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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Bridge at No Gun Ri

A Hidden Nightmare from the Korean War

Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza

Henry Holt and Co.


The following is an excerpt from the book
The Bridge at No Gun Ri
by Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza
Published by Henry Holt
September 2001; $26.00US/$39.95CAN; 0-8050-6658-6

Copyright © 2001 Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza

July 20, 1950
Off Kyushu Island, Japan

Waves raced over the sea in long, broken ranks to batter the port bow of the David C. Shanks. The steel hull shuddered with each blow as the troopship rolled, lifted up, pitched forward and plowed on into the gloom. It held at a steady and stubborn 8 knots.

The four ships of the little westbound convoy, carrying 2,000 men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, struggled to stay in sight of one another in thick sheets of rain and foam, their U.S. Navy colors whipping wildly in force 8 winds. On the bridge of the Shanks, the crewmen tugged at the wheel over and over, nosing the bow back on course toward the wide mouth, still distant, of the Osumi Strait.

If all went well, the three lumbering transports -– the Patrick, the Ainsworth and the Shanks -– and their escort, a Navy corvette, would make the strait tomorrow, then skirt around the lighthouse point of rocky Cape Sata, at Japan's southern tip, to emerge among the islands of a stormy East China Sea. The next day, they would turn the corner and bear north toward Korea's southern coast, toward an unexpected war in an unknown land.

Maybe a couple of weeks in Korea, Buddy Wenzel thought. Maybe a couple of months. That's what they say. Private Leonard B. Wenzel, like the rest of the green troops buttoned up inside the Shanks, wanted to believe that his regiment, the famed "Garryowens," could handle anything thrown at them -– once they got through this typhoon.

The U.S. Navy had seen the giant storm coming for days, as it spun toward the sea lanes where the legendary "kamikaze" typhoon, the "divine wind," sank a Chinese-Korean fleet another July day seven centuries earlier, saving Japan from invasion. But heavy weather would not deter the American planners of 1950, at General Headquarters in Tokyo. The need was urgent for the human
f0cargo that had crowded in the hundreds aboard the troopships last Monday at the Yokohama piers. "The situation in Korea is critical," the supreme commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had told Washington. Now the Shanks' crewmen could do little but watch 30-foot seas crash over their bow, hoping to hear the wind's howl drop an octave, glancing nervously at the barometer. It had to bottom out soon.

The difficult passage -– a three-day crossing turned into five days -– was especially hard on one group of passengers. When they boarded days before, forty-five Japanese stevedores had been herded down the main deck to the stern and ordered to settle down on the open fantail. Now these quiet men in rough clothes were fending for themselves, finding shelter where they could on the jam- packed ship. Like other Japanese since the war, the stevedores had grown used to American bosses, and they were uncomplaining. At least they had a few days' work, loading and unloading hardware and food for the soldiers, and knew they'd be returning home when the Americans would not.

Below deck, in stifling quarters beneath the water line, the young Americans, their fresh fatigue uniforms now crumpled and soiled, sat pale-faced amid the reek, stumbled into the head holding stricken stomachs, or curled up weary on fold-down cots, stacked five high, trying to reread letters, mutter conversation, or sleep while bracing themselves against bulkheads or gripping bunk frames, praying for shore or at least an even sea.

For the proud 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer's regiment, it was an inauspicious journey into war.


On the appointed wedding day, a date chosen by a fortune teller, it dawned snowy, not a deep snow but enough for the cows to leave hoofprints. Sun-yong's family spread a rice straw mat in the center of the matang, and placed a table on it laden with the Korean symbols of matrimony: a live hen and cock bound in cloth, rice cakes, fruits, candles, alternating red and blue colors representing the bride and groom.

Now she stood before him across the wedding table, hair pulled up into a tight bun, face thickly powdered, a bright red dot placed on each cheek. Her coat and skirt were a rainbow of primary colors. He wore the costume of a court official -– red, black and blue. They performed the solemn rituals -– delicately timed bows, precise postures for sitting and facing each other, she always with head bowed, never talking or smiling, because a smile, it was said, would doom her to bear only girls, a dreadful prospect in a society that tells a wife her sacred duty is to carry on the male family line.

They sealed their marriage with a hapkunlye, a ceremonial sharing of cups of wine. She then retired to her room. He then ate a meal alone, and after sunset joined her. By age-old custom, women of the family gathered outside, to learn what would happen. Inside, according to script, he would blow out the candle, and the eavesdroppers outside were obliged to retreat, with giggles or grumbles.

As a policeman, Chung Eun-yong was exempt from Japan's draft. Having a family would insulate him still further. But the union was even more important to the Parks. Japanese police had been taking away young unmarried Koreans to become "comfort women" –- a euphemism for sex slaves, working in front-line military brothels. The roundups that began in southernmost Korea were now rumored to be moving toward the Yongdong area. To Sun-yong, then, this sober young man was not just a husband. He was a savior.


