But the report says investigators did not find proof the troops were ordered to fire.
Also unclear is the death toll stemming from the incident, in which U.S. soldiers opened fire on civilians gathered under a railroad bridge. South Korean investigators say that up to 250 were killed in the attack, while the U.S. report claims there were no more than 100 casualties, and possibly as few as 50.
Calling the incident “a painful reminder of the tragedies of war,” President Clinton today expressed his “regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri”
The president’s comments came in a statement released along with the joint report. He said the U.S. would construct a memorial “to these and all other innocent civilians and create a commemorative memorial fund.”
While he expressed his condolences, Clinton did not apologize for the incident, nor did he refer to the role of U.S. troops in the attack.
“We have been unable to determine the exact events that occurred at No Gun Ri,” he said.
Report: U.S. Soldiers panicked
The report, issued after a 15-month investigation, is the first formal government acknowledgment of U.S. military involvement in the killing of Korean refugees in July 1950, the first month of the Korean War.
Secretary of Defense William Cohen said investigators spoke with nearly 150 Americans and reviewed over 1,000 documents.
The report says American soldiers involved in the incident were “young, undertrained, under-equipped and new to combat” and under the command of leaders with limited combat experience. The report says U.S. soldiers feared the North Korean military may have infiltrated their lines and posed as refugees.
In its presentation today, the Defense Department said the U.S. and South Korea are still committed to their alliance and to honoring those who served and died in the war, which followed the June 1950 invasion of the South by communist North Korea.
“While the recollection of these events is painful, neither Americans nor Koreans should bury” this memory, Cohen said. “The sacrifices of the U.S. and South Korean soldiers who lost their lives in the fight for freedom on the Korean Peninsula can never be forgotten.”
The Pentagon and the South Korean government also issued a “statement of mutual understanding,” underscoring the elements of the No Gun Ri story on which the two governments agree.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning report
Secretary of Defense William Cohen commissioned the U.S. No Gun Ri investigation after a September 1999 Associated Press article quoted dozens of G.I.s and Korean survivors who described a scene of American soldiers, reportedly acting on orders, machine gunning helpless refugees. The AP won a Pulitzer Prize for its reports.
“There were so many dead people here next to the stream, and there were a lot of American soldiers around,” Park Hee-Sook, a No Gun Ri survivor, told the AP last year. “I didn’t want to die, so I piled the dead bodies on top of me.”
Norman Tinkler, a U.S. Korean War veteran, told the AP in 1999 that troops did what they felt they had to in order to survive.
“Either shoot, stay alive or die,” he said “That’s all there was to it.”
And, according to AP reporter Martha Mendoza, the troops were told to shoot.
“There’s orders to fire on civilians — remarkable, sensational orders that have, you know, stunned military historians when we brought them to them,” she told The NewsHour in May. “They’re orders to fire on civilians…”
Questions of veracity
But other news organizations questioned the AP’s findings. U.S. News and World Report disputed the accuracy of one of the story’s main sources, veteran Edward Daily. When the AP went back to Daily with new information in May, he said he realized he could not have been at the scene of the shooting and must have heard the story second-hand.
But Mendoza said the story stands despite Daily’s reversal.
“Ed Daily told us about the shooting of a large number of civilians in South Korea. That happened,” she said. “The Pentagon has confirmed to The New York Times that they have now concluded that more than 100, I believe it was, people died there. The South Korean investigators have concluded the same thing.”
And some survivors allege that still more Koreans were killed in attacks from U.S. aircraft.
A report by CBS News last June cited a military document in which Army officials instructed U.S. warplanes to fire on groups of South Korean refugees fleeing toward American lines.
According to the memo, dated a day before the No Gun Ri incident, the Army was concerned that “large groups of civilians, either composed of or controlled by North Korean soldiers, are infiltrating U.S. positions.” But, the memo warned, targeting civilians “may cause embarrassment to the Air Force.”