1950: The Hill 303 massacre

3 comments August 17th, 2018 Headsman

North Korean regulars on this date in 1950 committed a notorious mass execution upon 41 U.S. prisoners during the Korean War.

The Hill 303 massacre took place upon a 303-meter hill guarding the northern approach to Waegwan. In mid-August of 1950, said hill was defended by the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, which narrowly escaped encirclement there by the advancing North Koreans.

Most of them escaped encirclement.

It’s a barely remembered atrocity in a war that America has consigned to forgetfulness; the massacre has seemingly never had anything like a thorough investigation. An indelible horror to the five men* who lived to tell the tale, its narrative outline is crude timelessness itself: holding these 42 U.S. POWs for two days, the North Koreans were themselves pummeled by a counterattack on the fiercely-fought hill;** unable to continue guarding the Americans, their captors fusilladed them.

This indiscriminate mass firing mere minutes ahead of the American approach was far from a thorough affair — hence the survivors, who were subsequently able to point out some of the captured Koreans who took part.


Massacre survivors James Rudd and Roy Day.

As a result of this and other summary battlefield executions, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed a threatening leaflet that was heavily dropped behind North Korean lines, threatening to “hold you and your commanders criminally accountable” according to the recent Nuremberg precedent.

There’s a monument to this gratuitous bloodbath that’s been recently installed, at the site of the shooting which is also nearby to a still-extant U.S. Army base called Camp Carroll. (The stone displays the date “June 25, 1950” — which denotes the start of the war, and not the day of the massacre.)

* Even the exact figures involved are a bit slippery. I believe we have 37 humans killed out of 42 captured, leaving five survivors. Some sources give it as 41 (attempted) executions with four survivors. A private named Frederick Ryan apparently was given last rites and declared dead on the scene but miraculously survived, possibly accounting for the variance.

** Hill 303 changed hands at least seven times.

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1950: Shooting on Seoul’s Execution Hill

Add comment December 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1950, South Korean police shot more than 100 alleged Communists on a hill outside Seoul. It was just one day amid a weeklong bloodbath that claimed a reported 800 or more, although December 15 was the one that helped to thrust the horrors into public consciousness in the West.

These mass executions occurred in the paroxysm after the North Korean capital of Pyongyang — briefly captured by the United Nations offensive earlier in 1950 — was retaken by Chinese-supported Communist forces in early December.

These were themselves only the most recent installment of numerous indiscriminate mass murders that had scarred the South Korean rear once Chinese intervention in the summer of 1950 turned the tide of the war. A South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation from the 2000s estimated that the collective death toll of countless such executions could “conservatively” run to 100,000-plus: “the worst tragedy of 20th century South Korea,” as one commission member provocatively characterized it.

In a Kafkaesque bureaucratic twist, many of those rounded up for execution were culled from the rolls of the “National Guidance League”, an organ set up by the Seoul government to re-educate former leftists. Enlistment to the League was incentivized by extra rations pushed by local officials with signup quotas to make, and that was just great for everyone until that same state decided to turn it into an expedient roster of fifth columnists.

“The authorities pressed us to join the league,” one aged survivor said at a 2009 news conference. “We had no idea that we were joining a death row.”

American officials directing the South Korean army downplayed all this as it was occurring. Even when the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea remained under the dictatorial administration of its wartime president Syngman Rhee, whose commitment to strangling leftist dissent extended so far as hanging the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. For many years the wartime massacres could be no more than murmured at.

The chaos of war helped bring the executions to momentary prominence in December 1950, however, when western conscripts bivouacked down adjacent to the capital’s “execution hill” and were aghast to witness what was happening there.

“A wave of disgust and anger swept through American and British troops who either have witnessed or heard the firing squads in action in the Seoul area during the last two days,” reported the United Press on December 17, 1950. (via the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times of the same date) On Friday, December 15, those soldiers “were horrified upon seeing truckloads of old men, women, youths and several children lined up before open graves and shot down by South Korean military police with rifles and machineguns.

“One American captain George Graff reported he kicked aside the dirt lightly covering one of the bodies and found it still twitching.”

Deeply shocked, one British soldier wrote to the government “wondering which side was right in Korea.”

Revulsion among these forces and their newspaper-reading publics threatened to badly erode support for the mission — a point made forcefully by the Archbishop of York in a letter to the London Times (December 20, 1950):

Sir, —

I hope that our Government will convey to the South Korean Government the horror and detestation with which the people of this country have read the accounts of the wholesale execution of suspected Communist sympathizers. Your Correspondent says it is reported that some of the murdered women “carried babies on their backs.” If these barbarous executions continue, all sympathy with South Korea will vanish, and instead there will be a general demand that the forces of the United Nations should no longer be used to protect a Government responsible for these atrocities. I am glad to see that British soldiers on the spot already have shown their anger at these killings.

Yours faithfully,
Cyril Ebor
Bishopthorpe, York, Dec. 18

Christian ministers in Korea likewise raised alarm over these atrocities with both United Nations and South Korean authorities. Due regard for humanity and/or public opinion led the United Nations on December 17th to exhume the execution grounds looking for evidence of child executions. But the very same day, according to the U.P. (via the Cleveland Plain Delaer, Dec. 18, 1950),

South Koreans hauled another batch of prisoners to snow-covered “Execution Hill” this afternoon and shot them.

