TAY VINH, Vietnam -- The whine of incoming shells sent Ho Thi Cham and her family scurrying for a shelter deep in the bamboo. As her husband held their squirming young son's nose so he wouldn't cry out, Cham heard shots. Hundreds of shots.
The villagers hid for a week. They emerged to discover scores of decomposing bodies, some ravaged by dogs and pigs.South Korean troops, U.S. allies in the Vietnam War, had killed 380 villagers and left their bodies to rot in the steamy heat of February 1966, Cham told the Associated Press. Hundreds more civilians -- up to 1,600 total -- had been killed in raids by South Koreans in the preceding month, other villagers said.
The AP was unable to independently confirm their claims. South Korean military veterans recalled taking heavy losses in a battle zone where they struggled to tell friendly villagers apart from Viet Cong foes.
"Most of the victims had their hands tied behind their backs with electrical wire," said Cham, now 67. "There was a woman still holding her granddaughter, a long knife through both of them."
Her village, Binh An, was not alone. From early January to Feb. 2, 1966, witnesses and local officials say today, South Korean troops operating in three coastal provinces in Vietnam's midsection carried out a scorched-earth policy against villages they considered hostile.
Misdeeds by South Korean soldiers are accepted here as history but have received scant attention outside Vietnam. In South Korea, rumors their soldiers had killed many Vietnamese civilians circulated for years, but no historical books chronicled the attacks and past governments suppressed open discussion and news reports.
The alleged killings, said to have occurred two years before U.S. soldiers massacred 504 Vietnamese in the village of My Lai, became public knowledge in South Korea only recently. The first revelations came in a magazine article written by graduate student and part-time journalist Ku Su-Jeong, who stumbled on grave markers while investigating her nation's role in the war. An hourlong report on state-run television followed in February.
Vietnam's official position is that while the United States and its allies committed numerous wartime atrocities, it is time to move on.
Still, its 25th anniversary celebration of the war's end is reawakening sore memories, some of them chiseled into a granite monument to the worst cluster of killings.
These words appear above a list of names on the stone, erected in 1989 in what used to be Binh An: "Deeply carve the hatred against the American aggressors. Here on Feb. 2, 1966, South Korean mercenaries, under the command of American imperialists, massacred 380 people."
The marker stands on the spot where Cham says she, her husband and two other men from the village buried the rotting remains of their neighbors. The stench was stomach-churning, she said, but they scooped bones and flesh into cardboard food boxes left behind by the South Koreans and buried them in a bomb shelter.
Provincial officials say South Korean troops attacked Binh An 15 times in early 1966. Besides the memorial to 380 victims, markers for six other mass graves, most little more than headstones, are scattered around the old village. The eight other sites have no markers, but survivors and officials point them out and give precise numbers of dead for each one.
Overall, provincial officials assert, the South Koreans killed 1,003 civilians in Binh An, whose population in 1966 was roughly 6,000.
An additional 653 civilians were allegedly killed the same year by South Korean troops in neighboring Quang Ngai and Phu Yen provinces, according to provincial and local officials interviewed by the AP on a trip the government took two months to approve.
As is routine with foreign reporters, several government escorts accompanied the AP staff. The AP was unable to search for documents that would back up the officials' allegations.
Officials say 250 villagers were killed in Phu Yen's Tuy Hoa district over several weeks in early 1966, including 170 on one day in Hoa My Tay village. A monument in Quang Ngai's Binh Hoa village says 403 died in South Korean attacks on Oct. 22, 24 and 26. The marker is 11 miles from My Lai.
Neither the Pentagon nor the South Korean Defense Ministry would comment on the allegations or offer independent confirmation
of the mass killings.
"Sometimes the South Koreans rounded up people and opened fire," said Nguyen Tan Lan, now Communist Party chief in Tay Vinh, one of three villages created when Binh An dissolved a decade ago.
"Sometimes they threw hand grenades into shelters. Sometimes they threw in tear gas and shot people as they came out. Sometimes they rounded up people in houses that they set fire to and threw grenades into," said Lan, who showed scars on his legs from an attack he asserts killed 65 people, including his mother and sister.
Huynh Thi Muoi was 13 when Binh An was attacked Jan. 22, 1966. She said South Koreans killed 15 people, including a 6-year-old cousin who bled to death after his arm was shot off.
Muoi described an artillery attack quickly followed by the arrival of 30 South Koreans from the base six miles away.
They lined up 60 to 70 villagers, she said, who "were all kneeling and praying for the soldiers to spare their lives.
"The South Koreans kept saying we were Viet Cong. Then one soldier sprayed a burst with his machine gun from about three yards while he leaned with his back against a dirt wall."
Eight people died, she said. Muoi and her mother ran to hide in the collapsed rubble of the adjacent marketplace. The soldiers left briefly, then returned and killed seven more villagers, she said.
"We went that evening to collect the corpses and bury them," she said.
Local officials could recall no specific trigger for the alleged South Korean killings. They speculate the soldiers were angry over losing comrades. Two former officers described the everyday tensions of trying to identify enemies who dressed identically to local farmers and villagers.
"It's possible there were innocent civilian victims in those areas, but that was unavoidable in view of the peculiar nature of the Vietnam War," retired Gen. Chae Myong-shin, commander-in-chief of South Korean troops in Vietnam in 1965-69, told the AP.
Although Chae, now 75, was not in the three provinces at the time of the alleged killings, he was familiar with the conditions of confrontation.
"It was extremely difficult, or virtually impossible, to tell apart civilians and guerrillas," he said. "In one case, a regiment commander stopped his jeep to greet a 7-year-old Vietnamese girl jumping into his path saying 'Hello.' The girl tossed a grenade that exploded near the jeep. The colonel narrowly escaped death."
"Many villages were friendly at day," said Choi Woo-shik, 59, a former South Korean marine lieutenant who served in Phu Yen province in early 1966. "But at night, they became Viet Cong and they attacked us.
"Every village had secret foxholes. Quite often, we got sniper shots and grenade attacks from these foxholes," Choi said. "You see your friends falling right beside you. Your lieutenant dies. You get really emotional."
Some 320,000 South Koreans fought in Vietnam from September 1964 to March 1973, the largest contingent after Americans. South Korea lost 5,077 soldiers and suffered 10,962 wounded.
While U.S. forces coordinated the anti-communist operation in Vietnam, the South Koreans operated under their own command.
"Although Korean forces work closely . . . with U.S. and Vietnamese units, they are a separate tactical entity and not under U.S. operational control," Gen. William Westmoreland said in his "Report on Operations in South Vietnam, Jan. 1964-June 1968."
Westmoreland's report specifically mentioned an operation in Binh Dinh from Jan. 24 to March 6, 1966, in which the South Koreans listed 2,389 "known enemy" killed in action.
In 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung came to Vietnam for the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and expressed regret for his country's role in the war. Vu Hoang Hoa, Binh Dinh's vice governor, said many in his province felt Kim's statement wasn't enough.
"Whether there should be an apology is an affair of our governments," he said. "But what the people heard didn't go as far as what they wanted."