Napalm and Invasion: North Korean War Memory and British Sources

In a recent post on his black-and-white personal blog, the North Korea scholar B.R. Myers criticizes a recent ream of journalistic think pieces about the function of Korean War memory in the DPRK. The essays, Myers writes, uncritically accept the argument that North Korean memories of US bombing from 1950-53 are a foremost justification today for the pursuit of a nuclear deterrent. To put it another way, Myers (and surely he speaks for many historians here) does not believe that an air campaign that concluded over 60 years ago continues to function as the foremost driver for the merging of state propaganda narratives and personal anti-American hatreds in the DPRK.

What Myers fails to mention is left for the historian Chuck Kraus to state: Consciously or unconsciously, virtually all of these essays are written in precisely the same pattern as Bruce Cumings‘ December 2004 piece for Le Monde Diplomatique. That Cumings essay (in English or in French) will continue to be a revelation to many, particularly undergraduate students who prefer its stylistic economy and high moral clarity to the inter-Korean angst of Kim Dong-choon, the deepening local slog of Korean War atrocity studies, or Roger Dingman’s 40+ page journal article about Eisenhower’s nuclear threats to North Korea (pdf. here; no paywall).

Noting their Cumings-esque quality is not to impugn any of the recent pieces criticized by Myers, but rather to distinguish precedent.

Isn’t this the easy way out, though? Shouldn’t scholars pick apart every line of semi-original journalism that wanders into salients of the historical where people who have experience in the archival trenches, if not the events themselves, ought to be raising red flags?  In my case, no, since I am guilty of having fed a relevant document to Max Fisher to anchor an argument he made in his Vox days (‘Americans have forgotten what we did to North Korea‘), and then penned a somewhat self-righteous op-ed myself a few days later for the Yorkshire Post where the Hiroshima anniversary became the occasion to recall UK participation in the bombing of North Korea.

Perhaps as a kind of penance, I’ve been trying to keep up with the topic, although assembling nothing close to the matrix of maps and visual documentation marshaled by UC-Irvine’s David Fedman in his unimpeachable study of the Tokyo air raids:




In the case of the Yorkshire Post essay, I also tried to minimally wedge in some original research on the incorrect strategic assumptions and cavalier discussion of civilian casualties in the UK National Archives papers of Whitehall’s key air adviser to MacArthur in Tokyo during the war, Cecil ‘Boy’ Bouchier.

Which brings me finally to the new documents I’ve been working with. Here, my goal is clarify some of the building blocks I am working with on a larger Korean War project, since they are directly relevant to the current debate over North Korean war memory and the role of war crimes or Korean War violence.

My current interests in Korean War research are twofold: First, I want to document Chinese-North Korean relations at the local level, with an emphasis on frontier zones along the Tumen and Yalu Rivers. Secondly, I continue to gather materials dealing with the Sinchon Massacre and associated war crimes and killings in Hwanghae province in 1950 and 1951.

The remainder of the post will deal with the second point, focusing on the violence in the autumn of 1950 Hwanghae, the North Korean border province and site of the now-infamous Sinchon Massacre. (The North Koreans only began to get the Sinchon narrative together in spring of 1951, but that is a long story for another time.) Hwanghae also happens to be the province where the Korean broke out, on the Ongjin peninsula near the city of Haeju on the early morning of 25 June 1950.

What we tend to see in both published and oral histories of British participants is a focus on the city of Sariwon for the month of October, as the primary military juncture and target prior to moving north to Pyongyang. But if we dig a bit further into UK National Archives material, we can see that there were also civilian killings in and around Sariwon at that time, and further recognize that the areas around the city were badly pockmarked by bombs in spring of 1951.

In short, today we can surely draw almost scientific distinctions between types of killings of North Korean civilians: There were deaths by UN bombing or aerial machine-gun raids, deaths by UN troops on the ground, deaths by local anti-communist militia groups, and deaths by newly-arrived South Korean sponsored armed police forces, after all. Yet to North Koreans at the time, such distinctions are academic and probably somewhat insulting. Regardless of their relationship with the Korean Workers’ Party that had ill prepared them for such a full conflict and a protracted war, all forms of violence (including the hygienic deterioration brought by war, which the campaigns of 1952 tried to redress amid the hysteria) had their dangers.

The papers and recollections of British forces, surprisingly, do provide not only some documentary clues for civilian experiences of the Korean War in Hwanghae, but a certain amount of bombing victim discourse themselves, as in the case of Richard Peet, below.


