The Bridge at No Gun Ri

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The squat, twin-arched concrete bridge at No Gun Ri was built to span a small creek. But for a terrifying three days in late July 1950, it spanned a killing field. Last week the Pentagon was stunned by an Associated Press report, backed up by eyewitness accounts, that a frightened U.S. Army unit had killed as many as 300 civilians at No Gun Ri in the opening weeks of the Korean War. Such a bloodbath would rank as the century's second deadliest committed by U.S. troops, trailing only the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, where G.I.s killed up to 500 noncombatants.

Behind North Korea's move to push its sea frontier south
Accounts of what happened at No Gun Ri, a hamlet some 160 k southeast of Seoul, are hazy and conflicting. But taken together, they paint a picture of panic, fear, vague military orders and, finally, individual G.I.s struggling with the dictates of conscience. The Koreans under the bridge were part of a wave fleeing the North Korean army as it plunged southward in a month-old invasion of the South. North Korean infiltrators in civilian garb had been slipping through U.S. lines, guiding in artillery strikes and sniping at the retreating Americans. Days earlier, units of the 1st Cavalry Division had issued a chilling order. No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines, it said. Use discretion in case of women and children.

G.I.s say a throng--including many women, children and old men--had sought protection under the No Gun Ri bridge from an earlier, perhaps errant, U.S. air raid. They had been pinned down for three days. U.S. forces at the bridge came under repeated enemy attack. The G.I.s regularly fired bursts over the heads of the cowering civilians. But then we were ordered to kill them all, Edward Daily of Clarksville, Tenn., then a corporal in the 7th Cavalry Regiment's 2nd Battalion, told Time. So I lowered the barrel and kept firing.

Some veterans say the killing started on an order from their commander, Captain Melbourne Chandler (now dead), who was acting on radioed orders from headquarters. We were ordered to shoot and kill anything because a lot of them were North Koreans who might set up machine guns in rice paddies and shoot at us, says Delos Flint of Clio, Mich., then a private. Other members of the battalion say they fired in response to muzzle flashes from the darkened arches late on July 26.

Regardless of how it began, all of a sudden, machine guns started firing into the crowd of people under the bridge, recalls George Preece of Dunnville, Ky., then a sergeant, who manned a machine gun on the railroad tracks at one end of the span. Several former soldiers said the firing continued unabated for 30 min. They were hugging the concrete floor, and I could hear screams--of pain and horror--coming from women and children, Daily says. James Kerns of Piedmont, S.C., then a sergeant, was firing another machine gun, and says he deliberately aimed to miss. The 30-ft. arches of the bridge left plenty of room for that. I'm positive I never hit anybody, Kerns says. Flint estimates that half the troops near him fired on the civilians, and half--including himself--refused. I couldn't see killing kids, he says, even if they were infiltrators.

The true death count remains uncertain. There were at least a couple of hundred lying in there, says Daily, who noted he was 140 m away. But Kerns says he saw only eight to 10 bodies from 45 m away. The Koreans say 300 died in the attack, along with 100 killed earlier by U.S. warplanes.

How was such an atrocity possible? Experts cite an absence of discipline and experience among the Americans, who had been badly shocked by the North Korean assault. The first U.S. units into Korea were not much more than a mob in uniform, says Bernard Trainor, a military scholar and retired three-star Marine general who fought there. They'd frighten quickly, and when they'd come under fire, they'd panic. But there was far more terror under the arches. It was the worst hell that I could imagine, says Park Sun Yong, who was 23 at the time. The creek ran red with blood. Park's two-year-old daughter and five-year-old son were shot dead; she was wounded. I can never forget that, she told Time last week. Never.

Now it's the Pentagon's turn to remember. The A.P. revelations have sparked a U.S. military investigation that could last at least a year. In the end it might provide some measure of justice, if little solace, for some 30 survivors and families of the victims, Park among them. The group has been pressing a claim for compensation for years, only to be spurned by Seoul and Washington after cursory reviews. The new testimony by G.I.s who admit pulling the triggers may change things for them. But it will not change the infamy of the event, if the accusations are proved to be true.