What really happened at No Gun Ri?

An Army major says the Associated Press' Pulitzer-winning story of American soldiers massacring Korean civilians is grossly exaggerated and dishonest.

Published June 3, 2002 6:15PM (EDT)

A few months before Robert Bateman's book "No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident" came out, his editor at Stackpole Books, Col. Edward Skender, received an incendiary letter from Charles Hanley. Hanley was the senior Associated Press writer on the Pulitzer Prize-winning story detailing an apparent massacre of hundreds of South Korean civilians in the early weeks of the Korean War. Hanley maintained in that letter, and in later voice and e-mail conversations with me, that Bateman's book, which criticizes the AP's coverage of the incident, was -- among other over-the-top pronouncements -- "a fairy tale," "a rape of the truth" and an "atrocity."

Bateman, an active-duty Army major who taught history at West Point and is currently on a yearlong fellowship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that the original September 1999 AP article and the AP team's later book on the incident were exaggerated and sensationalistic, more concerned with engaging the reader's emotions and advocating for the Korean victims than telling an honest story. Although Hanley was far more vitriolic and intemperate about Bateman in his conversations with me, each man sincerely believes the other to be, for whatever reasons, deliberately purveying falsehoods.

There is only one thing that the two books agree on: Some number of South Korean civilian refugees were killed by confused, exhausted and jittery American troops of the 7th Cavalry near the village of No Gun Ri, South Korea, between July 26 and July 29, 1950. But Bateman says the number of civilians killed at and near the bridge was probably somewhere around 35, while Hanley and his team reported witness estimates of a death toll exceeding 350. The refugees were fleeing advancing North Korean troops along a railway track toward the bridge, where American troops were dug in.

Hanley heard about Bateman's book when someone forwarded part of an early draft to him after Bateman offered it to some members of the military community for their comments before publication. Some veterans were "disgusted," Hanley wrote in his letter to Skender, and they felt that Bateman's book was an "immature, sneering, unprofessional approach" to the incident. Other veterans disagree. Bateman's book boasts a foreword from retired Gen. Harold E. Moore, whose exploits with the 7th Cavalry in Vietnam were recently featured in the movie "We Were Soldiers."

Despite this disagreement among veterans of the 7th Cavalry about the value of Bateman's book, Hanley warned the Stackpole editor that publishing the book would besmirch Stackpole's reputation and perhaps even expose the publisher to legal action. But, Hanley told me later, contrary to the implications of a San Francisco Chronicle story about his letter, "I wasn't denying anyone's 'right' to publish; I was interested in a publisher's responsibility to the truth."

Batemen and Hanley disagree on three central aspects of the No Gun Ri story: the credibility of the witnesses for the AP version (particularly in the original article), the evidence that U.S. aircraft and troops were ordered to fire on the Korean civilians as the Koreans were fleeing along the railroad tracks toward the bridge, and the reliability of the AP witnesses' estimates that over 350 civilians were killed.

Bateman spends more than a few pages in "No Gun Ri" outlining his interactions with Hanley regarding the credibility of Edward Daily, one of the star witnesses in the original AP story. Daily, whose specific and emotional testimony the AP team later disavowed in their book "The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War," was not anywhere near the infamous railroad trestle on the day of the incident, and certainly could not have been one of the two machine gunners at the bridge, as he originally claimed. In fact, Daily was an ordnance mechanic during his military service, didn't join the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry until 1951, and probably never saw a day of actual combat while he was in Korea. He recently pled guilty to defrauding the U.S. government of over $300,000 in veterans' disability benefits for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bateman argues that Hanley and the other AP reporters gave preferential credibility and prominence in their original story to veterans who made the most "quoteworthy" statements and allegations, and that when doubts began to arise about Daily, they tenaciously refused to acknowledge them. The AP team received Daily's official record in December 1999, almost a month before the AP's story was submitted for the Pulitzer Prize in January 2000. In his book, Bateman offers two March 2000 e-mails he received from Hanley to show that even then Hanley maintained his belief in Daily's story on the basis of flimsy evidence provided by Daily himself. Two weeks later, the AP story won the Pulitzer.

