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The Bridge at No Gun Ri
A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War
By Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe and Martha Mendoza
Henry Holt
284 pgs. US$26.00

A hell that orders created

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 24, 2001

The Bridge of No Gun RiAn expanded version of a Pulitzer Prize winning 1999 series by a team of Associated Press reporters, The Bridge at No Gun Ri tells the story of American soldiers tasked with defending South Korea in 1950 and the refugees they were there ostensibly to protect. Instead, some gunned down untold numbers of their charges thanks to a combination of racism, incompetence and fear.

The story opens with America content with itself and serving as overlord in Japan after World War II. Inexperienced American soldiers serving in under strength and ill-equipped battalions and led by green officers stationed there were more interested in making money in the black market and indulging in prostitutes. That all changed on June 25, 1950 when communist North Korea invaded South Korea and began its relentless campaign to unite the peninsula.

Among the soldiers sent over from Japan were the members of the 7th Calvary Regiment, made famous by one of its earlier commanders, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Most soldiers in the 7th had never fired their weapons in combat and thanks to poor training weren't ready for their first action. Thrown into the Korean crucible, the unit eventually found itself at a position near a railway trestle at No Gun Ri.

In between the hammer of North Korea and the anvil of American soldiers and their allies were the peasants of South Korea. The attack sent 750 000 refugees to the south in an effort to escape communist troops. Instead receiving protection, the refugees often were in more danger from American soldiers. Rumours had begun to spread among the soldiers that some of the refugees were really North Korean infiltrators and that even woman and children presented a danger.

In order to combat this ephemeral threat, soldiers were ordered to stop any refugees attempting to cross battle lines. Air Force pilots were given permission to strafe groups of refugees - an order that Turner Rogers, operations chief of the 5th Air Force, said in a classic understatement could serve as "embarrassing" - and in one particularly horrific moment, U.S. engineers blew up a bridge in an effort to slow the North Korean advance, a bridge which also happened to be packed with refugees and resulted in hundreds killed.

The heart of the book is the account of what happened at No Gun Ri beginning on July 26, 1950. There hundreds of refugees had been strafed by American aircraft and shot at by soldiers, forcing them to seek cover in a railway trestle. For the next several days, soldiers on other end fired indiscriminately into the tunnel, killing as many as 400 men, women and children. By July 29, only two dozen refugees were left alive.

Although some of the soldiers refused to fire, most followed their orders, ones that ruthlessly shredded human bodies as only modern warfare can. By the end of the nightmare, the trestle's floor was a river of blood and flesh with bodies stacked on top of one another. "The heat and the stench among the swelling, putrefying bodies and puddles of blood were overwhelming. Hunger ravished the survivors. But thirst, more than anything, moved them. The water trickling through the mounds of dead had grown viscous with blood."

It's a nearly unbearable story given that much of it is told from the perspectives of participants from both sides. American soldiers describe how they methodically targeted civilians in the sights of their rifles in the belief they were preventing disguised communists from sneaking into the south while survivors relate stories that are difficult to comprehend on any level.

The accepted history of any American war is usually presented from the perspective of the combat soldier. Thanks to movies like Saving Private Ryan we have a better idea of the horrors that the men we asked to serve had to suffer. We know that veterans of the Korean War suffered many of the same problems that their counterparts in the Vietnam War dealt with. On their return, an American public tired of war largely ignored them. Like that later conflict, the soldiers who came back to the United States manifested mental illnesses including posttraumatic stress disorders.

Forgotten by many histories are the sufferings of the non-combatants. It's estimated that the Korean War claimed the lives of 900 000 South Korean civilians. The refugees also suffered their share of mental problems associated with being victimized by both a repressive régime, American forces bent on preserving that régime and North Korean soldiers who wanted to destroy it. Unlike American soldiers, most refugees didn't have access to mental healthcare professionals and even speaking of the massacre at No Gun Ri was viewed as an act of disloyalty. Truth may be the first casualty of war but sometimes it's reborn in peace. With the U.S. military's admission in January 2001 that the massacre had taken place and the publication of The Bridge of No Gun Ri, at least their voices can be heard.

Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor of Enter Stage Right.

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