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Destruction of the Han River Bridge
Pictures from the past: One of the early disasters of the Korean War
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-30 17:37 (KST)   

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As war broke out on June 25, 1950, Frank Gibney, a war correspondent, flew into Korea to report on the rapid developments of the war. Within 48 hours of his arrival, he -- like his fellow correspondents Keyes Beech and Burton Crane -- was forced to retreat from Seoul in a jeep as it became apparent the North Koreans would occupy the city.

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Their plan was to flee south, towards Suwon, but in order to make good their escape, they had to cross the Han River via the Han River Highway Bridge. Gibney's account of his crossing of the Han River is witness to the horrible event that occurred in the early hours of June 28.

"Traffic was heavy on the road running south to the big steel Han River Bridge. There were no signs of military rout. Soldiers, even those in retreat, were more apt than not to be singing. Guided by MPs, automobiles kept strictly in line. The only disorder was outside the military line of march. Thousands of poor refugees, women toting bundles on their heads, and men carrying household goods in wooden frames fastened to their backs..."[1]

They reached the Han River Bridge around 2:15 a.m., June 28, unaware that they would witness and be part of one of the early disasters of the Korean War.

"Traffic moved quickly until we reached the bridge. There the pace slowed, then stopped. That traffic would never get going again. Without warning the sky was lightened by a huge sheet of sickly orange flame. There was a tremendous explosion immediately in front of us. Our jeep was picked up and smashed back fifteen feet by the blast."[2]

An American soldier viewing the bridge during the war
©2008 Robert Neff Collection
Gibney thought it was an air raid, but Beech believed it was a lucky shot from a North Korean tank. He remembered thinking, "What a beautiful shot it was. Those tanks must have had the bridge zeroed in."[3]

The three men, badly wounded, raced for the dubious protection of the grass and gullies leading off the bridge. When it was apparent that they were not subject to an air raid, the men made their way to the bridge only to discover that the bridge was impassable: two blown spans had dropped 30 feet to the level of the river.

The scene that greeted them was:
"Lit only by the glow of the burning truck and occasional headlights, was apocalyptic in frightfulness. All of the soldiers in the truck ahead of us had been killed. Bodies of dead and dying were strewn over the bridge, civilians as well as soldiers. Confusion was complete. With the cries of the wounded and the dying forming the background, scores of refugees were running pell-mell off the bridge and disappearing into the night beyond. It was here that we first noticed the pathetic trust that the Koreans had placed in Americans. For ten minutes were rested on the grass, men with bloody faces would come to us, point to their wounds, and say hopefully in English, 'Hospital, you take hospital.' All we could do was point to our own bloody faces and shake our heads."[4]
American soldiers and a pontoon bridge along the Han River
©2008 Robert Neff Collection
According to Gibney, the three correspondents drove their jeep to the sandy banks of the Han where they witnessed "hundreds of families lin[ing] the banks waiting for transport. Whenever a boat touched shore there was a desperate, pathetic scramble for places inside. A small, bustling official with a large club had appointed himself temporary beachmaster. Like a maddened punchinello, he flailed at the gathering crowds of refugees, screaming at them to back away from the bank. The docile crowd obeyed."[5]

Eventually the three correspondents were able to make their way across the Han River by use of a small Korean ferry that they were able to obtain. In some ways they were disheartened by what they saw, the needless deaths on the bridge, the desperation of the masses to escape the North's forces. However, they were also touched by the passion of the Korean people and their assurances that the South would prove to be victorious. "A bent old woman wearing a dusty white dress shouted 'We will win' over & over again. Others took up her cry."[6]

A view of the bridge and its spans from a distance
©2008 Robert Neff Collection
South Korea and its allies did prove to be victorious but at a horrible cost to the Korean people. It is unclear who was responsible for the demolition of the bridge and the subsequent deaths of the desperate Korean refugees who were crossing at the time.

Some claim that ROK Army Chief Ch'ae Pyong-dok was responsible for giving the order that caused so many deaths while others assert that KMAG advisor Jim Hausman played a role in it, despite his later claims that he tried to stop it.

The eventual blame fell upon a scapegoat, the chief army engineer in charge of the bridge at the time, Colonel Ch'oe Chang-sik. Colonel Ch'oe was executed by a firing squad on Sept. 21, 1950. A later investigation revealed that Ch'oe had actually saved many lives by doing his best to clear the bridge before having the explosives detonated, and he was posthumously acquitted.

According to Prof. Andrei Lankov, Colonel Ch'oe's wife, after hearing her husband was acquitted, said: "It's great. But no one can say sorry to all those people who did not cross the Han River."[7]

American soldiers on patrol with the bridge in the background
©2008 Robert Neff Collection
Donald Clark wryly notes that the destruction of the highway bridge may have "inconvenienced the invading Korean People's Army, [but it] did not stop North Korean tanks from crossing the Han River. They were able to do so on the adjacent railroad bridge that remained intact."[8]

[1] Help Seemed So Far Away," Time Magazine, May 10, 1950; Donald Kirk and Choe Sang Hun., editors., Korea Witness, (EunHaeng NaMu, 2006)

[2] Help Seemed So Far Away," Time Magazine, May 10, 1950; Donald Kirk and Choe Sang Hun., editors., Korea Witness, (EunHaeng NaMu, 2006)

[3] Donald N. Clark, Living Dangerously in Korea, (Norwalk, CT: EastBridge, 2003) pp.366-367

[4] "Help Seemed So Far Away," Time Magazine, May 10, 1950; Donald Kirk and Choe Sang Hun., editors., Korea Witness, (EunHaeng NaMu, 2006)

[5] "Help Seemed So Far Away," Time Magazine, May 10, 1950

[6] "Help Seemed So Far Away," Time Magazine, May 10, 1950

[7] Andrei Lankov, "A Bridge Too Far," Korea Times, May 15, 2008

[8] Donald N. Clark, Living Dangerously in Korea, (Norwalk, CT: EastBridge, 2003) pp.366-367

Robert Neff is a historian on the Joseon period and is currently writing a number of books in that field. He has lived in Korea for many years.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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