Army says GIs killed South Korean civilians, Clinton expresses regret

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Army says GIs killed South Korean civilians, Clinton expresses regret

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Robert Burns (Associated Press Military Writer)

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EDITOR'S NOTE: AP stories and the formerly classified documents on orders are available on the AP's Web site, The WIRE, which can be reached through member newspaper Web sites, or at
The Army investigation report is at


Eighth Calvary Regiment

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Copyright 2001 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Army acknowledged Thursday that American soldiers shot to death an "unknown number" of South Korean refugees early in the Korean War, but said there was no evidence they were ordered to do so. "I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri," President Clinton said, stopping short of an apology.
Reversing its long-held stance that no U.S. troops were involved, the Army said: "It is clear, based upon all available evidence, that an unknown number of Korean civilians were killed or injured" by small-arms fire, artillery and mortar fire and strafing by U.S. warplanes in the vicinity of the hamlet of No Gun Ri.
Clinton said the Army's findings, after 15 months of investigation, are a "painful reminder of the tragedies of war."
At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary William Cohen echoed the president's remark but said "neither Americans nor Koreans should bury this history." Nonetheless, he said, the Korean War was fought in a just cause, and that must be remembered, too.
"Our war effort protected and eventually preserved the liberty of the people of the Republic of Korea," Cohen said.
A joint U.S.-South Korean statement said, "In the desperate opening weeks of defensive combat in the Korean War, U.S. soldiers killed or injured an unconfirmed number of Korean refugees in the last week of July 1950 during a withdrawal under pressure in the vicinity of No Gun Ri."
In explaining the killings, the Army said U.S. soldiers "were not ordered to attack and kill civilian refugees," although some veterans interviewed by Army investigators said they received orders to "stop civilians" and some believed this meant they were authorized to use deadly force to prevent unarmed civilians from passing near No Gun Ri.
The Army cited "conflicting statements and misunderstandings" about whether orders were given, but its investigators concluded that no oral or written orders were given to "shoot and kill" South Korean civilians at that time.
South Korean survivors denounced the findings, and the South Korean government has resisted the U.S. conclusion that no orders were given.
"Any final report that does not deal with the responsibility of commanders has a serious defect," Chung Koo-do, spokesman for the survivors' group, said in Seoul. "It can't be construed as anything other than a Pentagon attempt to whitewash the massacre."
"America has no justice or conscience," said his father, Chung Eun-yong, a former policeman who lost two children in the No Gun Ri killings.
The South Korean government issued the findings of its own investigation. The report stressed the difficulties in establishing whether American soldiers were ordered to kill at No Gun Ri, but did not rule out that possibility.
"Based on testimonies by some veterans and the circumstance surrounding the incident, we believe that orders were sent to the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Regiment (of the U.S. Army) to use weapons such as mortars as a warning on refugees and some soldiers opened a concentrated fire on refugees refusing to be controlled.
"But we could not find out whether there were orders to shoot at refugees, what such orders exactly said, where such orders originated and what chain of command they came down because officers in command positions have died or given negative testimonies, there was a lack of related documents and veterans involved in the actually shootings gave negative testimonies about the existence of such orders."
Although it declined to assign blame to any military leaders, the U.S. Army's acknowledgment that GIs killed civilian refugees near No Gun Ri reverses its previous assertions that there was no evidence of U.S. military involvement in the killings.
Lt. Gen. Michael Ackerman, the Army inspector general who spearheaded the investigation, told reporters that the inquiry was unable to pinpoint anyone in the chain of command who could be assigned blame for what occurred at No Gun Ri.
"If we could have found the smoking gun it would have been in this report," Ackerman said.
Cohen ordered the new Army investigation in September 1999 after The Associated Press published a report describing the No Gun Ri shootings. The report won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. After reviewing more than a million documents and interviewing American veterans who were present at No Gun Ri, the Army concluded that while some facts may never be known, the shootings were not deliberate and were not done on orders from superiors.
Among ex-GIs interviewed earlier by the 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.
The 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. At the time, U.S. forces were in retreat, and thousands of refugees fled for their safety as the North Korean army advanced south.
