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

11-05-03, 07:15 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, 07:17 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 Koreans were especially skilled at cruelty and sadism--killing defenseless American POWs and innocent Koreans. James R. Hellman, an Easy Company veteran, remembers a haunting scene on his way to Seoul from Inchon; during one half-mile stretch, he passed American and other United Nations prisoners lying dead in ditches, shot by their North Korean captors. "We were gaining on them, so they executed the prisoners," he recalled in an interview. "There were [men] with their hands tied behind their backs and their heads blown off." Hellman also says he saw the bodies of Korean "women and children executed and grandparents hanging from trees." He explains, "You enter an innocent person and come out with nothing but hatred. So, if something like what Lamb says happened, an isolated incident where prisoners were shot, I would be surprised, but it happens. It happens in war."

Korean veterans emphasize that taking prisoners was risky business. Some prisoners faked surrender, then sprang upon marines with hidden weapons. During the Korean conflict, says Richard A. Caulley, who was an Easy Company corporal, prisoners usually had to be marched back to the rear--past mines, snipers, and deadly ambushes. "I risked my life to take them back," he recalls, "risked mines and everything else." Then: "I had to go back and try and find my unit. It seemed like a lifetime."

From Arkansas To Over There

To this day, Lamb can't remember when he didn't want to be a marine. He fell in love with the corps as a boy, while watching a newsreel of marines fighting their way across the Pacific in World War II. He admired the kind of man who could charge head-on into a hail of machine-gun fire. The Marines, the young man thought, always did what was right: honor, courage, Semper Fi.

It's easy to see why the Marines Corps held such allure for Lamb. He was born in a two-room shack in Jacksonville, Ark., in November 1928, the son of a sharecropper. His childhood revolved around working the farm. He didn't much like school and was expelled once. By age 15, he was asking his father, Fred, to let him enlist in the Marine Corps. His father refused, urging him to finish high school. He tried but dropped out after getting through just the 10th grade.

For a few months, the young man worked as an apprentice boilermaker, then tried his hand as a tire retreader. After hitchhiking to Houston with a brother to work in the shipyards, he returned home to Arkansas to ask his father's permission, once again, to join the Marines. The old man relented, figuring that World War II was nearly over and his boy wouldn't wind up dying on a foreign beach. His induction papers were signed in August 1945, in Little Rock. Carl Lamb was 16 years old.

The limitations of his world until then were clear, reflected in his Marine Corps paperwork. It showed two years of high school education and his work as a farmhand. Under occupation, Lamb, a skinny 6-foot-2, wrote in big block letters, "FARM HAND, GENERAL," noting that for 12 years he had "PLOWED, HARROWED, SOWED AND HARVESTED CORN, SURGUM, PEAS, WATERMELON, CANTELOPE AND ALL VEGETABLES, DROVE A TEAM OF MULES, MILKED COWS, RAN FARM (60 ACRES) IN ABSENCE OF FATHER." His hobbies: "WOODWORK, MODEL PLANES, HUNTING."

Lamb's next stop was boot camp. Then it was off to sea school in San Diego, where he worked on the USS Fargo CL-106 cruiser. By 1949, he had made sergeant, scaring the bejesus out of raw recruits as a drill instructor at Parris Island, S.C. There, he says, he first learned how to lead men. "Follow me!" became his credo. Lamb had found his calling. His performance reviews from then on confirmed a single fact: Carl Lamb was an excellent marine.

Korea exploded the following year. In July 1950, three weeks after he married his girlfriend, Nancy Kennell, whom he had met at a polka dance in Jerome, Pa., Lamb was assigned as an infantry unit leader of Fox Company. The next month, Fox Company shipped out, destination Korea. On September 15, the Marines landed at Inchon. Three days later, on the march to Seoul, Lamb was wounded. Trying to dig a foxhole under enemy fire, Lamb took a piece of shrapnel in the lower left back. "I put my hand back, saw the blood," he recalls, "and I began to panic." The wound wasn't serious. Lamb rejoined his men on the front lines the next day.

