The Story Behind the Story:
AP Reporters and Researchers and Korean Journalists
Collaborate on the Investigation into No Gun Ri

Investigative researcher Randy Herschaft, left,
and AP Special Correspondent Charles J. Hanley, right
hear the announcement in AP's New York office that
the Associated Press won the Pulitzer Prize for its
investigative report on the July 1950 incident at No Gun Ri, Korea.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens


Digging into history -
AP investigates U.S. actions during the Korean War

Martha Mendoza

Date: 01/01/2000
Publication: IRE Journal
Page 6
Copyright (c) 2000 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company.
All rights reserved. Copyright Investigative Reporters & Editors
Jan/Feb 2000

AP investigates U.S. actions during Korean War

In the summer of 1950, in the first weeks of the Korean War, U.S. military forces opened fire on a group of South Korean civilian refugees at a place called No Gun Ri, killing hundreds of men, women and children.

What happened next was equally shocking: Nothing.

Apparently no one in the U.S. military reported the killings. No one investigated them. As years passed, historians remained unaware of what happened, Korean survivors said that when they tried to file a grievance, they met rejection and denial.

That might have been the end of it. But a few years ago, as the political atmosphere in South Korea liberalized, a handful of survivors decided to press their case once more, sending petitions to the U.S. Embassy and, in August 1997, filing a claim for compensation with the South Korean government.

By April 1998, Sang-hun Choe, an Associated Press reporter in Seoul, learned of the Koreans' allegations and wrote a story.

In its official response to the claim, the U.S. Armed Forces Claims Service had said there was no evidence the U.S. Ist Cavalry Division - blamed by the survivors for the killings - was even in the No Gun Ri area at the time.

Tracking down the truth

At AP's New York headquarters, Kevin Noblet, deputy international editor, and my boss, Bob Port, editor of the Special Assignment Team, thought the U.S. response could be double-checked relatively easily.

It was. It didn't check out.

Randy Herschaft , an AP investigative researcher, found through some quick digging that the I st Cavalry and 25th Infantry divisions were, indeed, in the general area in late July 1950.

Port next sent Herschaft to the U.S. National Archives at College Park, Md., to find what he could about the divisions' activities.

The Archives' restrictive rules on access and handling of historical documents make work there tedious and time-consuming. Researching the Korean War was doubly difficult because the declassified military records from those days are scattered and the Archives has no Korean War specialist.

But Herschaft , whose gentle demeanor masks a tenaciousness as an investigator, returned to New York after a few days with a wealth of photocopied documents. His most startling find: orders from American commanders to their units retreating through South Korea to shoot civilians as a defense against disguised enemy soldiers. A story was taking shape.

In Seoul, Choe - supported by Bureau Chief Reid G. Miller, a Korean War veteran, and News Editor Paul Shin - was deep into his own painstaking work, assembling a chronology of the shootings based on interviews with survivors and victims' relatives and on historical material that provided day-by-day context.

Herschaft and I returned to the National Archives for further comprehensive digging, through hundreds of boxes of unit histories, war diaries, communications logs and other documents, including Air Force records, since the survivors said the killing began with a strafing by U.S. warplanes.

In the main reading area of the Archives, a new and sterile suburban building, copy machines echo and the sound of a dropped pencil can break the silent spell. Sitting in this vast, sunny room, I got caught up in war records in which soldiers were dying, the enemy was advancing and supplies were running out. Handwritten notes, urgent scribbles for help, would fall from the folders onto my lap and remind me where I was.

Mapping U.S. military positions

We returned to New York with hundreds more copies of declassified documents. They included endless notations of map coordinates - the positions of military units, multidigit keys to our search.

We obtained 1950-vintage U.S. Army topographical maps (scale 1:50,000) from the National Archives and the New York Public Library, and I began reconstructing troop movements, to identify units that might have encountered the refugees.

The walls of our small Special Assignment Team office were soon covered with big maps dotted with little stickers, each map representing one day in late July 1950, as I tracked the movements of American units.

We still didn't know whether the South Korean survivors were telling the truth. But more than ever we realized the U.S. military had it wrong when it said the I st Cavalry Division was not near No Gun Ri.

That was enough to keep me at the maps, for several weeks.

By late May 1998, AP Special Correspondent Charles J. Hanley joined the project, bringing the perspective of a 30-year AP journalist, a Vietnam War veteran and a reporter who has covered conflicts around the world.

We meshed well - Hanley's thoughtfulness and care in writing; my aggressiveness and insatiable curiosity; Herschaft 's resourcefulness and sharp eye; Choe's thoroughness and utter professionalism.

We in New York had not met our Seoulmate in person, but we worked seamlessly together with Choe, via global teleconferences at odd hours, e-mail, faxes and overnight packages.

The mapping finally paid off. We narrowed down to a few U.S. Army battalions those that would have been near No Gun Ri a halfcentury ago.

Finding and interviewing witnesses

Herschaft and I then began the monthslong process of tracking down veterans, using a range of resources, including the peopletracking databases AutoTrack, CDB Infotek and Merlin. The Korean War Casualty Database, posted on the Korean War Project's Web site (, helped us eliminate men who were killed in action, and Social Security Administration death records helped eliminate others.

As names and phone numbers built up, Hanley and I began the calls - cold calls to aging veterans from a few battalions. We began with enlisted men, saving the officers for later.