Two days before the No Gun Ri incident, the 8th Cavalry Regiment communications log instructed: "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children."
The Army's report said, in essence, that the killing of civilians was an unavoidable accident of war.
"What befell civilians in the vicinity of No Gun Ri in late July 1950 was a tragic and deeply regrettable accompaniment to a war forced upon unprepared U.S. and Republic of Korea forces," the investigative report concluded.
At the Pentagon news conference, Charles Cragin, who helped oversee the investigation, said U.S. soldiers were acting out of fear that North Koreans disguised as refugees were infiltrating their lines.
"Soldiers were not aiming at innocent civilians for the purpose of killing innocent civilians," Cragin said. "What they perceived was a threat to themselves." He said it was an unfortunate example of the "fog of war."
The joint statement said some U.S. soldiers fired at the refugees hiding in a railroad tunnel and other locations at No Gun Ri. "They did so either to control the refugees' movements or because they believed they had received small arms fire from those locations. As a result, an unknown number of refugees was killed or injured."
Donald P. Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and chief spokesman for an eight-member U.S. advisory panel that oversaw the Pentagon investigation, said the final report was an improvement on an earlier draft that he said contained "a lot more lawyerly lubrication."
"It was not a good show," he said, referring to No Gun Ri, "and we thought the report owned up to that fairly directly. "I hope also there was a recognition that earlier on they (the Army) had not done a decent job of looking into the allegations. It was the AP's report that caused them (the allegations) to be looked at more definitively."
Despite the finding that U.S. soldiers killed refugees, the United States did not address demands of survivors and family members for compensation. Instead, Clinton said a memorial would be built to honor "these and all other innocent Korean civilians" killed during the 1950-53 war. He said the United States would establish a scholarship fund "as a living tribute to their memory."
"On behalf of the United States of America, I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri in late July 1950," Clinton said in a written statement. "The intensive, yearlong investigation into this incident has served as a painful reminder of the tragedies of war and the scars they leave behind on people and on nations."
A seven-page Statement of Mutual Understanding between the United States and South Korea described the American soldiers as "young, under-trained, under-equipped and new to combat," and their leaders as untested in battle.
Units operating near No Gun Ri "were under the command and control of leaders with limited proven experience in combat. They were unprepared for the weapons and tactics of the North Korean forces that they would face and the speed of the North Korean advance," the joint statement said.
Although the investigations of No Gun Ri have raised highly sensitive issues, Clinton stressed that the two governments are still committed to their long-standing alliance and to honoring the dignity of all who served and died in the war, which began when communist North Korea invaded the South in June 1950.
The U.S.-South Korean defense alliance dates to the outbreak of the war. It has been strained in recent years by tensions over relations with a more diplomatically active North Korea, protests over the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea and a lengthy negotiation this year to renew the legal basis on which American forces are permanently stationed there.
In its 1999 report, the AP quoted former soldiers and Korean survivors as saying a large number of refugees were killed by U.S. troops over a three-day period in late July 1950. Ex-GIs spoke of 100, 200, or simply hundreds, killed. The Koreans, who are seeking compensation from the United States, say 300 were shot to death and 100 died in a preceding air attack.
The Army concluded that it was not possible to say how many were killed or injured, but that the number is lower than South Koreans estimate.
The Army report addressed the testimony of Edward Daily of Clarksville, Tenn., one of a dozen ex-GIs cited in the AP's original story as saying he witnessed the civilian killings. Daily later acknowledged he could not have been at No Gun Ri, and must have gotten information secondhand from 7th Cavalry comrades.
The Army maintained that Daily's "conversations with Korean and American witnesses contaminated their memories." AP interviews were conducted with veterans who did not know Daily, and the AP's story was published before Daily met with Korean survivors.
In its report, the Army raised questions about whether wounds suffered by two veterans quoted by the AP, Delos K. Flint of Clio, Mich., and Eugene Hesselman, of Fort Mitchell, Ky., meant they were evacuated and were not at No Gun Ri. Despite some discrepancies, military documents obtained by the AP, including medical records released by the veterans, support their statements that they were there.
The report said five veterans asserted they were misquoted by the AP. Interview transcripts confirm the quotes of each one.

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Robert Burns (Associated Press Military Writer), “Army says GIs killed South Korean civilians, Clinton expresses regret,” No Gun Ri Digital Archives, accessed February 24, 2020,