S. Korean Marines Killed, Raped Vietnamese Civilians during the Conflict
S. Korean Marines Killed, Raped Vietnamese Civilians during the Conflict
Prof. Chung Woo-sik (Soldier-turned Professor)
Purpose of the War
On March 11, 1965, the young Chung entered the Marine Corps ROTC upon getting a B.A. degree in history at Sogang University. He joined the Marine officer program because its compulsory service term was shorter than other ROTC courses. He wanted to study in the U.S. after a brief stint as an officer. It was in May of that year when he first heard that his brigade might be sent to Vietnam on a combat mission.
New tasks began mounting up. More soldiers deserted from the barracks as the deployment to Vietnam was getting closer. Finding and bringing them back to the base was one of 1st Lt. Chung’s new responsibilities.
He could have been exempted from the Vietnam mission. He was the third of six brothers. His second elder, a military academy graduate, had already been in Vietnam as an army engineer officer. His eldest brother lobbied Marine authorities hard, citing that two from a family cannot be sent to the death field. He was at first excluded from the mission.
“When he heard I was exempted, my battalion commander called me in and said that when the Marines would go abroad for the righteous cause for the first time since the foundation of the country, an officer must not avoid the duty for personal reasons. That would hurt the morale of soldiers. He gave me 24 hours to reconsider my decision,” Chung recalled.
“I began to think over hard. I, a Catholic, decided to leave everything to God. If he wanted to use me as his instrument, he would protect me. Otherwise I would die in Vietnam, and that would be OK, too. When I told him of the new decision, the commander hugged me and cried.”
Lt. Chung became one of 5,000 marines who left the port of Pusan for Cam Ranh. The Blue Dragon Marine Brigade consisted of three battalions; he was leading the third platoon of the second regiment of the 2nd battalion.
After a one-week sea trip, Lt. Chung landed at the port of Cam Ranh. He detected the “abnormalities” of the war from day one.
“We bivouacked on a hillock. Our first meal was C-ration cans. I had never seen them before. I carefully looked over the cans. They were made in the 1930s. The US provided us with 30-year-old rations. I believed there was something wrong. Did they intend to get rid of surplus stockpiles through the war? We were covered with food, to the point that I was made to feel that they fed us to the full since we were doomed to die soon.”
Friendly Fire and ‘Blanket Troops’
Chung’s first battle came in late November of 1965. The young officer encountered another abnormality. “My first combat mission was Operation Cam Ranh. In cooperation with US forces we were to recapture a mountain. Sixteen F-4 Phantom fighters, in their four by four formation, bombarded the mountain in a preemptive strike. Shells fired from my brigade’s 105mm howitzers pounded it for one hour. And we, foot soldiers, waded into the mountain. But we could not find a single Viet Cong as we climbed to the top of the mountain. In hindsight, I felt it was not a mop-up operation against VCs, but a military exercise. What was misfortunate was that the U.S. fighters bombarded South Korean soldiers. It was friendly fire. Some 10 marines were killed or injured before joining battle with the enemy. After that incident, I could not but harbor some thinking about the war.”
His “thinking” became more complicated when he saw a blanket troop, a term coined to describe Vietnamese prostitutes who frequented military bases. “Many GIs used drugs because they believed the war was unjust. Maybe that’s why U.S. army officers tolerated GIs soliciting prostitutes in the barracks. We were stationed close to a US base. I saw GIs bring 30 Vietnamese women in four military trucks into the base. Some of our soldiers did not pay these blanket troopers after having sex.”
Some soldiers began injuring themselves in the hope of getting a quick ticket home.
Into January of 1966, the brigade moved to the county of Tuy Hoa in the north, where full-scale battles with the VC were waiting for them. It was 1st Lt. Chung who marked the first combat accomplishment for the Blue Dragon; however, his war trophy was a bittersweet one.
“When we enveloped a small mountaintop and climbed to it, there was a VC sleeping in a hammock on a tree there. The real battle was not like a movie. I was trembling too badly to shoot him. A sudden thought flashed across my mind: that man could lure us into a trap. I ordered a sergeant next to me to shoot the man. His shot missed the VC. He was trembling too. All we could capture were a Carbine rifle and ammunition the guerilla left behind. Maybe those were Blue Dragon’s first war captures. But we reported to higher officers that we had captured that VC. There were many exaggerations in our reports. When we just killed two VCs, we reported we killed more than two.”
A battle that imprinted on Chung’s memory took place on January 20, 1966. In that fight, he encountered many deaths while he groaned on the thin line between life and death. The day was the first day of a three-day Tet (Vietnamese New Year) truce. The truce was to take effect at noon. Suddenly, an order came down to his platoon: According to new intelligence, some VC will pick up rice from a village under your control. Stop them.
“I led my platoon into the village at 11:45 a.m. When I saw the movements of men in regular army uniforms, I immediately reported that to the command. An artillery unit began firing shells into the village. We also fired 3.5-inch mortars. We fired until 12:15 p.m., violating the 12:00 p.m. cease-fire.”
It was then that Lt. Chung saw the gruesome dead bodies of civilians. “We entered the village one hour after the artillery had begun firing. Bloody, limbless bodies of several civilians were scattered all over. They were cooking rice cakes for New Year’s day when shells rained on them. What an appalling scene it was! I felt guilty. I gave the rice my unit carried to children in the village.”
There was no VC among the dead bodies.
Weeds in the Storm
Phuhiep village circa 1965
Chung’s face flushed up as if he could still see the bodies. I asked him more questions about civilian causalities.