We identified ourselves, explained what we were working on, and let the vets talk. And we chalked up one lengthy interview after another, all dead ends but all useful in understanding the warfront scene in mid-1950.

Finally, on our 34th interview, I found a man who said he witnessed what happened at No Gun Ri.

His detail was convincing. But it wasn't until 15 interviews later that we hit another. Finally we began to zero in - on the 7th Cavalry Regiment's 2nd Battalion. We found more and more men out there, in Kentucky, in Kansas, in Michigan, who were willing to talk, about Korean civilians trapped under the same railroad trestle, in the same time period, under the machine guns of their battalion.

I remember firing at people to clear it out," said one. "The order came to fire," said another.

The interviews were far from easy.

Some of these men, in their 60s and 70s, clearly felt a need to unburden themselves, but even they could be a challenge, requiring follow-up calls or in-person visits before they opened up. Others who we believed were there didn't want to talk at all. Others were simply cryptic or terse. I know I was there," was about all one would say when asked about No Gun Ri.

We eventually learned that many. probably most, of the ex-Gls remained scarred psychologically by what they saw or participated in over three days in late July 1950.

Choe, meanwhile. was amassing detailed accounts in individual interviews with 24 Korean survivors. Small, chilling facts began to match on two sides of the Pacific. Both veterans and Koreans told of deadly ricochets of bullets under the trestle, of survivors hiding behind stacks of bodies, of screams of women and children echoing in the concrete tunnels.

We had pinned down the core story. We eventually had more than two dozen veterans acknowledging that it had happened, and about half of those were strong sources, discussing it in detail on the record. But there was plenty more work to do.

Port sent us back to the National Archives, to double-check the files and look for more, to ensure we hadn't missed something on the shootings and to collect more information on Army operations.

At the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., Herschaft reviewed 8th Army records and other high-level documents. At the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa., he found relevant Army manuals and regulations from 1950, and 37 boxes of notes from the Army's official Korean War historian.

From law school libraries, Herschaft got information about the laws of war in effect at the time, and about Army courts-martial that did take place in Korea - dealing with the usual run of common crimes, nothing large-scale like No Gun Ri. The Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw databases produced law-review articles relating to war crimes. We educated ourselves about the Vietnam War's My Lai massacre.

Some research was just a subway ride away: 1950 magazines and obscure books on the Korean War at the New York Public Library, and transcripts of U.S. Senate hearings on Korean War atrocities at Columbia University's library. (Atrocities, we learned, were defined only as acts committed by the North Korean and Chinese enemy.)

All in all, Herschaft made more than 50 trips to public and university libraries. He checked U.S. and European newspapers from those days, and consulted every available bibliography and index to periodical literature to confirm such a massacre was never reported. In Seoul, meanwhile, Choe determined that it had been reported in August 1950 by the North Korean press, articles that never circulated in the West. He obtained copies.

The interviewing never really stopped.

In all, Choe conducted close to 100, not just with survivors and victims' relatives, but also with Korean historians and other helpful sources.

On the U.S. side, we did more than 220 interviews, including multiple sessions with some veterans and scores of dead-end conversations with men who turned out to have been miles away from No Gun Ri. Our calls also eventually branched out beyond the 7th Cavalry as we learned of other incidents in which South Korean refugees were killed. Besides veterans, we talked to American historians and other experts, including law-of-war specialists in Geneva, Switzerland, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and elsewhere.

The important interview work wrapped up with a series of cross-country trips with AP Television News - producer Steve Fluty and cameraman Bill Gorman - to videotape ex-GIs and their accounts. Survivor interviews were similarly taped in Korea by APTN Seoul producer Julie Kim and cameraman Jai Moon. The recordings were also the basis for the AP Radio Network's report. AP photographer Y.J. Ahn also worked on the No Gun Ri project.

As we worked through the months, AP Photos editor Madge Stager in New York assigned photographers - including Ahn in Korea - to make pictures of veterans and survivors, and assembled archival photos to illustrate the story. One major discovery at the National Archives: shots from 1950 showing Army engineers setting charges on a highway bridge before it was blown up as refugees crossed, killing many. The bridge blowing figured highly in our "other incidents" story.

AP Graphics artist Tonia Cowan, meanwhile, prepared an information-packed graphic detailing the day-by-day steps toward bloodshed at No Gun Ri.

And AP Multimedia, in an all-out effort to tell the full story, designed a No Gun Ri site for our "The WIRE" web page complete with video, documents, maps and more, to provide solid back-up to our print stories on the AP wire.

On Sept. 29, 1999, we published the first story, "The Bridge At No Gun Ri." Two weeks later, we followed up with the piece on other refugee killings in the war's early days, including bridge blowings.

The project's impact

The stories ran on newspaper front pages around the world, and were headlined by major TV networks. Within a day, President Clinton ordered the Pentagon to investigate No Gun Ri "as thoroughly and as quickly as possible." South Korea's government also began an investigation.

The greatest impact has been on the South Korean survivors, whose hopes had sunk after their compensation claim was rejected on a technicality in 1998.

The night after the story broke, one of the older survivors telephoned Choe.

"I don't have many days to live," he said. "In my will, I will tell generations of my offspring to remember what the AP has done for my family."

Martha Mendoza was part of The Associated Press team - three reporters and a researcher - who investigated and reported on the killings of South Korean civilians by U.S. troops in the Korean War.