No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident. By Robert L. Bateman. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2002. 320 pages. $22.95. Reviewed by Colonel Donald W.. Boose, Jr., USA Ret., who served as a rifle platoon Leader in the 12th US Cavalry (Infantry), had combat service as an advisor to a Vietnamese infantry battalion, and is currently an Adjunct Professor in the US Army War College Department of Distance Education.
On 26 July 1950, soldiers of the 2d Battalion, 7th US Cavalry Regiment (2/7 Cavalry), fired into a group of Korean refugees at a railroad overpass near the village of No Gun Ri, Korea. According to those living in the village today, survivors of the incident, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press story, the incident was a callous military atrocity: The American soldiers called in air strikes that killed a hundred of the refugees, then drove the survivors into the confined space under the overpass and, at the command of their officers, poured rifle and machine-gun fire into the huddled mass, killing another 200 to 300 of the helpless civilians over a three-day period. This version of the story seemed to be confirmed by American soldiers who participated in the massacre. Later, however, one of these veterans was found to have fabricated both his military record and his involvement, and at least two other key American witnesses were, on the basis of military records, found not to have been present during the incident. A review team established by the Department of the Army Inspector General concluded that Korean civilians were killed and injured by US soldiers in the vicinity of No Gun Ri, but could not confirm that large numbers of refugees were deliberately slaughtered. The members of the review board concluded that what "befell civilians in the vicinity of No Gun Ri in late July 1950 was a tragic and deeply regrettable accompaniment to a war forced upon unprepared US and ROK forces."
Robert Bateman, a US military officer who once served in the 2/7 Cavalry and a former associate professor of history at the US Military Academy, has conducted his own examination of the incident. The title reflects his view that military history is different from journalism and that the interrogation of documents, surviving witnesses, and other evidence through the methods of military history leads to a more accurate account of past events than does journalistic reporting. Bateman summarizes the historical setting of the Korean War, describes the experiences of the 2/7 Cavalry before 26 July 1950 (including tutorials on operational and tactical terminology), and provides his own explanation of what took place at No Gun Ri. He also addresses the issues of historical evidence, the "fake veteran" phenomenon, and military-media relations, with a critique of the methods and motivations of the Associated Press journalists.
Bateman's conclusions are, with a few exceptions, consistent with those of the Inspector General's review. He notes that when the soldiers of the 2/7 Cavalry arrived in Korea in late July 1950 they, like most American combat forces on occupation duty in Japan, had experienced little training above platoon level. Many of their most experienced noncommissioned officers had been pulled out to fill the 24th Infantry Division, the first unit committed to combat. On 25 July, the 2/7 Cavalry moved into a blocking position on a road southwest of No Gun Ri. The young American soldiers, facing combat for the first time, had heard stories of US units being overrun by North Korean tanks and of American prisoners being shot in the head, their hands bound with wire. They believed that North Korean soldiers clad in the traditional white clothing of the Korean peasant were infiltrating American lines, disguised as refugees. Bateman notes that the area around No Gun Ri was a center of pre-war communist guerrilla activity and speculates that South Korean guerrillas were probably still active in the area, assisting North Korean forces. …