Korean My Lai

Korean My Lai

Repressed memory is the ammunition of history, returning when one least expects it to puncture the complacency of the present.


Repressed memory is the ammunition of history, returning when one least expects it to puncture the complacency of the present. Americans reacted with palpable shock at learning the fate of several hundred Korean civilians, machine-gunned to death by US soldiers in late July 1950 under a bridge near Nogun village. The deeply researched Associated Press account of this massacre made the front pages of major newspapers, leading some of them to run for cover–like the Washington Post, which dismissed the massacre as the unfortunate result of untrained soldiers facing an unknown enemy in the early, chaotic stages of the Korean War. But this was not an isolated incident. The Nogun massacre can help Americans understand what this “forgotten war” was really about. It was a civil and unconventional war that had its origins long before June 1950, and the official repositories of historical truth in Washington and Seoul have been lying about its basic nature for half a century.

Nogun village is located a couple of miles down the road from the county seat of Yongdong in a remote and mountainous region where a strong, indigenous left wing emerged just after Japanese imperialism collapsed in Korea in August 1945. A county people’s committee (a ubiquitous political form at the time) took power from the Japanese and then watched as US civil affairs teams grabbed the reins of government from it that fall. The teams quickly re-employed Koreans who had served in the hated colonial police, as part of the establishment of the US military government that ruled south of the 38th Parallel for the next three years. After two years of political turmoil, guerrilla war emerged in and around Yongdong county, long before the “Korean War” began. According to a US doctor, Clesson Richards, who ran a Salvation Army hospital in Yongdong from 1947 to 1950, “Guerrilla warfare was around us all the time. We had many Commies as patients.” The police would “keep an eye on them,” he blithely told a reporter, “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.”

Shortly after US troops joined the battle in 1950, the 24th Infantry Division suffered a “ghastly” defeat at Taejon, “one of the greatest ordeals in Army history,” according to military historian Clay Blair. As backpedaling US forces tumbled southward from Taejon, they soon arrived in Yongdong. North Korean sources said it had been “liberated” by local guerrillas, something corroborated by the New York Times‘s Walter Sullivan, who reported that some 300 guerrillas in and around Yongdong harassed the retreating Americans. “The American G.I. is now beginning to eye with suspicion any Korean civilian in the cities or countryside,” Sullivan wrote. On July 26 a Communist soldier wrote in his diary that US bombers had swooped over Yongdong and “turned it into a sea of fire.”

The popular and guerrilla element of the Korean War has been lost from the collective memory, as if Vietnam were the only intervention where My Lais occurred. But in 1950 what the people in “white pajamas” provoked in Americans was as accessible as your barbershop reading table. What the Pentagon could not find was reported, for example, by John Osborne in Life. He told readers of the August 21, 1950, issue that US officers had ordered GIs to fire on clusters of civilians; a soldier told him, “It’s gone too far when we are shooting children.” It was a new kind of war, Osborne wrote, with the “blotting out of villages where the enemy may be hiding; the shelling of refugees who may include North Koreans.” The commander of the 24th Infantry Division, Gen. John Church, said that Korea was not like the European battles of World War II: “It’s an entirely different kind of warfare, this is really guerrilla warfare…essentially a guerrilla war over rugged territory.”

Official US sources have always denied that any massacres of civilians occurred at any point in this three-year war. Routine denials by officers on the scene in Yongdong were followed by official military histories that blamed the North Koreans for all atrocities and by years of stonewalling by two governments–right up to the Pentagon’s claim for the past two years that it found “no information that substantiates the claim.” The offending First Cavalry Division wasn’t even in the area, it said. But it took me exactly five minutes to find Clay Blair’s statement in The Forgotten War, based on declassified unit records, that “the 1st Cav would relieve the shattered 24th Division at Yongdong” on July 22.

If, under President Clinton’s prodding, the Pentagon proposes finally to open up the real history of the Korean War, I can point out a couple of places to begin. One week before the Nogun village incident, according to ten witnesses who spoke to a North Korean Army detachment that arrived there on July 20, US troops herded some 2,000 civilians into the mountains near Yongdong and then slaughtered them, apparently mostly from the air, although the account also said several women were raped before being shot. An internal intelligence memorandum two months later, sent to Maj. Gen. Clark Ruffner, suggested that the ubiquitous guerrillas could be dealt with by organizing “assassination squads to carry out death sentences passed by ROK Government in ‘absentia’ trials of guerrilla leaders.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa defined that vexing term “truth” in four ways: factual or forensic truth, personal or narrative truth, social or “dialogue” truth, and healing or restorative truth. The revelations of the Nogun village massacre establish all those meanings of truth for the courageous survivors who have pressed their case against all odds for years–those like Chun Choon Ja, a 12-year-old girl at the time, who witnessed US soldiers “play[ing] with our lives like boys playing with flies.” For Americans, the forensic truths establish lies at all levels, perpetrated for half a century, but they also (in the commission’s words) “reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse.” It is now up to others to take the personal truths of the survivors and turn them into a restorative truth, a requiem for the “forgotten war” that might finally achieve the reconciliation that the two Koreas have been denied since Dean Rusk first etched a line at the 38th Parallel in August 1945.

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