JPRI Critique Vol. VII No. 7 (July 2000)
The Occurrence at Nogun Ri Bridge: History and Memory
by Bruce Cumings

On September 30, 1999, a photo of a woman named Chon Chung-ja appeared on the front page of The New York Times, dressed as if she were yet another middle-aged, middle-class Korean housewife about to go shopping. Instead she stood at the mouth of a tall tunnel in Nogun village, down the road from the town of Yongdong in South Ch'ung'ong Province. She pointed to a hill where, she alleged, in July 1950 "American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians under a railroad bridge." She and other survivors went on to say that they had been petitioning their government and the American government for decades, seeking compensation for this massacre. They had been completely stonewalled in both Seoul and Washington.

The article also carried the testimony of American soldiers who did the firing, who said that their commander had ordered them to fire on civilians. The New York Times did not actually write this story but instead featured the Associated Press account of the massacre. In subsequent days and weeks it did no follow-up reporting, to my knowledge, except for periodically updating its readership on what the Associated Press was saying about the reaction in the Pentagon or Seoul, the announcement of an investigation into the survivors' claims, and an attempt by U.S. News & World Report to denigrate the story. Moreover, this deeply-researched and unimpeachable Associated Press account provoked the editorial page of another leading newspaper into instant denial. The Washington Post of October 3, 1999, sought to dismiss the massacre as an unfortunate result of untrained soldiers facing an unknown enemy in the early, chaotic stages of the Korean War.

But this was neither an isolated nor an unpremeditated incident. Two months after the story broke, Doug Struck, a reporter for The Washington Post, learned that the civilians had huddled in the railroad tunnel for as much as three days, while American soldiers repeatedly returned. Chong Ku-hun, then 17 years of age, told Struck that "ïThey were checking every wounded person and shooting them if they moved.' Other soldiers climbed down toward a drainage pipe where dozens of villagers had taken shelter and began shooting into families, according to the accounts of other survivors." Yang Hae-suk, then a girl of thirteen, was also in the tunnel: "Suddenly there were planes and bombs. My uncle covered his child, and I heard him say, 'Oh, my God.' I looked and saw his intestines had come out. The bullet had passed through his back and killed his daughter." A few moments later the young teenager also got hit and lost her left eye. Struck, however, was careful to add that current investigators "face the delicate task of measuring a dirty war by standards that officials here say were violated by all sides during the three-year conflict" (October 27, 1999).


Nogun village is located a couple of miles down the road from the county seat of Yongdong, in a remote and mountainous region where the borders of three provinces meet and 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 two months later watched as American civil affairs teams retrieved the reins of government from it in the fall of 1945, as part of the establishment of the U.S. Military Government that ruled south of the 38th parallel for the next three years. The Americans on the scene quickly reemployed Koreans who had served in the hated colonial police, and of course suppressed the people's committee. After two years of turmoil the leftist movement went underground and guerrilla warfare emerged in and around Yongdong county, long before the ostensible "Korean War" began.

An American doctor named Clesson Richards ran a Salvation Army hospital in Yongdong from 1947 until he left just before the war. "Guerrilla warfare was around us all the time," he told a reporter; "we had many Commies as patients. . . . The police would keep an eye on them, 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." This was said matter-of-factly, since in Dr. Richards's opinion "the Commies were ruthless," although they "had no anti-foreign feeling and did not bother us" (New York Times, August 2, 1950).

Walter Sullivan was almost alone among foreign journalists in seeking out the truth of this guerrilla war. Large parts of southern Korea, he wrote in early 1950, "are darkened today by a cloud of terror that is probably unparalleled in the world." In the "hundreds of villages across the guerrilla areas," local village guards "crouch in pyramided straw shelters, and nights are a long, cold vigil of listening." The guerrillas made brutal assaults on police, and the police took the guerrillas to their home villages and tortured them for information. Then the police shot them and tied them to trees as an object lesson.

