View Full Version : 50 years later, a former Marine grapples with questions of murder--and an elusive sea

11-05-03, 06:15 AM
A War Of Memories

50 years later, a former marine grapples with questions of murder--and an elusive search for the truth

By Eric Longabardi, Kit R. Roane, and Edward T. Pound
SCOTT DEPOT, W.VA.--There are some things a man simply can't forget. For Carl Lamb, it's the image of bullet-riddled bodies piled one on top of another in the basement of a battle-scarred building in the middle of a burning hell called Seoul. The Marine Corps veteran can still see the bodies of the North Korean prisoners of war, he says, like it was yesterday, the memory of what he believes was an American war crime seared in his mind by years of nightmares and flashbacks. After all this time, more than half a century later, Lamb wants answers. But he has little hope, he says, that his government will ever give him any. "They couldn't deal with it back then," he says, "and they can't deal with it now."

Late one evening this July, Lamb talked about his 53-year odyssey and a gnawing sense that he will never know the truth. The neighbor's dogs had long ceased their plaintive howling, and the rabbits felt safe once more to hop between the old cars dying in the long grass outside his trailer home. Lamb is a big man with rugged features and hands the size of a basketball player's. The plywood floor creaked under his large feet as he sorted through his military records and the dog-eared photos of the marines he served with in Korea. He's 74 now, his memory sharp, and he speaks with the precision of a man fearful he will leave something out or be misunderstood.

Lamb's life isn't the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. Born dirt-poor in Arkansas, the teenage farm boy found his way into the nightmare of the Korean War, a kid soldier who finally made it back not quite whole--a wandering jobber who didn't suffer fools lightly, moved from place to place as the mood took him, all the while a grim image of death burned into his brain like a brand. To put it in its plainest terms, what turned Carl Lamb's life inside out, at least by his account, was murder--murder of the most coldblooded type. It was late September 1950, the circumstances a vicious street-to-street battle for Seoul, the South Korean capital. The bodies--naked POWs, their threadbare uniforms dumped unceremoniously on the floor beside them--were stacked in the basement of an old hotel, the Bando, Lamb believes. Who shot the North Koreans or why, Lamb doesn't know. He didn't see it happen. What he saw, he says, was the aftermath of the slaughter, and it made him sick--sick and angry.

U.S. News has attempted to piece together what happened on that terrible fall day in Seoul. The magazine's investigation did not corroborate all of the details of the incident Lamb described, but it turned up compelling evidence that prisoners were killed in Seoul. The magazine unearthed old court-martial records in which a marine testified that a sergeant with a machine-gun squad, a close friend, killed some North Korean prisoners. The sergeant belonged to Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment--the same outfit Lamb believes murdered the POWs he says he later saw. But there is no reference to the Bando in the testimony. Separately, U.S. News obtained a February 1951 Marine Corps "after-action" report that refers to the killing of North Korean prisoners by members of Easy Company. The report strongly suggests that the killings occurred during the battle for Seoul. Finally, several former Easy Company marines recall hearing of POWs being killed in a Seoul hotel. Some in Lamb's company who fought alongside Easy Company also confirm that he complained at the time about a mass killing of North Korean prisoners.

"Something traumatic." Still, there are no easy answers. Many of those who fought in Seoul now are in their 70s and 80s. Memories differ on details, and the full truth may never be known. In mid-2001, the Marine Corps's Office of Inspector General, acting on a complaint from Lamb, opened an investigation. Investigators closed the case last year, saying that they could not substantiate his allegations that prisoners had been murdered in a Korean hotel. While the "sincerity" of Lamb's allegation that "he viewed something traumatic" is not disputed, the inspector general said, "our ability to reconstruct specific events that took place more than 50 years ago was hindered by the passage of time."

That investigation was far from thorough. Investigators made no attempt to find and interview possible survivors among the eight Easy Company marines who provided information for the 1951 after-action report obtained by U.S. News, saying the report was not relevant to Lamb's allegations. The investigators also failed to examine the court-martial records the magazine reviewed. And they discounted information from a former marine who says that, while clearing a large building in Seoul, he heard a burst of gunfire and then another marine exclaim that he had just shot several North Korean prisoners in a bathing area. The inspector general's office appears to have interviewed only 17 of the more than 500 men in Lamb's Marine battalion. Investigators also questioned a handful of ex-marines who served as guards at the U.S. Embassy, which had been located in the Bando Hotel.

