executed by North Korean troops near the battle lines in southeast Korea. 

    In September 1950, U.S. Army units retaking Taejon, South Korea, reported finding the bodies of hundreds of Korean civilians, slaughtered in large groups and hurriedly buried before the North Koreans retreated.  A U.S. Army war crimes report later estimated the Taejon dead at 5,000 to 7,500, including businessmen, police and other government employees, and 42 American prisoners of war.  Many had been severely beaten and mutilated, it said. 

    The North Koreans, for their part, alleged that earlier the southern government had murdered thousands of communist sympathizers around Taejon before the initial South Korean retreat from the city in July 1950.  Official U.S. sources and Western journalists reported such South Korean atrocities during the war.  In one case, two South Korean army officers were sentenced to life in prison in 1951 for leading an army massacre of 187 people in a South Korean village deemed supportive of communist guerillas. 

    The U.S. Army, in November 1951, cited U.N. figures saying 25,575 South Korean civilians were killed during the communist occupation of South Korea.  But the South Korean government later put that toll at 129,000. 

    As for prisoners of war, the Pentagon eventually calculated that almost 8,000 U.S. military personnel were killed or otherwise died while in the hands of the North Koreans or their Chinese allies.