Sang-Hun Choe, Martha Mendoza, & Charles J. Hanley
The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War

"He always said soldiers as well as civilians were the pawns of war," Susan Huff Rush said [of her father] after her father's [Colonel Gil Huff] death. (p. 231)
The controversy surrounding this event and subsequent telling of this history almost 50 years later doesn't appear to be over with this book. A more recent book has been written which supposedly debunks some of the more extreme claims in the original AP report. I can't fully comment on the newer work until I read it, but based on the reviews of it and the summary from the publisher I think the authors of The Bridge at No Gun Ri have fixed some of the errors that were in their original press release when they got around to writing this book. Edward Daily's account, for instance, is not in this book, and the authors admit to his lack of credibility as an original witness. (p. 277)

For the moment, anyway, let's push the controversy to the side. (You can read about it in great detail at the sites linked above.) Both sides are probably too extreme in their views. There are some potential problems with The Bridge at No Gun Ri, which I will mention later, but overall I think critics are being too harsh with this account. Something horrible did happen and the authors certainly didn't seem, from my reading, to be perpetrating "Left Wing Propaganda" or writing "something so unbalanced" as a couple of reviewers claim. Writers of unbalanced, left-wing propaganda don't include paragraphs like this:

The northerners took their rightist prisoners out of their detention places and did to them what South Korean military police did to the leftists in July. They took them to a nearby valley, forced them to dig a long ditch, lined them up on its edge, and then shot each prisoner in the head, to tumble into the mass grave. (p. 206)
The basic feeling I was left with is that war is hell. Hell for everyone--not just the losers, the dead, and the families of the dead. Because of the nature of the beast everyone can easily turn out to be the "bad guy," even if that certainly wasn't their intention going into it or during the conflict. Friendly fire, civilian casualties, unintended racism, dangerous group dynamics, and many more "bad things" are bound to happen. We should learn from our history of war, "police actions", and other military conflicts that they should be avoided like the plague and not used as a knee-jerk reaction to the world's problems. Korea (and Vietnam) especially were really stupid conflicts to become involved with. I'm not placing blame and the authors don't usually do so either unless you read additional items into the text that simply aren't there or take quotes completely out of context. Most of the soldiers certainly didn't know why or what they were getting into. The same can probably be said for the war pigs in the government and military.

As a history of the Korean War this is probably not the best book. However, I knew little of the Korean War's history before reading this book (even though my father was in it), and I now have much more of an understanding--especially, the early portion of the war. The Bridge at No Gun Ri focuses on several issues, rather than the war in total. The killing of South Korean civilians, the early war years, and the trauma caused to the families of victims and military personnel are probably the three key items. The war was a strange one. South Korea's military was firing on North Korea's. North Korea's was firing on South Korea's and the USA's. And the USA's was firing on North Koreans and South Koreans because they couldn't tell the difference. Certainly the treatment of South Korean civilians by the US military, in many instances, was different than the way the USA's military would have defended its own civilian population. With bullets flying and the perceived threat of the enemy all around the mistakes that were made are frequently understandable, even though still regrettable.

Those that try to justify the US's history of sticking its finger in seemingly every country's affairs may receive a wake up call by reading this book. It isn't hard to see why the US's international policies are loathed by many citizens of other countries. If the shoe were on the other foot, US citizens certainly wouldn't want a foreign presence to be constantly propping up the US government or to be sending over a steady stream of troops into the USA for so-called protection (including the killing of US civilians and destruction of US property).

There are problems with The Bridge at No Gun Ri, as mentioned above. Testimony, although a favorite item of the news media, is not a very reliable piece of evidence--especially decades after the fact. Memories are faulty. They change over the years. The authors never mention or seem to consider this fact. They also don't explore the fact that they spend a great deal of time quoting almost fifty year old memories from those who were children at the time the events occurred. An old memory is bad enough as it is, but an old childhood memory is much worse. Plus, this was a traumatic experience carried out at the beginning of the war. Subsequent events in and after the war could have easily altered them. I should point out, however, that this limitation, or problem of reliance on aged memories, certainly doesn't completely negate the authors' findings. They have some harder evidence to support their story.

At this point does it really matter if 100, 200, or 300 people (the authors should have discounted the 400 figure before the Epilogue) were killed at No Gun Ri? Not really. The number is insignificant, in any case, when compared with the millions of military personnel and civilians killed during the entire war. What really matters is if we and our children can learn from history rather than just repeat it.

"When I think about that Korean War--those people never did anything to us. It's nothing like the Second World War with the Japanese and Germans, because they gave us a reason to have a war. You didn't mind giving your life in that war. The Korean War--I didn't know those people. They never did anything to me." (Korean War veteran Buddy Wenzel on p. 235)
from the publisher:
The untold human story behind the killings of Korean civilians by American soldiers in the early days of the Korean War, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who uncovered it.

