Nearly half a century after her left eye was blown out by a "ball of fire," Yang Hae-Sook recalled her life after surviving the alleged massacre of civilians by U.S. soldiers in the early days of the Korean War.
"I didn't even go to school because I was so ashamed of being seen," said Yang, 61. She was 12 when U.S. infantrymen fired into a tunnel under a railroad bridge at No Gun Ri, a hamlet 100 miles southeast of Seoul.
Yang and two other No Gun Ri survivors were in Los Angeles on Tuesday, part of a delegation from South Korea that has made stops in Washington, D.C., and in Cleveland. The survivors say they hope their visit will put a human face to the massacre that until recently was ignored by both the U.S. and South Korean governments.
As an impoverished farmer with four daughters, Yang said eye surgery was out of the question. "I was fortunate to marry," she said during an interview, "but whenever my husband drank--that was every day except two or three times a month--he would taunt me about my eye."
Today, Yang is losing vision in her right eye, too. Her life's remaining goal, she said, is to let the world know what happened at No Gun Ri over three days in July 1950.
Chung Eun-Yong, 77, who is heading the group's visit, said he lost a son and a daughter. His wife sustained serious injuries.
"Only God and eyewitnesses know what happened," said Chung, who first brought the case to the attention of the South Korean government in 1960.
Survivors say U.S. soldiers killed as many as 400 civilians--mostly elderly, women and children--huddled inside the tunnel between July 26 and 29.
"American soldiers came to where we were hiding deep in the mountains and motioning us to follow them," said Chung Koo-Hak, another survivor, whose face was disfigured by gunfire. He was 7 at the time.
Chung said civilians were trapped inside the tunnel by American soldiers, who subsequently shot them. "For three days they kept shooting," he said, "babies, women and disabled people."
Chung said he lost both parents and many other relatives.
Accounts like Chung's were supported in a Sept. 29 Associated Press story that reported recollections by former Lt. Edward L. Daily and other American veterans.
Daily has said that he was ordered to fire at the refugees. At the time, there were widespread reports that North Korean soldiers had infiltrated groups of civilians fleeing south.
Chung Koo-Hak, 57, said that despite his disfigurement, he has much to be thankful for.
"I was able to marry and have a wonderful family," he said. "I've never had an argument with my wife. I thank God for that blessing."
The Pentagon has said that it would use all its resources to investigate the reports. The South Korean government is conducting a separate probe.
Last month, U.S. investigators, led by Lt. Gen. Michael Ackerman, visited No Gun Ri and interviewed survivors.
For years, Pentagon officials had dismissed the claims of Korean survivors, saying it could find no basis for their claims.
The Rev. Daniel Dang Yeol Yoo, president of the Council of Korean Churches in Southern California, who has been accompanying the group, said the United States must fully acknowledge its role. "As an American citizen," he said, "I want my government to fulfill its responsibility."
The delegation met with members of the National Council of Churches and veterans in Cleveland and Pentagon officials in Washington before arriving Monday in Los Angeles. They leave for Seoul on Thursday.
In Los Angeles, the group attended a candlelight memorial service, and met with community leaders and officials of the Council of Korean Churches in Southern California. They participated in a 90-minute call-in program Tuesday night on Radio Korea.
During two public events in Koreatown on Monday, members of the group engaged in heated exchanges with Korean American veterans who objected to use of the word "massacre" because of concerns it could strain relations between the two countries.
Chung Eun-Yong's son, Koo-Do, a college lecturer who has written a dissertation on the subject, said his goal is simply "to set the history straight."