But the march to Seoul began to take a toll on Lamb. A few days before reaching Seoul, Lamb says, he witnessed a superior officer torturing a North Korean prisoner during an interrogation. The prisoner had a bullet wound in each arm, and the officer stuck his thumbs in both holes, then shook the prisoner violently, "trying to get him to talk." Lamb watched another officer execute an elderly, wounded Korean, he says, shooting the man three times above the ear. Lamb, stunned, kept his rage inside.

Before long, Lamb's unit was fighting in the streets of downtown Seoul, then a city of more than 1 million. James F. Baxter, another unit leader with Fox Company, remembers Lamb's actions vividly. Under fire, Lamb and three other marines threw Baxter on an old door and dragged him to an aid station after a sniper's bullet tore away a chunk of his buttocks. Lamb also helped save a wounded medic. "One of the blessings of my life," says Baxter, also a World War II veteran, "was serving with him." Lamb, Baxter says, was of "the finest moral and physical character of any man I ever served with."

Shooting Gallery

The bloody battle to retake Seoul for the South Koreans spanned only a few days, but many parts of the city were reduced to rubble. The North Koreans placed snipers in the buildings along the city's streets, then improvised barricades, some piled 8 feet high with rice bags filled with dirt and reinforced with debris--carts, barrels, streetcar rails, anything they could find. The roads were mined; the North Koreans were armed with antitank guns and heavy machine guns. The Soviet newspaper pravda compared the scene to the Russian defense of Stalingrad in World War II. "This was a very bitter war, like any civil war, and, up to that time, this was its worst battle," recalls retired Brig. Gen. Edwin Simmons, a Marine historian who fought for the city that September with the 3rd Marine Battalion. "The fighting in Seoul was very fierce, close range, and a very hard fight."

Details of the fighting remain etched in the minds of those in the thick of it. "We were taking fire all through Seoul, going from roadblock to roadblock," recalls Peter L. Heckenlaible, a corporal at the time. Robert N. Hortie, then a private first class, remembers shaking in terror. "There was fear in our eyes," he says, "because we were not used to it."

Progress was slow. The 1st Marines had gained no more than 1,200 yards on September 26, according to Marine Corps reports. It was during this battle that marines from Easy Company recall taking heavy fire from a large building, now believed to be the old, eight-story Bando Hotel. The hotel figures prominently not just in Lamb's account but in the stories of other marines. "There was sniper fire coming from the hotel," says Donald F. Gillespie, a squad leader. "We had a bazooka man and everybody else putting everything into it." Orders were given to take the hotel to suppress the fire. Several marines were ordered inside, among them Cpl. Charles N. Garabedian, now 72. Garabedian describes a hellish, dangerous moment. Marines rushed through the building, going from room to room, bursting in on the North Korean forces shooting from the windows. Several marines were wounded, he says, as the squads ran through the hallways, killing some of the North Koreans. Garabedian recalls being on the second floor of the building. He set up by a window and had a view up and down the building's staircase. As some marines continued to clear out the building, others took prisoners down the stairwell to another marine in a bath area. There were about 12 prisoners. The marine in charge was guarding them with his Browning automatic rifle. All were forced to strip to make sure none still had weapons.

Gunfire inside the building began to subside, Garabedian says, when he heard a sudden burst and crouched down, afraid that one of the prisoners had regained a weapon. "It scared the hell out of me," he recalls. "I said, `Hey, what's going on?' Then I just peeked around the corner to see what had happened." Garabedian says the man guarding the prisoners walked into the hallway and snapped, "I shot those sons of *****es."

Garabedian, who spent more than two decades in the Marine Reserve, says he doesn't remember who that marine was. But he's convinced, he says, that this was not a war crime, though he concedes he doesn't know why the marine killed the prisoners--whether the marine was rushed by them, accidentally opened fire, or did so unprovoked and intentionally. A Marine chaplain who saw the dead prisoners "made a big stink about it," Garabedian recalls, "but to us, who were in this life-or-death situation, we took it in stride because we had won a battle."