In the fall of 1999, a team of Associated Press investigative reporters broke the news that U.S. troops had killed a large group of South Korean refugees, mostly women and children, early in the Korean War. On the eve of that pivotal conflict’s fiftieth anniversary, their reports brought to light a story that had been suppressed for decades. The story made headlines around the world and sparked an official investigation by the Pentagon that confirmed the allegations the U.S. military had dismissed, and Charles Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe and Martha Mendoza were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

In the summer of 1950, U.S. military forces opened fire on a group of South Korean refugees at a railroad trestle near the village of No Gun Ri. Survivors said hundreds died, mostly women and children. Retreating U.S. commanders had issued orders to shoot approaching civilians to guard against North Korean infiltrators among refugee columns.

In The Bridge at No Gun Ri, the three journalists tell the larger, human story behind this dark chapter of the Korean War through the eyes of the people, both Korean and American, who lived through it. The soldiers were green recruits of the U.S. occupation army in Japan thrown unprepared into the frontlines of war, teenagers who viewed unarmed farmers as enemies, led by officers who had never commanded men in battle. The Koreans were peasant families trapped in their ancestral valley between the North Korean invaders and the American intervention force.

In a powerful, richly detailed narrative, The Bridge at No Gun Ri brings to life these American GIs and Korean villagers, the high-level decision-making that led to their fatal encounter, the terror of the three-day slaughter, the harrowing months of war that followed and the memories and ghosts that forever haunted the survivors. The Bridge at No Gun Ri also presents for the first time the full documented background of a broad landscape of refugee killings that lasted into 1951.

Based on extensive archival research, including newly unearthed documents that show unmistakably where responsibility lay for widespread civilian killings, and more than five hundred interviews with U.S. veterans and Korean survivors, The Bridge at No Gun Ri is an authoritative account of the terrifying events of July 1950 – a long-buried secret from a misunderstood war.

Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe and Martha Mendoza were awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for breaking the No Gun Ri story. Hanley is a special correspondent with the Associated Press International Desk in New York who has covered a half dozen wars over thirty years. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Vietnam. Choe is an Associated Press reporter in Seoul, South Korea. Also a military veteran, Choe received a special award for his No Gun Ri work from the Korean Journalists Association. Mendoza, the recipient of a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University, is an Associated Press national reporter in San Jose, California, who has won numerous awards for her investigative work. Associated Press investigative researcher Randy Herschaft, who was the fourth member of the Pulitzer team and contributed to this book, is an expert in public records and electronic research.

"A wartime slaughter just waiting to happen, and then did -- costing hundreds of innocent civilian lives -- is unspooled here in all its misery, by the investigative AP reporters who won a Pulitzer for breaking the story . . . in crisp and forceful prose, the authors explain the roots of the Korean debacle: how Cold War politicos found Korea 'a symbolic battle ground of ideologies;' how a broad streak of racism wound its way through American military thinking; how the reactionary Syngman Rhee turned the country into a theater of fear; and, worst of all, how No Gun Ri, like My Lai, was only the tip of the civilian-killing, scorched-earth iceberg . . . A wrenching story. No one who reads it will question again why Korea is never evoked when our nation's military past is put on display.’’ --Kirkus reviews starred review

"In [The Bridge at No Gun Ri, Hanley, Choe and Mendoza] provide extensive detail, utilizing firsthand accounts by refugees and soldiers as well as considerable documentary evidence. The result is A fascinating but gut-wrenching account of a tragedy. --Booklist starred review

"The authors [of The Bridge at No Gun Ri] have done their research and tell an excellent tale -- one that the U.S. Army tried to forget." --Library Journal

"A sober and absorbing account of a very dark chapter in American military history by the journalists who first brought the story to light. Meticulously researched, scrupulously fair, and exceptionally well written, The Bridge at No Gun Ri is as complete as it is compelling. Fine reading and fine history." --Rick Atkinson, author of The Long Gray Line

"The Bridge at No Gun Ri will become a classic in the literature of modern warfare, drawn like an intricately raveled human thread from an unknown conflict that still resists every attempt finally to bring it to an end." --Bruce Cumings, Norman and Edna Freehling Professor of History, University of Chicago

"(The Bridge at No Gun Ri) is in a class to stand with such work as Hersey's Hiroshima and Keneally's Schindler's List . . . Powerful history." --Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Death and Life of Dith Pran, basis of the Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields

"The Bridge at No Gun Ri is truly a heart-wrenching tale of survival and heroism. Reading it, your heart breaks for the refugees and soldiers, for the tragedy and triumph. This is an inspiring book -- narrative history at its very, very best. Read it." --Doug Stanton, author of In Harm's Way

"The Bridge at No Gun Ri . . . restores to memory the nightmare of the Korean War as a whole . . . This is a book about remembering the past that is itself impossible to forget." --Marilyn B. Young, author of The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990

For most of the teen-aged American infantrymen, only days from the taxi dancers and neon streets of Tokyo, it was the first time they had fired their weapons in Korea. The barracks inspections, the manuals, the field training in Japan didn't prepare them for this kind of war... The recruiting sergeants never told them. Hollywood war movies gave no hint. Buddy Wenzel, the dropout who found his "out" in the Army, had no idea what he might be asked to do someday. "Word came through the line, open fire on them," Wenzel recalled... "We understood that we were fighting for these people, but we had orders to fire on them and we did." (p. 126)