Back in Washington, some U.S. officials expressed misgivings about the ruthless, undemocratic partner they had put in power in Korea, but they were largely ignored in the growing anti-communist fervor in America, especially now that the Soviet Union had exploded its first atom bomb and the communists had triumphed in China's civil war. South Koreans were increasingly viewed as potential front-line shock troops in a global crusade. The U.S. government poured money and American military advisers into strengthening Rhee's 100,000-man army, which was led by men who fought for the Japanese, and in training his police force. The Soviets did the same for the North Koreans.

The Americans kept heavy offensive weapons out of Rhee's hands, since he had told them plainly he wanted to invade and reunite the north with his south. In bloody border skirmishes often provoked by the southern army, the two Koreas had clashed repeatedly along the 38th Parallel in mid-1949. As late as June 19, 1950, Rhee was asking Truman envoy John Foster Dulles for U.S. support for a cross-border invasion. For his part, the north's Kim Il Sung had taken a hostile, if at times vague, public line toward the "Rhee clique," declaring it would be destroyed. The northerners' early hope was that southern guerrillas would do the job.

For despairing southerners, some signs of hope appeared by the spring of 1950. The Americans had finally pushed through a plan for land redistribution, and election results that May promised to undercut Rhee's power. But it was too late.

A Korean proverb has it that "shrimp get broken backs in a whale fight." The anthropologist Osgood, in the timeless villages of a fading Korea, foresaw the catastrophe whose seeds the foreigners had sown. "For better or worse," he wrote, "the Koreans as a whole would have preferred to determine the course of events by themselves. "

On Sunday, June 25, 1950, Sun-yong and the children had come up from the south to visit her husband, the law student, in Seoul. The young mother was dressing four-year-old Koo-pil and two-year-old Koo-hee to take them to church. Suddenly a commotion arose outside, shouting in the streets, a siren. Eun-yong and his neighbors gathered around a radio. "North Korean communists began invading across the 38th Parallel at four A.M. today," a nervous announcer read. For the first time in a millennium, Korean armies would fight each other in civil war. Somewhere north of Seoul, the backs of the shrimp were already breaking.


For most of these teenaged American infantrymen, only days from the taxi dancers and neon streets of Tokyo, it was the first time they had fired their weapons in Korea. The barracks inspections, the manuals, the field training in Japan didn't prepare them for this kind of war, in this strange land, among strange people. The recruiting sergeants never told them. Hollywood war movies gave no hint. Buddy Wenzel, the dropout who found his "out" in the Army, had no idea what he might be asked to do someday.

"Word came through the line, open fire on them," Wenzel recalled. "They were running toward us and we opened fire." The Koreans seemed "confused," he said. "We understood that we were fighting for these people, but we had orders to fire on them and we did." The mind of this young man, the sad boy who raised two small sisters back in New Jersey, was then and there, at No Gun Ri, imprinted with its own freeze frame: of a little girl caught in the sights of his M-1. "I think I shot her."

A "little girl" claimed her place in others' memories, too. "She came running toward us. You should have seen guys trying to kill that little girl with machine guns," said James McClure, who was in a 2nd Battalion reconnaissance squad. "She was crying and she ran back into that mess, and I guess the mortars got her."

For Ralph Bernotas, what lodged in the mind was the distant sight of a "fountain" of white clothing, of refugees' bodies "splashing" into the air with the impact of shells. "Seeing that mortar fire coming in on that mass of people was very hard to take," said the altar boy from the coal country.


July 30, 1950
No Gun Ri, South Korea

Many hours after it ended, after the last cries echoed off the concrete walls, the elder brother stood outside the mouth of the tunnel. "Koo- hak!" he shouted through the darkness and rain. "Koo-hak!"

Chung Koo-hun had crawled away on his naked belly that first night of the killings. He crept up a slope and hid among the scrub pine. Over the next two days, he circled home to Chu Gok Ri, a village now in ruins. Then the guilt-stricken seventeen-year-old warily made his way back to the No Gun Ri bridge, staying out of sight of strafing American warplanes. The American troops had pulled back the day before, and Koo-hun heard from survivors that his eight-year-old brother was near dead when they last saw him in the underpass.

A single North Korean soldier, a nervous teenager, stood guard at the trestle. Koo-hun could make out the heaps of white. They were his neighbors, bodies stiff and swollen in the summer night.

"Koo-hak!" he shouted. Inside, the boy heard but could not answer. A bullet had sheared off his nose and torn his mouth. He was weak. His throat had gone dry. He tried to speak, but had no voice.

The elder brother drew a breath and jumped over the wall of dead blocking the way. Now he stood in the black shadows beneath the bridge. He stumbled over bodies spread on the underpass floor. "Koo-hak!" The boy heard him come closer, but still he could not speak. "Koo-hak."

Suddenly, a hand shot out of the darkness and locked onto Koo-hun's pant leg. His heart stopped. He reached down. He felt the shirt, the same coarse shirt he had worn as a child. He pulled him up, lifted him onto his shoulders, and found his way back out into the night, carrying a maimed little boy, the last survivor of the bridge at No Gun Ri.


In the early evening of September 2, 1953, in a second-floor apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, a young soldier drank four beers and then exploded in fury, punching his wife, then his mother-in-law, throwing furniture out a bedroom window, finally grabbing the older woman's baby and running screaming into the street, swinging the child in the air. It took five policemen to wrestle the maddened man to the ground. He was hustled off to the Army hospital at nearby Fort Belvoir, strapped to a gurney and sedated.