By early August 1950, General John H. Church, commander of the U.S.'s 24th infantry division and a veteran of the Anzio campaign, concluded 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." Virtually any village suspected of harboring or supporting guerrillas was therefore burned to the ground by the Americans, usually from the air. Furthermore, cities and towns thought to be leftist in inclination were simply emptied of their population through forced evacuations. All but ten percent of civilians were moved out of Sunch'on; Masan was emptied of tens of thousands of citizens; "all civilians" were moved out of Yech'on. Amid a threat that "the leftists and Fifth Column[ists] living in Taegu are conspiring to create a big disturbance," vast numbers of Taegu citizens were evacuated for fear of "an uprising." By mid-August of 1950 many of these removed citizens were concentrated on islands near Pusan, forbidden to leave.

This element of the Korean War has been lost from the U.S.'s collective memory, as if Vietnam were the only intervention where incidents like Mylai occurred. But in 1950, the people in "white pajamas" and what they provoked in Americans was as accessible as the neighborhood barbershop reading table. For example, Life Magazine's John Osborne told readers of the August 21, 1950, issue that American officers had ordered G.I.'s 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, "blotting out villages where the enemy may be hiding; the shelling of refugees who may include North Koreans."

The Taejon Massacre

In 1981, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operative bore witness to the systematic slaughter of 1,800 political prisoners by ROK troops near Taejon in the first week of July, 1950: "I stood by helplessly, witnessing the entire affair. Two big bull-dozers worked constantly. One made the ditch-type grave. Trucks loaded with the condemned arrived. Their hands were already tied behind them. They were hastily pushed into a big line along the edge of the newly opened grave. They were quickly shot in the head and pushed into the grave" (Col. Donald Nichols, How Many Times Can I Die? [Brooksville, Fla.: Brownsville Printing Co., 1981], cited in Korea Web Weekly,

This book, published in the U.S. almost 20 years ago, was rediscovered by the Associated Press in 1999, which developed the story and also obtained photos documenting it. Again, The New York Times chose to run only a brief account of the AP story (September 30, 1999). Lost was the most striking fact uncovered by the AP: in September 1950, the U.S. government at the highest level-- in this case the Joint Chiefs of Staff-- chose to suppress the pictures, not to be revealed until last year. Instead the Pentagon subsidized official histories that blamed every civilian atrocity at this time, including Taejon, on the North Koreans.

Indeed, official American sources have always denied that any massacres of civilians occurred at any point in this three-year war-- right up to the Pentagon's current assertion that it has found "no information that substantiates the claim" of the Nogun village survivors, and that the offending First Cavalry Division was not even in the area (New York Times, September 30, 1999). Yet it took me exactly five minutes to find Clay Blair's statement in The Forgotten War (New York: Times Books, 1987), based on declassified unit records, that "the 1st Cav would relieve the shattered 24th Division at Yongdong" on July 22.

The day after the Taejon story broke in 1999, I received a phone call from a Korean-American woman in Los Angeles who said her father was one of the 1,800 slaughtered. In 1947 she was one of six children of a factory owner in a town near Taejon. He had prospered during the Japanese period, and at liberation he thought it wise to share some of his wealth. He was arrested in the raucous summer of 1947 (when hundreds if not thousands of Koreans died at the hands of the Occupation's National Police) and was still in jail in early July 1950. From there he went directly to the firing-squad.

This woman (today a registered nurse) and her four sisters and one brother have never been able to tell anyone outside the family how their father died. After the war no one was able to raise such issues, on pain of being jailed and perhaps shot. If the police killed your brother or father, you were supposed to say a communist killed him. If you would not say that, your entire family wound up on South Korean government blacklists that persisted into the late 1980s.

What happened in Taejon was not simply a merciless slaughter of political prisoners but the slaughter of people rounded up during the American Occupation for protesting against the conditions that Americans had created or fostered. Local guerrillas were remnants of the communal hopes of Koreans when they were liberated from Japan in 1945. Americans conducted the various rounds of suppression in the period 1945-50 or supported those Koreans who did, and then stood idly by to watch this slaughter in July 1950, photographing it but doing nothing about it.