Hanley feels that the questions raised by Daily's record did not -- and still don't -- significantly undermine the story. "Three months after we published [the original story]," he wrote to me, "we learned of the discrepancy in Daily's record: despite our inquiries it remained an unresolved discrepancy for us and the Pentagon investigators, like many other discrepancies in the personnel records and documents, until long after No Gun Ri was submitted for and awarded a Pulitzer."

In his March correspondence with Hanley, Bateman outlined several reasons for questioning Daily's story, such as the extremely unlikely placement of Daily's supposed machine gun, and the fact that he could find no evidence whatsoever of Daily's presence in any of the documents he was examining for his book. These were documents that the AP team could have examined themselves to corroborate Daily's story, but they apparently didn't -- even after they had received Daily's official record and doubts about his veracity had been raised -- until Bateman brought the discrepancies to their attention.

Hanley claims now that Daily is entirely unimportant. He was, Hanley says, neither the first nor the only 7th Cavalry veteran to acknowledge the truth of the AP story about the No Gun Ri incident. Bateman's book, Hanley says, "perpetuates a pointless obsession" with Daily. "He is totally irrelevant against a background of more than 60 American and Korean witnesses."

Bateman argues that Daily remains a significant figure in the debate over what really happened at No Gun Ri because of his influence over the other witnesses. He suspects Daily of inducing wholesale "source contamination" among the other veterans the AP interviewed. Bateman believes that Daily, as an intensely social and prominent member of the 7th Cavalry regimental association, successfully "planted" inaccurate memories of No Gun Ri -- including memories of Daily himself being there. When confronted with the fact that Daily could not have been at No Gun Ri, one of the AP's other notable witnesses, Eugene Hesselman, repeated over and over again, "I know that Daily was there. I know that. I know that."

Hanley counters that many of the veterans the AP contacted were isolated from the 7th Cavalry community over the intervening years, and some of them, like Pfc. Delos Flint -- another veteran whose story Bateman attempts to impeach in his book -- came up with "spontaneous, emotional and isolated recollections" when they were initially contacted. (Bateman in turn argues that Flint could not have been present at No Gun Ri, a claim he bases on a minor difference between two military records made during days that he himself admits were administratively chaotic.)

How and why the shooting started remains a subject of fierce debate. The AP book suggests that someone on the scene gave a direct order to the American soldiers to shoot at the refugees, but the evidence it offers is weak. On the other hand, Bateman's claim that the melee was set off by gunfire coming from the refugees' side is equally unconvincing. Both assertions rely heavily on the conflicting or uncertain testimony of a few soldiers who can be reliably placed at the scene. Both books quote witnesses who report that the Americans' shooting was a spontaneous response to gunfire that came from within the group of refugees, although Hanley's team downplays that possibility.

Bateman states (with a troubling air of absolute certainty) that there were armed communist guerillas or North Korean infiltrators among the civilian crowd. He claims that the entire No Gun Ri area was a known hotbed of Communist activity, and that the Americans had captured both a Japanese rifle and a Russian submachine gun from the area, citing records from the headquarters supply section acknowledging their receipt.

But, Hanley noted in his conversation with me, there is no record at all of where, when, how or from whom the guns were acquired or even which regiment they came from. Another document records the capture of two enemy fighters in the division's area of operations who might have been carrying those weapons. Regardless, it also seems unlikely that armed men within a crowd of several hundred civilians would have fired upon a line of entrenched American forces, knowing the overwhelming response it was likely to draw.

In any case, says Martha Mendoza, another of the AP reporters on the No Gun Ri story, even if shots had been directed at the American troops from somewhere near or inside the group of civilians -- if, say, guerrilla combatants had been deliberately using the people as a human shield -- shooting indiscriminately into the crowd of refugees was still criminal.

Establishing whether the refugees were deliberately attacked from the air and how many died are other thorny problems. Aerial reconnaissance photographs taken Aug. 6, 1950, about a week after the Americans pulled out on their retreat toward the Naktong River, provide significant evidence. One shows signs of recent strafing along two points of the railroad tracks, probably made by aircraft in two separate runs along the same flight path. The photograph also shows what may be signs of mortar explosions closer to the No Gun Ri bridge.

