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DoD News Briefing - No Gun Ri

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
January 11, 2001 5:00 PM EDT

Thursday, January 11, 2001 - 5:00 p.m.

(Also participating: Charles L. Cragin, principal deputy under secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, and Army Lt. Gen. Michael W. Ackerman, inspector general of the Army)

Cohen: Good afternoon. The other day, I indicated to all of you that I had made my last appearance at this podium, and I forgot at that time that I would be reading a statement concerning No Gun Ri. And I'm only going to make an opening statement, and then I'm going to turn it over to Charles Cragin, who has been really responsible for heading up the group of outside experts and producing -- helping to produce this report.

In September 1999, after press reports that Korean refugees were killed by U.S. soldiers in the vicinity of No Gun Ri during the Korean War, President Clinton directed an investigation be undertaken by the Department of Defense to determine what occurred at No Gun Ri in 1950.

Over the last 15 months, the Department of the Army has conducted a thorough and exhaustive review of the No Gun Ri incident, working closely with the government of the Republic of Korea, interviewing over 150 U.S. citizens and examining over one million documents.

And my oversight of this exhaustive investigation was aided by eight distinguished Americans: Ambassador Donald Gregg, Col. Young Oak Kim, Dr. Ernest May, former Congressman Pete McCloskey, Mr. Don Oberdorfer, former Gov. Mike O'Callaghan, retired Gen. Bob RisCassi, and retired Gen. Mick Trainor. I asked all of them to participate in this outside review.

Today, we are releasing the findings of the Army's investigation. [The Army report is available on the Web at http://www.army.mil/nogunri/ ].

The Korean War was fought for a just cause. After North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, U.S. forces were rushed into battle from Japan, joined later by many thousands of Americans, 36,000 of whom lost their lives in battle to defend freedom. In the early weeks of the war, U.S. troops were young, under-trained, and unprepared for the battle tactics of the North Korean forces. The sacrifices of the United States and the South Korean soldiers who lost their lives in this fight for freedom on the Korean peninsula could never be forgotten.

The passage of 50 years has reduced the possibility that all of the facts can be known about the tragic incident that took place in the vicinity of No Gun Ri in South Korea. We have determined, however, that U.S. soldiers killed or injured an unconfirmed number of Korean refugees in the last week of July of 1950 during a withdrawal under pressure in the vicinity of No Gun Ri.

Earlier today, the White House released a statement by President Clinton that expressed the United States' deepest sorrow, regret and sympathy to the survivors and to the victims' families for the events that transpired at No Gun Ri and for their anguish during their long effort to gain acknowledgement of that tragedy. [The White House statement is on the Web at http://clinton6.nara.gov/2001/01/2001-01-11-statement-by-the-president-on-no-gun-ri.html ].

And while the recollection of these events in painful, neither Americans nor Koreans should bury this history. Innocent Korean civilians died as a result of the war forced upon our two countries, and we should never forget them, as we should never forget the brave soldiers who fought to defend freedom. At the same time, we must keep in mind that our war effort protected and eventually preserved the liberty of the people of the Republic of Korea, laying the foundations for our now long- standing partnership and for the prosperity and democracy that the Republic of Korea enjoys today.

As a symbol of our deep regret over the tragedy, the United States will erect a memorial in the vicinity of No Gun Ri, which will be dedicated to the innocent Korean civilians who lost their lives during the struggle to preserve the independence of their country.

In addition, the United States is going to establish a scholarship fund, which the United States and the Republic of Korea have agreed to name the "United States - Republic of Korea Commemorative Scholarship." This fund will preserve the memory of those who died during the war. It will also be used to offer South Korean youths the chance to further their education in the Republic of Korea and in the United States to strengthen the ties between our two countries.

The Republic of Korea and the United States lost many lives during the Korean War. Through these and many other sacrifices, the independence of the Republic of Korea was preserved and it flourishes today.

And so as we reflect with sorrow over the tragic loss of innocent life in this war, we should not lose sight of a profound achievement of freedom and democracy. Nor can we forget the strong and enduring friendship and relationship that has grown between the Republic of Korea and the United States. Our shared sacrifice of a half a century ago has forged ties of mutual respect and cooperation that we should be proud of as the United States and Republic of Korea begin a new century of friendship.

Charlie?

Q: Secretary Cohen, how can you say that there were no orders when the Associated Press found documents of orders? Did you --

Cragin: Thank you, Secretary Cohen.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm Charlie Cragin. I'm the principal deputy under secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Joining me this afternoon are Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Patrick T. Henry, the Army official who was responsible on a day-to-day basis for Army oversight of the investigation. And also joining us is Lieutenant General Mike Ackerman, the inspector general of the Department of the Army, the senior military official responsible for the day-to-day conduct of the investigation.

