In September 1999, Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered the Army to begin a new and thorough review of reports that American soldiers killed Korean civilians at the beginning of the Korean War. The South Korea government also announced that it would start its own investigation, and that it would ask the United States for declassified military documents. According to the Associated Press, a dozen American veterans confirmed accusations by Korean villagers that in July 1950, hundreds of refugees were killed by American gunfire under a bridge near No Gun Ri in South Korea. No Gun Ri was located a couple of miles down the road from the county seat of Yongdong in a remote and mountainous region where a strong communist force emerged following World War II.


Clesson Richards was an American doctor who worked in Yongdong just prior to the Korean War between 1947 to 1950. Richards said that "guerrilla warfare was around us all the time. We had many Commies as patients." He said that the police would "keep an eye on them (and) grill them and when they had all possible information, take them out and stand them before a firing squad. This wall was near the hospital. We could hear the men being shot."


In the early stage of the Korean War in 1950, American troops were defeated at Taejon. They retreated southward to Yongdong and occupied the surrounding area including No Gun Ri. Since the massacre the official American policy was to deny that any massacres of civilians occurred at any point in this three year war. In fact American policy was to blame North Korea for a large number of atrocities during the war.


Thirty South Korean survivors and relatives of the victims filed a suit asking for compensation for the incident in 1997. However, the United States government rejected the accusations, stating that it found "no information that substantiates the claim." The official position was that the Army's First Cavalry Division was not even in that area. And the main stream American media -- including the Washington Post, simply dismissed the massacre as an unfortunate incident which involved untrained soldiers.


But according to Clay Blair, author of The Forgotten War, declassified Army records cited a three day period of killing during which American planes strafed hundreds of refugees who were fleeing from North Korean troops and leaving about 100 people dead. The declassified Army documents showed that American commanders issued standing orders to shoot civilians along the war front to guard against North Korean soldiers disguised in the white clothes of Korean peasants. Military lawyers called those orders illegal.


The Korean survivors fled under the bridge where they said they were pinned by American troops who shot and killed almost all the refugees. One week before the No Gun Ri village incident, ten witnesses who spoke to a North Korean Army detachment that arrived there on July 20 said that American troops herded some 2,000 civilians into the mountains near Yongdong and then slaughtered them. Most were killed by American planes, and also there were accounts that several women were raped before being shot.


In 1999, former American soldiers, who were at No Gun Ri during the alleged massacre, said they had been ordered to fire on the refugees because their commanders believed that North Korean troops were disguised as peasants who infiltrated the refugee column. Some of the former Army troops claimed that they had been shot at by some of the "refugees."


In another incident at No Gun Ri, former American GIs and Koreans testified that an American general and other officers ordered the destruction of two strategic bridges six weeks into the war. These reports were corroborated by official documents. While South Korean refugees walked across a bridge, hundreds of civilians were killed when it was detonated. This was first reported by the Associated Press on September 29, approximately three months after the incident. This was first mentioned in an official Army document 10 years later in 1960.


Company A, 14th Engineers spent two days to set 7,000 pounds of explosives on the steel-girder bridge. The veterans said they don't know who gave the detonation order at Tuksong-dong. The operation was noted in the 14th Engineers report with: "Results, excellent." Four 1st Cavalry Division veterans said that on the day before the bridge was blown up, they were among several dozen soldiers retreating toward the Naktong and being trailed by perhaps 80 white-clad Koreans. They claimed that five North Korean soldiers were disguised in white clothing and that they opened fire but were quickly killed. But another veteran, Eugene Hesselman, refuted that claim and said that the intruders surrendered and were led away. Hesselman said that "we got orders to eliminate them (the refugees). And we mowed them all down. The Army wouldn't take chances." He and veteran Robert G. Russell said that they found about 10 disguised North Korean soldiers among the dead.


In October 1999, Pentagon officials considered an unprecedented blanket immunity for all the former Americans soldiers connected to the No Gun Ri massacre. They claimed that this would help the government assemble the facts. However, more importantly, it would prevent the veterans from being punished. And it would send the message to other countries that the United States would be unwilling to investigate alleged misconduct by Americans elsewhere.


In November 1999, an outside panel was formed to advise the American military in its investigation of No Gun Ri. Members of the panel included former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey of California and retired Army Colonel Young O. Kim, an American battalion commander in Korea during the war.


In mid-2000, Army investigators published an Air Force document which stated that American pilots fired on columns of fleeing South Korean civilians at No Gun Ri. In the July 25, 1950 memo, Air Force Colonel Turner C. Rogers, vice commander of the 5th Air Force, said the Army had requested the strafing because North Korean soldiers in civilian clothing were mingling with refugees and then attacking American troops once they penetrated the American lines. According to the New York Times (June 7, 2000), the memo read in part, "The Army has requested that we strafe all civilian refugee parties."


Though the Air Force memo said American pilots had begun to strafe, it appeared that Colonel Rogers was unhappy with the order and was seeking a change in policy from his superior. He was quoted in the memo as saying that the "operations involving the strafing of civilians (are) sure to receive wide publicity and may cause embarrassment to the United States Air Force and to the U.S. government in its relations with the United Nations." Rogers added, "It is not understood why the Army is not screening such personnel or shooting them as they come through, if they desire such action." Appearing to oppose the attack on No Gun Ri, he said that Air Force planes had "more suitable" targets. "For the protection of the Air Force it is recommended that a policy be established whereby 5th Air Force aircraft will not attack civilian refugees, unless they are definitely known to contain North Korean soldiers or commit hostile acts. It is further recommended that we so inform 8th Army headquarters."


Over a year after allegations were made, American and South Korean negotiators reached a "mutual understanding" that American soldiers killed South Korean civilian refugees at No Gun Ri. The talks ended in December 2000 with no publicly announced result. The South Korean parliament approved a resolution calling for a quick resolution of the issue. Reflecting South Korean frustration at the length of the United States probe, the resolution stated, "The U.S. government is buried in investigating unessential and peripheral issues, raising questions over whether it has the will to resolve the incident." According to the New York Times (December 10, 2000), there was insufficient evidence to conclude whether the soldiers acted on direct orders from superiors.


Chung Koo-do, spokesman of the committee representing South Korean survivors and victims' families, said his group strongly rejected the negotiators' conclusion. "We condemn a U.S. attempt to whitewash the investigation. We also denounce the South Korean government for abetting such a sinister attempt. If the Americans make the reported conclusion their final conclusion, they will face serious resistance from survivors and many other South Koreans as well as accusations that they distorted the findings of the investigation."


It was no surprise when the Army officially acknowledged that American soldiers shot and killed at No Gun Ri. But officials said that the deaths were a result of confusion and even fear and were not deliberate. The investigation by the Army inspector general concluded that it was impossible to determine how many Koreans were killed at No Gun Ri despite South Korean records that report 248 civilians killed, wounded, or missing.


The Army study described how American soldiers fired on Korean civilians in July 1950, although sometimes over their heads or at the ground. But the study rejected the contention that the soldiers were under orders to kill civilians, and instead ascribed the shootings to the confusion of combat and the poor training of the soldiers who had been rushed to the Korean battlefield from occupation duty in Japan.


President Clinton offered his regrets for the deaths of the Koreans, who were shot after fleeing the advance of the North Korean Army, but his statement fell short of the apology many Koreans have demanded. He said, "To those Koreans who lost loved ones at No Gun Ri, I offer my condolences. Many Americans have experienced the anguish of innocent casualties of war." (New York Times, January 12, 2001)


The "Statement of Mutual Understanding Between the United States and the Republic of Korea on the No Gun Ri Investigations" read in part:


"In the early period of the conflict, many of the U.S. soldiers deployed to Korea were young, undertrained, underequipped, and new to combat. Units operating in the vicinity of No Gun Ri were under the command and control of leaders with limited proven experience in combat. They were unprepared for the weapons and tactics of the North Korea forces that they would face and the speed of the North Korean advance.


"U.S. soldiers were legitimately fearful of the possible infiltration of North Korean soldiers who routinely entered American lines in groups disguised as civilians in refugee columns and then attacked American positions from the rear.


"The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, shortly after arriving in the Yongdong area, conducted a disorganized and undisciplined retreat toward the vicinity of No Gun Ri during the night of July 25/26, 1950. The retreat occurred as a result of several factors including: a mistaken belief of an imminent enemy breakthrough due to the emergence of the enemy, the possibility of encountering North Korean tanks and the awareness of North Korean infiltration tactics. The organization, disoriented and in disarray, reorganized in the vicinity of No Gun Ri throughout the day on the 26th. The unit completed its consolidation and reorganization in the vicinity of No Gun Ri by the early morning of the 27th of July, when it reported its position.


"Some U.S. and Korean witness statements say that Korean refugees came in contact with U.S. forces in the vicinity of No Gun Ri as they both moved east. As they moved from Yongdong toward Hwanggan, the refugees passed from the road to the railroad tracks. Some U.S. veterans and Korean witnesses recalled that U.S. forces directed refugees to the railroad tracks, conducted searches for infiltrators, weapons and other contraband. Other veterans and Korean witnesses had no recollection of searches being conducted.


"U.S. ground forces fired toward refugees in the vicinity of No Gun Ri during this period. At some time between July 26 and 29, 1950, some U.S. soldiers fired toward the refugees who were at various locations including inside the double overpass. They did so either to control the refugees' movements or because they believed that they had received small- arms fire from those locations. As a result, an unknown number of refugees were killed or injured.


"All the veterans interviewed by the U.S. Army who fired at refugees stated that they did not receive any order to fire. Some other veterans, however, stated that they believed that such an order must have been given. While a comprehensive search of records and these veterans interviews did not disclose any evidence of the issuance of such an order, some other veterans, who themselves did not fire at refugees, assumed that there must have been an order to fire on refugees because they observed small arms, machine guns, mortar and artillery fire at refugees.


"The message log of the 8th Cavalry Regiment contains an entry of message from a regimental liaison officer on 24 July 1950 about guidelines on shooting refugees to prevent them passing through U.S. front lines. But, whether an order to fire was made could not be determined because records of other regiments do not show such guidelines and thus discrepancy among interview accounts exists."