Haditha Incident Renews Interest in No Gun Ri

With the ongoing investigations of the Haditha killings and other examples of possible civilian deaths attributed to American soldiers, we take a look at a past incident — the killing of hundreds of North Korean refugees during the Korean War in No Gun Ri, South Korea. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The stalled political negotiations and continuing violence in Iraq comes against a backdrop of accusations and investigations that American military personnel have killed Iraqi civilians and that attempts have been made to cover up the killings.

The claims and investigations have stirred memories for many Americans of the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. In that incident, 26 American soldiers were accused of killing more than 300 Vietnamese civilians.

Following an investigation and trial, one of the officers involved, Lt. William Calley, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the massacre. Calley was released from prison in 1974, after serving three years of his life sentence.

During the Korean War, American soldiers also were accused of killing civilians in an incident that has come to be known as No Gun Ri. Martha Mendoza is a reporter for the Associated Press and co-author of the book, The Bridge at No Gun Ri. She spoke with us earlier this weekend from her office in Santa Cruz, California, and she told us about what happened at No Gun Ri.

Ms. MARTHA MENDOZA (Associated Press): It was late July, 1950, a really desperate time of the war. U.S. troops killed a large number of South Korean refugees, many of them women and children, who were trapped beneath a bridge at this place called No Gun Ri.

In interviews with the Associated Press, these ex-GIs spoke of 100, 200 or simply hundreds dead. The Korean survivors say 300 were shot to death at the bridge and that another 100 were killed in a preceding air strike.

HANSEN: Now how did all this come to the public's attention?

Ms. MENDOZA: The South Koreans had been trying for years to have this incident, and others, recognized. They had brought petitions to the U.S. government, and in the mid-'90s, the U.S. government gave them a response, which said that it didn't happen and that U.S. troops were not in the region.

Around that time a South Korean AP reporter heard about this and began working on it. And in the United States we began working on it as well. We interviewed more than 130 veterans. We spent weeks and weeks and weeks at the National Archives. And in the end, we were able to document this with interviews from GIs who were there, with survivors of this incident in South Korea who were there, and although there wasn't, we didn't find the document that points to this particular incident, we did find many documents describing such instances across the warfront.

And this past week, my colleague Charlie Hanley and I reported on the letter from the U.S. Ambassador to Seoul informing the State Department that American soldiers would shoot refugees approaching their lines. And this letter, that we just reported last week, is the strongest indication yet that such a policy existed for all U.S. forces in Korea. And it's the first evidence that that policy was known to upper ranks of the U.S. government.

HANSEN: The policy to kill refugees coming across the border?

Ms. MENDOZA: Coming across the lines, yes.

HANSEN: Um-hmm.

Ms. MENDOZA: And what this letter said was, if refugees do appear from north of U.S. lines they will receive warning shots. And if they then persist in advancing, they will be shot.

HANSEN: Was there a reason for that, why refugees would be a target?

Ms. MENDOZA: Well, there was a concern among the upper echelons of the U.S. military that there was North Koreans hiding and disguising themselves in among the South Koreans, and then getting behind their lines. So that was the reason they gave for this.

HANSEN: Hmm.

Ms. MENDOZA: They also were tremendously in the way. They were refugees who were blocking the roads as the U.S. troops were tying to get through.

HANSEN: Was the fact that North Korean soldiers were within these groups of refugees, was that ever confirmed?

Ms. MENDOZA: You know, at certain times in the war, yes, it was definitely confirmed. In this instance, it certainly has not been confirmed. There was a general lack of coordination and organization in the military at the time, and there was a lot of fear among the soldiers.

One soldier who was at No Gun Ri, who was there, said that he - an officer told him, the hell with all those people, let's get rid of them all. And he said they had been in Korea for only a couple of days. He said he and his fellow soldiers didn't know them from a load of coal.

HANSEN: What happened to the soldiers? What was the outcome?

Ms. MENDOZA: Well, in No Gun Ri - this didn't come to light for 50 years and that was when we reported on it - they were interviewed by the Pentagon and the Pentagon did in fact confirm that this incident had occurred. They were not punished in any way. But these men who told us these stories, in my mind, are men of great conscience who were going to come forward and tell these stories.

And they all had a similar situation in that 50 years later they were still suffering. They were deeply and vividly troubled by their involvement in this. One soldier who was there told me, you've got to pay for your deeds sooner or later. You know, he said, his conscience suffers all the time. Others simply couldn't sleep, in their 60s and 70s.

HANSEN: Given that there was a letter that just came out this past week, will there be a continuing investigation into this?

Ms. MENDOZA: Well, the South Korean government is certainly calling for one. There's been no response to that from the United States government.

HANSEN: Martha Mendoza is a reporter for the Associated Press in Santa Cruz, California. She and co-authors Charles J. Hanley and Sang-Hun Choe received a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for their book, The Bridge at No Gun Ri. Martha, thank you very much.

Ms. MENDOZA: You're welcome. It was my pleasure.

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