– The Private Papers of Major General B.A. (Basil Audrey) Coad, Imperial War Museum, London. [link]

These papers include a great deal of data on General Coad’s distinguished service in the Korean War. They include “A photocopy of a report (56pp) on the operations of 27th British Infantry Brigade (later 27th British Commonwealth Brigade) in Korea, from 29 August 1950 – 31 March 1951;” and “photocopies of pages from the War Diary of the 3rd Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment covering 20 October 1950 (5pp),” probably in or around Sariwon, Hwanghae province. Such sources can be useful in recognizing how peripheral most of Hwanghae was for U.S. and British warfighters, and how Sariwon, rather than Sinchon, was the primary provincial prize on the way north through Hwanghae to (lightly defended and inevitable) Pyongyang. And while there did not appear to be any western journalists in Sinchon in October 1950, there were Australian writers in nearby Sariwon whose reports might be consulted.

Situation Map 11, 1 Nov 1950, UK Archives
Detail of Situation Map of the Battlefield in Hwanghae province as of 1 November 1950, via UK National Archives (photo by Adam Cathcart).

General Coad also wrote a condensed recollection of Korea, which was published by the august RUSI Journal (see Major-General B. A. Coad C.B.E., D.S.O. (1952) The Land Campaign in Korea, Royal United Services Institution Journal, 97:585, 1-14, DOI: 10.1080/03071845209422828). Probably the most fanciful or absurd moment in the article is his description of an airlift: “The whole of that airlift went most smoothly without any hitch whatsoever and, believe it or not, not one single piece of paper was written by anybody about it.” I wonder if that statement is still true.


– Oral history of Henry Cochrane, 5 reels, Imperial War Museum, London [link].

Cochrane had spent the entirety of the Second World War in Glasgow, but had a broad run through the British empire just after the war, serving as an NCO with 1st Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Britain, Palestine, Hong Kong and Korea, 1946-1951.

At the end of reel 3 (@12:30), Cochrane describes his experience of the Pusan breakout, and the subsequent disintegration of North Korean opposition. ‘The whole of the North Korean force had fled,’ he says (@16:00) of  autumn 1950. There is some more light-hearted discussion of the somewhat envious British relationship with US troops on motorised advance north, but also an admission of his lack of experience of fighting on River Naktong in September 1950.

Most interesting for students of war crimes in Korea — particularly the No Gun Ri incident and civilian killings by UN forces — Cochrane describes a harrowing moment on his northward advance where he defies his Captain (called Captain Mitchell) who had demanded that he mortar a bridge full of refugees (this episode starts around @25:00 on reel 3). On reel 4, he describes the thwarting of North Korean attack with help of Australian troops at Pakchong, and tells what seems like a familiar story to many British troops of how North Korean troops in Sariwon mistook British troops for Russians in Octboer 1950. (There is some consistency to this story among the seven or eight oral histories at the IWM that deal with Sariwon.) Again, almost like his fellow countryman and journalist Reginald Thompson, he describes the effect of US bombardments on Korean towns.


– Oral History of Gordon James Smith, 3 reels, Imperial War Museum, London [link].

On reel 2 (around @12:00), Smith very frankly discusses a US napalm raid on his hill (Hill 282). There is of course no love lost for the North Korean troops — Smith says their tactics of shooting prisoners illustrated that ‘they were vicious.’ The time frame for these events is a bit unclear, but it is reasonably early in the war. After the trauma, his unit took some R and R to pull themselves together, then moved back north — ‘no resistance, no’ he says, until Panmunjom, ‘until they [the UN high command] decided what they were going to do….go North or pack it in. They decided they would invade North Korea’ (@15:00). No rhetorical flourishes here; this was not a ‘liberation’ of the communist state, to Smith it was the invasion of an enemy territory and the annihilation of the threat.

‘We led them up into North Korea,’ he says of the Americans, attached to 24th Infantry, with a different company each day. The only place they encountered resistance, he noted, was ‘one place, called Sariwon’ (@16:30). The 24th division was coming north up another road, and they were trying to hook up, again demonstrating the minimal coordination between units of the UN armies. In a striking image, Smith describes how, sitting on a jeep, he pierced the North Korean lines near Sariwon without a shot: ‘We went through hundreds and hundreds of them, until we passed through the whole lot.’ Driving south, says the North Koreans saw a star on the US tanks and thought they were Russians. Lots of prisoners were taken. ‘The Americans, 24th division, wanted to be the ones to capture the capitol, Pyongyang’ — ‘what they called the South Koreans, what they called the ROKs, managed to sneak in the west coast’ and take the capitol (@18:30).


– Oral History of Alexander David Robin Graham Wilson, 30 rolls, Imperial War Museum, London [link].

