How a Tree Almost Started a War
When 2 American soldiers were axed to death
Inside the Korean Demilitarized Zone, besides the Bridge of No Return, is United Nations Command (UNC) checkpoint, CP#3. Between CP#3 and observation post, OP#5, on the South Korean side, there was a poplar tree. In the summer months, because the poplar tree was obstructing the view, only the top of CP#3 can be seen from OP#5.
As this was on the South Korean side, on August 18th, 1976, UNC and South Korean personnel were sent to trim the poplar tree. Among the 11 men, were Captain Arthur Bonifas and platoon leader, First Lieutenant Mark Barrett.
As works of trimming the tree begin, about 15 North Korean soldiers appeared on the other side of the bridge, led by Senior Lt. Pak Chul. After 15 minutes of watching, Pak suddenly ordered the work to stop. Captain Bonifas did not adhere and the work continued.
Pak then sent a runner across the bridge, and, along with 20 North Korean guards, Pak himself crossed the bridge in a truck. He ordered again the trimming to stop, and once more, Bonifas ordered the detail to continue.
After a brief moment… Pak ordered to kill.
The trimming detail was unarmed, as, in the Joint Security Area, numbers of armed guards and officers were restricted. Using the axes dropped by the tree-trimmers, North Korean guards attacked the UNC and South Korean personnel. Captain Bonifas was axed to death.
As UNC forces dispersed North Korean soldiers, they were able to place Bonifas’s body in their truck. However, First Lieutenant Barrett was nowhere to be found.
In the meantime, UNC guards inside OP #5 were observing weird behaviors from North Korean guards near a depression: one would take an axe down, come back minutes later, and pass the axe to another guard who would do the same.
It wasn’t until 90 minutes later that the guards in OP #5 were told that Barrett was missing. This was when the guards informed their superiors about the activities near the depression.
A search and rescue unit was sent to the depression. Barrett, axed by the North Korean guards, was found in the depression. He was quickly transferred to a hospital in Seoul. Barrett died along the way.
Operation Paul Bunyan
On early next day, August 19th, all American troops in South Korea increased readiness levels to DEFCON 3. After 3 days of planning, Operation Paul Bunyan (the lumberjack in American folktales) was initialized. It was determined that not only would the poplar tree be trimmed, it was going to be cut down.
Fighters, helicopters, and bombers flew in from Guam, and another 12 000 troops were ordered to South Korea. South Korean special forces were also involved, including the unit that 19th South Korea President, Moon Jae-in, was in. Cutting down the tree was tasked to the 2nd Engineer Battalion.
As the operation began, North Korean troops, approximately 200, arrived in buses and began setting up machine guns and assault rifles. Nuclear war was one gunshot away. The North Koreans held still. After 42 minutes, the operation was carried out peacefully. The tree was cut, and only the stump was left standing.
Made in “Austria”
There have been rumors that the North Koreans acquired an axe from the original trimming incident, on which read “Made in Austria.”
A North Korean translator had then wrongfully messed up “Austria” with Australia, which is why North Korea promptly cut diplomatic relationships with Australia.
This theory is largely doubted for the obvious reason that Australia — North Korea relations were ceased in 1975; the trimming incident happened in August of 1976. This led many to believe that the axe was acquired from another incident on the DMZ.
On June 30, 1975, US Army Major W. D. Henderson was sitting on a bench. A North Korean journalist then approached and ordered him to move. Henderson did not comply, and the journalist, along with other North Korean guards, attacked Henderson. UNC forces, carrying axes, soon arrived and evacuated Henderson using a medical helicopter. Henderson suffered a crushed larynx.
It was the axe brought to save Major Henderson that was believed to be acquired by North Koreans: the axe on which read “Made in Austria” and which eventually led to the cut of diplomatic relationship between North Korea and Australia. However, again, this is just a rumor.
Following Operation Paul Bunyan, the former leader of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, expressed regrets about the incident, the first time North Korea had accepted responsibility for violence along the DMZ since 1953.
In 1987, the tree stump was replaced with a monument in memory of the two soldiers: Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett.