South Korea Says U.S. Killed Hundreds of Civilians
By CHOE SANG-HUN
WOLMI ISLAND, South Korea — When American troops stormed this island more than half a century ago, it was a hive of Communist trenches and pillboxes. Now it is a park where children play and retirees stroll along a tree-shaded esplanade.
From a hilltop across a narrow channel, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, memorialized in bronze, appears to gaze down at the beaches of Inchon where his troops splashed ashore in September 1950, changing the course of the Korean War and making him a hero here.
In the port below, rows of cars, gleaming in the sun, wait to be shipped around the world — testimony to South Korea’s industrial might and a reminder of which side has triumphed economically since the conflict ended 55 years ago.
But inside a ragged tent at the entrance of the park, some aging South Koreans gather daily to draw attention to their side of the conflict, a story of carnage not mentioned in South Korea’s official histories or textbooks.
“When the napalm hit our village, many people were still sleeping in their homes,” said Lee Beom-ki, 76. “Those who survived the flames ran to the tidal flats. We were trying to show the American pilots that we were civilians. But they strafed us, women and children.”
Village residents say dozens of civilians were killed.
The attack, though not the civilian casualties, has been corroborated by declassified United States military documents recently reviewed by South Korean investigators. On Sept. 10, 1950, five days before the Inchon landing, according to the documents, 43 American warplanes swarmed over Wolmi, dropping 93 napalm canisters to “burn out” its eastern slope in an attempt to clear the way for American troops.
The documents and survivors’ stories persuaded a South Korean commission investigating long-suppressed allegations of wartime atrocities by Koreans and Americans to rule recently that the attack violated international conventions on war and to ask the country’s leaders to seek compensation from the United States.
The ruling was one of several by the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in recent months that accused the United States military of using indiscriminate force on three separate occasions in 1950 and 1951 as troops struggled against Communists from the North and from China. The commission says at least 228 civilians, and perhaps hundreds more, were killed in the three attacks.
In one case, the commission said, at least 167 villagers, more than half of them women, were burned to death or asphyxiated in Tanyang, 87 miles southeast of Seoul, when American planes dropped napalm at the entrance of a cave filled with refugees.
“We should not ignore or conceal the deaths of unarmed civilians that resulted not from the mistakes of a few soldiers but from systematic aerial bombing and strafing,” said Kim Dong-choon, a senior commission official. “History teaches us that we need an alliance, but that alliance should be based on humanitarian principles.”
The South Korean government has not disclosed how it plans to follow up on the findings. And Maj. Stewart Upton, a Defense Department spokesman in Washington, said the Pentagon could not comment on the reports pending formal action by the South Korean government.
Under South Korea’s earlier authoritarian and staunchly anti-Communist governments, criticism of American actions in the war was taboo.
But after investigations showed that American soldiers killed South Korean civilians in air and ground attacks on the hamlet of No Gun Ri in 1950 — and after the United States acknowledged the deaths but refused to investigate other claims — a liberal government set up the fact-finding commission in 2005. More than 500 petitions, some describing the same actions, were filed to demand the investigation of allegations of mass killings by American troops, mostly in airstrikes.
The recent findings were the commission’s first against the United States, and it is unlikely that the commission has the time or resources to investigate many more before it is disbanded, as early as 2010.
Separately, the commission has also ruled that the South Korean government summarily executed thousands of political prisoners and killed many unarmed villagers during the war.
The Wolmi victims’ demands for recognition tap into complicated emotions underlying South Korea’s alliance with the United States.
“We thank the American troops for saving our country from Communism, for the peace and prosperity we have today,” said Han In-deuk, chairwoman of a Wolmi advocacy group. “Does that mean we have to shut up about what happened to our families?”
The airstrikes came during desperate times for the American forces and for the South Koreans they came to defend.
The war broke out in June 1950 with a Communist invasion from the north. In September, when the American military planned the landing at Inchon to relieve United Nations forces cornered in the southeastern tip of the peninsula, it decided it first had to neutralize Wolmi, which overlooks the channel that approaches the harbor.
