Jae-Soon Chang / Associated Press News – 2008-08-04 22:51:25
(August 3, 2008) — The war refugees, frigid, laden with baggage, trudged down a mountain road on a winter’s day in 1951, toward the safety of US Army lines. But they were turned back at gunpoint, to return home to a fiery doom.
Within days, hundreds of the displaced villagers, crowding into a narrow cave, came under napalm attack from waves of US Air Force planes. More than 300 died, mostly women and children, most trapped in the smoke and flames, some strafed when they fled, survivors say.
“People moaned and screamed and shouted in the darkness,” recalled Cho Byung-woo, who escaped the inferno as a boy. “It was hell. How could they not tell civilians from North Korean troops?”
“They wouldn’t have died like that if they had allowed the refugees to pass through their lines,” he added.
After a two-year investigation, the story of Gokgyegul, the “Cave of the Crying Stream,” was confirmed on May 20 by the South Korean government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was one of the first inquiries completed among dozens of such cases of alleged mass killing of South Korean civilians by American forces in 1950-51.
“The US military hardly took into consideration a risk that its massive bombing and incineration operations could take heavy tolls on civilians,” the commission concluded, calling the attack indiscriminate and saying the US had failed, with the roadblock, to meet its responsibility to safeguard refugees.
It urged the South Korean government to seek victims’ compensation from Washington. The US Embassy in Seoul says it has not yet been approached on the compensation issue.
The Gokgyegul attack occurred in January 1951, as retreating US and South Korean forces struggled to stop the North Koreans, massively reinforced by Chinese troops, from penetrating deeper into South Korea.
Declassified US military records show that the Americans, on guard against possible enemy disguised as refugees, were blocking South Korean civilians fleeing the fighting. Air Force pilots were told to view “people in white” — the color most civilians wore — as potential enemy.
Ordered to evacuate south by local officials, the villagers one early January day left this secluded hamlet, among snowy, humpbacked hills 120 miles southeast of Seoul, but were stopped just 3 miles away at Hyangsan by US 7th Infantry Division troops.
“Across a stream there were US soldiers with a tank. They blocked us,” said Cho Tae-won, 85, another resident of this village, which is dominated by a Cho clan. A declassified US regimental document confirms a roadblock was established there.
Cho and his younger brother, Cho Kook-won, were finally allowed to pass, after pleading that as government employees they would be targeted by the North Koreans. But the rest of his family and other refugees had to turn back.
“My feelings were indescribable because not all of us could go,” said the white-haired, frail Cho Tae-won.
In the following days, fearing bombings, the Yeongchun villagers left their homes again and moved into the nearby 85-yard-long cave, named for the “crying” sound of its intermittent stream. Outside, they tethered cows and stacked household goods.
“People thought they’d be safe inside,” said Cho Tae-won. But on Jan. 20, at 9:50 a.m., two or three Air Force F-51 Mustangs struck, the US record shows.
“They dropped oil drums” — gasoline-gel napalm bombs — “and then the fire incinerated everything and spread into the cave,” Cho Byung-woo, 66, told Associated Press reporters visiting the site, today a quiet place of chirping birds and fluttering Confucian prayer flags.
His father saved the 9-year-old boy, but from a ditch outside, young Cho witnessed more carnage as US jets strafed fleeing villagers with .50-caliber machine guns. He saw a bullet slit open a young friend’s belly.
“His bowels spilled out. His mother fell down and cried over his body in the shower of bullets.”
The absent Cho brothers lost their father, a teenage sister and brother, and Cho Tae-won’s 2-year-old son in the attack, they said. Survivors say there were no North Koreans near the cave and surveillance pilots who flew overhead for days should have known that. American pilots claimed in after-mission reports to have killed “troops” and “pack animals.” But six days later a US ground patrol reported finding 75 refugee bodies instead.
The truth commission concluded “well over 200” civilians were killed.
Gokgyegul remains a hallowed site. “For years, when it rained, water flooding out of the cave carried the bones away,” said Cho Byung-woo.
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