WASHINGTON -- Army Secretary Louis Caldera announced a broad investigation yesterday into "very disturbing" reports that U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of civilians during the Korean War in 1950. Officials said the investigation could take a year.
The investigation, ordered by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, comes one day after Army officials said a two-month review of military archives this year had found no evidence that members of the 1st Cavalry Division were involved in shooting South Korean civilians near No Gun Ri in July 1950, as U.S. forces retreated south from the approaching North Korean forces.
But the Associated Press, citing interviews with more than a dozen U.S. veterans of Korea and documents from former top U.S. military commanders, said U.S. soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of civilians, including women and children, under a bridge near the hamlet.
U.S. commanders feared the civilians could include enemy infiltrators, with one 1st Cavalry Division headquarters memo saying: "No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children."
"I am committed to finding out the truth of these matters as best as we can after these many years," Caldera told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
"[Cohen] asked me to use whatever resources are available to do as quick and thorough a review of these matters, including all governmental agencies that are necessary. . . . These reports are, of course, very disturbing."
President Clinton, who was briefed on the AP report, endorsed Cohen's call for an investigation.
The defense secretary "wants to get to the bottom of it," Clinton said. "He wants to examine all the available information and evidence."
The Army secretary said that U.S. soldiers who fought in the early days of the conflict were "ill-trained and ill-equipped to fight" because of military cutbacks after World War II.
He added that 30,000 Americans lost their lives in Korea and "the vast, vast majority of our veterans" are owed a nation's gratitude.
"Regardless, we owe the American people, our veterans and the people -- our friends and allies of the Republic of Korea -- a full accounting of these matters, and I am confident that the review I have ordered will provide just that," he said.
Caldera said the investigation would "go beyond a search of the documentary records" and would be "an all-encompassing review," although he offered few specifics. One Army official said later that forensic pathologists could be involved in examining any remains.
According to an Army official, Pentagon lawyers believe that those involved in the alleged atrocities could face legal action, though all the soldiers interviewed long ago left the Army and many of the top commanders are dead.
Officials could not immediately recall similar allegations of wrongdoing surfacing so many years after a U.S. military action.
Caldera said he was uncertain whether there was a statute of limitations on such crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The Army secretary strongly denied that there had been any attempt to cover up possible atrocities, saying a review of unit records was completed this year by the Army's Center for Military History at Fort McNair in Washington.
Army officials said the review was prompted by a December 1998 letter from Victor W. C. Hsu, a director of the U.S. Council of Churches. Hsu had written on behalf of Korean survivors of the attack who are seeking compensation.
Hsu requested a search of records from the 1st Cavalry Division, 25th Infantry Division, 8th U.S. Army, as well as Army Adjutant General Command reports, records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General, War Crimes Division and documents from the Army's Inspector General.
"The Associated Press has clearly gone further in looking up individuals from those units and seeking out individual testimonials, and so clearly has raised new information that demands that it be looked into," Caldera said.
The AP also found memos that apparently were missed by military researchers, including one from July 27, 1950, by Maj. Gen. William B. Kean, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, addressed to lower ranking officers which said: "All civilians seen in this area are to be considered as enemy and action taken accordingly."
Commanders believed that all South Koreans had already been evacuated from the battlefield.
"Maybe we didn't do a good records check," said one Army official.
Caldera said the review could take as much as one year and added that it was too early to say if there would be compensation for those who survived the alleged attack or their families.
"If the review shows that something that was inappropriate did occur, then I think it would be appropriate for our country to take the appropriate actions," he said. "It's really too early to speculate on what those actions would be. I think we need to do the review first."
In the interviews with the Associated Press, some Korean War veterans said there was gunfire coming from the civilians at No Gun Ri and recalled seeing bodies of North Korean soldiers among the dead.
Others did not remember any return fire. Some refused to shoot.
One of the veterans, Edward L. Dailey of Clarksville, Tenn., said he is still haunted by what took place.
"On summer nights when the wind blows I can still hear their cries, the little kids screaming," he told the AP.
For nearly a half-century, South Korean villagers have insisted that they were the targets of American forces.
In August 1997, about 30 South Korean survivors of the alleged attack and their relatives filed a claim with South Korea's Government Compensation Committee and made allegations against the First Cavalry, according to the AP.
The United States Armed Forces Claims Service said, in response, that there was no evidence the 1st Cavalry Division was in the area.
A lower-level South Korean commission said there was no evidence of American involvement, while the national panel last year rejected the case, saying the five-year statute of limitations expired long ago.
But the Associated Press used maps and declassified troop records to show that four 1st Cavalry Division battalions were in the area at the time.
Pub Date: 10/01/99