Death In The `Pool'

Carl Lamb was a good marine. A squad leader with Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Lamb killed the enemy, saw too many good friends die, was wounded, and put his life on the line to help save his buddies. The battle for Seoul was a major conflict in the early days of the Korean War, one of the fiercest engagements in the history of the Marine Corps. Lamb and his fellow marines took ground a foot at a time, fighting their way through barricaded streets, land mines, heavy-weapons fire, and North Korean snipers. By the early evening of September 26, Lamb says, sporadic fighting continued. Fires burned across the city. Fox Company halted its advance, and Lamb took refuge in a building on a main street.

This, Lamb says, is what happened next: Around 6:30 or 7 on the evening of the 26th, Lamb heard a burst of automatic gunfire that swelled to a crescendo, died away, then swelled again. Lamb jumped outside but couldn't locate the source of the gunfire. The next morning--under a bright sun, with temperatures in the 60s--Lamb decided to take a look inside the nearby Bando Hotel.

Lamb says he walked down a stairwell and came upon the bodies of North Korean prisoners, piled one upon another in what he thought was a small "swimming pool." The area measured about 15 by 20 feet and held no water. Scores of spent shell casings littered the tile floor in what was an eerie makeshift morgue illuminated only by shafts of light from two tall windows. Even today, Lamb shudders at the recollection: "I could see three layers of bodies. . . . They had obviously been killed the day before. Some had moved their bowels. There was excrement all over. . . . Whoever killed them, they just stood over them and sprayed the pile" with bullets. Lamb stumbled up the stairs, gasping for air--trying to get the stench of death from his nostrils.

That Lamb was upset when he confronted his captain, Goodwin C. Groff, is not in dispute. Groff, Lamb's commanding officer, is now dead. But several marines remember a heated confrontation between Lamb and Groff. "Captain, have you seen what is in the hotel?" Lamb remembers asking, tears streaming down his face. " `Yes, I've seen it, but I'll not hear another damn word about it,' " Lamb says Groff replied.

John S. Sullivan, then a private first class in Fox Company, remembers the confrontation, though his account differs in some respects from Lamb's. Marines from Easy Company, Fox's sister company, "were marching the prisoners into a building," Sullivan says, "and there were some shots, and [Lamb] was screaming, `They are shooting.' " Groff cut him off. Sullivan adds: "Everybody on the street heard the two of them." Sullivan says, however, that he cannot confirm that North Korean POWs were killed in the hotel.

For many, the confrontation with Groff might have ended the affair. But Lamb is a man of stubborn determination. He worried back in 1950--and fears to this day--that Easy Company marines executed the enemy soldiers he saw in the bathing area. The killings, he says, left him doubting his beloved Marine Corps--and it showed. In the year that followed, Lamb says, he was court-martialed for refusing an order to have his men carry firewood to a superior's tent, hurt his knee in combat, and, finally, was sent to a hospital, where his physical and mental health were evaluated. As the years passed, Lamb struggled with his painful past.


11-05-03, 06:17 AM
Killers. Every war produces atrocities. My Lai still lingers in the minds of many Vietnam vets and other Americans. In Korea, the United States had its problems with such crimes, but the North...

11-05-03, 06:19 AM
A former staff sergeant in Fox Company, Arthur Farrington, says that nobody doubted Lamb when he complained about the killings. Farrington told U.S. News that he and others watched several marines...

11-05-03, 06:21 AM
Their findings leave no doubt that events were difficult to reconstruct--"a toilsome chore" is the way the investigators described it. "Potential witnesses proved difficult to locate," they wrote. "Those who were located demonstrated that the passage of time takes a costly toll on one's faculties and memory." The report described how one witness "fell ill prior to interview" and how another "suffered seizures during interview."

Asked by U.S. News to grant an interview and explain the inquiry more fully, the inspector general's office declined but answered many specific questions through a Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Douglas Powell. Noting that the after-action report covered several battles in a four-month period, Powell says that the "unspecific comments" about Easy Company marines' killing prisoners "were not determined to be within the scope of the investigation and not pursued." He adds, "The investigation speaks for itself."

Lamb is disappointed with the findings but makes no apologies for his own fight. Why, he is asked, has he persisted so long, when others would have buried the past? Sounding much like the drill instructor he once was, Lamb puts it this way: "Right is right, and wrong is wrong. The Marine Corps hymn says first to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean."

"How are you going to keep your honor clean," he asks, "if you bury such a horrible thing?"