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No Gun Ri
Correcting a miscarriage of reporting
By Steven Martinovich
In September 1999 an explosive Associated Press story broke which alleged that beginning on July 26, 1950, soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Calvary Regiment slaughtered hundreds of South Korean civilians beneath a railway trestle near a village called No Gun Ri. According to AP, the story was buried for decades until survivors and some soldiers began speaking out about the horrors they lived through.
It's not the first time that American soldiers have been accused of murdering civilians. The most famous incident occurred at My Lai on March 16, 1968 when as many as 500 Vietnamese civilians were murdered by soldiers with Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, American Division. Like the alleged No Gun Ri massacre, the news of My Lai sent shockwaves across through the military establishment and the American Public.
Unlike My Lai, however, No Gun Ri may have never happened, or at least the claim of a deliberate massacre is false. That's the conclusion that Robert L. Bateman, a former officer with the 7th Calvary Regiment reached after investigating both the AP's Pulitzer Prize winning story and the sources the news organization relied on to build its case. Although AP maintains that its facts are accurate, Bateman has built an strong case that while civilians were killed at No Gun Ri, the numbers and the reality of what really happened are significantly different from AP's story.
No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War is really two case studies in one. Showing an obvious command of research skills, Bateman uses the first half of his book to provide background on the early days of the Korean War and the chaos American troops found themselves in as the North Korean army relentlessly pushed back the south's defenders. In that cauldron found itself the 7th Calvary Regiment, a unit largely made up of soldiers not trained in large unit action and facing their first combat. During the night of June 25, 1950, the unit came under fire, possibly from American units, and disintegrated before it managed to reform near No Gun Ri.
It is there that AP and Bateman's versions diverge sharply. AP argues that after being strafed by American aircraft, several hundred refugees sought cover under a railway trestle. For the next several days, soldiers on either end of the tunnel and killed as many as 400 men, women and children. By July 29, barely two dozen were left alive.
According to Bateman, however, the incident played out differently. Warned of possible infiltration by North Korean troops disguised as refugees, soldiers were warned not to allow any civilians to cross the lines until vetted by South Korean authorities. After a group of refugees refused to stop, soldiers shot over their heads. When met with return fire, allegedly from the refugee column, the American soldiers fired back for as long as 90 seconds and killed as many as three dozen.
The reason, Bateman argues, for the huge disparity in numbers between what his research turned up versus those reported by AP is that the witnesses to the massacre are at best unreliable. Many of the star witnesses the AP relied on turned out not to even be present at No Gun Ri, including Edward Daily, a man who claimed he earned a battlefield commission and the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during the Korean War. Daily recently pleaded guilty in Federal Court to fraudulently obtaining veteran's benefits.
The second half of Bateman's tour de force is an investigation of AP's work, one that paints a picture of an organization well aware of the facts Bateman raised but more eager to cover them up then endanger their chances to win the Pulitzer. Bateman points out tellingly that of 84 interviews conducted with the men of 2nd Battalion, only six veterans had any memories of an alleged massacre, of which three were not present at No Gun Ri. If Bateman is guilty of one omission, it's his admission that he did not consult survivors for their version of events.
After five decades it may be impossible to definitively answer the question of what really happened at No Gun Ri on July 26, 1950. Many of the officers who would have gave the order to shoot or had knowledge of it have since passed on and time has dulled the memories of both the South Koreans and Americans who claim to have present that day. Despite that, the weight of evidence that Bateman brings to bear for his version of events is compelling and ultimately more persuasive than that of the AP. That civilians did die that day is a tragedy of war that should never be forgotten. That the claim of a massacre was attached to young men should not be countenanced. Bateman deserves praise for doing that which AP couldn't do: put forward a convincing version of what happened at No Gun Ri.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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