“The mission was to saturate the area so thoroughly with napalm that all installations on that area would be burned,” Marine pilots said in one of their mission reports on Wolmi that were retrieved by the commission from the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States.
They also reported that no troops were seen, “but the flashes observed on the ground indicated the intensity of the fire to be accurate enough to destroy any about.”
The reports describe strafing on the beach but make no mention of civilian casualties.
The Inchon landing helped United Nations troops recapture Seoul and drive the North Koreans back. But the tide turned again when China entered the war.
The other two attacks the commission ruled on, in Tanyang and Sansong, south of Seoul, occurred as Communist forces barreled down the peninsula. As the allies fell back, they were attacked by guerrillas they could not easily distinguish from refugees.
Fearing enemy infiltration, American troops stopped refugees streaming down the roads and told them to return home or stay in the hills, or risk getting shot by allied troops. On Jan. 14, 1951, the Army’s X Corps under Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond ordered the “methodical destruction of dwellings and other buildings forward of front lines which are, or susceptible of being, utilized by the enemy for shelter.” It recommended airstrikes.
“Excellent results” was how American pilots summarized their strikes at Sansong on Jan. 19, 1951.
The same day, however, one of General Almond’s subordinates, Brig. Gen. David G. Barr of the Seventh Infantry Division, wrote to General Almond that “methodical burning out poor farmers when no enemy is present is against the grain of U.S. soldiers.” At least 51 villagers, including 16 children, were killed in Sansong, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The attack on Tanyang followed the next day, when, survivors say, American planes dropped napalm near the entrance of the cave where refugees had sought shelter.
“When the napalm hit the entrance, the blast and smoke knocked out kerosene and castor-oil lamps we had in the cave,” Eom Han-won, then 15, said in an interview. “It was a pitch-black chaos — people shouting for each other, stampeding, choking. Some said we should crawl in deeper, covering our faces with wet cloth. Some said we should rush out through the blaze. Those who were not burned to death suffocated.”
Like Mr. Eom’s family, most of the people there were refugees who had been turned back at an American roadblock south of Tanyang, survivors said. In the days before the attack, the cave was packed with families. When the American warplanes flew in from the southwest, children were playing outside amid cattle and baggage.
That day, the Seventh Division’s operations logs noted that 13 planes attacked “enemy troops” and “pack animals and cave.” It reported “many casualties and got all animals.”
Mr. Eom, who rushed out of the cave into a hail of machine-gun fire from the planes but survived, said, “The Americans pushed us back toward the enemy area and then bombed us.” He said he lost 10 family members.
Shortly afterward, South Korea’s Second Division reported 34 civilians killed and 72 wounded at Sansong, but “no enemy casualties,” prompting the American military to open an investigation. The American investigators did not dispute the South Korean report but concluded that the airstrike was “amply justified.” They said that Sansong was considered an enemy haven and that its residents had been warned to evacuate.
The case appeared closed until several years ago, when, in the course of a Korean television reporter’s investigation, villagers acquired a copy of the American military’s wartime report and read that they had been told to evacuate. They insist, and the commission agreed, that this was not true. They say the village where North Korean troops were sighted was elsewhere and was never bombed.
Regarding the Wolmi attack, the commission said that while it recognized the need for the landing at Inchon, it could find “no evidence of efforts to limit civilian casualties.”
Wolmi survivors said the North Korean officers’ housing was about 1,000 feet away from their village. They say the American pilots, whose mission reports noted “visibility unlimited” and firing altitudes as low as 100 feet, should not have mistaken villagers, including many women and children, for the enemy.
They said the American troops later bulldozed their charred village to build a base.
“If you say these killings were not deliberate and were mistakes, how can you explain the fact that there were so many of these incidents?” asked Park Myung-lim, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul.
The victims’ grievances found an outlet in 2005, when left-leaning civic groups tried to topple the MacArthur statue. But Wolmi survivors said they did not join the protest for fear they might be branded anti-American.
“We consider MacArthur a hero to our country, but no one can know the suffering our family endured,” said Chung Ji-eun, an Inchon cabdriver whose father died at Wolmi. “Both governments emphasize the alliance, but they never care about people like us who were sacrificed in the name of alliance.”
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