Chung Eun-yong ran to his wife and embraced her. She collapsed in his arms, sobbing. He asked and asked about their two young children, but she could not answer.
“At that moment, I realized what happened,” he said. “And I knew I was never going to have another happy day in my life.”
What he had grasped was that his daughter and son were dead. He spent the rest of his life trying to find out how and why that had happened.
Over the years Mr. Chung — who died on Aug. 1 at 91 at his home in Daejeon, South Korea — amassed evidence that U.S. troops had systematically killed more than 100, and possibly as many as 400, civilian refugees early in the Korean War near a railroad bridge outside the South Korean village of No Gun Ri. He sent more than a dozen petitions to the U.S. government demanding an apology and compensation.
He also led protests, and when a young reporter for The Associated Press, Choe Sang-Hun, saw a photo of one published in a small South Korean magazine showing graying men standing stiffly outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, he became intrigued. A caption said they were petitioning for redress for a “massacre.”
Mr. Choe, now a correspondent for The New York Times, interviewed some of the men and wrote an article about them for The Associated Press in April 1998. Soon he joined a team of AP reporters and editors to examine what exactly had happened over three days in 1950, July 26-29, at No Gun Ri.
The journalists provided evidence, later confirmed by the Defense Department, that Americans had indeed killed civilians on those dates near the village. They also searched through declassified documents and found that orders had been given to shoot civilians in combat areas. The military feared that enemy soldiers would disguise themselves as civilians, as they often did.
Its investigation earned The AP team a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in April 2000. That June, CBS News said it had discovered a memorandum confirming that the Air Force had strafed the refugees at the Army’s request.
The Army ultimately acknowledged the killings in a report released in 2001, calling them “a deeply regrettable accompaniment to a war.” President Bill Clinton issued a statement of regret, but did not make the apology that survivors had requested. The South Korean government certified the names of 163 dead, approved medical subsidies for the surviving wounded and authorized a memorial, which opened in 2011.
There was a striking disparity between the conclusions of the Defense Department’s investigation and those of the South Korean government. The Koreans said U.S. pilots had been told to attack civilians and that ground troops, too, might have received orders to fire on them. The U.S. denied this.
“It was a story no one wanted to hear,” the AP began its report. But it was the story Mr. Chung had yearned to tell.
Chung Eun-yong was born in the village of Chu Gok Ri in 1923 and dreamed of becoming an architect. He could afford only a school for railroad workers and became a telegraph operator for the Japanese occupying Korea. He quit after a fistfight with a Japanese co-worker.
To avoid being drafted into the Japanese Army, he joined the national police force in 1944. Soon after, he wed Park Sun-yong in an arranged marriage on a date selected by a fortune teller. He resigned from the police in 1949 — he said he was disgusted by the corruption there — and studied law at a Seoul university.
By then Korea had been split into a communist North and a non-communist South under an agreement in 1945 between the United States and the Soviet Union. Tensions mounted until North Korean forces invaded the South on June 25, 1950. President Harry Truman ordered U.S. troops to help South Korea.
The first U.S. forces that were rushed to Korea from Japan were widely acknowledged to have been inadequately trained and poorly equipped, and the North Koreans easily pushed them southward. Some North Korean troops wore the sort of white clothes worn by civilians whom U.S. troops had ordered to leave the war zone.
As the communists approached, Mr. Chung feared that his earlier police work for the South Korean government would put him in danger, he told AP reporters. So he reluctantly separated from his family, believing, he said, that women and children would be safe.
It turned out that his family was in the greatest danger. They were part of a refugee column that was stopped at a roadblock by a platoon of the 7th Cavalry Regiment on July 26, searched for weapons and herded aside to make way for military vehicles.
Some survivors said they heard Army officers radioing to overhead planes to attack the refugee group, a contention in line with the memo CBS News reported. But government investigators could never find flight logs or other evidence to confirm a request for strafing. Some speculated on whether the attack might have been accidental, noting that U.S. planes had mistakenly strafed U.S. troops earlier the same day.