By Carl Mydans, for Life magazine.
Wednesday, October 19th, marks the anniversary of the "Yŏsu Rebellion," written in English also as the "Yŏsu-Sunchŏn Incident" or the "Yŏsu-Sunchŏn Rebellion," one of several bloody exchanges in Jeollanam-do last century, and one whose background serves to foreshadow the violence of the Korean War two years later. The 여순반란사건 was a crackdown against suspected communists in South Jeolla province, specifically the cities written now as Yeosu and Suncheon, that resulted in hundreds or thousands of deaths, depending on the source.
English-language information is limited, though the placards around Suncheon provide some background. From the placard that stood in front of Suncheon Station until it was razed and rebuilt in 2009:
The Yosun Incident broke out on Oct. 19, 1948, when the 14th Regiment of the National Defense Guard of South Korea refused to move to Jeju Island on a mission to put down an armed uprising protesting against the estasblishment of the government by South Korea alone. When about 2,000 soldiers marched into downtown Yeosu, the civilians,students and local leftists, who were suffering from economic distress after the establishment of the new government, joined the soldiers. The insurgent forces instantly occupied eastern areas of Jeonnam Province, i.e., Suncheon, Gwangyang, Gurye, Boseong, Goheung, and Gokseong. The government established the quell force headquarter in Gwangju and defeated the insurgent forces in Suncheon on Oct. 23 and in Yeosu on Oct. 27. During the search operation against the civilian collaborators, many innocent civilians were executed without trial. The number of victims of the Yosun Incident is estimated to be about 10,000 including policement, soldiers, and civilians, though the exact number is not known.There is another placard tucked under 장대다리 on the east side of Dongcheon, the river that runs through Suncheon. It reads:
The Yosun Incident served as a momentum for establishing 'anti-communism' as the national idiology for South Korea and fixation of the partition of the Korean peninsula.
The Suncheon Bridge (Jangdaedari) and the bank of Dongchun Stream witnessed the first fierce combat between the police and the insurgent forces at the time of the Yosun Incident. On October 20th, the Suncheon police and right-wing youths from adjacent regions established a defensive line at Gwangyang Samguri, but failed to keep the insurgent forces from advancing to downtown Suncheon because the 4th Regiment, a support troop from Gwangju, joined the insurgents. During the combat, most of the policement escaped from the spot, some were killed, and only about 50 retreated to the Suncheon Police Station.
(Top) Facing the bridge from the north, found via this Korean-language blog but probably taken for Life magazine (Bottom) Similar view about 60 years later.
Since last year's October 19th post, a reader sent several articles from the Los Angeles Times that supplement the little information we can find in books and comtemporary magazine articles. From an October 21, 1948 article "Red-Inspired Korea Rebels Go To Hills":
Augmented by civilian sympathizers, [South Korean Prime Minister Lee Bum Suk] said the rioting troops plundered and tortured the townsmen and attacked Yosu women. He did not say how many Koreans participated in the outbreak. Figures have ranged from 600 to 800 soldiers to a police stimate of 4000 troops and followers.An Associated Press article from the 23rd reports on violence in Posong (know spelled Boseong):
The new brigade commander and 20 to 30 more Korean army officers at Yosu were killed, said Lee. The Home Ministry estimates 100 police died in Yosu, 300 others in Sunchon.
Meanwhile, in the troubled area, the Prime Minister said the rebel band had divided at Sunchon aafter moving up from Yosu, 20 miles to the south, in a commandeered train. Part of the insurgents headed toward Namwon, 30 miles north of Sunchon; part drove toward Kwangju, capital of South Cholla province.
South Korea was under martial law. Strong troop and police detachments were ordered to the scene of the revolt which flared up yesterday.
South Korean army headquarters announced late today that rebels have captured the town of Posong but are being engaged by loyal troops.An attempt on Yosu via Posong on October 24th, via The Spartanburg Herald.
The town in Southwest Korea is 26 miles southwest of Suncheon, which the army said was recovered Friday night [the 22nd].
After the rebels fled from Sunchon, four police stations along the route to Posong were attacked, indicating it was the Sunchon fugitives who took Posong. Their strength was not known, however.
An Associated Press report from October 22:
South Korean rebels and Loyalist troops are locked in a see-saw battle for the town of Posong, which already has changed hands twice in 24 hours, Korean army headquarters said today.An excerpt from the book The Korean War 1945 to 1953, available from Google Books, reminding us there was brutality on all sides:
Posong, 26 miles southwest of Sunchon in the extreme southern part of the peninsula, was captured from the rebels by government troops yesterday and recaptured by the rebels again last night. The battle, with an undetermined number of well armed insurgents involved, was continuing today.
. . .
Police said that 150 police and townspeople [in Yeosu] were executed by a so-called poeple's court while the insurgents, described by the government as Communists, held Sunchon.
The civilian rebels included at least 70 teachers. The head of the Yosu's People's Committee was Song Uk, prinicipal of the Yosu Girls' Middle School---the girls were described as "redder than the inside of a watermelon" and proved it when, armed with Japanese rifles, they fought in the vain defense of the city.
