Korea International War Crimes Tribunal, June 23, 2001, New York
Report on US Crimes in Korea 1945-2001

16. The Daejon Massacre

Excerpts from Korea Since 1850


So-called 'conventional' weapons were themselves enough to exact a terrible toll. Napalm was employed on a massive scale, 7.8 million gallons (35.4 million litres) of it in only the first three months of the war.[34]

In London, Winston Churchill protested without avail to his advisers about 'splashing it [napalm] about all over the civilian population' [35] and some pilots expressed shock at having 'killed civilians, friendly civilians, and bombed their homes; fired whole villages with their occupants . . .[36]

General Curtis LeMay, hero of the saturation bombing of Japan in 1945, boasted that 'over a period of three years or so . . . we burned down every [sic] town in North Korea and South Korea too'.[37]

Attacks on the fabric of civil society also included a June 1952 raid by 500 bombers which destroyed a complex of hydroelectric power stations on the Yalu River, the huge assaults of July and August 1952 on the city of P'yongyang (697 tonnes of bombs and 10,000 litres of napalm) which produced a civilian death toll of 6,000, and finally, in May 1953, the bombing of the irrigation dams on which the agricultural infrastructure of the country depended. The latter raid was designed to starve the enemy into submission. [38]

Whoever started the war, it was the forces of the United Nations which devastated the country, and an overwhelming proportion of casualties were civilian. The northern side, whatever its moral qualities or the justice or otherwise of its cause, simply did not have the capacity to mete out indiscriminate death to the civilian population by bombing, strafing, napalming, blasting dams or destroying food crops.


Despite this striking fact, it is remarkable that the reverse should have been commonly assumed about Korea. Though it should be clear that the acts listed above qualify as atrocities, they are not commonly considered so. Instead, the torture and murder of civilians, prisoners, or combatants is generally considered an atrocity only when the act is carried out in direct, person-to-person, 'low-tech' fashion, not when delivered by 'hi-tech', remote control from a bomber or as the result of a bureaucrat's decision.

This is a very delicate subject. Civil war excites bitter passions which are notoriously difficult to contain in structured and disciplined military activity. In the Korean War in particular, the fact that Seoul was repeatedly 'liberated' by both sides meant that those seen by the 'liberating' force at any time as having collaborated with the preceding occupation were liable to be rooted out and punished, often by torture and execution.

When Seoul was recaptured from the KPA after Inchon, many people were executed, perhaps as many as 29,000 [39] by the time Seoul was recaptured a second time by United Nations forces in March 1951, its population was down to 200,000 (from 1.5 million), its water supply had collapsed and illness was rife. [40]

The fate of P'yongyang and many other cities and villages was similar. There is no agreed figure for the number of those killed during the South Korean 'liberation' of P'yongyang and much of North Korea in 1950, but internal United States intelligence and governmental reports indicate that what happened was 'a nauseating reign of terror, [41] and one Japanese estimate is that 150,000 people were executed or kidnapped during the 'liberation'.[42]

A consideration of these very unpleasant issues suggests that, while the Geneva Conventions were little honoured in Korea, there was a political difference in the character of the war both sides were fighting, and consequently in the tactics appropriate or necessary.

At the outbreak of war in 1950, one of the first acts of the Rhee regime was to order the execution of political prisoners, whose deaths were in due course attributed to atrocities by the incoming northern forces. In Seoul, there was only time to execute 'about a hundred communists' (according to an Australian diplomatic source), but in Pusan an estimated 50,000 were killed, [43] and Gregory Henderson, then a United States Embassy official in Seoul, estimated that throughout the country, 'probably over 100 000' people were killed without any trial or legal warrant at this time. [44]

The northern occupation of Seoul, by contrast, began with the opening of the gaol and the release of all who had survived (because there had not been enough time to shoot them). Some of those released clearly had vengeance on their minds, but the studies of the northern occupation (as noted above) indicate only sporadic incidents of brutality.