Guerrilla Warfare and Racism

Taejon was also the scene of one of the worst defeats of American troops at the hands of the North Korean Army. According to the late military historian Clay Blair, the 24th Infantry Division suffered a "ghastly" defeat at Taejon, "one of the greatest ordeals in Army history" (p. 141). As the retreating American forces tumbled southward from Taejon, they soon arrived in Yongdong. North Korean sources said it had been "liberated" by local guerrillas before they arrived, something corroborated by Walter Sullivan. He reported that some 300 guerrillas in and around Yongdong harassed the retreating Americans, and that they would take over local peacekeeping once the North Koreans passed through. "The American G.I. is now beginning to eye with suspicion any Korean civilian in the cities or countryside," Sullivan wrote in the July 22, 1950, New York Times. "ïWatch the guys in white'-- the customary peasant dress-- is the cry often heard near the front." The diary of a dead Korean named Ch'oe Song-hwan, either a North Korean soldier or a local guerrilla, noted on July 26 that American bombers had swooped over Yongdong and "turned it into a sea of fire" (diary entry translated by the Allied Translator and Interpreter Service, No. 2, October 5, 1950; available at the MacArthur Archives, Record Group 6, box 78).

Fully one week before the Nogun village incident, North Korean sources claimed that Americans had massacred large numbers of civilians in Yongdong. According to ten eyewitnesses who spoke to a North Korean army detachment that arrived there on July 20, American troops herded some 2000 civilians from two villages in the county into the mountains and then slaughtered them, apparently mostly from the air-- although the account also said several women were raped before being shot.1

These events were also fueled by the ubiquitous racism of American society in the 1950s. Three weeks into the Korean war, Hanson Baldwin, the military editor of the New York Times, wrote: "We are facing an army of barbarians in Korea, but they are barbarians as trained, as relentless, as reckless of life, and as skilled in the tactics of the kind of war they fight as the hordes of Genghis Khan." He also likened the Koreans to invading locusts and recommended that Americans be given "more realistic training to meet the barbarian discipline of the armored horde" (New York Times, July 14, 1950).

A few days later Baldwin wrote that to the Korean, "life is cheap. Behind him stand the hordes of Asia. Ahead of him lies the hope of loot." What else "brings him shrieking on," what else explains his "fanatical determination?" (New York Times, July 19, 1950). Made somewhat uncomfortable by North Korean indignation about "women and children slain by American bombs," Baldwin went on to say that Koreans must understand that "we do not come merely to bring devastation." Americans must convince "these simple, primitive, and barbaric peoples . . . that we-- not the Communists-- are their friends" (New York Times, August 21, 1950).


Why did The New York Times and other papers find stories about American and South Korean war crimes (according to American military law in effect at the time) fit to print in 1950 but at no point thereafter did it return to them until 1999? In one sense, the Korean War is a "forgotten war," and even present-day reporters of the first rank often know nothing about it. Forgotten, unknown, ultimately becomes never known. Thus Nogun Ri becomes salient not because it suggests Korea but because it reminds us of Vietnam and Mylai, which was supposed to be an isolated incident.

But unlike Mylai, which may have been the act of out-of-control soldiers, the American government must take full responsibility for the atrocities committed in Korea. Under the relevant international law at the time, from August 15, 1945, to August 15, 1948, the United States Army Military Government (USAMGIK) was the sole legal authority in Korea south of the thirty-eighth parallel. Under secret protocols, the U.S. also had operational control of the South Korean armed forces and the paramilitary national police from August 15, 1948, to June 30, 1949. A year later, operational control of these forces was returned to General Douglas MacArthur, acting on behalf of the United Nations.

