By Dave Hughes – October 7, 1999



{David R. Hughes, Colonel US Army (Ret), was a member of the Class of 1950 serving in the Korean War in the 7th US Cavalry.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars during his year in combat.  He served as an Army officer until 1973 when he retired.]


A lot of ink, most of it from outside wire services, has been spilled over the alleged ‘massacre’ of South Korean civilians at Nogun-ri, Korea, July 26th, 1950 by units of the 7th US Cavalry.  Editorials have appeared arguing that since bad things happen in wars, perhaps we should never have fought there in the first place. 

    Well, there are many lessons that came out of that war, and many unreported factors which contributed to that incident at Nogun-ri.  There are much broader issues raised by this incident that the press has not commented on.  So I will. 

    I think I am qualified to comment about the Korean War, and this particular incident, and what they all mean.  For not only did I fight in Korea through some of its bloodiest periods, I was called on years later to analyze for high US officials, why the Chinese intervened there. 

    Even more to the point, I served in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, arriving soon after the events at Nogun-ri, and I have been an active member of the Korean Chapter of the 7th US Cavalry Association, over 950 strong, with whose members of all ranks and backgrounds I have associated for over 6 years.  I personally know many of the officers and men who were involved in this incident.  I have now talked to over 25 of them, doing my own ‘investigation’ of what reporters with no military experience have done for the press.  This includes one soldier who admits to being the primary machine gunner firing into the tunnels at Nogun-ri. 

    First off, there is no question that hard pressed and nearly disintegrating units of the 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 3 days after entering that war, both under orders, and using their own judgment fired at groups of people in the two culverts at Nogun-ri, killing and wounding an unknown number of them.  But whether that was a ‘massacre’, or an illegal use of force—a war crime—and whether shooting into that culvert was justified by military imperatives, are very different questions.  I have my serious doubts it was the crime as alleged.  But I will await the outcome of the investigation ordered by the Secretary of Defense before passing my final judgment.  Even the number and identity of people killed there is in wide dispute. 

    But I don’t have to wait for the results of that investigation to point out that, under recognized military law, there are military conditions under which US forces may fire even though it knowingly will cause civilian casualties.  The laws against causing civilian death in war are not absolutes.  If they were, the bombing of German and Japanese cities, and targeting of civilian facilities by NATO Air Strikes in Belgrade would have been war crimes.  They were not.  And many times in Korea, when hordes of civilians, some pushed forward as human shields against our troops, and infiltrated by North Korean soldiers who fired from within refugee columns left no alternative to our units, save death or defeat for our men and units.  That included accepting the civilian casualties that went with it.  I and every commander of combat units during the severe fighting in Korea knew that, and acted according to military law, battlefield reality, and personal conscience.  A respected lawyer in this town, who landed on Omaha Beach as an infantry commander, was, 6 years later a military lawyer in the 1st Cavalry division on the ground near Nogun-ri.  He largely agrees with me and takes issue with what he calls the ‘academic’ lawyers who so quickly have branded this, and the orders given, as a war crime. 

    I have determined from the memories of 7th Cav soldiers who were there, and by re-studying a detailed history of the 7th Cav in Korea by a Company Commander whom I knew, and who was in that unit at the time, that the military situation justified extraordinary measures for the survival of the whole command.  Our troops were on the verge of another Bataan like catastrophe.  Hordes of refugees mixed in with North Korean infiltrators who themselves were violating the laws of war as a matter of high policy, gravely threatened our forces. 

    The second point is that the condition of readiness of the US Army, both in Japan on occupation duty, and in the U.S. was so poor, caused by the willy nilly cuts made by Congress after World War II, that it was a crime to throw such ill prepared, poorly equipped green troops into a invading Army.  Gen. MacArthur may have been overly confident we could beat the North Koreans, but the 1st Cavalry Division was a hollow shell of what it had been in the South Pacific.  And a parsimonious Congress had refused modernization and improvement of our fighting equipment.  Our soldiers were killed shooting ineffective rocket launchers at modern Soviet tanks.  The company at Nogun-ri was fired on with impunity by just such a Russian tank.  The combat training of the units in Japan was very poor, partly because we did not want to damage the land of a recovering Japan.  Today environmentalists have made combat training, even on our federally owned bases, ever more difficult.  We paid for that set of priorities in blood the first two months of the Korean War.  The troops were also in bad physical condition.  That, however, was the clear fault of Army commanders in Japan.  Which, as today, reflects on our efforts to recruit and retain the very best officers and NCOs in time of peace.  Something we neglect at our peril. 