I'd like to make a few brief comments, and then we will open it up for your questions.

I have had the fortune, or misfortune, as you may want to look at it, of having the opportunity to work on a number of investigations through the course of my career as a litigator, as a federal judge, and as a senior official in the Department of Defense. And I can tell you that I have been very impressed with the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of this investigation. I have also been very impressed by the transparent and seamless way that two governments with different societal mores, different languages, obviously, have come together and have collaborated and cooperated throughout the course of this investigation.

All relevant documents, research and information has been shared with the Republic of Korea. General Ackerman and his investigative team interviewed 171 U.S. veterans of the Korean War. All of those transcripts were provided to our Korean counterparts. Over 1,000 (sic) [a million] documents were reviewed as part of this comprehensive investigation, looking at archival centers in both Maryland and in Missouri, at the Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks.

They looked at over 18,000 film canisters of photo reconnaissance and aircraft sortie film. Amazing, when you think of it, that these canisters were archived immediately following the Korean War and until now have never been opened and evaluated.

And in the course of this investigation, the Department of the Army team expended approximately 54,800 hours of time in conducting this investigation. If we give every person two weeks off for vacation, we would have the equivalent of about 27 people working full-time for a year in conducting the investigation.

I know that each of you has had an opportunity to look at the Statement of Mutual Understanding, but let me take a couple of moments to call to your attention again some of the salient facets of that statement, because essentially that statement constitutes the findings of fact found by both governments, the Republic of Korea and the United States, as it relates to our mutual investigations with respected to these incidents. [The Statement of Mutual Understanding is on DefenseLINK at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jan2001/smu20010111.html ].

First off, the efforts of the Korean and U.S. No Gun Ri review teams exemplify the highest levels of ROK-U.S. bilateral cooperation. Throughout the duration of this important and sensitive endeavor, both teams established and steadfastly sustained an environment of mutual cooperation and trust. The Korean and American officials associated with this effort consistently demonstrated their commitment to examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the events. Both teams have candidly shared facts, statements, and documents.

In the early period of the conflict, many of the U.S. soldiers deployed to Korea were young, under-trained, under-equipped, and new to combat. Units operating in the vicinity of No Gun Ri were under the command and control of leaders with limited proven experience in combat. They were unprepared for the weapons and tactics of the North Korea forces that they would face and the speed of the North Korean advance.

U.S. soldiers were legitimately fearful of the possible infiltration of North Korean soldiers, who routinely entered American lines in groups disguised as civilians in refugee columns and then attacked American positions from the rear.

There are several incidents which have been aggregated as the incident at No Gun Ri. And the statement of mutual understanding speaks to each of those incidents.

Some Korean witnesses stated that they saw refugees killed on July 25th, when refugees were directed by U.S. forces to stay in an open area near Ha Ga Ri, one and a half kilometers from the village of Joo Gok Ri. Various Korean witnesses state that one to four persons were shot when they either strayed from the group, tried to leave the group, or did not move fast enough. The review could not confirm what soldiers were involved nor whether this action was a reaction to a violation of refugee control measures in effect at the time.

As to air strikes, according to their statements in their testimony, many Korean witnesses indicate that they were strafed or bombed by U.S. airplanes around noon on July 26th, 1950. Some U.S. veterans stated that they saw U.S. planes strafing targets in late July 1950, and some of these veterans saw them when deployed in the No Gun Ri area. But they could not recall when or identify what the targets were. Some veterans saw planes strafe tanks with refugees on or near them in July 1950.

One veteran stated that on an unknown date he saw refugees on a dirt road and an old railroad being strafed. Official U.S. Air Force records and pilot interviews found during research do not reflect any mission flown on the 26th of July in the vicinity of No Gun Ri. The Fifth Air Force summary of air operations indicated that some missions were flown over the Yongdong area on that day. But mission reports for three of these missions could not be found.

However, early in the morning on July 27, 1950 an air strike did, in fact, take place in the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment area in the vicinity of No Gun Ri. And therefore we know that an air strike took place on the 27th. We have three missing mission documents, and therefore we cannot prove the negative, and therefore determine that it was possible that an air strike also occurred as recounted by Korean witnesses on the 26th of July, 1950.

Ground fire: At some time between July 26th and 29th, 1950, some U.S. soldiers fired toward the refugees who were at various locations, including inside the double overpass. They did so either to control the refugees movements or because they believed that they had reviewed small arms fire from those locations. As a result, an unknown number of refugees were killed or injured in the desperate opening weeks of defensive combat in the Korean War.