Evidently to escape the eyes of angry American G.I.s and British Tommies, the prisoners apparently were forced to lie down in trenches where they were killed.

The new executions occurred only two hours after U.N. observers had supervised an exhumation of bodies lying in four trench-like graves on the hill and after 29th Brigade Commander Tom Brodie had told his officers he was not prepared to tolerate further executions in his area.

As layer after layer of bodies were disinterred from the mountain graveyard, Fusillier Capt. Bill Ellery, tall, moustached British officer, said coldly and precisely what all watching British and American troops were thinking.

“We don’t do this sort of thing in my country.”

A South Korean apologized. The prisons were so crowded with Communists sentenced to death that Execution Hill was the only solution.

“There are so many to execute,” he said.

An abatement of visible-to-western-press executions and the cosmetic expedient of a small Christmas amnesty appears to have stanched the immediate threat to homefront support for the war — which would continue for another two and a half years.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Known But To God,Korea,Mass Executions,Shot,South Korea,Wartime Executions,Women

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1950: The Chaplain-Medic Massacre

Add comment July 16th, 2016 Headsman

One of the noteworthy atrocities to decorate the chaotic early weeks of the Korean War took place on this date in 1950: the Chaplain-Medic Massacre.

Named by the Joe McCarthy-led Senate committee that in 1953 set out to catalogue (pdf) “a series of war crimes against American and United Nations personnel which constituted one of the most heinous and barbaric epochs of recorded history,” the Chaplain-Medic affair stars a chaplain and (wait for it) a medic.

During the Battle of Taejon in mid-January as the North Korean army swept down the peninsula, it committed a number of war crimes against American POWs.

In this instance, the North Korean 3rd Division came upon some 20 to 30 injured Americans of the 19th Infantry in the hills outside the village of Tuman. They had been left during a withdrawal in difficult terrain by their comrades who could no longer carry them, in hopes that another American detachment would pass through who could escort them back to friendly lines.

With them were two uninjured and unarmed non-combatants who had voluntarily remained behind to succor the stricken men: Catholic chaplain Herman G. Felhoelter, and medic Linton J. Buttrey.

As the North Korean patrol approached, Buttrey was able to flee. (He would later testify to McCarthy’s committee.) Felhoelter, remaining, knelt to issue extreme unction to his comrades and was executed mid-prayer … followed by all the wounded men in his care.

Buttrey earned the Silver Star for remaining to treat the wounded men. Felhoelter was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; his name appears on Arlington National Cemetery’s Chaplain’s Hill monument to slain military clergy.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Korea,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,North Korea,Shot,Soldiers,South Korea,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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1950: American soldiers during the Korean War

3 comments July 10th, 2011 Headsman

Jensen’s counterattack [during the Battle of Chochiwon in the opening days of the Korean War] in the afternoon [of July 10] uncovered the first known North Korean mass atrocity perpetrated on captured American soldiers. The bodies of six Americans, jeep drivers and mortar-men of the Heavy Mortar Company, were found with hands tied in back and shot through the back of the head. Infiltrating enemy soldiers had captured them in the morning when they were on their way to the mortar position with a resupply of ammunition. An American officer farther back witnessed the capture. One of the jeep drivers managed to escape when the others surrendered. (Source, specifically)


Photograph of a U.S. Army 21st Infantry Regiment soldier executed July 10, 1950.

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1950: Col. Choi Chang-Shik, military engineer

1 comment September 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1950, an unfortunate military engineer was shot by the South Korean government for trying to obey his orders.

As North Korea overran South Korea in the opening months of the Korean War, it put the government in Seoul to flight. A predictably chaotic situation attended South Korea’s evacuation of its capital in the summer of 1950, with Korean and American agents frantically destroying anything of potential value to the invading army.

Among the things mooted for destruction were the bridges crossing the Han River south of Seoul, and in the confusion of the evacuation, some bridges were indeed blown early on June 28 — killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers who were trying to escape over them.

All hands on this unpleasant affair quickly scrubbed themselves clean; James Hausman, the (underappreciated*) American military advisor who was instrumental in creating the South Korean military, denied it but seems to have given the order by way of his Korean collaborator Chae Byong-deok.

Choi, the luckless military engineer who carried out the operation, was left holding the bag and drew a death sentence for gross misconduct on September 15, the same date the Americans counterattacked by landing at Inchon.

After the 1961 coup led by Park Chung-hee — a gentleman we’ve met in these pages — Choi’s conviction was reversed upon an appeal from his widow.

[I]n accordance with operational orders from a superior officer. Choi tried to stop people and cars approaching the bridge by firing over people’s heads and delaying the explosion for forty minutes. His behavior was according to military behavior.

* See “Captain James H. Hausman and the Formation of the Korean Army, 1945-1950,” Armed Forces & Society, Summer 1997, Vol. 23, Issue 4.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Korea,Military Crimes,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Soldiers,South Korea,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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