In Sunchon some people were summarily executed, but others were tried by a People's Court. While some were found innocent or merely castigated, most were beaten and then executed. The police chief got the worst of it. His eyes were plucked out and he was dragged by car along the streets. Shot, his gas-drenched body was tied to a pole and set on fire. Some 900 people, among them 400 police, were killed in Sunchon by the rebels.
Here's an excerpt from a 1948 report by Carl Mydans---the man who took some of those photographs for Life---that appeared in Time magazine:
When darkness came, Communist execution squads went from house to house, shooting "rightists" in their beds or marching them to collection points where they were mowed down. In 2-3-days, 500 civilians were slaughtered. U.S. Lieuts. Stewart M. Greenbaum and Gordon Mohr, Army observers in Sunchon, narrowly escaped death. The rebel sergeant assigned to kill them was an old friend, who had drunk beer with them in their billet many times. He took the two officers into a field, fired into the ground and then led them to the Presbyterian Mission of Dr. John Curtis Crane, who was barricaded in with his wife and four other missionaries.
From one of the doctor's shirts and a few colored rags the ladies made a 16-star, eleven-stripe U.S. flag and put it up. The rebels began pounding at the compound gate, yelling: "Let's kill the Americans!" Suddenly one shouted: "No, no, not them; they are my friends." It was the lieutenants' friend, the sergeant. The rebels went away.
For the first few hours the loyal troops who retook Sunchon were as savage as the Communists had been. On the big compound of the Sunchon Agricultural and Forestry School we found what was left of the entire population of Sunchon. Women with babies on their backs watched without expression as their husbands and sons were beaten with clubs, rifle butts and steel helmets. They saw 22 of them marched away to the primary school nearby, and heard the volley of rifles which killed them.
By Carl Mydans, for Life magazine.
A placard on the Suncheon National University campus reads:
At the time of the Yosun Incident, the quell force, made up of police and defense guard troops, used the Suncheon Middle School of Farming and Forestry (the predecessor of the present Sunchon National University) as their camp and
headquarter when they attacked the insurgent forces in downtown Suncheon on Oct. 22th. The nearby Suncheon Northern Elementary School was the site of questioning and executing of civilians who were suspected of taking sides with the insurgents. The victims were executed without trial on the levee of a rice paddy behind the school's auditorium.
A few other posts in the "1948 Yosu-Sunchon Incident" category provide a little more information and sources. In November 2008 Life magazine opened its archives to Google Image searches, providing over 100 pictures of violence in Yeosu and Suncheon in the 1940s, and in the Jeolla provinces in the 1950s. Be warned, the photographs are understandably graphic. Since my first posts in 2007 and 2008, more contemporary AP reports have trickled out via a Google News archive search, providing at least one-sided coverage of the violence and additional information about the area. From a report by Tom Lambert available in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on October 25, 1948:
Golden rice fields, streets, and the police compound are strewn with the bodies of an estimated 600 bodies killed in last week's revolt here.
The article continues, mentioning two of the "yanks" who saw action (named in the aforementioned Time piece by Mydans as well):
Lieutenant Greenbaum said anti-American epithets were hurled at him by the rebels. Lieutenant Mohr's boot heel had a hole shot in it by police, who, he said, "were shooting at everything."
When they were through executing bound antileftists and police, the rebels armed high school aged youths with Japanese rifles. Ten of those were slaughtered yesterday when they tried to storm the postoffice, then held by loyalists.
Col. Won Yong Duk, who took part in the loyalist assault on Sunchon, said 180 rebels were captured by his forces.
When Suncheon was retaken, every man in each house was taken to the grounds of a Japanese-built school for questioning. Police kicked and clubbed them. One policeman wearing an old Japanese helmet butted the suspects he was interrogatig.
Along the road flanking the school grounds an estimated 500 women awaited the outcome of the questioning. They could see some of the suspects mauled and beaten. Only the women's eyes betrayed their anxiety.
Further down the road, at a plaza, the bodies of the 22 newly executed men were strewn. On their bodies were small squares of white canvas on which were painted in indelible ink the hammer and sickle over a pair of clasped hands.
By Carl Mydans, for Life magazine. See also here.
Bodies of the 22 executed at the school, by Carl Mydans for Life magazine.
Executions continued into the month that followed. A November 30th AP report:
Fifty-five more officers and men of the Korean army have been shot to death for participating in the Oct. 20 mutiny against the young republic.My hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will close with October 21, 1948 commentary:
A Korean army spokesman announced today that 55 were executed last Saturday at Taejon, 95 miles southeast of Seoul. He said about half as many others were executed earlier for participating in the Communist-inspired rebellion.
The American commander in Seoul has stated that the rebellion is "an internal Korean affair" and that Americans will not intervene of their own volition except to protect American property and lives. It is to be hoped that the Rhee government can handle the situation and that the United States will not be compelled to intervene militarily. Such intervention will play into the hands of the Russians, who would use it for propaganda purposes before the United Nations. They would like nothing better than an opportunity to point to their own withdrawal as evidence of good faith while citing American action as evidence that our troops remain in Korea for the sole purpose of imposing our will upon the people.