Marine veterans from Fox and Easy companies who fought in Seoul told U.S. News they remember hearing of only one shooting incident involving POWs in a hotel. Garabedian believes that the incident he described involved the same prisoners whom Lamb says he saw the next day, the 27th. There are similarities in their accounts: a bath area, the bodies stripped naked and sprayed with bullets. But Lamb says the prisoners he saw were in the basement of the hotel--not on the second floor.


11-05-03, 07:19 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 march a group of prisoners into the hotel and soon after heard a burst of shooting. "It was done," he told Marine Corps investigators two years ago. "Somebody shot them." Although he says he never saw the prisoners' bodies and differed with Lamb on some details, Farrington told investigators that he "firmly" believed that Easy Company marines had killed the POWs. According to a transcript of his testimony, he remembers telling other marines in Seoul in September 1950: "My God, they've killed all those prisoners over there." He added in the interview with investigators: "That's what everybody was telling me."

Many marines, in both Fox and Easy companies, talked about the purported killings in the days that followed, increasing the speculation about who had killed the prisoners and why. One former Fox Company marine, Donald Pettit, who was wounded and evacuated before the battle for Seoul, says he later heard reports of the POW killings while passing through 2nd Battalion headquarters on the way back to the front lines. Samuel L. McGowin, then a private first class with Easy Company, says he heard of the incident while recuperating in Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland from a gunshot wound, but he says he was told the shootings took place on a higher floor.

Settling a score. Easy Company's Capt. Charles Fredrick recalls "a fight between some marines" and either "soldiers or civilians in a building." But, he adds, "I don't know if they were prisoners or not." Fredrick says he has always thought the incident involved another Marine company. Many other Easy Company marines remember hearing about a POW killing, but their recollection of events is clouded by the passage of time.

When a reporter called James Huebner, for instance, the former sergeant said it was difficult to remember an event that occurred half a century ago. He later dug up his old papers and consulted a letter that he had written to his mother on Sept. 29, 1950, just three days after the alleged POW killings. The letter showed, he said, that a machine gunner had described to him the capture of about 30 "gooks" by marines, who then turned them over to South Korean forces. The enemy soldiers were "taken to the swimming pool in the basement" of the hotel, Huebner said, citing his letter. He said the machine gunner told him that the prisoners were killed by South Korean forces "settling an old score." But, he emphasized, he had no direct knowledge of such an atrocity.

Despite these assumptions, others in Easy and Fox companies say they did not see any South Korean forces in that immediate area. After Seoul, Lamb and his squad would fight other battles, but he was forever changed, he says--his psyche a prisoner of those few moments in hell, in the basement of the Bando Hotel.

Reopening Closed Wounds

Lamb was honorably discharged in November 1951 for medical reasons. He suffered from what physicians at the time called "battle fatigue." The doctors diagnosed it this way: "Anxiety reaction, chronic, moderate." When he returned home, all he could talk about was the war. "He was a completely changed person," says his wife during a telephone interview from the couple's other home in Boswell, Pa. "He was very difficult to get along with. He'd talk about the bad things he saw, and he'd break down." As he roamed the country, bouncing from job to job, town to town, she and their two sons and daughter couldn't keep up with him; the Lambs separated for a time.

Lamb kept trying to put it all down on paper, to purge his demons in a book. His first version, completed in 1965, was called The Land of the Morning Calm. An agent couldn't sell it. In the mid-1970s, he tried again, but no publisher wanted the story. In 1999, he paid to publish what he says is a purely factual account of his Korean War experiences, although he changed many names of combat buddies and called himself "Sam." He titled this effort The Last Parade! The book had little impact, but Lamb pushed on. In March 2001, he sent a letter to the Defense Department demanding an investigation. In July, the then Marine Corps inspector general, Maj. Gen. Paul Lee, opened a "preliminary" inquiry, giving Lamb hope. However, last February, the inspector general's office informed him that it couldn't "substantiate" his allegations after an "exhaustive inquiry."