This is the singular reason why the United States was then, and remains today, responsible for events that occurred during the Occupation and the war, not to mention many subsequent events like the Kwangju Rebellion in 1980, during which the marauding ROK forces that suppressed the rebellion were released by the U.N. Command-- that is, the American commander. Years later, during the Vietnam War, General Charles Willoughby, livid with rage over Seymour Hersh's disclosure of the Mylai massacre and the subsequent prosecution of Lieutenant William Calley, made the curious but revealing argument that such things happened all the time in Korea. He even quoted a letter from a man named Harry McDaniel: "I was a captain in front-line combat in Korea, with orders to shoot anything that moved after dark."2

Other internal materials document U.S. connivance in South Korean atrocities. During firefights with guerrillas in October 1950, a memorandum from an Army intelligence officer named McCaffrey to Major General Clark Ruffner suggested that, if necessary, the Americans could organize "assassination squads to carry out death sentences passed by ROK Government in ïabsentia' trials of guerrilla leaders," and went on to say, "if necessary clear the areas of civilians in which the guerrillas operate" and "inflame the local population against the guerrillas by every propaganda device possible." In the aftermath of the Chinese intervention, a staff conference with Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, Gen. Edward M. Almond, Gen. John B. Coulter, and others in attendance brought up the issue of the "enemy in civilian clothing." Someone said, "we cannot execute them but they can be shot before they become prisoners." To which Coulter replied, "We just turn them over to the ROK's and they take care of them."3

However horrible Nogun Ri and Taejon were, they occurred during wartime. On Cheju Island in 1948 similar things happened in ïpeacetime' under the American Occupation, and Cheju people are now coming forward to tell their stories and demand compensation. No special pleading about the exigencies of war will suffice to assuage the American conscience. What the formerly classified materials document is a merciless, wholesale assault on the people of this island. No one will ever know how many died in this onslaught, but the American estimates, long kept secret, range between 30,000 and 60,000 killed, with upwards of 40,000 more people having fled to Japan. More recent research suggests a figure of 80,000 killed. There were at most 300,000 people living on Cheju Island in the late 1940s.4

From the preface of my first book on the origins of the Korean War to the conclusion of my second, I have argued against a discrete encapsulation that would place this war in the time frame of June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. Such a construction would tell us that all that went before June 25 was mere prehistory and all that came after July 27 was post-bellum. It also presumes to demarcate the period of American involvement, whereas the American military has in fact played a major role in Korea from the moment of the Japanese surrender in 1945 to the present time, when it keeps 37,000 troops on South Korean soil. The incidents at Nogun Ri, Taejon, and Cheju are therefore a continuum of unpleasant truths that the U.S. must deal with.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa defined "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 and other massacres establish all those meanings of truth for the courageous survivors who have pressed their cases against all odds for many years-- people like Mrs. Chon who witnessed American soldiers "play[ing] with our lives like boys playing with flies" (New York Times, September 30, 1999). For Americans, the forensic truths reveal lies told at many levels and 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 high time to take these personal and forensic truths and turn them into a restorative truth that might serve as a requiem for this forgotten war and 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.


1. Haebang ilbo (Liberation Daily, a newspaper published by North Koreans during their occupation of Seoul), August 10, 1950.

2. MacArthur Archives, Willoughby Papers, box 7, "Foreign Intelligence Digest" (a publication of the Billy James Hargis Crusade), March 1971.

3. Carlisle Military Barracks, William V. Quinn Papers, box 3, X Corps HQ, McCaffrey to Ruffner, October 30, 1950; Ridgway Papers, box 20, highlights of a staff conference, with Ridgway and Almond present, January 8, 1951.

4. See the letter of Chun Hee-kyong, Cheju April 1948 Massacre Victims' Association, to the Korea Herald, October 16, 1999. For further references, see Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), chap. 4

BRUCE CUMINGS is Norman and Edna Freehling Professor of History at the University of Chicago. His latest books are Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Norton 1997) and Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century (Duke University Press, 1999).

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