U.S. bridge bombings killed refugees

Published Oct. 14, 1999|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

Hundreds of Korean civilians died when retreating Americans blew two bridges in 1950.

EDITOR'S NOTE: On Sept. 30 the Times published an Associated Press report on the killings of up to 400 South Korean refugees at the hamlet of No Gun Ri during the 1950-53 Korean War. The article briefly mentioned other incidents in which witnesses said refugees died at U.S. hands. This is a follow-up report on those episodes.

On a single deadly day in August 1950, six weeks into the Korean War, a U.S. general and other Army officers ordered the destruction of two strategic bridges as South Korean refugees streamed across, killing hundreds of civilians, according to ex-GIs, Korean witnesses and U.S. military documents.

An old soldier recalled the critical moment at one bridge.

"I said, "There are people!' And they said, "You have to blow it! There's no other way!' " ex-Army engineer Joseph M. Ipock of Jackson, N.J., told the Associated Press.

The AP learned of the bridge blowings and other attacks on refugees while investigating what happened at No Gun Ri, South Korea, in late July 1950. In that case, veterans corroborated Korean accounts of hundreds of refugees killed at U.S. hands.

One bridge blowing, with its refugee deaths, was recorded briefly in an official Army chronicle, but not until 10 years after the event.

The trail of dead civilians, many of them women and children, has been a hidden underside to a well-known chapter in U.S. military history, the southward retreat from advancing North Korean forces of three Army divisions into a defensible perimeter across South Korea's Naktong River in July-August 1950.

The withdrawal was often confused. The U.S. Army told South Korean civilians, citizens of an allied nation, to head south. But the AP found in researching declassified Army documents that U.S. commanders also issued standing orders to shoot civilians along the warfront to guard against North Korean soldiers disguised in the white clothes of Korean peasants. Military lawyers call those orders illegal.

Just days into his first combat command, the 1st Cavalry Division's Maj. Gen. Hobart R. Gay told reporters he was sure most of the white-clad columns pressing toward U.S. lines were North Korean guerrillas.

"We must find a means to hold these refugees in place," the division commander said.

Days later, on Aug. 3, 1950, Gay waited on the east bank of the Naktong River as his division retreated across the bridge at Waegwan, the last crossing open to North Korean units reported massing more than 15 miles to the west.

His troops had failed in repeated efforts to turn back the flood of refugees, even firing warning shots over their heads.

"Finally, it was nearly dark," Gay later wrote to an Army historian. "There was nothing else to be done."

He gave a fateful command.

"Gen. Gay stood up in the front of his jeep and shouted out, "Blow the son of a b----!' " veteran Edward L. Daily recalled.

The preset charges exploded, rapid fire, shattering the supports, dropping one of the bridge's hulking spans into the muddy waters of the Naktong.

"They went right down," remembered ex-Lt. Daily, of Clarksville, Tenn. "It was like a slow-motion movie. All those refugees went right down into the river."

"It was a tough decision," Gay wrote to the historian, "because up in the air with the bridge went hundreds of refugees."

The division's 1950 war diary did not report the refugees' deaths. But the later narrative by Gay, who died in 1983, led to a brief mention in an official war history published in 1960.

What happened earlier that August day, however, 25 miles downriver at the village of Tuksong-dong, has never been reported.

Ex-Sgt. Carroll F. Kinsman remembers the streams of white-clad humanity shuffling across the 650-foot-long Tuksong-dong bridge _ women clutching children, old men, overloaded ox carts.

"We stayed up all that night and searched them," Kinsman, a veteran of the 14th Combat Engineers Battalion, said in an AP interview. They found no infiltrators, he said.

Retreating Americans had not yet sighted North Korean units near the river around Tuksong-dong on Aug. 3, the declassified record shows. But U.S. officers knew the enemy would arrive eventually. Pressed by a timetable, they proved unable to keep the refugees back from the bridge, rigged for instant demolition.

Soldiers fired over the heads of those crowding across, and tried to warn them the bridge would be blown up, said the veterans, men in their 60s or 70s.

"They tried to stop the refugees from coming across and they wouldn't stop. They were abutment to abutment," ex-engineer Leon L. Denis of Huntsville, Ala., recalled in an AP interview before his death Aug. 31.

The men of Company A, 14th Engineers, had taken two days to set 7,000 pounds of explosives on the steel-girder bridge. When the detonation order came at 7:01 a.m., "it lifted up and turned it sideways and it was full of refugees end to end," said Kinsman, of Gautier, Miss.

"These people were on the bridge, and you saw the spans of steel flying and you knew they were killed," said ex-GI Rudolph Giannelli of Port Saint Lucie, driver for Col. Richard W. Stephens, the 21st Infantry Regiment commander who was the last officer across the bridge.

In separate AP interviews, Kinsman, Denis and Giannelli said hundreds of civilians were killed. Ipock said he could see only 30 or 40 refugees from his vantage point.

"There was people on that bridge when it went up," Ipock said. "And during war that's the story. They're up there and they pull the plunger and that's it."

The veterans said they don't know who gave the detonation order at Tuksong-dong. The operation was noted in the 14th Engineers report with a simple "Results, excellent."

From the bridges, the U.S. Army units moved into defensive positions along the Naktong, in what came to be known as the Pusan Perimeter. They had arrived at the river after weeks of retreat through South Korea _ and after countless, sometimes bloody encounters with refugees.

Four 1st Cavalry Division veterans told the AP that on Aug. 2, the day before the bridge blowings, they were among several dozen soldiers retreating toward the Naktong and being trailed by perhaps 80 white-clad Koreans.

In mid-afternoon, five North Korean soldiers _ disguised in white _ appeared in front of the Americans, they said. Veteran Edward L. Daily said the North Koreans opened fire and were quickly killed. Another ex-GI, Eugene Hesselman, remembered it differently, saying the intruders surrendered and were led away.

Because it was thought they came from among the refugees, said Hesselman, of Fort Mitchell, Ky., "we got orders to eliminate them (the refugees). And we mowed them all down. The Army wouldn't take chances."

Scattering too late, every man, woman and child was killed, Daily said. He and veteran Robert G. Russell said they found about 10 disguised North Korean soldiers among the dead. Hesselman said he doesn't recall that infiltrators were found.

"I didn't like to do it," said Russell, of West Fargo, N.D. "It was just pure survival at the time."

Some officers and other Korean War veterans drew a distinction between killing civilians simply because of suspicions of enemy among them, and destroying a bridge _ a strategic necessity _ with refugees on it.

But others, looking back, said refugees on targeted bridges should have been protected _ for example, by deploying soldiers to hold them back and retrieving the soldiers later by boat.

Three days after blowing the Waegwan bridge, Gay did send boats across the Naktong, to bring over 6,000 stranded refugees from the west bank, the declassified record shows.

The North Koreans did not appear in force on the west bank between Waegwan and Tuksong-dong until Aug. 7, four days after the bridges were blown, the record shows.

From a 50-year vantage point, historians are beginning to look anew at those first desperate weeks of the Korean War.

"Civilians were in the way, their friendliness could not be counted on, they were scary and it was unclear who the enemy was," Marilyn Young, a New York University history professor, said in an interview. "The U.S. Army was taking the population as a whole as the potential enemy."

Killing of noncombatants was then _ as now _ a crime under the international law and the U.S. military code, experts note.