As an officer commanding A Company, 1st Bn Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 27th Commonwealth Infantry Bde in Korea, 1950-1951, Wilson is an extraordinary source, and extraordinarily prolix — at thirty rolls of about 30 minutes each, this is an epic interview probably spanning several days.

The relevant action in the Korean War starts around Reel 17, where he describes developments in the Far East. Regarding US-occupied Japan: ‘Well, Japan was feeling its muscle; of course the Americans had done a remarkable job in reviving it’ (@12:30); he goes on to say that ‘it woke the Americans up that the best means of containing China would be an organized and revived Japan’). Like Smith, he gets into the question of US Air Force’s attacks on British troop on Hill 282. There are also some reflections of the use of Korean Police attached to 1st Bn Middlesex Regt, a relevant question for students of anti-communist killings in North Korea during this phase of the war.  On Reel 18, Wilson extends slightly on these ideas as he gets into the tricky use of Korean porters and describes his opinion of South Korean troops.

In Reel 19, he describes how his company was attacked mistakenly by U.S. planes. Later, he is working with Australian troops as well as a US tank battalion through Hwanghae: ‘We knew we were likely to run into opposition there [in Sariwon] if not before’ (@16:00) Wilson had a squadron of tanks (’12:00), or as his interviewer interjects, ‘a rather lavish number of tanks’ being matched with a company of troops (approximately @17:30). They encountered a road block on route towards Sariwon. In describing how they captured it, Wilson is forced to recall the status of his foes: ‘What about the Koreans?’ No, they did very poorly, ‘they had beaten it,’ he said, although there was some daytime resistance by North Koreans prior to the evening. Wilson seems more taken by a visit to the front there by US general: ‘[It was] a most extraordinary visit; I have no idea who he was, with a fair covering of the world press in two jeeps; his staff shot some chickens for dinner’ (@19:30).

The Americans, he says, came up on a parallel axis toward Pyongyang, so when the forces finally met, they had no idea who Wilson was, as there was ‘no coordination of who was right beside you ‘ (@22:00). On Reel 20, Wilson and his company advance north of Pyongyang, where they encournter snipers and get into contact with the US 187th Airborne Regt which had parachuted in to cut off retreating North Korean troops retreating toward the Chinese border. British troops participate in the burning down of village during a ‘clearing operation.’ Naturally the other shoe is soon to drop, that is, Chinese intervention in the conflict, for which the British were as badly prepared as the Americans.


–  Oral History of Richard Peet, 3 reels, Imperial War Museum, London [link].

Peet’s testimony has some of the most awful stuff one can imagine. The death of his Major (Kenneth Muir) from a US napalm strike on Hill 282 is described on Reel 2: ‘the skin on his face had come off like a glove’ (@25:30). Having been through this hellish experience, Peel’s unit was still under fire from the North Korean lines, and carried a young man with a blown off knee cap down the hill, sort of oddly described as ‘so the flies wouldn’t get at him.’ One Captain Slim shot some North Koreans who were following stragglers. Peet sums up the life-changing day during which his unit took 90 casualties: ‘That was the end of that day; that was the worse day of my life.’

On Reel 3, Peet refuses to move the narrative north immediately, reflecting further on his devastating experience: ‘I felt bad because some of these chaps were friends with me, we had been together for a very long time…seeing them covered in na-Palm upset me greatly,’ There was a certain question of luck in avoiding being napalmed.

He then participates in the attack on Sariwon, experiencing house to house fighting in that small city (7:00). He notes how North Koreans mistook Argylls for Russians (‘Rusky — hell no! and then he took his revolver out and all hell broke loose’ (@8:20). His unit stayed in Sariwon for a night and then moved on; in approaching Pyongyang, Peet at last felt excited to be in North Korea itself — prior to that he seems caught up in the horrors of the last few days and not really conscious of having crossed a border or taken decisive action. ‘The North Koreans were in full retreat,’ he said (@9:45).

Still he cannot escape images of death, recalling his arrival in an unnamed down in North Korea which had been napalmed by the US Air Force. There were ‘dead bodies’ in the street, he said, mixing both civilians and soldiers. He plowed through the main street with all the dead bodies on it on a tank, exhilarated to be alive and moving toward the goal, yet disgusted and horrified (@10:20). There is a certain congruity here with James Cameron’s recollections of his time as a Picture Post reporter — the disgust for Korea is not based in some kind of racial or Orientalist matrix, but memories of the place are too immediate, and the land too heavily laden with bloody events and things better forgotten.

Image: A factory burns between Chinnampo and Pyongyang in 1951, bombed by UN air forces; via the Australian War Memorial. 






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