But how exhaustive was it?

The investigative files, obtained after Freedom of Information Act requests, indicate that the inspector general's staff interviewed only two marines from Easy Company. The 200-or-so-member unit fought inside the Bando Hotel and on the streets in that area, and some might have had direct knowledge of the alleged POW killings. Most of the marines interviewed were with Fox Company and were only able to validate Lamb's actions that day. Some confirmed Lamb's assertion that he had had a heated argument with a superior officer after leaving a hotel, but they had not been inside the building themselves, they said, and had no direct knowledge of any POW killings.

The Marine Corps investigators failed to pursue a critical piece of evidence: the after-action report for Easy Company, written on Feb. 15, 1951. The 10-page report covered combat operations that began with the Sept. 15, 1950, landing at Inchon and included later fighting in Seoul. It was based on the recollections of eight Easy Company marines and was written by a captain, Kenneth A. Shutts. The report contains this question: "How long did it take you to go through Seoul?" The detailed response includes this damaging statement on Page 4: "The killing of prisoners is something that should be watched. We had some of that going on." The inspector general's staff, the Marine Corps says, made no attempt to determine if the eight men were alive or dead. U.S. News was unable to locate any of them but found evidence indicating that several are now dead, among them a staff sergeant named William G. Ferrigno.

"A toilsome chore." It turns out that Ferrigno was also a defense witness in a court-martial case that could be relevant to the Bando Hotel allegations. A machine gun squad leader under Ferrigno was accused of murdering a South Korean military translator; witnesses said he shot the man, at point-blank range, with a .45-caliber revolver, while bivouacked outside Masan, Korea. But there was other startling testimony in the case that had nothing to do with the translator's killing. It came from Staff Sgt. Robert P. Cornely, a close friend of the accused. "Well, in Seoul," Cornely admitted on April 12, 1951, his friend "did kill some prisoners," the court-martial files show. But, there was no mention of the Bando Hotel in the court case, and the circumstances of the killings described by Cornely were not detailed. Cornely died several years ago.

The accused developed a deep hatred of Asians after being held for more than three years in Japanese prison camps run by both Japanese and Korean guards during World War II, according to witnesses. He was beaten, saw fellow POWs murdered, and weighed 110 pounds when he was liberated in 1945.

The man, now 81, lives in the Northeast and declined repeated phone requests to be interviewed for this story. He also did not respond to two letters written by U.S. News. He was convicted of killing the translator but later acquitted in a second court-martial, after claiming temporary insanity. There is no indication that he was interviewed by the Marine Corps investigators assigned to review Lamb's allegations.

The investigators also paid little heed to information provided by Charles Garabedian, the Easy Company marine who says he heard a marine admit to killing POWs inside a hotel. According to the inspector general's report, Garabedian's account was discounted as being about a separate incident from the one described by Lamb, noting that "he [Garabedian] couldn't remember a name, didn't see it take place, and didn't see the aftermath."

The investigators were skeptical of Lamb and tended to discount his allegations by noting discrepancies in the sort of details that fade with time. Lamb, for instance, thought the name of the hotel was possibly the Chosun. Investigators also noted that the Bando did not have a "swimming pool," the term Lamb first used to describe the location of the dead bodies. Lamb's use of the term continued to trouble them, even after they learned from two former marines assigned to the embassy, which was located on the fifth floor of the hotel, that there were Japanese baths in the basement.

The investigators also wrote that Lamb's mental health was in question following the battle for Seoul. During that time, they said, a military physician diagnosed him as paranoid after he threatened to tell the secret of the POW killings. But the investigators, their files show, failed to note that when he was evaluated at Bethesda Naval Hospital a short time later in 1951, a doctor called the diagnosis an error, saying, "No paranoid ideation was evidenced at any time."


11-05-03, 07:21 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?"