    The invasion of Korea was a total surprise to the US and UN, as was the invasion of Kuwait.  We keep kidding ourselves that, since the Berlin Wall came down, there can be no other such surprises.  Or that we can meet them all, and lower our guard, and disperse our forces.  All on the cheap.  That is a fool’s paradise. 

    When I read editorials saying, in effect, that we should have let South Korea fight its own battles, and not have shed American blood, young journalists of today are probably unaware that our government deliberately denied tanks, heavy artillery, and modern aircraft to the South Korean Army after we pulled our troops out after the free elections of 1948.  They could not have defended themselves after North Korea had built up – which our poor intelligence services, because they too had been gutted, failed to detect. 

    If we are going to let countries friendly to ourselves fight their own battles, then we had either best not supply them at all, and let them fall under the control of more aggressive nations with no such scruples as we have, or else we should properly support them.  We can’t have it both ways while also expecting to trade and move freely across the world. 

    "Freedom is Not Free", reads the inscription on the Korean War Memorial in Washington.  A Memorial that neither glorifies our victories in war, as does the Iwo Jima monument, nor displays a nation feeling sorry for itself, as the Vietnam Memorial seems to say to me.  And I fought there too in the infantry.  The silent, larger than life, steel soldier figures marching forward forever doing their thankless jobs at the Korean Monument, in our most Forgotten of Wars, perfectly portrays what we did in Korea, without fanfare or failure. 

    Reasoning, about where we come to the defense of others taken to a logical conclusion, would have been better for us to have capitulated at the peace table when Stalin was ready to turn all of Korea into a communist state.  We should have let Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait stand.  And if China threatens Taiwan, we should turn our back.  Instead, we stood for letting the people of South Korea, who had been oppressively occupied by Japan, determine their own destiny, by democratic means.  So the 38th Parallel compromise was reached, resulting in a grim, belligerent and impoverished dictatorship in the north, but 46 years of ever more representative and independent democracy and prosperity in the south. 

    My daughter in law, who now teaches at the Air Force Academy, came from Communist China.  Her parents were respected doctors in the Red Army there, trying to save lives north of the Yalu River while I, in the 7th US Cavalry south of it, were sending them battlefield patients in the bitter winter fighting of 1950.  Ironic, isn’t it?  When I visited Ha Ning’s aged parents in Dalian, China, and we discussed that war, I told Col Zhou that I thought China had made a big mistake in pushing us back out of North Korea after we defeated the North Korean Army.  He wanted to know why.  Because, I said, the United States is more generous and successful with its defeated enemies—such as Germany and Japan, than it is to its friends, such as England.  Had we stayed in North Korea, it would be today as prosperous as South Korea, and not a dangerous basket case which China has to help feed, and prevent from starting a nuclear war.  He didn’t have much to say. 

    We paid the price of 54,000 American dead, and 8,000 still missing in action, for the freedom and prosperity of South Korea, including that of the 30 claimants for compensation for Nogun-ri. 

    I do not think we owe them any more than we have already paid in blood and treasure.  We probably should pull out of Korea, but remain ready to go back in.  Being sure, unlike the uncertain trumpet we blew in 1950, that potential enemies know loud and clear we do not let free nations come under their heel. 

    Unlike many editorial writers, I think the Korean War was fully worth the price we paid.  I am proud that Hill 347 that I walked off of on October 7th, 1951 48 years ago today, with our handful of Company K, 7th Cavalry, survivors after our final battle before the truce, is still part of the line of freedom.  My grandsons, born of both Chinese and American ancestry, will be taught why I think it was worth it. 

    I would hope American newspapers take such a wider, educational view of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War when it comes round next June 25th.  It will be a time for younger Americans to relearn some very old lessons.  The Harder Lessons of Nogun-ri.