Martha Mendoza and the rest of the Associated Press team are congratulated by Louis Boccardi, head of the news organization, following the Pulitzer Prize ceremony. Mendoza is the third UCSC graduate in the past five years to receive journalism's highest honor.

AP photo: Kathy Willens

The Bridge at No Gun Ri

Martha (Snyder) Mendoza--B.A., individual major (journalism and education), Kresge '88--is part of a Pulitzer Prize­winning team that uncovered a chilling chapter of the Korean War

The Korean War was barely a month old in July 1950 when U.S. soldiers encountered hundreds of South Korean civilians traveling by foot near No Gun Ri, a hamlet 100 miles southeast of Seoul. Advised by their commanders to be on the lookout for North Korean soldiers infiltrating the fleeing South Korean peasants, the U.S. Air Force strafed the civilians in a surprise air attack, driving those who weren't killed to cover under a nearby railroad bridge.

There, the refugees--many of them women, children, and elderly men--only encountered more horror, as U.S. soldiers from the First Cavalry Division directed machine-gun fire into the tunnel for three long days and nights. By some accounts, 300 civilians died under the bridge at No Gun Ri, and 100 perished in the initial air attack.

The massacre at No Gun Ri has been called one of only two cases of large-scale killing of noncombatants by U.S. ground troops in the 20th century; the other was Vietnam's My Lai, in which more than 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed.

Details of the My Lai massacre emerged by 1969, within a year of that incident. But the dark secrets of No Gun Ri came to light only last September--nearly 50 years after the killings. In an Associated Press article coauthored by UCSC alumna Martha Mendoza, a dozen U.S. Army veterans corroborated the story of the refugees who survived No Gun Ri.

For their investigative reporting, Mendoza and her AP colleagues, Sang-Hun Choe and Charles Hanley, received a Pulitzer Prize this spring. The trio also received the prestigious George Polk Award for international reporting.

"As we win awards, it is not something to celebrate," Mendoza says. "We wrote about people dying, and I'm trying to really keep that at the forefront. This is about the death of a lot of people."

The story Mendoza cowrote has prompted the U.S. military and the South Korean government to begin a review of the allegations. President Clinton has asked the Pentagon to investigate the incident "as thoroughly and as quickly as possible," and the government in South Korea is also investigating the killings.

Despite its scale, the massacre of No Gun Ri proved very difficult to document. The U.S. and South Korean governments had long maintained that they had no knowledge of the incident. In fact, the Pentagon had denied that U.S. forces were in the area at the time the massacre occurred--a contention that Mendoza set out to verify or disprove during the course of her research for the story.

"That took quite a lot of work, a lot of digging and filing of Freedom of Information Acts," Mendoza says. "And for me, putting stickers on 1950 vintage Army maps for three weeks to plot coordinates of where certain troops were on certain days." After pouring over hundreds of military briefings in which the troops would report their positions, she discovered that Army troops had in fact been dug in near No Gun Ri in July 1950.

As part of their investigation, Mendoza and her colleagues also tracked down and interviewed hundreds of U.S. veterans. After three dozen dead-end interviews, one veteran told Mendoza he had been at the No Gun Ri railroad trestle. "He was providing the exact same details that these South Koreans had provided about the incident. Except his perspective was that he was sitting behind the machine gun firing at them," Mendoza says.

Mendoza quickly realized the urgency and importance of interviewing the surviving Army veterans who could shed light on the incident. "There is really not that much more time for their oral histories to be shared. Two of the people we interviewed passed away before we published."

For some of the U.S. veterans who took part in the killings, the interviews helped them process painful war memories. "The veterans who were there have lived 50 years without anybody knowing what happened in this war," Mendoza says.

For the South Korean survivors and the relatives of those who were killed, the worldwide coverage the AP article received lent credibility to a chilling story they had been telling--but which had been largely ignored--for five decades. The coverage also bolstered their long-standing civil claims against the U.S. and South Korean governments.

For Mendoza, however, the story is important in at least one other way: "Letting incidents of this scale go unreported, even 50 years later, means that public opinion about getting involved in conflicts does not include an understanding of what could happen to civilians."

--Karin Wanless

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