Report: Korean War-Era Massacre Was Policy

A long line of Korean refugees flee Yongdong in this July 26, 1950, file photo.
Six years after declaring the U.S. killing of Korean War refugees at No Gun Ri was "not deliberate," the Army has acknowledged it found but did not divulge that a high-level document said the U.S. military had a policy of shooting approaching civilians in South Korea.

The document, a letter from the U.S. ambassador in South Korea to the State Department in Washington, is dated the day in 1950 when U.S. troops began the No Gun Ri shootings, in which survivors say hundreds, mostly women and children, were killed.

Exclusion of the embassy letter from the Army's 2001 investigative report is the most significant among numerous omissions of documents and testimony pointing to a policy of firing on refugee groups — undisclosed evidence uncovered by Associated Press archival research and Freedom of Information Act requests.

South Korean petitioners say hundreds more refugees died later in 1950 as a result of the U.S. practice. The Seoul government is investigating one such large-scale killing, of refugees stranded on a beach, newly confirmed via U.S. archives.

On Sept. 1, 1950, about 2,000 South Korean refugees had gathered on the Pohang beach, 230 miles southeast of Seoul, after North Korean troops took
over their villages in an August 1950 offensive.

They believed they'd be safe because warships of their U.S. allies were just offshore, said Bang Il-jo, 68.

At 2:08 p.m. the U.S.S. DeHaven received the order from its Shore Fire Control Party to open fire, according to the ship's declassified war diary, found at the National Archives by the South Korean newspaper Busan Ilbo and authenticated by the AP.

The Navy crew questioned the order and was told U.S. Army intelligence said enemy troops were among the refugees and "the army desired that group be fired upon."

Within minutes, the DeHaven's 5-inch guns turned the unsuspecting refugee encampment, backed up against a steep hill, into a scene of carnage.

"The sea was a pool of blood," said Choi Il-chool, 75. "Dead bodies lay all over the place." Witnesses say 100 to 200 civilians were killed in the Navy shelling.

Survivor Choi said his older brother and sister-in-law were killed, his brother's body found with head, arms and legs blown off.

"This place was reddish-colored," Choi said, pointing to the curved gravel beach and wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.

"Some were swept away by waves," said Bang, leader of a survivors' group. He said his wounded father died of loss of blood, and his 7-year-old brother of severe abdominal wounds.

The diary noted 15 rounds fired over 11 minutes. The DeHaven ceased fire after hearing from an air spotter that "personnel consisted almost entirely of old men, women and children," the shipboard report said. Refugees had been desperately waving white undershirts at the plane.

"They knew we were refugees," Bang said. "There were no (North Korean) People's Army soldiers among us. How could they do that to us?"

Survivors speculated that an earlier observer plane may have seen the refugees scrambling under a sudden rain shower and viewed this as suspicious.

Without giving specifics, the ship's diary asserted there were "very light casualties ... due to fire having been directed to scatter and chase personnel."

Survivor Bang said most shells did fall just offshore, but their shrapnel cut through the throngs of refugees at the water's edge. He said the Americans offered no medical aid.

No Gun Ri survivors, who call the Army's 2001 investigation a "whitewash," are demanding a reopened investigation, compensation and a U.S. apology.

Harvard historian Sahr Conway-Lanz first disclosed the existence of Ambassador John H. Muccio's 1950 letter in a scholarly article and a 2006 book, "Collateral Damage." He uncovered the declassified document at the U.S. National Archives.

When asked last year, the Pentagon didn't address the central question of whether U.S. investigators had seen the document before issuing their No Gun Ri report. Ex-Army Secretary Louis Caldera suggested to The Associated Press that Army researchers may have missed it.

After South Korea asked for more information, however, the Pentagon acknowledged to the Seoul government that it examined Muccio's letter in 2000 but dismissed it. It did so because the letter "outlined a proposed policy," not an approved one, Army spokesman Paul Boyce argues in a recent e-mail to the AP.

But Muccio's message to Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk states unambiguously that "decisions made" at a high-level U.S.-South Korean meeting in Taegu, South Korea, on July 25, 1950, included a policy to shoot approaching refugees. The reason: American commanders feared that disguised North Korean enemy troops were infiltrating their lines via refugee groups.

"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," the ambassador told Rusk, cautioning that these shootings might cause "repercussions in the United States." Deliberately attacking noncombatants is a war crime.

Told of the Pentagon's rationale for excluding the Muccio letter from its investigative report, No Gun Ri expert Yi Mahn-yol, retired head of Seoul's National Institute of Korean History, suggested the letter was suppressed because it was "disadvantageous" to the Pentagon's case.

"If they set it aside as nothing significant, we can say that it was an intentional exclusion," he said.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and