Was There a My Lai in South Korea?

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The first weeks of the Korean War have never been regarded as the finest hour of the ill-prepared U.S. military, but now the record may get darker still. As many as a dozen former G.I.'s have told the Associated Press that U.S. soldiers, acting under orders, deliberately massacred up to 300 South Korean civilians trapped under a bridge at No Gun Ri in July 1950. "The story is corroborated by enough people involved to make it sound credible," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. The Pentagon, which has always denied the charge, said it would be willing to investigate if "compelling new evidence" was produced. "Military records from last week are bad; from 50 years ago they barely exist," says Thompson. "If the official records don’t refer to it, all you have now is the word of these soldiers – and by the varied accounts, plainly whatever happened didn’t involve a whole unit."

Some of soldiers interviewed recall being warned that North Korean guerrillas would infiltrate their lines by hiding among fleeing refugees, and said they were ordered by nervous officers to machine-gun the refugees trapped under the bridge. Others were reluctant to talk, or recalled different versions of events. "The soldiers we had in South Korea at the start of the war were poorly trained, poorly equipped, poorly led and poorly motivated," says Thompson. "And ugly things happen in war, particularly in a situation where green garrison troops are dropped in an alien land with orders to stop a communist onslaught." If the AP report proves true, it would point to a massacre of civilians by U.S. troops on the scale of the notorious My Lai incident in Vietnam in 1968. But unlike My Lai, which was the subject of a trial five years later, No Gun Ri happened almost 50 years ago. "The claims are going to be hard to substantiate or prove one way or the other," says Thompson. "As much as we want clarity, we’ll have to accept murkiness, because that’s all we’re going to get now."