Orders to fire: All the veterans interviewed by the U.S. Army who fired at refugees stated that they did not receive any order to fire. Some other veterans, however, stated that they believed that such an order must have been given. While a comprehensive search of records, and these veterans interviews, did not disclose any evidence of the issuance of such an order, some other veterans, who themselves did not fire at refugees, assumed that there must have been an order to fire on refugees because they observed small arms, machine guns, mortar, and artillery fire at refugees.

These are some of the salient points from the findings of fact -- the statement of mutual understanding, so-called -- agreed to by the Republic of Korea government and the United States.

And that concludes our presentation. And I think you have a question.

Q: Mr. Cragin, if I could just pick up on your last point.

Yeah, we've all read the Associated Press accounts and all the supporting documents that went with them, and among the documents that were there were documents that did refer to firing at refugees. One said that -- referred to any refugees found in a certain area being deemed as enemy and treated as such. And another one -- one said, "all civilians seen in this area are to be considered enemy and action taken accordingly."

Another one was the memo that was unearthed -- a memo to General Timberlake, which was -- the subject was the policy on strafing refugees which said, to date that the Air Force had complied with Army requests to strafe civilian refugee parties.

So based on that, how can you say that you found no evidence of any orders being issued to fire on civilians?

Cragin: Well, let me start where you ended, with the Rogers memo, so-called, because that also is part of the findings of fact contained in the statement of mutual understanding, and says in its totality -- in a memo dated 25 July 1950, Colonel Turner C. Rogers of 5th Air Force Headquarters, stated that, quote, "It is reported that large groups of civilians either composed or controlled by North Korean soldiers are infiltrating U.S. positions. The Army has requested that we strafe all civilian refugee parties that are noted approaching our positions. To date, we have complied with the Army request in this respect," end of quote.

The SMU, the statement of fact, goes on to say, "None of the pilots interviewed, however, remembers such a policy." In fact, Colonel Rogers, as the investigation report points out, had been in Korea for approximately 36 hours at the time that he apparently developed this document. His memory is such today, when he was interviewed, that he had no independent recollection of the document or of producing the document. The only referral point on this document is to refer it to the public information officer, but we found no ancillary documents of any nature that would suggest that any action had been taken prior to that to promulgate such an order, nor was any action taken, assuming someone actually received the Rogers order, to do something about it. Number one.

Number two, there are references in message logs, for example, of liaison officers reporting -- a liaison officer, to be specific -- reporting something that he believed to have been announced at a meeting which he attended at a higher headquarters element, and it was contained in a message log. That does not constitute in any way, shape or form an order, and it was not deemed to be an order.

The only orders that we could find were the inferences of orders.

And our Korean colleagues were in agreement with that, as you listened to the statement of mutual understanding, that there were people who saw mortar fire and machine-gun fire, et cetera, and inferred from that fire that there must have been orders. But as I said earlier, any of the individuals who in fact indicated that they did fire indicated also that they had never received such an order to do so.

The statement of mutual understanding, however, does recognize that the firings took place because in some instances, U.S. soldiers believed they were being fired upon from those locations.

Q: Well, if I could just follow up on another statement from the Army report, and this is not from the memorandum of agreement or understanding. In the executive summary, it says on the issue of firing on civilian, it says, "the deaths and injuries of civilians, wherever they occurred, were an unfortunate tragedy inherent to war and not a deliberate killing." How can you say these were not deliberate killings?

Cragin: I think the intent of that statement is that the soldiers were not aiming at innocent civilians for the purpose of killing innocent civilians. What they perceived was a threat to themselves. And believing a threat situation, recalling again the environment that these young men were dealing with infiltrators coming in through refugee columns et cetera, that they believed they were in a threat situation. That is not the deliberate and intentional determination to kill an innocent non-combatant. And I think that's the distinction that's being drawn.

Q: If a person is pulling a trigger at people in civilian clothes, and the bullet goes out and hit these people, isn't that a deliberate act by definition? How can that be a non-deliberate act?

Cragin: I think if they're pulling a trigger at people in civilian clothes and they believe, for example, that people in civilian clothes have been firing at them, and they have a very substantial history in the early period of the war of having North Korean People's Army personnel pose as civilians, as the Statement of Mutual Understanding says, that's a different distinction than saying here is somebody who is clearly an innocent, noncombatant civilian. And I think that's the distinction that they are trying to draw.