OhmyNews: Were there any other incidents in which civilians were injured or killed?
“We were ceaselessly attacked by guerillas disguised as civilians. When one of us was killed or injured, we lost our reason. We made mistakes occasionally. Some soldiers beat civilians or set houses on fire, without me knowing of them.”
OhmyNews: Why did not a platoon leader know when a house was on fire?
“We swept into villages in squads in an attempt to avoid enemy attacks. A platoon leader communicated with each squad leader via radio. Sometimes I could not completely know what soldiers did. And some soldiers did what they must not do.”
OhmyNews: What do you mean by what they must not do?
“One day when we searched a village, an old woman and a young girl came to me, wailing. One of my soldiers raped the girl who looked about 16 years old. We could not understand each other’s languages, but I understood them through their motions and gestures. When I asked other soldiers, they said one of my platoon members raped her.”
OhmyNews: Did he get punished?
“He admitted that he had raped the girl. I don’t remember that he was actually punished, but he was warned. After returning home, I heard that he bragged of his bravery in Vietnam. I was really upset. When I came across him in the downtown of Seoul, I slapped him in the face.”
OhmyNews: What did you do when you found VC suspects in a village?
“Usually, a village search ended up with finding children and the elderly. However, one day we captured two young men. We could not confirm whether they were VCs or not. My regiment commander told me to kill them. I refused the order. I could not kill civilians. He ordered another soldier to shoot the two young men. Hit by bullets, the two fell like weeds in the storm. It was like killing beasts.”
After experiencing such incidents, Chung’s pessimism about the war intensified. “When we demanded a box of ammunition, we got a truckload. We spent some and dumped the rest. Then the VCs collected them. When they lost their targets, U.S. bombers dumped countless bombs into mountains or sea. Whenever I saw them I could not but think we were thrown into there for some political reason. Sending combat troops to Vietnam was, nominally, for the country’s economic development, but at more fundamental level, we fought in the war as a result of the pressure mounted by the US on the South Korean government. Lyndon B Johnson was U.S. president during the war. In his memoir, Johnson said that he was guilty. He killed countless young men of his country. We dedicated thousands of precious lives to this illegitimate war.”
Oh my News: Were you indoctrinated that you and your fellows went to war against Communism? Even today many people still believe that.
“I later learned that the Viet Cong was not communist. They were pro-independence warriors of the NFL. Even some South Vietnamese soldiers said the VC were intelligent. They were not communist, but we were told that they were. The VC were self-conscious nationalist leaders. That’s why the Vietnamese people sided with them. They were already winning the morality war, not just military battles.”
Chung’s platoon paid a severe price for its 15-minute violation of the truce. A mix of 200 VC and 200 North Vietnam regular army soldiers raided the platoon when it defended a trench line near the village. The enemies surrounded them in three rows. Ten of his men were killed and six injured. Shell fragments struck Chung in the head. In their counter-offensive, South Korean soldiers killed a total of 140 VC and North Vietnamese soldiers. Because of the injury he got from the battle, he returned to South Korea for 10 months.
Traumas The war left him with psychological traumas. For years Chung could not walk into the grass. “I saw many officers and soldiers who lost their legs to landmines hidden in a weedy field. I could not walk on the lawn although I could see others walking on it. I could not because of fear. I used what psychiatrists call reality therapy. I repeated to myself, ‘my fear is irrational. Reality is not,’ and slowly walked into the grass, one step after another. I was able to cure myself after one year of using the therapy.”
The war also changed his academic interest. Initially he had planned to study the history of political thought, but he changed his major to social welfare.
“When the injury sent my fate gyrating between death and life, I prayed like Martin Luther, ‘if my life is worthless, take it now. If you spare my life I will make big contributions to South Korean society.’ Although I am careful in saying this now, I felt that I was indebted to God for my life. I decided to study social welfare as a way of paying a fraction of what I owe him.”
The last question I asked him was about an apology. “We cannot apologize too much for the brutalities we committed in battle. However, I want to stress that these were not intentional. It’s somewhat unreasonable to judge what happened in the battles three decades ago with today’s criteria. We sometimes acted on retaliatory impulse when our men were killed or maimed. However, it is not a bad idea for the South Korean government to express its regret. In the long term, that will help better relations between the two countries.”
Chung said: “Korean-Americans often become a crime target by Vietnamese-Americans. That’s a sort of revenge.” He insisted that the South Korean government play a more active role in alleviating tension. He also said, “the brutalities we have committed cannot be justified, but those were bound to happen, given the circumstance.” In this light, he said, the veterans are victims, too.
Will war, which accompanies such brutalities, continue to happen in the 21st century? How do we prevent war? “We all must become aware of how much war devastates human rights,” Chung answered. “When we have a leader and people who can institutionalize human rights in each country, war, such tragedy, will not repeat itself.”
Prof. Chung, now a social welfare professor at Sogang University in Seoul, welcomed me into his office with a big smile. Divested of the demeanor of a war veteran, the 58-year-old Chung seems to exist between the extreme ends of the present and the past. He, as a 22-year-old officer for the Blue Dragon Marine Brigade, fought in the war and lost 15 of his 55 soldiers. In two separate interviews in December of 1996, which lasted six hours in total, he said, “In retrospect, South Korea’s military intervention has no legitimacy. And the soldiers’ preparedness for the war was quite different than in the Korean War.” This interview was conducted by OhMyNews.
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