(83) Destruction of Han River Bridge
By Robert Neff
The Korean War was filled with tragedies and, as too common, often the victims were non-combatants. The country was ripped apart by ideologies and large numbers of people — caring nothing for the politics — were uprooted in their attempts to avoid the advancing armies and battles. Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies during the opening days of the war was the destruction of the Han River Bridge.
South Korea was not prepared for the North’s surprise attack on June 25, 1950. So powerful was the North Korean attack that within two days it was apparent to the South’s military that Seoul could not be held and would have to be abandoned.
American journalist Frank Gibney recalled that for the most part the military’s evacuation of the city was quite orderly with military police directing traffic and soldiers singing as they marched. But it was the thousands of civilians — “women toting bundles on their heads, and men carrying household goods in wooden frames fastened to their backs” — that blocked the approach to the Han River Bridge in their desperate attempt to get out of the city before the arrival of the North Korean troops.
It was in the early morning on June 28 that a fateful decision was made to destroy the bridge in an effort to prevent the advancing North Korean forces from crossing the river. Colonel Choe Chang-sik, the engineer in charge of the bridge, tried to clear it before it was blown up but he failed.
For many, the destruction of the bridge came without warning and many were killed or wounded. Gibney, who witnessed the destruction wrote:
“Lit only by the glow of the burning truck and occasional headlights, was apocalyptic in frightfulness. All of the soldiers in the truck ahead of us had been killed. Bodies of dead and dying were strewn over the bridge, civilians as well as soldiers. Confusion was complete. With the cries of the wounded and the dying forming the background, scores of refugees were running pell-mell off the bridge and disappearing into the night beyond. It was here that we first noticed the pathetic trust that the Koreans had placed in Americans. For 10 minutes we rested on the grass, men with bloody faces would come to us, point to their wounds, and say hopefully in English, ‘Hospital, you take hospital.’ All we could do was point to our own bloody faces and shake our heads.”
With the bridge destroyed, refugees were forced to try and find passage on the small boats that plied the river, but these were only able to carry a limited number of passengers.
The destruction of the bridge did not stop the North’s advance — it merely slowed it down. But it came with a cost. Hundreds of people were probably killed in the initial blasts and others perished in their attempt to get across the river or were caught by the advancing North Koreans.
Choe was also a victim. Someone had to be held responsible for the great loss of life and, although he was only following orders, he was deemed responsible and was executed by a firing squad on Sept. 21, 1950. A later investigation revealed Choe’s desperate attempt to clear the bridge and he was subsequently posthumously acquitted.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.