Q: Were there commonly -- were there a lot of infiltrators found at No Gun Ri? Is there evidence that there were a lot of infiltrators amongst those civilians who were under the tunnel and who were killed and injured? Were there infiltrators found there?

Cragin: I'm going to ask General Ackerman on his report to answer that, but let me just say, before I ask General Ackerman to answer that question, there was a history that was pervasive at this time in the war throughout U.S. military forces that North Korean People's Army personnel were posing as civilian refugees and were carrying weapons through the lines, getting behind U.S. military forces and then attacking from the rear. That was something that just about every soldier in that arena at that time understood as a major threat, and refugee control and population control, because of that, was an ongoing challenge for the military force.

General Ackerman, if you have any specific details in response to that question?

Ackerman: Just one comment to that. Yes, there were soldiers that we interviewed, veterans that said that they saw or found afterwards North Korean soldiers amongst the civilians after the firing had occurred.

Q: Do you know how many there were?

Ackerman: Offhand, no, I don't, but that's in the report. It's covered very closely in that.

Q: Mr. Cragin, why was it so difficult to assess the number of casualties, when the South Koreans gave a figure of 248, and we're left with "unknown"?

Cragin: Well, please recall that the figure of 248 is not the figure that the South Korean government has given. What that is is a figure that has been provided to the Yongdong County office by the civilians in the No Gun Ri area. The Republic of Korea, in the Statement of Mutual Understanding, recognizes that it must further investigate that situation.

There was, as the Statement of Mutual Understanding says, a wide disparity between the two investigating teams as to opinions as to the number of casualties. It's quite probable that we will never know because of the passage of time, because of Korean burial customs, because of farming in the area, and a number of other reasons. But I think all of that, in the aggregate, explains why there is this divergence with numbers.

Q: Will any compensation be paid to the families of refugees who you've been able to identify?

Cragin: No, we do not intend to pay compensation to family members. As Secretary Cohen, and President Clinton earlier today mentioned, we will be establishing a memorial expressing the sorrow and regret of the United States for the loss of life for all innocent Korean civilians who lost their life during this struggle to protect their democracy. We are also establishing an ROK-U.S. Commemorative Scholarship program that will give opportunities not only to the families from No Gun Ri, but also educational opportunities for young men and women from throughout Korea.

Q: Have you been asked to pay any compensation to the families?

Cragin: The Republic of Korea government has been engaged with us in the conduct of this investigation. The victims are represented by attorneys who practice law in the United States, and they have communicated from time to time with various organizations the opinion that they intend to seek compensation.

Q: Do you feel that if compensation were paid that it would set a bad precedent for other claims of incidents of a similar nature that occurred during the Korean War?

Cragin: We don't feel that this is the type of case in which compensation, as a matter of law, would be provided. You, yourself, asked the question as to whether these were deliberate, intentional acts aimed at innocent civilians. Unfortunately, in the fog of war, and in war, innocent civilians die. That's the --

Q: They were civilians who died aboard the Airbus that the Vincennes shot down. The U.S. paid compensation for that. What's the difference?

Cragin: Well, I think there's a distinct difference. We were in international waters, the Airbus in international waters. It had not provided any provocative, hostile act.

We were in a war in Korea. We weren't in a war in international waters during that event. And we can go through a number, but I think that's the difference. We were at war. Our men were in the Republic of Korea, serving alongside our allies and the Republic of Korea Army to defend that democracy. And unfortunately, as part of it, civilians died.

Q: What about any kind of judicial action against GIs who may have -- the investigation may have revealed to have, you know -- (off mike)? Have you closed the door on that?

Cragin: I didn't hear the last part.

Q: You know, GIs who may have killed civilians. Have you closed the door on prosecuting them?

Cragin: To the best of our review with our general counsel, we have found nothing based on these facts which would suggest that any of the activities that took place rose to a level of criminality.

Q: You're acknowledging that civilians were killed, but you're saying that it did not rise to the level of criminality. What do you -- what was it?

Cragin: It was the loss of life by civilians who found themselves in the middle of a battlefield during a combat action when a U.S. military force was engaged in a withdrawal under pressure.

Q: Also, the findings -- would you say the findings contradict the memories and recollections of, you know, some of the eyewitnesses, any who said they recall -- it's all over the map. But hundreds of civilians. I mean, how do you resolve this -- you know, the difference between your findings and those recollections? Are you sort of discounting them as fogged by age, or -- or what?

Cragin: There's no question that if you accepted everything said by witnesses to the highest dimension of assertion with respect to every quantification you could get that there are clearly differences. But I think anyone who has -- and certainly members of the media are probably more professional at this than most, legal counsel perhaps following closely behind them -- anybody who has had the opportunity to interview a number of individuals who saw the same event, even if you get to them the day after the event, will have different recollections of that event and different impressions.

