Fiction2nd Place

The Massacre at No Gun Ri

A Response to “Your Lullaby Will Find a Home in My Head” by Dario Robleto

Rain pattered steadily on our helmets as we sat on the bridge, guns loaded, staring lazily into space. We’d only been in this barbaric nation a month yesterday, and most of the cavalry yearned for home. Some of the men joked that I was home, but the customs and language looked just as foreign to me as they were to everyone else.

When they assigned me to the seventh cavalry, I knew someone had made a terrible mistake. People called it the “Immortal Cavalry” because of its famous history, and our reputation was nothing to scoff at. Our colonel looked into my transfer, but there hadn’t been a mishap. So there I was, in one of the most famous regiments, on the front line of the first war since WWII with the toughest men I’d ever known, standing in the rain.

The men called me baesinja, because one of our POWs yelled it at me a few weeks earlier. Private Yates looked it up in his dictionary. It means “traitor,” and every time I heard it, a pang of guilt hit my stomach, even though it shouldn’t have. It was the first time I saw a Gook up close, and while the other men laughed at him, I stared. I never wished to see a mirror again.

But so far, it had been an easy war. Our regiment merely guarded the American border and listened for inaudible noises between the raindrops. Sometimes a tree or bush moved in this way or that, but otherwise we sat and waited.

Some men would reread letters from girlfriends or wives. Others gnawed tobacco or attempted to puff cigarettes. Some men wouldn’t risk ruining their possessions, so they did nothing but sat and watched. I would pull out my wife’s hair. The simple inky black strands were woven and tied with a white bow that felt soft in my grubby hands.

Her large almond eyes dominated her other rather small features, and her hair fell perfectly straight to the small of her back. We’d only been married two months before I shipped out, but the night before, she braided her hair and gave me the token in my hand. I stuffed it back into my arm pocket and watched.

Shadowed specs moved in the hills a mile from where I sat and I watched as they neared. Some of the men slept in patches of wet grass on the hills nearby. The specs looked bigger now, and my heart thumped faster and faster until I was sure the others could hear it over the rain. They were people. People from the other side. I reached for my M3 and stood up. This would be the moment to prove my worth. They ran towards us, fearless. I couldn’t tell how many there were. There could be hundreds of them coming over that hill.

I looked back to see the rest of the men preparing their weapons. Apparently they paid more attention than I thought. I couldn’t let them take credit for this. This might be my finest hour, and I would have to act fast to keep it that way.

As the first few approached, hands waving in the air, I wiped my hands unnecessarily on my pants. Colonel Custer yelled directions, telling us to hold steady and wait for a clear shot. We had one thing on our minds. The one thing training told us to remember: shoot first, ask questions later. They were North Koreans. They might be armed. They were no match for us.

My finger twitched around the trigger as I waited for Custer to give the go ahead. He started to yell, but I pulled the trigger. My whole body shook as my M3 pelted bullets into the bastards. The other men followed, and as night fell, bodies lay below the bridge, just short of the American line. We kept watch throughout the rainy night, until morning brought us sunshine and heat waves.

We followed as Colonel Custer led us down below to assess the damage. He didn’t have a spring in his step like some of the men, but stomped, head down, jaw taut. I walked behind the others, and for the first time, they didn’t call me baesinja.

When Colonel Custer stopped, so did we. Silence in the dry heat made everything still, and we stood there. Instead of Gooks, I saw a woman with a young boy in brown shorts curled in the fetal position next to her. Their clothes stuck to their skin from the night rain, and their eyes were open, gazing nowhere—motionless. More of them lay scattered about, and only a few of them looked old enough to be in any army.

I swallowed. My mouth didn’t respond. Some of the men walked away, including the Colonel.

“Come, baesinja,” he said. But I just stood there. One by one they walked away until only I remained. The clouds darkened in the west. I pulled out my wife’s braid and looked at the woman with the boy. Her eyes looked like large almonds as I bent down to close them. I took her hair, and that of the boy’s, braided them, and tied them with my wife’s.