Definitions

Ax Murder Incident

Axe Murder Incident

The Axe Murder Incident (판문점 도끼 살인 사건) was the killing of two United States Army officers by North Korean soldiers on August 18, 1976 in the Joint Security Area (JSA) located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which forms the de facto border between North and South Korea. The killings and the response three days later (Operation Paul Bunyan) heightened tensions between North and South Korea as well as their respective allies, China and the United States.

The incident is also known as the Hatchet Incident and the Poplar Tree Incident because the object of the conflict was a poplar tree standing in the JSA.

Background

In the JSA, near the Bridge of No Return, a 100 ft (30 m) poplar tree blocked the line of sight between a United Nations Command (UNC) checkpoint (CP #3) and observation post (OP) #5.

CP#3, situated next to the Bridge of No Return, was the northernmost UNC checkpoint and only visible from OP#5 during the winter months. During the summer months, only the top of CP#3 was visible from one other UNC checkpoint (CP#2). Running across the middle of the bridge was the Military Demarcation Line between North Korean and South Korean territories. The Korean People's Army (KPA) had made numerous attempts to grab UNC personnel from CP#3 and drag them across the bridge into North Korean territory. The proximity to North Korean territory and the North Korean checkpoints on all access routes, along with the repeated attempts to kidnap the UNC personnel working there, led to CP#3 being referred to as “The Loneliest Outpost in the World”.

The Incident

Initial trimming

On August 18, 1976, a group of five Korean Service Corps (KSC) personnel escorted by a UNC security team consisting of the Joint Security Force (JSF) Company Commander (Captain Arthur Bonifas), his South Korean (ROK) Army counterpart, Captain Kim, the platoon leader of the current platoon in the area (1st Lt. Mark Barrett), and 11 enlisted personnel, both American and South Korean, went into the JSA to trim the tree as previously scheduled with the KPA delegation. The two captains did not wear sidearms, as members of the Joint Security Area were limited to only five armed officers and 30 armed enlisted personnel at a time. However, there were mattocks in the back of the 2½ ton truck. The KSC workers had the axes they brought to prune the tree branches. The tree had been scheduled to be trimmed seven days earlier, but rain had forced the work to be rescheduled.

After trimming began, 15 to 16 KPA soldiers commanded by Senior Lt. Pak Chul appeared. The UNC soldiers had previously nicknamed him 'Lt. Bulldog', for a history of confrontations. Pak and his subordinates appeared to observe the trimming without concern for approximately 15 minutes, until he abruptly told the UNC to cease the activity. Capt. Bonifas ordered the detail to continue, and turned his back on 'Lt. Bulldog'.

According to some sources, Senior Lt. Pak had at some point stated that the tree had been planted by Kim Il-sung himself.

The attack

After being ignored by Capt. Bonifas, Pak Chul sent a runner across the Bridge of No Return. Within minutes a North Korean guard truck crossed the bridge and approximately 20 more North Korean guards disembarked carrying crowbars and clubs. Pak Chul again demanded that the tree trimming stop, and when Capt. Bonifas again turned his back on him, Pak Chul removed his watch, carefully wrapped it in a handkerchief, placed it in his pocket, and then shouted "Kill them!" as he swung a karate chop to the back of Capt. Bonifas' neck. Using axes dropped by the tree-trimmers, the KPA forces attacked the two U.S. soldiers, Capt. Bonifas and Lt. Barrett, and wounded all but one of the UNC guards.

While Capt. Bonifas died instantly, Lt. Barrett jumped a low wall which led into a 15 ft. (4½ m) deep tree-filled depression. The depression was not visible from the road. The entire fight lasted for only about 20–30 seconds before the UNC Force managed to disperse the KPA guards and place Capt. Bonifas' body in their truck. However, there was no sign of Lt. Barrett and the two UNC guards at OP#5 could not spot him.

They did, however, observe the KPA guards grab (by the heels) approximately 5 members of their own force and drag them back across the bridge. They also observed the KPA guards at KPA#8 (along the UNC emergency egress road) exhibiting strange behaviour, in that one guard would take an axe and go down into the depression for a couple of minutes and then come back up and hand the axe to another guard who would repeat the process. This went on for approximately 90 minutes until the UNC guards at OP#5 were informed that Lt. Barrett was missing, at which time they informed their superiors about the KPA activity in the depression. A search and rescue squad was quickly dispatched and found Lt. Barrett.

A helicopter on a training mission was also sent to the location (its crew issued yellow armbands and .45 automatics) and used for a medevac, but Barrett did not survive.

A corporal witnessed the attack from OP#5 and recorded the incident with a movie camera.

Reaction

Shortly after the incident, North Korean media began airing reports of the fight. The DPRK version stated:

"Around 10:45 a.m. today, the American imperialist aggressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the Joint Security Area to cut the trees on their own accord, although such a work should be mutually consented beforehand. Four persons from our side went to the spot to warn them not to continue the work without our consent. Against our persuasion, they attacked our guards en masse and committed a serious provocative act of beating our men, wielding murderous weapons and depending on the fact that they outnumbered us. Our guards could not but resort to self-defense measures under the circumstances of this reckless provocation."

Within four hours of the attack, Kim Jong-il (son of the DPRK leader Kim Il-sung) addressed the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he presented a prepared document describing the incident as an unprovoked attack on North Korean guards, led by American officers. He then introduced a resolution asking the conference to condemn that day's grave U.S. provocation and called on participants to endorse both the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea and the dissolution of the United Nations Command, which was seconded by Cuba. With such a short time since the incident, and with details still sketchy, members of the conference passed the resolution.

Operation Paul Bunyan

In response to the "Axe Murder Incident," the UN Command determined that instead of trimming the branches that obscured visibility, they would cut down the tree with the aid of overwhelming force. The operation, named after mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan, was conceived as a US/South Korean show of force, but was also carefully managed to prevent further escalation. It was planned over two days by General Richard G. Stilwell and his staff at the UNC headquarters in Seoul.

Forces

Operation Paul Bunyan was carried out on August 21 at 7 AM, just three days after the killings. A convoy of 23 American and South Korean vehicles (‘Task Force Vierra’, named for Lieutenant Colonel Victor S. Vierra, commander of the United States Army Support Group) drove into the JSA without any warning to the North Koreans, who only had one observation post manned at that early hour. In the vehicles were two eight-man teams of military engineers (from the 2nd Engineer Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division) equipped with chain-saws to cut down the tree. These teams were accompanied by two 30-man security platoons from the Joint Security Force, who were armed with pistols and axe handles. The 2nd Platoon would secure the northern entrance to the JSA via the “Bridge of No Return”, while the 3rd Platoon would secure the southern edge of the area.

Concurrently, a team from B Company, commanded by CPT Walter Seifried, had activated the detonation systems for the charges on Freedom Bridge and had the 165mm main gun of the CEV aimed mid-span to ensure that the bridge would fall should the order be given for its destruction. Also B Company, supporting E Company(Bridge), commanded by CPT Williams, were building M4T6 rafts on the Imjin River should the situation require emergency evacuation by that route.

In addition, a 64-man ROK special forces company accompanied them, armed with clubs and trained in Tae Kwon Do, supposedly without firearms. However, once they parked their trucks near the Bridge of No Return, they started throwing out the sandbags that lined the truck bottoms, and handing out M-16 rifles and M-79 grenade launchers that had been concealed below. Several of the special forces men also had Claymore mines strapped to their chests with the firing mechanism in their hands, and were shouting at the North Koreans to cross the bridge.

A U.S. infantry company in 20 utility helicopters and 7 Cobra attack helicopters circled behind them. Behind these helicopters, B-52 bombers escorted by U.S. F-4 fighters from Kunsan Air Base and ROK F-5 fighters were visible flying across the sky at high altitude. At Osan Air Base, F-111 fighters had been armed and fueled, ready to take off at short notice. The aircraft carrier Midway task force had also been moved to a station just offshore. In addition, near the edges of the DMZ, many more heavily armed U.S. and ROK infantry, artillery (which included the 2nd Bn/71st ADA (HAWK) in the 2ID/ICorps area), and armor were waiting to back up the special operations team. The bases near the DMZ were prepared for demolition in the case of a military response. The defense condition (DEFCON) was elevated on order of Gen. Stillwell, as recounted in Col. De LaTeur's research paper later.

Altogether, Task Force Vierra consisted of 813 men, almost all of the men of the United States Army Support Group, of which the Joint Security Force was a part, a ROK reconnaissance company, a ROK Special Forces company which had infiltrated the river area by the bridge the night before, and members of a reinforced composite rifle company from the 9th Infantry Regiment. In addition to this force, every UNC force in the rest of South Korea was on full battle alert with all weapons loaded, ready to fire if needed.

Actual operation

The engineers in the convoy — two teams from B Company and C Company, 2d Engineer Battalion, lead by 1LT Patrick Ono, who had two days before conducted a recon of the tree disguised as a Korea Corporal, — disembarked from their vehicles once the convoy arrived, and immediately started cutting down the tree while standing on the roof of their truck, while the 2nd Platoon truck was positioned to block the Bridge of No Return. The remainder of the task force dispersed to their assigned areas around the tree and assumed their roles of guarding the engineers.

North Korea quickly responded with about 150–200 troops, armed with machine guns and assault rifles. The North Korean troops arrived mostly in buses, but did not leave them at first, watching the events unfold. Upon seeing their arrival, LTC Vierra relayed a radio communication, whereupon the helicopters and Air Force jets became visible over the horizon. The North Koreans quickly disembarked from their buses and began setting up two-man machine gun positions, where they watched in silence as the tree fell in 42 minutes, avoiding a violent confrontation. Also removed were two road barriers illegally installed by the North Koreans, while the South Korean troops also vandalized two North Korean guard posts. The stump of the tree, almost 6 m (20 feet) tall, was deliberately left as a reminder.

Aftermath

Although the operation was carried out peacefully, there was concern that it could spark a wider conflict. The incident led to increased tensions along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, but did not develop into full-scale war. Some shots were fired at the US helicopter which, carrying Major General Morris Brady, circled Panmunjon later that day, but nobody was injured. The fire stopped abruptly when six Cobras banked line abreast and swung into firing position, their laser sights illuminating the North Korean gun position.

The United Nations Command had demanded that the North Koreans “punish those involved and make adequate reparations to the families of those killed and injured”. Later on the day of Operation Paul Bunyan, they received a message from Kim Il-sung expressing regret at the incident without accepting responsibility. While not going far enough to satisfy a previously discussed ‘acceptable’ Northern response, the US administration decided to emphasize this as a step in the right direction, clearly not intent on further escalation.

The Joint Security Area's Advance Camp (Camp Kitty Hawk) was later renamed Camp Bonifas in honor of the slain company commander. The site of the tree, the stump of which was cut down in 1987, became the location of a stone monument with a brass plate inscribed in the memory of both men. The UN command has held commemorative ceremonies at the monument on anniversaries.

The close-by UNC checkpoint (CP#3, situated next to the Bridge of No Return) was no longer used after the mid-1980s, when cement-filled posts were placed in the road to make vehicle passage impossible.

Image gallery

Note: UNC personnel are wearing white helmets.

See also

References

External links

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