Ex-GIs: U.S. troops in Korea War had orders to shoot civilians

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Ex-GIs: U.S. troops in Korea War had orders to shoot civilians

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Doc: 00199040

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Richard Pyle (Associated Press Writer)

Date Created

2000-11-21

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Randy Herschaft (Associated Press Investigative Researcher)

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Copyright 2000 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Two ex-GIs who handled radio and message traffic told Pentagon investigators that American troops had orders from higher headquarters to fire on civilian refugees at No Gun Ri in the early days of the Korean War.
The sworn statements by Lawrence Levine and James Crume, who were assigned to the headquarters of 2nd battalion, 7th Cavalry regiment, are the first from a higher command level to publicly support recollections of some other veterans that they were ordered to shoot civilians for fear North Korean infiltrators were among them.
Although official Army documents don't mention infiltrators at No Gun Ri, both men say they believed in July 1950 _ and today _ that disguised enemy soldiers were a serious threat to the U.S. troops, then taking part in a chaotic southward retreat.
"Our understanding was, and it was an understanding, not absolute fact, that amongst these people there were North Korean spies and soldiers, who were reporting our positions," said Levine, 72, of Encino, Calif.
According to former U.S. soldiers and Korean survivors, a large number of South Korean civilians were killed at a railroad bridge near the No Gun Ri hamlet. The killings are the subject of yearlong investigations by the U.S. Army and the Seoul government. Findings in both inquiries are expected next month.
In recent interviews, Crume and Levine told The Associated Press that the order to fire on civilians came down the chain of command from division or higher headquarters and was passed on to the battalion's line companies. The two foxhole buddies said they gave a similar account to Army investigators last spring.
"I'm sure the battalion commander and the S3 (operations officer) discussed it ... even before they put the order out to stop the refugees," said Crume, 72, of Kennewick, Wash. "All I know is the order was given _ `you're not going through,' and the order was given to the heavy weapons company, and that was it."
The U.S. and Korean investigations were prompted by an AP report which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
It quoted U.S. veterans as estimating 100, 200 or simply hundreds died. Korean relatives, who filed suit seeking compensation for the deaths, say 300 were killed under the railroad bridge and 100 in a prior strafing attack by U.S. planes.
AP also found wartime documents showing at least three high-level Army headquarters and an Air Force command ordered troops to treat as hostile any civilians approaching U.S. positions. On July 24, 1950, two days before No Gun Ri, 1st Cavalry division units were instructed: "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children."
On July 26, 1950, the day of the bridge incident at No Gun Ri, Maj. Gen. Hobart Gay, commander of the 1st Cavalry division, told reporters that aerial reconnaissance had reported "heavy refugee movements" near the U.S. battle sector. Gay said he was certain most of the refugees were "North Korean guerrillas," according to a story by AP reporter Don Whitehead.
Offering possible clues to the Pentagon findings, a Harvard academic who serves on a civilian advisory panel, said in a recent interview that U.S. troops at No Gun Ri "were not well led," but "everyone is in agreement" that the incident was "not a deliberate atrocity."
The Oct. 25 issue of the Harvard Crimson also quoted history professor Ernest May as expressing doubt that Washington would compensate Korean survivors.
May told AP he expected a "fair and honest" report, but "I can't guarantee... that is what I or any of the other outsiders will conclude." He is the only advisory panel member to break an understanding not to discuss the Army investigation.
Maj. Tom Collins, an Army spokesman, declined to comment on May's remarks. He said he was not aware of the Levine and Crume testimony and would not in any case comment on an ongoing investigation.
"It would be inappropriate to comment at this time," said Collins. "Our report will be completed before the end of the year, and at that time, we will tell the public what we found in regard to No Gun Ri."
Levine, a retired music recording engineer, and Crume, also a retired engineer, were among at least 165 veterans interviewed by Army investigators. Levine said he volunteered to testify after seeing news reports he believed failed to adequately explain the GIs' "mindset" at No Gun Ri, which he said was a fear of infiltrators. He said he referred probers to Crume, his longtime friend.
As heads of the 2nd Battalion's mobile radio unit and message center respectively, Levine and Crume, both corporals at the time, had routine access to orders relayed down the chain of command.
Both men said they were unable to tell Pentagon investigators after 50 years whether the shoot-to-kill edict came by radio or word of mouth, nor could they remember the exact wording. But both told AP they were sure it originated at 1st Cavalry Division headquarters and perhaps higher _ and that front-line GIs acted on that order, not independently of it.
"I'm secure in my own mind, that the order came from division or higher. It's not like the rifle companies are out there, saying, `Hey, somebody's going to shoot. Let's start shooting,'" said Levine.
"The GIs _ we're talking about the grunts _ didn't have anything to do with whether they were going to shoot or not shoot."
Crume said the order visibly upset Lt. Col. Herbert B. Heyer, the 2nd Battalion commander, who left the unit within days. "I could tell by his face there was nothing that he liked about it," Crume said. "I think it was what done him in."
Heyer, 89, says he told Army investigators he does not remember shootings of civilians or orders to that effect. In an interview, he told AP, "If I got something like that, I'd be very upset. I wouldn't forget it."
Military lawyers say the killing of noncombatants violates international law and the U.S. military legal code. Army officials describe the inquiry as a criminal law enforcement proceeding.
Among ex-GIs interviewed earlier by AP, about 20 recalled orders to shoot; a dozen said they either fired on refugees or were witnesses. Other veterans said they didn't remember, or declined to talk about No Gun Ri. One said he didn't recall orders, but had fired on his own.
While veterans Levine and Crume agreed concerning orders, their memories don't coincide in every detail.
Crume said he does not recall the incident that Levine described but remembers a group of Korean civilians hit by U.S. mortar fire as the refugees moved up a road toward the battalion command post.
Levine said the bridge shooting climaxed an all-day "standoff" between several hundred refugees and U.S. troops trying to get them to disperse. Korean interpreters used loudspeakers, to no avail, he added.
"As dusk came, the order came down to open fire," he said. The order, he said, was phrased something like, "if they didn't move, at a certain time we were going to open fire on them."
From a hillside 300 to 500 yards away, Levine said, he saw two mortar rounds hit among the refugees, followed by several minutes of "frenzied" small arms fire.
Finally, he said, a small girl "ran across this trestle... and the guys opened fire on her, and hit her, obviously, and that was the end of it."
Then came "a lot of shouting," and soldiers ran out to try to help the girl, Levine said. He does not know whether she survived. Other ex-soldiers also have described such a child.
Although some ex-GIs said they believed gunfire came from refugees at No Gun Ri, Levine and Crume say they saw and heard nothing about hostile fire, and two dozen Korean survivors have said they don't remember such activity within their ranks.
Even if no infiltrators directly menaced their unit, Crume said, some other U.S. troops "evidently... were infiltrated, (enemy) got behind them, and then the orders came down."

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Richard Pyle (Associated Press Writer), “Ex-GIs: U.S. troops in Korea War had orders to shoot civilians ,” No Gun Ri Digital Archives, accessed June 15, 2019, http://nogunri.rit.albany.edu/omeka/items/show/67.