Undoubtedly, the chaotic conditions of the summer of 1950 that followed the invasion bred the worst atrocities. There is no doubt that prisoners were on occasion murdered by their north Korean captors, [45] although the major American study of the matter concludes that:

'There is no evidence that such acts of barbarism against UN soldiers were ever countenanced by NKPA commanders-in fact, orders were issued by the Advanced General Headquarters of the North Korean Army to prevent the unnecessary slaughter of prisoners of war. [46]

However, the official United States Army report issued at the end of the war gave a total figure of civilian victims of atrocities of 7,334 (which it will be noted is a small fraction of those executed by Rhee in the first moments of the war alone).

Of that 7,334, the deaths of unnumbered civilians, variously estimated from 5,000 to 7,500 (sic), were attributed to a single incident, known as the 'Taejon Massacre'. This incident, described as 'worthy of being recorded in the annals of history along with the Rape of Nanking, the Warsaw Ghetto, and other similar mass exterminations', was the centrepiece in the United States case of brutality against north Korea, and since the majority of civilian victims of the entire war seem to stem from it, it must be treated very seriously. The United States Army report, including some shocking pictures, was given massive publicity around the world in October I953. [47]

The first thing to be noted about this report is that it was seriously inaccurate in some obvious respects. The Australian government was astonished to find a figure of twenty Australian atrocity victims listed.

Its investigations showed that all were confirmed battle deaths, and the twenty comprised seventeen Australians, one New Zealander, one American and one other unidentified person. Interrogation of Australian POWs after release revealed 'NO (sic) evidence of torture or atrocities to Aust POW'.[48]

As for Taejon, a massacre undoubtedly occurred, but what precisely happened, when and who was responsible remain to be settled. The first published references to the massacre appeared in an article in the English communist paper, the Daily Worker, dated 9 August 1950. [49]

Its correspondent, Alan Winnington, accompanying the (Northern) Korean People's Army on their march southwards, reported having inspected mass graves at a village called 'Rangwul' near Taejon, which is about 160 kilometres south of Seoul. [50]

He concluded from inspection of the graves, photographic evidence and discussions with villagers in the vicinity, that approximately 7000 prisoners from the gaols of Taejon and nearby had been summarily executed at that spot between 6 and 21 July (when the area was captured by the KPA), and buried in mass graves dug by locally press-ganged peasants.

His report was reproduced in a pamphlet, I Saw the Truth in Korea, which so distressed the British Cabinet that serious consideration was given to trying him for treason (sic). [51] Except in the sense of the outrage they provoked in London, Winnington's allegations, repeated in his posthumously-published autobiography, were never treated seriously, were never investigated, and were not mentioned in the subsequent United States Army report.

As it happened, the two Australian officers who earlier had constituted the UNCOK Field Observer team, Major Peach and Wing Commander Rankin, were in the Taejon area at the precise time that Winnington concluded the massacre must have taken place, acting as liaison officers between the United Nations and south Korean forces.

On 9 July (according to Peach's 1950 dispatch), he and Rankin were on the 'road from Taejon to Konju . . . along the Kum River, a few miles short of Konju'. Trucks loaded with prisoners were going south before the northern advance.'52 As Peach later recalled the incident: 'Before my very eyes I saw at least two or three killed, their heads broken like eggs with the butts of rifles. [53]

Later, in Konju, he was told that prisoners from the Konju gaol were being shot. [54] Peach reported details to the South Korean Home Minister but believed that nothing was done. A contemporary photograph in the London Picture Post shows a truckload of such prisoners on the banks of the Kum River about halfway between Seoul and Pusan 'on their way to execution'. [55]

They were described as 'South Korean suspected traitors'. Four days later, on 13 July, the northern forces crossed the Kum River, and on 20 July captured Taejon. When Winnington reached Taejon, the city was still burning. The sequence of events strongly suggests that Winnington, Peach and Rankin were all witnesses to different stages of the same terrible event.

There was one further witness, whose testimony strengthens the suspicion. Philip Deane, in 1950 correspondent for the London Observer, was told this story while in a prison camp in north Korea after his capture, of a massacre in Tacjon just before the town fell to the communists. His informant was a French priest, Father Cadars, and Cadars' veracity seemed beyond dispute. Deane wrote as follows:

'[Fr Cadars] told me that just before the Americans retreated from the town, South Korean police had brought into a forest clearing near his church 1700 men, loaded layer upon layer into trucks. These prisoners were ordered out and ordered to dig long trenches. Father Cadars watched. Some American officers, Cadars said were also watching. When a certain amount of digging was complete, South Korean policemen shot half the prisoners in the back of the neck. The other half were then ordered to bury the dead. [56]

After Father Cadars' protest was dismissed, the remainder were likewise killed. He was told they were 'Communist guerrillas who rebelled in the Taejon gaol'.

Unless, by some terrible fate, there were two massacres in the Taejon vicinity-the one described by Winnington and Cadars which occurred in July and was perpetrated by the Rhee forces, and the one which is described by the United States Army as having occurred in late September and having been comitted by the KPA-it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the events witnessed by all these men were aspects of the same unfolding massacre.

In 1992, however, more than 40 years after the events occurred, a full account was published for the first time in a South Korean monthly journal. [57] What Winnington wrote was confirmed (except for some discrepancy in the numbers involved) by eyewitnesses and men who had actually taken part in the massacre. The only matter which remained unclear was whether Americans had been directly involved or not.

We now know, therefore, that the atrocity which the United States Army describes as the worst of the war, ranking with the Rape of Nanking and Belsen, was committed by forces acting in the name of the United Nations.[58]


          138 Gavan McCormack, Cold War Hot War: An Australian Perspective on the Korean War, Sydney, 1983, pp. 124-27

          139 Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War Volume 2: Thje Roaring of the Cataract 1947-1950, Princeton, 1990, p. 702

          140 Aeba Takanori and NHK shusaihan, Chosen senso, Tokyo, NHK, 1990, p. 201

          141 Cumings, 1990, p. 719

          142 Quoted in ibid., p 721

          143 McCormack, 1983; p. 128-29

          144 Gregory Henderson, The Politics of the Vortex, Cambridge, Mass., 1968, p. 167

          145 See, for example, the UN Observer report discussed in McCormack, 1983,

          146 T.R Fehrenbach, This Kind ol War, London, 1963, pp. 200-201

          147 Interim Historical Report, War Crimes Division, Judge Advocate section, Korean Communications Zone, APO 234, Cumulative to 30 June 1953. Copy in Australian Archives (AA), Victorian Division, MP 729/8, Department of the Anny, Classified Correspondence Files, 1945-1957, File 66/431/25. Extracts appeared, with photographs, in newspapers throughout the world around 30 October 1953. See, for example, Daily Telegraph (Sydney) of that date.

          148 AA (Victoria), MP 729/8, File 66/431/25

          149 'US Belsen in Korea: Americans Drove Women to Pits of Death', Daily Worker, 9 August 1950.

          150 The village, though pronounced as Winnington wrote it, should actually be written as 'Nangwul'.

          151 Jon Halliday, 'Anti-Communism and the Korean War (1950-1953)' in Socialist Register, eds Ralph Miliband, John Saville and Marcel Liebman, London, 1984, pp. 130-63, at p. 146

          152 Extract from the Peach report contained in Dispatch by A.B. Jamieson, 2 August 1950, in Australian Mission in Tokyo to Canberra, 10 August 1950, AA 3123/5, part 4

          153 Interview, Sydney, 14 August 1982

          154 Rankin confirmed this account in a 12 August 1982 interview with this author by referring to his 1950 diary.

          155 'War in Korea', by journalist Stephen Simmons and cameraman Haywood Magee, Picture Post, vol. 48, no. 5, 29 July 1950, p. 17. The caption to the photograph described the incident as one 'which has been investigated by a United Nations observer'.

          156 Philip Deane, Captive in Korea, London, 1953, p. 83. The 1953 United States Army report locates the headquarters of the north Korean forces it alleged were responsible for the September massacre 'in the Catholic mission' in Taejon.

          157 No Ka-Won, 'Taejon hyong-mu-so sa-chon san-baek myong hak-sal sa-kon' (The massacre of 4300 men from the Taejon prison), Mal, February 1992, pp. 122-31. I am grateful to Chung Kyung-Mo for bringing this material to my attention, and to Kim Hong-Ja for translating it into Japanese.

          158 Cumings, 1990, p. 700 refers also to American internal evidence' which corroborated Winnington, though giving the figure of 2,000~4,000 rather than 7,000 victims


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