"Korea War Hero Goes Berserk in Alexandria Home," read the headline at the top of page 5 in the Washington Daily News.

Art Hunter had come home to Virginia from Korea more than two years earlier with a record of bravery and a mind in turmoil. The 7th Cavalryman who had cut down dozens of North Korean attackers at the Naktong apple orchard became a machine-gun instructor at a Stateside post. But he fell into repeated trouble with the Army, going absent for long periods without leave.

In January 1954, four months after the violent episode in Alexandria, the Army discharged Private Hunter as "undesirable," a category ineligible for the usual veterans' benefits. His mother, Ruby, later wrote to a U.S. senator hoping to get her son's honorable service recognized. It was a plea from a woman bewildered at what war had wrought.

"He had been through so much, he should have been hospitalized," she wrote. "His nerves were shot, to say the least. He was always a hardworking boy. He got in no trouble before he went into the Army."

But the woman who managed to get a battered birthday cake to her boy in his foxhole was no match for the Washington bureaucracy. Art Hunter, wracked by sleeplessness, terrifying nightmares from the war, flashbacks, faces in the dark, had only just entered his "living hell."


People had long known that men didn't "adjust" after war, that many were afflicted by strange mental and physical maladies –- "shell shock" and "combat fatigue," it came to be called. But the root causes were not understood. In a report to the American Psychiatric Association in 1951, researchers said troubled combat veterans shared symptoms of intense anxiety, nightmares, sudden rages. One "hitherto unnoted factor" was guilt, particularly over the killing of civilians or defenseless enemy soldiers, they wrote. But ignorance persisted: an article in the military's Combat Forces Journal in 1954, on the psychological impact of combat, stated flatly, "It takes five to 12 days for a soldier to recover from combat strains." It wondered whether a pill might be developed to immunize soldiers against "mental crack-up."

Many men back from Korea were left floundering. Joe Ipock, one of the engineer privates who witnessed the blowing up of refugees on the Tuksong-dong bridge, said the bridge and other experiences left him a "nervous wreck," plagued by nightmares, nausea and other problems. "And they had no rehabilitation for us guys. . . . We come back and we started drinking. That's how we dealt with it."

Delos Flint spent only two days at the warfront, being evacuated with wounds in the early chaos at No Gun Ri, where he was trapped for a time with refugees in the small culvert. But the terror never left him. "After I came back home I used to go walking at night and I wouldn't know where I was," he said. "I was staying with my brother and I woke up one night and I had my nephew by the throat. I nearly killed him."

When soldiers began returning from Vietnam with rage, paranoia and severe drug-abuse and alcohol problems, Veterans Administration psychiatrists puzzled over it. In Connecticut, Dr. Robert A. Rosenheck remembered trying to understand them in the diagnostic lexicon of the day –- a psychoanalytical approach stressing such factors as childhood influences and innate drives. "I did not think of it as war trauma. . . . There was no training, no words to say this was related to war."

The mounting evidence enabled the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 to define it as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an affliction whose cause was not some inborn neurosis, but outside the individual –- in a veteran's case, a traumatic wartime event. Research would eventually show that such events actually change the brain chemistry. "It is a hidden cost of war," Rosenheck said. ....

In his dedication address that afternoon, President Clinton saluted the 1.5 million men and women who served in the Korean theater from 1950 to 1953. "They set a standard of courage that may be equaled, but will never be surpassed in the annals of American combat," he said to applause from thousands. "You put the Free World on the road to victory in the Cold War. . . . You kept the flame burning so that others all across the world could share it."

The new monument, across the Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, bore this dedication statement: Our Nation Honors Her Sons and Daughters Who Answered the Call to Defend a Country They Did Not Know and a People They Had Never Met.

"They are good people. It's a good country," Clinton said of the South Koreans. This theme of the righteous crusade was struck again by the president that evening at the East Room dinner, in the Executive Mansion whose occupants first sent the 7th Cavalry west against the Sioux, and then eventually farther west to the Philippines, to Korea, to Vietnam. Clinton toasted the cause of 1950. "Righteousness overcomes all obstacles," he declared.

The glittering, music-filled evening capped a day of celebrating heroism and sacrifice, of reaffirming friendship. But on that day in 1995, sitting unread in one of the U.S. bureaucracy's millions of file drawers, a document addressed to "His Excellency Bill Clinton" told a different story from 1950. It was a petition written by some of those "good people," a group of South Korean villagers, and it told of the "killing of innocent noncombatants by your country's soldiers" at a place called No Gun Ri. They asked for an investigation, an apology, compensation.

The veterans marched that Saturday, some in wheelchairs, some with canes, parading proudly up the capital's Constitution Avenue to the sound of bagpipes and brass. The polished helmets and even ranks of Tokyo 1950 had given way to ragged lines of men in "Korean War Vet" baseball caps, wearing faded battle ribbons, their shoulders sagging with the weight of the years and the memories, and with the weight of the ghosts, American and Korean, who had never left p0them.

Copyright © 2001 Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza