By Robert Neff
On March 8, 1887, William McKay, an American engineer involved in providing the Korean palace with electricity, was fatally shot by his security escort — a Korean soldier. The following morning, before he died, McKay begged for the soldier not to be punished because it was an accident. But, according to Korean law, because a man’s life was taken the soldier had to be executed. McKay’s wife pleaded with King Gojong to grant the soldier clemency. Apparently the Korean monarch was touched by her compassion and granted her wish.
It is easy to applaud McKay’s wife because she forgave a man who had accidentally deprived her of her husband. But could you have been as forgiving as this woman?
On the night of Dec. 22-23, 1950, Seoul was preparing for the arrival of the North Korean forces. Many of the residents of Seoul had already fled but others, like Lee Hak-chun, his wife, Kim Chung-hee, and their three children, sought the assistance of the United States Army to transport them to safety in the southern part of the country.
Lee and his family, along with several other Koreans, were in the basement of the 8th Army Officers’ Billets awaiting transportation to Daegu. It was just about midnight when Pvt. John E. Day Jr., a 21-year-old American soldier from Washington, D.C., entered the room. He had been drinking all day and was very belligerent. Spying Lee’s wife, he sat down next to her and began to try and seduce her — when his attempts were refused he grabbed her by the neck and began to choke her. Another Korean managed to pry the woman away from Day but this further angered the drunken soldier.
Day then left the room but came back shortly afterwards armed with a carbine and dressed only in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Through an interpreter, Day demanded that Lee “concede” his wife to him immediately and if he refused, Day would kill them all. He then had all of the Koreans lines line up against the wall and ordered Lee to step back a couple of feet at which time he shot him twice in the chest.
Day then grabbed the woman (who was still clutching her baby) by the neck and forced her to go outside where he raped her. He struck her several times with the butt of his weapon and then took her baby and threw it in the front seat of a truck. A couple of hours later, Lee’s corpse was discovered.
Day appears to have been apprehended the following day and signed a confession stating that he had killed Lee. Because of the confusion of war, Day was not formally charged for his crime until Sept. 22, 1951 and then tried and found guilty of premeditated murder on Oct. 1, 1951 in Tokyo. His crime was branded “horrifying” and he was sentenced to be executed. On June 30, 1954, President Eisenhower approved the court’s decision. The sentence was scheduled to be carried out at the end of August 1954 but Day’s lawyers immediately appealed. They insisted that Day’s constitutional rights had been violated by the introduction of his drunken confession.
Day was eventually transferred to the military confinement facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. For five years he continued to fight to have his death sentence commuted. Surprisingly, Kim Chung-hee, appealed to President Eisenhower to grant clemency for the man who raped her and murdered her husband. It was even alleged that South Korean president, Rhee Syng-man, asked the American president to reconsider but nothing could change President Eisenhower’s decision.
Three minutes past midnight on Sept. 23, 1959, Day was marched to the gallows where he thanked everyone for their consideration. The lever was thrown and 13 minutes later Pvt. John E. Day Jr. was pronounced dead.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.