A half-century on, the cold, matter-of-fact words leap from the typewritten page of a U.S. warship’s journal: “DeHaven received orders from the SFCP to open fire on a large group of refugee personnel located on the beach.”
The destroyer’s officers questioned the order, then complied. What happened next is frozen forever in the minds of those who were there.
“The sea was a pool of blood,” said Choi Il-chool, 75. “Dead bodies lay all over the place.” Witnesses say 100 to 200 civilians were killed in the Navy shelling.
For seven years, since going public with their private grief, the survivors of that day, Sept. 1, 1950, have demanded an investigation of what they say was an unprovoked U.S. attack on refugee families huddled on a Pohang beach early in the Korean War. The Seoul government said in February it would launch such an inquiry, armed now with firsthand evidence– the declassified U.S. Navy journal — to back up what the victims say.
Since 1999, when the large-scale No Gun Ri shootings were confirmed, South Koreans have reported to their government more than 60 such episodes of alleged refugee killings by the U.S. military in 1950-51.
Last May, The Associated Press reported the discovery of a declassified July 1950 document in which the U.S. ambassador in South Korea informed Washington the U.S. military had adopted a policy of shooting approaching refugees, to guard against North Korean infiltrators. A subsequent series of such U.S. Army orders, once secret, has been found in the U.S. National Archives.
About 2,000 South Korean refugees had gathered on the Pohang beach, 230 miles southeast of Seoul, after North Korean troops took over their villages in an August 1950 offensive.
They believed they’d be safe because warships of their U.S. allies were just offshore, said Bang Il-jo, 68. He said he’d been there about 10 days with his parents, a sister and a brother.
But at 2:08 p.m. on Sept. 1, the USS DeHaven received the order from its Shore Fire Control Party to open fire, according to the ship’s declassified war diary, found at the National Archives by the South Korean newspaper Busan Ilbo and authenticated by the AP.
The Navy crew questioned the order and was told U.S. Army intelligence said enemy troops were among the refugees and “the army desired that group be fired upon.”
Within minutes, the DeHaven’s 5-inch guns turned the unsuspecting refugee encampment, backed up against a steep hill, into a scene of carnage.
Survivor Choi said his older brother and sister-in-law were killed, his brother’s body found with head, arms and legs blown off.
“This place was reddish-colored,” Choi said, pointing to the curved gravel beach and wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.
Some were swept away by waves,” said Bang, leader of a survivors’ group. He said his wounded father died of loss of blood, and his 7-year-old brother of severe abdominal wounds.
The diary noted 15 rounds fired over 11 minutes. The DeHaven ceased fire after hearing from an air spotter that “personnel consisted almost entirely of old men, women and children,” the shipboard report said. Refugees had been desperately waving white undershirts at the plane.
“They knew we were refugees,” Bang said. “There were no (North Korean) People’s Army soldiers among us. How could they do that to us?”
Survivors speculated that an earlier observer plane may have seen the refugees scrambling under a sudden rain shower and viewed this as suspicious.
Without giving specifics, the ship’s diary asserted there were “very light casualties … due to fire having been directed to scatter and chase personnel.”
Survivor Bang said most shells did fall just offshore, but their shrapnel cut through the throngs of refugees at the water’s edge. He said the Americans offered no medical aid.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a fact-finding panel whose conclusions have no direct legal effect, will conduct the South Korean investigation, still in the planning stages.
Survivors say they seek compensation _ from Washington or Seoul– to at least build a memorial. “We’re just leaving it to their (U.S.) conscience,” Bang said. “Nothing can fully compensate for the suffering that we’ve gone through.”