How they got the Korean War atrocity story

With a year's worth of digging, a team of stolid AP investigators searched records and interviewed survivors to piece together a horrifying story.

Published September 30, 1999 12:53PM (EDT)

The story that appeared dead center on the front page of Thursday's New York Times was shocking enough. American veterans of the Korean War admitted to a massacre of unarmed civilians at the beginning of that conflict, an act that they had been silent about for almost 50 years.

Nearly as striking was the story's byline: "By the Associated Press." Not the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, all venerable dailies known for their investigative work, but the stolid AP.

Sure, the AP has broken its share of big stories in the past. In recent years it has done stories on child labor and the slaughter of horses in the U.S., both of which prompted Congressional hearings. And in its 150-year history -- it's the world's largest and oldest news organization -- the group has won 45 Pulitzer Prizes, 18 of them for reporting, and two of those for dispatches filed from Korea during the conflict in the '50s. But since the 1960s, almost all of the AP's Pulitzers have been awarded for their photos -- most notably Nick Ut's oft-reproduced picture of an open-armed Vietnamese girl, naked and napalmed, running right into your life; and Sal Veder's 1974 photo of an Air Force officer (and former POW) returning home to his wife and daughters (their arms stretched wide for other reasons).

The story of the bridge near No Gun Ri, where hundreds of civilians were killed over a three-day period in July 1950, has elements of both those photos: Innocent women and children victimized by war and soldiers returning home. And while the story is being told partly in images -- AP's
online Wire
contains videos of both veterans and survivors telling their tales, as well as a three-dimensional IPIX photo of the bridge itself -- it is at root the result of old-fashioned reporting. Digging for evidence. Reconstructing events. Finding eye-witnesses. And listening.

The story was the fruit of a year's work by an AP special-assignment team: Martha Mendoza, Sang Hun Choe, Charles Hanley and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft. Choe, a Korean AP reporter, broke a story in April 1998 about a group of Koreans who'd survived the massacre and had attempted to make claims against both the U.S. military and the government of South Korea. Their claims were ultimately rebuffed, with the Korean courts saying the statute of limitations had expired and the U.S. Army saying it never had happened: We weren't even there.

"So the special assignment team was asked, find out if we were there," Mendoza recalls. "Go to the National Archives and find out if we were there. That should be a relatively simple check. So we went to the National Archives and found not only were we there but there were these orders to fire on civilians, [and to] use discretion with women and children."

They figured they had a story.

Finding the rest of the records was not so easy, though. The Korean conflict is often called "The Forgotten War." From the way the military has kept its accounts of it, they would like to forget it as well. Digging through a jumble of source material, the team kept finding references to the massacre -- but no clear account of what had happened and why. (The survivors claimed the U.S. soldiers were simply convinced that all the Koreans were insurgents and killing them all was their only recourse.) It was the early days of the conflict, the troops on the scene were either very green or burned-out survivors World War II. That and a lack of knowledge of the Koreans -- the people themselves, the very meaning of the conflict -- made the atmosphere ripe for disaster.

"The next step was finding out who," Mendoza says, once they had determined that something had happened that summer. "We decided that U.S. troops were in this area, but who exactly was at this village where these Koreans say this happened? That took me standing in front of 1950 maps with coordinates and mapping with little stickers for which unit was where."

Had she had much experience with topographical maps and coordinates?

"Well, I'm a backpacker," she answers with a laugh.

Working with historians and contemporary accounts, the team determined what units of which companies might have been present. Then, using the Freedom of Information Act, they collected the names of the soldiers in those units. And finally they began to call the soldiers who were still alive, men who were now in their 60s, 70s, even 80s. Mendoza was working at the AP offices in Rockefeller Center then, but she says she always lost her sense of where she was during the interviews.

"I wasn't at all convinced that this had happened; there would be many reasons for people in South Korea to describe something like this," Mendoza says now. "So I would call [U.S. servicemen] and explain to them what I was doing. I would lead into it with, 'Now you must have come into it around these dates and did you see civilians?'

"'Well, yeah, we had to shoot 'em all that time at the tunnel.' There responses were like that. 'Yeah, I hated to kill 'em but we had to annihilate 'em.' So people were right there with me."

Piecing together the accounts, the team was able to pinpoint which companies had done most of the shooting. Their accounts mirrored what the Korean survivors had told them -- so much so that the veterans would correct their imprecise questions to more perfectly match the Korean testimony. "I'd say it was at a tunnel and they'd say, 'Ma'am, we didn't do this at a tunnel, we did it at a culvert underneath a railroad, it was M shaped.'" They would take the maps the survivors had drawn from memory and redraw them, placing the troops and weapons differently. "I sat down with a veteran and said, 'Here's where they said the machine guns were,' and he looked at the map and said, 'No, no,' and put an X somewhere else on the map and said, 'Here's where my machine gun was. And I was on it with these two other guys; they're dead now.'"

If doing this reporting, listening to these stories, was an emotional experience for Mendoza and her fellow reporters, it was wrenching for the men she spoke with. Their reactions ran the gamut from guilt to denial to relief. One veteran told her, "Do you realize that I've been a cripple for 50 years? I went to Korea, I got shot and I spent my whole life crippled and you're asking me about shooting civilians. How dare you?"

"And I think that's a very valid attitude to have," she says. "What were they doing fighting over there and spending their lives like this, and not getting compensated themselves? And there were people who said, 'This is my redemption.' It was a religious experience for them to have us call out of the blue and ask them about it."

Most shocking of all, most of these men had never spoken about the massacre to anyone -- not their war buddies, their wives, their families, no one. When interviewing veterans in person, their families would often tell her afterwards that not only had dad never mentioned No Gun Ri, he had never spoken about the Korean War at all.

Why no other newspaper or news agency pursued this story with the vigor the AP did is something she will not speculate on. "This is one of many stories," she says. It's 50 years old and it took a lot of work. There's not a report sitting in the National Archives we were able to find about this. It took reconstructing troop movements. It took finding them and talking to them. And listening to them."

Mendoza's beat now is Silicon Alley, where the stories she breaks have to do with Intel and Apple. She's pleased that AP could uncover this story and that the Internet exists to present the evidence, to allow an individual reader to look at the documents she culled and look at the faces of the people who lived this horror. And the press of the 1950s, she likes to point out, had pressures of a different sort. Contemporary accounts referred to rumors of a massacre, including reports in Colliers and the New York Times. But such stories were quickly supplanted by more gung-ho dispatches about the military and the headway it was making in the conflict, as the McCarthy hearings began to question anyone who questioned our engagement with the Red Menace.

Even the My Lai massacre, which was reported (again, after repeated military denials) a year after it occurred in 1968, did not move the veterans of No Run Gi to speak. Many justified their actions, and still do, as part of war's exacting price.

At the time the My Lai story broke, she recalls, "There was a report from a Korean war general who said, 'I don't what the big deal is with My Lai. This is the kind of thing that happens all the time in war.' And these veterans certainly seem to feel that way. I don't know how long it's going to be news in our country, and obviously it still is, but war is absolutely horrendous for the people out there."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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