Bateman concedes that American troops dug in near the bridge fired mortar rounds that landed among the refugees fleeing along the tracks, but he says that this was a tragic error ("the initial call for fire from the mortars was perhaps the dumbest possible action that could have been taken"), not a deliberate act of murder. And although veteran witnesses note that someone did give orders to fire warning gunfire over the panicked civilians' heads to prevent them from passing American positions, there was, Bateman insists, no explicit order from any of the officers of the unit to actually shoot at the civilians.

The recent strafing visible in the Aug. 6 photograph could have taken place when the North Korean army passed through the area in pursuit of the retreating Americans. But it also accords with the testimony of the Korean victims, who claim they were strafed and "bombed" while they were walking along the railroad tracks. However, the 7th Cavalry had no ability to "call in" a deliberate strafing run against the refugees, as some allege, since their radios were incompatible with those used by the Air Force.

Bateman, in his book, credibly notes that the relatively brief strafing runs were unlikely to have killed 100 civilians, as some of the American and Korean witnesses claim. But he is wrong when he states that the strafing aircraft would not have made the runs at low altitude because "there was no report of ground fire in the area." If there was little danger from ground fire, a very low altitude strafing run -- and, almost by definition, a more deadly one -- was more likely.

Virtually all the witnesses acknowledge that the 7th Cavalry fired mortars at the refugees (the exploding rounds were probably thought by many of the civilians -- or conflated in memory later -- as having come from the aircraft). Bateman claims that the mortars were only meant to scare the refugees and prevent them from advancing further toward the American lines. Perhaps because the refugees were suddenly running toward the Americans, away from the strafing, or because of a delay in aiming and firing the rounds (Bateman's theory) they didn't land in front of the refugees but among them.

It's clear that the Americans felt it necessary at that point in the conflict to put a stop to the refugees' movements. In some cases during the Korean War, the policy against refugee movement across American lines was explicit. One of the 7th Cavalry's "sister" units in the No Gun Ri area, for example, received a telephoned instruction relayed on June 24 by a regimental liaison at the division's headquarters: "No refugees to cross front line. Fire everyone trying to cross line. Use discretion in case of women and children."

This order, Bateman notes, is not recorded in any of the other regiments' existing message logs, or in the division log itself. But it is impossible to say if the same sort of message reached the 7th Cavalry because -- significantly, the AP reporters say -- the unit log of the 7th Cavalry for this crucial period is missing. Even if no one can find any documentary evidence that any such order was given to the 7th Cavalry, numerous documents on the Web site for the AP reporters' book show that the deliberate targeting of refugees was almost standard operating procedure in the early days of the conflict.

Then there's the grisly question of the disputed body count. The most significant finding of the analysis of the Aug. 6 aerial reconnaissance photos is that the bodies that were supposed to be lying around in the open until approximately Aug. 10 -- according to one of the Korean villagers who returned to the site -- are nowhere to be seen. Nor was there any evidence in the photos of soil excavation, funeral pyres or mass graves. Even most of the abandoned American foxholes in the immediate area, which might have served as expedient graves, were still open to the sky.

This finding was so troubling to Korean government investigators when they were shown the photographs during the joint Korean-American investigation prompted by the AP story that they essentially accused the U.S. government of having forwarded bogus images. Hanley, too, in an e-mail, noted that the South Korean technicians "suggested to [Sang-Hun Choe, the South Korean reporter on the AP story] the photos were tampered with." Understandably, the U.S. government categorically repudiated that suggestion.

When I asked Hanley about the fact that the National Imagery and Mapping Agency's examination of the photos did not find any bodies lying around in the open, he told me that the bodies weren't out in the open by that point, because the No Gun Ri villagers had found the burial job facing them too overwhelming. Instead, he says, they opted to temporarily stack the dozens of bodies in the tunnels formed by the concrete trestles of the bridge and cover them there with a layer of soil. Most of the individual burials did not take place until much later, and some of the bodies remained under the bridge "through the winter."

