In September 1950 Alan Winnington published his pamphlet “I Saw The Truth in Korea”. This brief text was meant to give more context and detail to a newspaper report in the Daily Worker called “US Belsen in Korea” from August that same year. This article stood out at the time because it made connections between atrocities committed by the newly formed South Korean government and those of the Nazis in the Second World War. With WW2 still raw in the minds of most people, the controversial nature of this pamphlet cannot be overstated. This was clear at the time of publication, but has now been muffled in the general malaise of claim and counter claim still offensively termed “The Forgotten War”. The initial newspaper article had caused much controversy in the United Kingdom where thousands of people took to the streets in protest. Plenty of evidence can be seen of this in old copies of the Daily Worker. That is why the tone was so unforgiving. It was an attempt to cement these horrors even more in the minds of a public primed a month previously. Moreover, it was a chance to publish a series of pictures taken at the site of the Daejeon Massacre that had been missing from the original telegraphed report. These words, and photos, would become increasingly important to the narrative of what happened in Daejeon as time progressed.
But the pamphlet was also written at something of a turning point in the Korean War itself. In the same month as the publication of Alan’s pamphlet MacArthur would launch his successful attempt to turn the tide of the North Korean advance at Incheon. Before this the People’s Army – whose columns Alan crept in at nightfall protected from dive-bombing Mustangs – had been on the ascendency. This would eventually have consequences for the site of the Daejeon Massacre, as I will explain in more detail later on. But it also marked a turning point for press freedom during the Korean War as a whole. According to Hwang Sukyoung in her text Korea’s Grievous War there was a censorship throughout the war that became more established as it progressed. This began with “unofficial censorship” and morphed into “official” attempts at censorship in January 1951. As the only relatively independent journalist in South Korea at this time, the territory would be back in American hands before long. There is much that Alan observed in this interregnum that is yet to become public knowledge. But it is safe to say that “I Saw The Truth in Korea” was the final attempt to report truthfully on what was happening in the South. It must be remembered that when Monica Felton’s team observed the aftermath of war crimes in North Korea, they were never allowed to even set foot anywhere below the 38th parallel. Apart from drips of information and rumour, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that Alan’s pamphlet was one of the last reports to emerge from that arena without the redaction's dictated by Army Command.
The site of the Daejeon Massacre is something uniquely disturbing mainly because of the raw accumulation of evidence Winnington was able to carry out. It is the only place during the war where that kind of meticulous journalism on war crimes was possible before the shutters came down, or a universal narrative of “anti communism” began to be set in place. Alan writes with a documentary clarity sometimes, as if he is aware of what a small window this is. It is as if he hopes that his descriptions of scene, and topography, will allow us to pinpoint the location at a later date:
Try to imagine the Rangwul valley, about five miles southeast of Taejeon on the Yongdong road. Hills rise sharply from a level floor about 100 yards across and a quarter of a mile long. In the middle you can walk safely, though your shoes may roll on American cartridge cases, but at the sides you must be careful for the rest of the valley is a thin crust of earth covering corpses of more than 7,000 men and women. One of the party with me stepped through nearly to his hip in rotting human tissue. Every few feet there is a fissure in the topsoil through which you can see into a gradually sinking mass of flesh and bone. The smell is something tangible that seeps into your throat. For days after I could taste the smell. All along the great death pits, waxy dead hands and feet, knees, elbows twisted faces and heads burst open by bullets, stick through the soil.
For the same reason the pamphlet also carried with it a series of pictures that are still awful to come to terms with seventy years later. Apart from damning images released by the US military in 1999 that revealed the Daejeon Massacre in process (something I will cover shortly), they remain the only visual evidence of the scene after the event itself. There are four pictures in all. The three on page seven are grisly evidence of what happens to bodies in the punishing heat of a Korean Summer and can be easily found at the following link where I have uploaded Alan’s pamphlet in full. But it is the first – on page five – that remain the most useful. As can be seen in video taken at the site for a Newstapa documentary in 2015, the contours of the place in which Alan observed this scene can be delineated in the much later image where the location of the pits is being pointed to by a witness who had dug them in 1950.
to be continued.........