Holly Richardson: The No Gun Ri massacre and ‘collective forgetting’

FILE - In this undated file photo provided by South Korea Defense Ministry, a South Korean soldier, right, and North Korean soldier shake hands as they meet to open a road connecting the two sides across the demilitarized zone in a project to excavate Korean War remains near the military demarcation line inside the Demilitarized Zone in Cheorwon, South Korea. With their second summit fast approaching, speculation is growing that U.S. President Donald Trump may try to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to commit to denuclearization by giving him something he wants more than almost anything else, an announcement of peace and an end to the Korean War.(South Korea Defense Ministry via AP, File)

Have you ever heard of the story of the No Gun Ri bridge massacre of the Korean War? I hadn’t either, until a couple of weeks ago.

In late July 1950, in the early days of the Korean War, U.S. troops killed a large number of South Korean refugees, many of them women and children, who were trapped under a bridge near the little village of No Gun Ri.

In the 1950s, the height of McCarthyism, it would have been unusual indeed to see stories about the U.S. military killing civilians, as it ran counter to the narrative of heroic patriots saving the world from bad guys. The few stories that appeared at the time described the “unfortunate mistake” made by “green recruits,” a narrative repeated by the Pentagon and soon, the media accounts and the “official” accounts were almost identical. Both repeated the “unfortunate mistake” line and used it as a call to increase military spending.

In September 1999, the Associated Press ran a story titled: “War’s hidden chapter: Ex-GIs tell AP of Korean killing” and included accounts from former U.S. soldiers who described the killings.

“‘We just annihilated them,’ said ex-machine gunner Norman Tinkler.”

The former GIs interviewed by the AP were consistent in their accounts of the victims being mainly old men, women and children.

The AP story uncovered declassified documents from the U.S. Air Force showing that pilots deliberately fired on “people dressed in white” (one of the strongest Korean national traditions) and even more concerning, an order from Gen. William B. Sean to his 25th Infantry Division: “All civilians seen in this area are to be considered as enemy and action taken according.”

Finally, a communication log from the First Cavalry’s Eighth Regiment recorded just two days before the No Gun Ri massacre: “No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines.”

Almost completely missing from any of these stories are the survivors stories. Even the headlines focused on U.S. GIs and not on the victims. At best, they were treated like “supporting witnesses” in their own trauma. According to University of Utah professor Suhi Choi, in an article published in Rhetoric and Public Affairs, the U.S. media “obscured critical narratives” about the survivors stories, starting with an air strafing incident that pushed refugees into the tunnel under the No Gun Ri bridge, instead of with the evacuation of their villages.

There was also a significant language barrier between U.S. soldiers and the South Korean refugees. The Korean villagers did not speak English but desperately tried to communicate with the soldiers “as they were on the verge of being killed.” Choi points out that the “inability to communicate with civilians in a guerrilla war not only made military operations ineffective, but also increased civilian casualties.”

Finally, the U.S. media almost completely ignored the rescuing of these refugees — by North Korean soldiers. The North Korean soldiers protected the South Korean refugees as they shepherded them out of the tunnel, then fed them and were kind to survivors. Was this part of the story not covered because it did not fit the narrative of what the “bad guys” did?

The provocative AP story, which was covered by a number of news outlets once the story “broke,” prompted an official review by the U.S. Army. One year later, the Clinton administration, which acknowledged the killing of civilians by U.S. soldiers, urged closure by asking U.S. soldiers to “bury their traumatic memories under the shining narrative of a noble mission.” There was no financial compensation for victim’s families and in fact, no actual apology — just a mention of “regret.”

“History is written by the victors,” they say. Choi points out that the No Gun Ri story has “melted into the amnesia” of the American collective memory.

It raises the question: What else lies in the “collective forgetting” of the American story, or the Utah story, or even our family stories? And what is our role in making sure that more complete stories are being told?

| Courtesy Holly Richardson, op-ed mug.

Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, is committed to telling more complete stories, even the yucky, uncomfortable parts.