We found heartrending stories from the Koreans at No Gun Ri. And Secretary Henry and I met with them here in Washington in our offices, and we met with them again in Yongdong early in the investigation, when Secretary Caldera led a delegation to Korea.

And then we recently again met with some of them, I think on the 6th of December.

We have to recall that in many instances these men and women were 6 and 7 and 8 years old at the time of this event. And while their recollection today is specific and direct, in some senses it is an aggregation of recollection. It is not the recollection of an individual. In some instances, it's the composite recollection of a number of individuals.

And so we had to take all of that into consideration with the testimony of our veterans that had also been influenced by age, by the passage of events. They didn't, you know, leave No Gun Ri on the 29th of July and come home; they continued to fight and defend that democracy.

And therefore all of these recollections are somewhat clouded, and what we tried in the investigative process, and relying to some extent on our outside experts to advise us, because four of those outside experts fought in the Korean War, and two others, including General RisCassi, who was CINC Korea, had experience in Korea. We relied on all of this information. And General Ackerman and his team distilled all of this witness testimony.

And I would urge you, if you haven't had an opportunity -- and I know you haven't had the report for very long; I'm told some of you have had it for longer than others -- I refer you to chapter four, which is a witness analysis of all of the witnesses.

Q: Some of the soldiers that were interviewed and others who haven't been interviewed, but have talked about this, have expressed the view that the onus for this tragedy and these things happening lays on the enlisted men, and a lot of senior officers and other people, who were really responsible, either giving orders or not preventing this from happening, have simply walked. Is there any -- what is your view about trying to affix command responsibility for these events that happened, even for the -- just for history, since a lot of them are dead?

Cragin: I think what both teams, the Republic of Korean team and the U.S. team, have tried to do is to find the facts as best they could 50 years after the occurrence of these incidents.

The Statement of Mutual Understanding, and the report itself, recognizes that these men were poorly led.

In fact, the report goes into the detail about how many NCOs had been removed from these organizational elements, and things of that nature.

So I think, from that perspective, the lesson we are learning is there and it is well documented. To suggest that there is a specific individual who had more responsibility than another, that really wasn't the purpose of the report. The report and the investigation was to find out what happened at No Gun Ri to the best of our ability, and that was the charge that Secretary Cohen gave to Secretary Caldera, which he delegated to Secretary Henry and General Ackerman.

Yes, sir.

Q: There are some similar -- (inaudible) -- during Korean War that has been -- (inaudible) -- in South Korea. Are you willing to undertake another investigation if it is needed?

Cragin: We think that we have learned from the investigation at No Gun Ri that similar incidents probably happened during the course and conduct of this war, and that's why President Clinton and Secretary Cohen have said that the memorial which we erect is in recognition to the loss of innocent civilian lives during the course of the Korean War, and not just the loss of the innocent civilian lives, although we regret that loss, of those individuals at No Gun Ri.

Q: And then, are there some kind of argument between the United States and South Korean government not to take another case to investigate?

Cragin: I'm not aware of any argument between our respective governments.

Yes, sir.

Q: If this happened, the No Gun Ri killing, at the time happened in just a couple of hours or five hours, your explanation may be okay. That's fine to all of us. But the victims testified that it happened for over 60 hours. So how can you explain that? And Congressman McCloskey testified that there is lots of confusing testimony from veterans and people concerned. The authorities tried to shut their eyes and close their eyes and ears. There's a testimony that chain of command at the time, but you are not trying to listen to what they are saying. So what's your reaction about that?

Cragin: Sir, I think we've tried very carefully to listen to what everyone has said about this incident.

That's the only way you can really conduct a comprehensive investigation. And we've relied on the investigation team from the Republic of Korea to interview witnesses and provide us with testimony of those witnesses, as we have provided them with the testimony of witness from our U.S. veterans.

We have been able to identify certain incidents, and we have been able to document testimony for those incidents. We have been unable to find any documentation for a course of conduct that lasted for the period of time which you suggest. Had we found it, I can assure you, it would be contained in the report. But this report is comprehensive. It has been an exhaustive analysis of the documents that we've had available to us. We have certainly been receptive to receiving other documentation, if it exists. We did not receive any. Had we, I'm confident we would evaluated it.

Q: As far as the military is concerned, is this the end of the No Gun Ri inquiry?

Cragin: It is the end of the investigative phase of the No Gun Ri inquiry. As I said, we have, as a government, agreed to do certain things. And we will get about the business of doing them.

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