Nonfiction Book Review: The Bridge at No Gun Ri (2001)

Cover for The Bridge at No Gun Ri: A Hidden Nightmare From the Korean War by Charles J. Hanely, Sang-Hun Choe and Martha Mendoza. Winners of the Pulitzer Prize. 

Quote at the bottom: A truly heart-warming tale of survival and heroism ... This is an inspiring book - storytelling at its very, very best. Read it. - Doug Stanton, author of In Harm's Way

The Bridge at No Gun Ri by Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, Martha Mendoza

An Associated Press reporter, flying overhead, reported that Yongdong “no longer exists as a city. It looks like Nagasaki after the atom bomb…. Yongdong has probably been here for 4,000 years—and never known such silence.” The fires raged into the night. (p. 136)

A harrowing, horrifying, heartbreaking event from the first summer of the Korean War. The brutality inflicted against innocents is simply shattering and I cried a lot reading this one. A truly important read, but a hard one, to say the least.

I just want to highlight a few (of the many, many) lines that I underlined whilst reading.

In late June, MacArthur’s headquarters ordered indiscriminate bombing behind North Korean lines by the U.S. Air Force, including areas where South Korean civilians still lived. Then in July, the U.S. military went further, ordering the strafing of refugee columns moving down roads toward U.S. Army units. This violated the laws and customs of war. (p. 74)

“Word came through the line, open fire on them,” Wenzel recalled. “They were running toward us and we opened fire.” The Koreans seemed, “confused,” he said. “We understood that we were fighting for these people, but we had orders to fire on them and we did.” (p. 126)

For all July, more psychiatric casualties would be evacuated than seriously wounded men. (p. 132)

He remained weak, too, and his brother had to carry him for months. Koo-hun found two civilian doctors doing relief work in Yongdong, and he lifted his brother onto his back and walked there every day for a month to have the wound checked and antiseptic applied. It would be months before Koo-hak could walk, and years before the young man who lost half a face, but found an unbreakable brotherly bond, could face the world. (pp. 194-195)

The book itself reads very well, with descriptions of everything from the heat of the summer of 1950, to the details of what the survivors were wearing. It’s little things like that which make the whole thing so easy to visualise while reading. The authors trace both the narrative of the soldiers who arrived in South Korea from Tokyo, to the villagers of Chu Gok Ri and Im Ke Ri, whose stories converge on the road towards the bridge at No Gun Ri.

The research is massive. I am so impressed by how much the authors compiled, not just from the testimonies, but the national archives material, newspapers, historical texts, etc. I’m impressed, deeply, by how much the survivors put together – and carried in silence – themselves. That they carried their story for decades, each in their own way, fearful to bring it up for years due to political instability until, at last, they could, only to be turned away at every turn, is so heartbreaking and infuriating. I’m so glad that the journalists were able to bring forward the story of No Gun Ri at last, but my heart aches for every survivor – and for the survivors of other atrocities whose stories remain unheard.

Recommended reading 100%.

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