AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
Former Daejeon prison guard Lee Joon-young re-enacts the shooting of political prisoners in 1950.

DAEJEON, South Korea — The prison guard scanned the trench full of bodies, under orders to shoot anyone still alive, when he heard a cry from below that still echoes in his mind: "Mr. Chief! Please shoot me."

The 25-year-old guard, Lee Joon-young, complied with a squeeze of his .45-caliber pistol's trigger, ending the suffering of one victim of the mass executions carried out by South Korean authorities in the early days of the Korean War.

In just a few weeks in mid-1950, the military and police killed thousands of known leftists and suspected leftist sympathizers, as well as ordinary convicts and peasants wrongly caught up in anti-communist sweeps. South Korean leaders feared they might help invading troops from communist North Korea.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Korea, a state fact-finding body, is now investigating these wholesale slaughters, which commissioner Kim Dong-choon says took at least 100,000 lives.

The commission estimates as many as 7,000 perished in the killing field in Daejeon's Sannae valley, 90 miles south of Seoul, believed to be the 1950-53 war's biggest single civilian massacre.

"Even now, I feel guilty that I pulled the trigger," Lee told The Associated Press.

Lee, who was in charge of trucking hundreds of inmates from Daejeon Prison to Sannae, said they included some hardcore communists convicted of crimes against the nation, but also many men innocent of major crimes.

A small stone monument to the victims marks what is believed to be the biggest burial site here, a field covered with a crop of Korean root vegetables in a secluded, narrow valley of farms and few homes. Buried at the monument are two earthen jars holding bones turned up by farmers. The commission is negotiating with landowners about excavating the site.

The slim, ramrod-straight Lee, who has cooperated with the commission investigation, was interviewed at a Seoul hospital where he'd undergone a checkup. As his wife sat quietly by in a hushed corridor, he acted out the horrible scene from a half-century ago.

"Suppose this is the rim of a trench. People were dragged and sat down here," he said, pointing. "Then shooters came behind each of them and fired on the back of their heads."

Members of right-wing militias helped, rearranging bodies neatly across the trench, so others could be shot and buried on top, Lee said.

"When they got out of the trench, their legs were red with blood," Lee said. "Watching the scene, I grew speechless."

The wounded man who begged Lee to end his suffering was no subversive, but a simple robber who had about a year left after serving a long prison term, he said. It had been decided to shoot all prisoners sentenced to 10 years or more, regardless of their crimes or time left to serve.

What especially pains Lee still, at age 83, is the way the man addressed him at the final moment of his life.

"He should have said to me, 'Hey, you bastard, give me another shot!' How could he address me as 'Mr. Chief?'

"I thought, there should never again be war," Lee said.