Every time we think about the atrocities of war, the first thing that comes to our minds is probably Hitler and his concentration camps, or maybe the Japanese and the death march of their prisoners in Bataan, and for good reasons. However, most of us did not know the unimaginable cruelties and atrocities that happened in the Korean War, when about 2 to 4 million people died, 70 percent of which were innocent civilians. No peace treaty was ever signed, although the United States, China, and North Korea agreed on “fundamental and principle levels” to declare a formal end to hostilities that ended in 1953 without an actual peacetreaty.

Beginning of Korean War

The formal beginning of the Korean War was on June 25, 1950, when South Korea invaded around 75,000 members of the North Korean People’s Army. They crossed the 38th parallel, the line created in 1945 to separate the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (now North Korea) and the Republic of Korea to the South that was supported by the US. However, what really triggered the war began when the once unified Korea was annexed by Japan after their victory in the Russo-Japanese War. They ruled over Korea all while forbidding them to speak their language and de-emphasizing Korean history. When Japan unconditionally surrendered to the US after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, the United States and the Soviet Union took over the Korean peninsula. They then divided Korea between themselves, thus the 38th parallel. This division was not based on a sort of political, cultural, or terrain boundaries. The Soviets built a communist government to the North while the United States set up a military government in the South.

There was a lot of disagreement between the Soviet Union and the US occupational forces. There were lots of tensions going on. In 1948, the United States called on the United Nations to sponsor a vote for Koreans to determine their future government. The North refused to participate, so the South decided to form its own anti-communist government in Seoul led by Syngman Rhee. Kim Il Sung, in retaliation, became the Premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK.)

“You are about to die the most horrible kind of death.”

In 1954, Charles Potter, through the Committee on Government Operations, compiled more than 200 pages of testimony from Korean War POWs survivors. Here are some of the atrocious experiences that they shared.

The Hill 303 Massacre

survivor of the Hill 303 massacre (Korean War, 1950) points out one of the perpetrators. (US Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A group of 26 American troops on August 14, 1950, was surprised and captured by North Koreans whom they thought were reinforcements. Their personal belongings were taken, and their combat boots were stripped off. Their hands were tied behind their backs. On the second day, more American soldiers were caught and joined their group, bringing their total to around 45. On the third day, they were led to a ravine and shot dead without warning. Only four survived, and one of them was Roy Paul Manring, Jr., a corporal with H Company. He said:

I guess they thought we was dead. As they left, a couple of minutes later I heard a sound like somebody was coming back, so I managed to wiggle my body underneath the fellow that was next to me— was dead— and they come by and they started kicking and you could hear the fellows hollering, grunting, groaning, and praying, and when they kicked me they kicked my leg and I made a grunting sound and that’s when I caught it in the gut, got shot in the gut at the time.

Two survivors of the Hill 303 massacre during the Korean War, 1950. (US Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Bamboo Spear Case

In late December 1950, North Korean troops ambushed five American airmen in a truck convoy. The next thing, their bodies were discovered by a South Korean patrol. Their flesh had been punctured in 20 areas with heated and sharpened bamboo sticks. No one survived. Lt. Col. James Rogers was the one who examined the bodies of the five men.

I made a medical examination of those five men and they suffered multiple superficial and deep spear wounds over the body, the face, the chest, and the abdomen. By the nature of the wounds I am of the opinion that the instrument of torture had been previously heated.

Prisoners lie on the ground before their execution by South Korean troops in Taejon (now known as Daejeon), South Korea. (Major Abbott, U.S. Army, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Chaplain-Medic Massacre

In July 1950, 20 seriously wounded GIs were slaughtered in a surprise attack by the North Korean Communists. The chaplain wearing the Christian cross and the surgeon with the Red Cross armband were both shot. The surgeon, Captain Linton J. Buttery, managed to survive and escape, despite being wounded. He testified:

Senator POTTER. Was he marked as a chaplain with a white cross?
Captain BUTTREY. Yes, sir; he was.
Senator POTTER. What happened to him?
Captain BUTTREY. He got killed, sir.
Senator POTTER.What was he doing at the time he was killed?
Captain BUTTREY. He was administering last rites, extreme unction, to the patient.
Senator POTTER. He was administering the last rites to the patient, to a patient on a litter?
Captain BUTTREY. Yes.
Senator POTTER. And how did they kill him?
Captain BUTTREY. He was shot in the back, sir.

The very nature of the war in Korea even sucked the United States into committing what could be considered war crimes by some.  There was a constant flow of Korean civilians trying to escape North Korea for the relative freedom of the South.  Among the civilians were North Korean troops in civilian clothes but armed with weapons and explosives. Some North Korean units the size of whole companies disguised themselves as civilians and attempted to infiltrate the South.  Consequently, the UN forces considered any refugee groups trying to sneak into South Korea at night as combatants and fired on them and bombed them.  No doubt, many of the casualties were actual civilians seeking refuge. At No Gun Ri, some 300 reported civilians were bombed and strafed by air force planes or shot by members of the 7th Cavalry,(yeah, that 7th Cavalry)

After the war, investigations found that both the North and South Koreans engaged in a brutal exchange of atrocities against civilians in a cycle of revenge and retribution.

 

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