Draft of a Letter to the Editor by Martin J. O’Brien

Draft #2 – October 18, 1999



The No-Gun-ri story, put out by the Associated Press, was a disturbing story of death and the survival of American infantrymen who were fighting for their lives against superior forces in the early days of the Korean War.  The incident, which involved the deaths of civilians, was described by the AP reporters as a "massacre".  The jury is still out on that charge and the Pentagon has launched an investigation. 

    I came ashore with the First Cavalry Division on July 18, 1950 as part of an amphibious landing.  The division landed there over a period of days in increments.  The wire team that I was with accompanied the division headquarters.  The very next day we went with the 8th Cavalry Regiment to Yongdong to assist elements of 24th Infantry Division to pass through our lines.  They had taken a beating from the North Korean Peoples Army between July 5 through July 23.  Republic of Korea troops had also taken a terrible mauling. 

    Everywhere, there was mass confusion.  Columns of trucks carrying the dead and wounded, and some walking wounded, streamed by us, intermingled with panicky civilians who were fleeing the North Koreans.  To complicate matters, the NKPA was pushing the refugees, who desperately wanted to escape, in front of them, knowing that they would clog up the roads and hamper military operations. 

    North Korean infiltrators took full advantage of the refugee columns.  Many of them merely slipped white clothing over their military uniforms, or just wore the white clothing.  American and South Korean patrols did their best to screen the columns.  When the infiltrators were found, they were taken prisoner or they were shot, if they resisted. 

    The refugee/infiltration problem was a real deterrent to military operations and continued into August.  Remember, we were a road-bound army at the time, and we depended on those roads for our survival. 

    On July 23, the 7th Cavalry Regiment arrived to take over the Yongdong area, and our headquarters moved to Kumchon, then Waegwan.  Between July 23 and July 26, the refugee columns and infiltrators increased in numbers, and guerilla bands were operating behind our lines in significant numbers. 

    The incident at No-Gun-ri took place on July 26.  We now know with some certainty that there were military imperatives for what happened there and that the infantry division commanders got so alarmed at one point that they issued orders to stop the refugee columns.  Lines were drawn and anyone in front of those lines was considered enemy. 

    That is what caused the unfortunate incident at No-Gun-ri and that is what caused the two bridges to be blown in August after US forces withdraw behind the Naktong River.  Military imperatives.  They had to be stopped.  The men of the 7th Cavalry and the engineers from other units who were involved in those actions were following orders.  They have had to live with the consequences of their participation for many years and I sympathize with them. 

    The times were desperate.  If Taegu to the south, and the airfields, had been taken, and the escape routes to the ships in the ports cut off, it would have been every man for himself to get out of Korea.  And make no mistake about it, we would have been driven off the peninsula.  A lot more of us would have ended up killed in action or as prisoner of war, and the casualty number of 54,246 engraved on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in D.C. would have been much higher! 

   It was the informed decision of the division commanders that the refugee columns had to be stopped and the bridges blown.  The alternative would have been shameful defeat and disgraceful withdrawal from Korea – much like the one we saw years later in Vietnam.  In addition, the NKPA would have carried out a bloodbath, killing the civilians who had fled south after June 25.  The unfortunate events at No-Gun-ri and the bridge incidents should not be considered in a vacuum.  War is a nasty business and it is the duty of the commanders on the scene to protect their troops.  Sometimes non-combatants get in the way.  It happens in all wars. 

    I agree with the observations of L.J. Sommer, Tuscola, IL, a noted Korean War researcher who has interviewed hundreds of Korean War veterans:  ‘"In the recent AP story, the writers claim that 1st Cavalry riflemen broke the ‘law of war’—whatever that is.  Every combat veteran knows that the only true ‘law’ during the war is to kill or be killed.  During the Korean War, America’s finest men fought for survival in a brutal war that caused some 37,000 dead Americans, and still claims more than 8,000 missing veterans.  Thousands more were murdered in filthy North Korean prison camps.  These men did not dodge the draft or question their country’s need in 1950-53.  Instead, they responded to the call and fought for the freedom of people they did not know in a far away country that was equally unknown to them.  Not one single American who served in South Korea owes the people of that country an apology for anything.  Appreciation, not censure, should be the order of the day from South Koreans, because the price of the freedom they enjoy today was paid with American blood, American tears, American money, American military expertise, and American sacrifice."