When I told Bateman about this theory regarding the lack of bodies out in the open, he scoffed. If 100 or 200 people had been killed under the bridge, he said, there would be literally tons of human remains to cover. Even covering them shallowly would take a lot of soil, and that soil would have to have been dug from somewhere near the bridges, excavations which would have appeared in the photos. Covering 200 corpses within the confines of the tunnel space would be like covering half a dozen Volkswagens. "Don't you think they would stick out just a little?" he asked me. "That photo, taken at a mild slant angle, shows 10 to 20 feet under the bridge but there's nada there. And as for excavations outside the bridge, hell, do you see any large excavation at all?"

I didn't. But something else in the government report on the photographs did catch my eye. The river that flowed under the railway bridge ran toward No Gun Ri, not away from it. It is extremely unlikely that the people of No Gun Ri would have left dozens of bloody, putrefying human bodies in the streambed of a river that led directly past their village. Even a brief flurry of rain in the nearby mountains could have washed the carrion onto their doorsteps.

Hanley dismissed my observations regarding the watercourse as "amateur hydrological analysis," and returned to his theme: the witnesses' testimony -- and the AP reporters' ability to discern the truth from those accounts and their own examinations of the site -- trumped everything, even expert imagery analysis. "You haven't been to the NGR area. We have. Many times. You haven't seen the lay of the land. You haven't talked to the villagers ... I simply don't buy the idea of some unnamed analyst 50 years later, viewing photos based on 50-year-old technology, never having been to the area ... making some judgment about what he saw there."

But the age of the technology is moot, says Bateman, when the photos' resolution is good enough to discern individual railroad ties. And, he says, "if the NIMA, which discovered mass graves in Bosnia from overhead reconnaissance, is not qualified to evaluate [the film], who is? Hanley?"

Never mind the pictures, Hanley said. The photographs and the flow of the river are virtually irrelevant to the question of how many were killed at No Gun Ri: "There are many possible answers, but dismissing the word of honest local villagers who remember bodies stacked under the trestle ... GI after GI remembers bodies stacked under the bridge when they were pulling out! ... and basing that on divining water volume and flow a half-century later, is not an answer."

For his part, Bateman believes that many of the stories the villagers told the AP reporters about coming under deliberate American fire are essentially true, and certainly some civilians did die under that railway bridge on July 26 and during the following days. But he also believes that at least some of the South Koreans' memories refer to other incidents and were conflated with the No Gun Ri incident when a South Korean author gathered them together into a 1994 "novel" that seeded the AP's interest in the event.

"I believe that the accounts of the South Koreans are a collage of several different events that occurred at several different places over the course of a few days," he writes in "No Gun Ri." And in fact, American troops had mistakenly fired on a large group of refugees accompanied by friendly Republic of Korea forces only a day or two earlier, in another nearby area, thinking they were the vanguard of a North Korean advance. The incident at the bridge was a tragedy, Bateman says, but it wasn't the "massacre of war crimes proportions" that most people thought it was after reading the AP team's story.

The argument really shouldn't come down to how many civilians were killed at No Gun Ri, but inevitably it does. Cynically speaking, after 50 years, the AP story would not have been Really Big News, much less warranted the Pulitzer Prize, unless the death toll of the No Gun Ri incident was high enough to qualify it as a "massacre" that was being covered up by the U.S. government.

"The number of dead at No Gun Ri has been -- as was clear in our September '99 journalism -- a secondary matter and a question we knew would never be resolved with precision," Hanley wrote to me while on assignment in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. "The primary matter is the policy within the U.S. high command to officially, in writing, target refugees and other civilians." Bateman's book, Hanley says, "seems aimed at knocking down the casualty estimate to below 100, 'up to 70.' All to what end? Is the killing of 70 somehow more acceptable than the killing of 400? As [Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor] said after the investigation, the numbers are just a matter of degree."

By Judith Greer

Judith Greer is a writer who lives near Charleston, S.C. She is a former Air Force officer and graduate of the University of Southern California's School of International Relations.

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