Operation Paul Bunyan
"Tree / Hatchet Incident" 18 August 1976
During the "Hatchet Incident" of 18 August 1976, North Korean troops attacked an American-South Korean party that had gone to trim a tree next to the Bridge of No Return in the Demilitarized Zone. Two American officers were beaten to death with the blunt end of axes after they ignored the North Koreans' order to desist.
The military demarcation line (MDL) of separation between the belligerent sides at the close of the Korean war forms North Korea's boundary with South Korea. Both the North and South Korean Governments hold that the MDL is only a temporary administrative line, not a permanent border. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is an area of land encompassing 2 kilometers on either side of the 151 mile long Military Demarcation Line (MDL). This zone was established by the July 27, 1953 Armistice Agreement along the approximate line of ground contact between the opposing forces at the time the truce ended the Korean War. The opposing sides in the conflict were enjoined under the Armistice Agreement from entering the territory, air space or contiguous waters under control of the other.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) Army provides most of the front line military forces south of the DMZ, as well as the 1,024 DMZ Civil Police authorized by the Armistice who man 114 guard posts on the southern side of the MDL. A small number of American soldiers perform DMZ duties inside the DMZ. They are assigned to the United Nations Command (UNC) Security Force-Joint Security Area (JSA) which supports the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) either as security guards or in administrative, communications and logistics missions. Also located in the JSA is the "Bridge of No Return." In 1953, this bridge was used to return prisoners of war of both sides, who were allowed to make a free irreversible choice on whether to return to their place of origin.
The post-war years were marked by infrequent but sometimes serious truce violations by the north Koreans. In late 1966 North Koreans initiated a campaign of violence that continued into 1971 and took the lives of more than 40 Americans and hundreds of Koreans -- north as well as south. There was a steady increase in the number of DMZ incidents, terrorist raids, and attempts at subversion in an effort to undermine the growing economic and political stability of the ROK. Major incidents during this period saw an attempted North Korean commando raid on the Blue House (Presidential Mansion), the USS Pueblo was pirated from international waters, large scale guerrilla incursions occurred on the ROK east coast, and the shooting down of an unarmed US Navy reconnaissance plane-- an EC-121 -- over the Sea of Japan.
In the face of the ever-increasing threat, significant improvements were made in the defenders' firepower, mobility, communications and infrastructure. Numerous ROK and US defensive positions were constructed or strengthened. Night observation devices, powerful searchlights and various other sophisticated detection equipment were introduced along the DMZ. The modernization of the ROK Army was accelerated. Concurrently, improvements were made in the Air and Naval components.
The North Korean leaders, with an eye on the growing United States involvement in Southeast Asia, had miscalculated the strength of the allies' resolve to oppose their campaign of hostility. They reverted to a less intense campaign of espionage and subversion. In 1969, North Korea-initiated incidents fell sharply.
In 1970, a decision was made to reduce US forces in Korea in view of the capability of the ROK armed forces to take over the primary burden of ground defense of their country and in conjunction with a US-funded, five-year modernization package for the ROK armed forces. In March 1971, the 2nd Infantry Division pulled back from the DMZ and turned over its area of responsibility to a ROK Army division. By late March, the only area of the DMZ still guarded by U.S. troops was a 1,000-meter wide sector in the vicinity of Panmunjom, site of the meetings between the UNC and the Korean People's Army/Chinese People's Volunteers components of the Military Armistice Commission. The planned reduction in Eighth Army was completed on schedule as the command's authorized strength was reduced by over 18,000 by the end of June 1971.
On 04 July 1972 North and South Korea announced an agreement to work toward peaceful reunification and an end to the hostile atmosphere prevailing on the peninsula. Officials exchanged visits, and regular communications were established through a North-South coordinating committee and the Red Cross. However, these initial contacts broke down and ended in 1973 following South Korean President Park Chung Hee's announcement that the South would seek separate entry into the United Nations and after the kidnapping from Tokyo of South Korean opposition leader Kim Dae Jung by the South Korean intelligence service. There was no other significant contact between North and South Korea until 1984.
According to north Korean defectors, Kim Il-Sung -- president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- issued a sweeping order in the early 1970s that required every Korean People's Army division along the Demilitarized Zone to dig and maintain at least two tunnels into South Korea. The opposing United Nations Command had been aware of an earlier north Korean tunneling effort that never became an actuality, but was surprised when new evidence came up that indicated the north was hard at work underground again. In November 1974 South Korea discovered a tunnel dug under the DMZ running from North Korea into the South. This first discovery of an infiltration tunnel was followed in March 1975 by the discovery of a second invasion/infiltration tunnel under the DMZ.
In the wake of the American defeat in Vietnam, the Team Spirit joint/combined field training exercise began in 1976. Designed to evaluate and improve the interoperability of the ROK and US forces, in-country forces were augmented for training purposes by US Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force units from outside the ROK. US participation in the exercise included augmentation forces of all services tactically deployed to the ROK from other Pacific bases and the continental United States. This exercise was last held in 1993. Separate ROK and US command post exercises were combined as Ulchi Focus Lens (UFL) in 1976. UFL is an annual joint and combined simulation-supported command post exercise that trains Combined Forces Command personnel and major component, subordinate and augmenting staffs using state-of-the-art wargaming computer simulations and support infrastructures.
The first Team Spirit joint exercises was regarded by Pyongyang as a dress rehearsal for attack. It occaisioned a period of high tension between the US and North Korea -- in early August 1976 the North had sent a rare communiqué accusing the Americans of preparing an invasion.
Near the Bridge of No Return a row of poplar trees, and the fifth tree blocked a line of sight between checkpoint 3 and the bridge from the view of check point 5. in the Joint Security Area. The trimming of a poplar tree each summer was a routine procedure. However in early August 1976 a South Korean work force was threatened with death if they tried to trim the tree.
On 18 August 1976 a Korean work force was escorted by CPT Bonifas and 1LT Barrett to trim the large poplar tree. The UNC force on 18 August 1976 consisted of the two US officers, an Republic of Korea officer and eight UNC guards escorting the workforce. The Korean People's Army from the North told them to cease activity. When the commanding officer, Captain Bonifas, ordered work to resume, thirty North Korean soldiers who silently watched were ordered "mikunulchi ki cha" ["kill the US soldiers"]. The North Koreans, armed with the work detail's axes and metal picks, outnumbered the soldiers. CPT Bonifas was the first killed, attacked from behind by five. A Corporal saw the attack from a nearby three-story pagoda and recorded the murders with a movie camera. The attack ended as soon as it began, with the two US officers were killed and the nine guards UNC guards injured.
After a mobilization on both sides, and despite Henry Kissinger's apparent desire to bomb the North, President Ford ultimately decided the appropriate response would be to chop down the tree. On the morning of 21 August 1976 a joint mission involving ROK and UN-supported American troops felled the tree. The poplar tree was removed entirely and a small monument was placed with the names of those killed and injured. Under OPERATION PAUL BUNYAN this action was backed up by an armed platoon, 27 helicopters, and a number of B-52 bombers fying along the DMZ. The North Koreans held their fire, and within an hour the operation was complete.
A few days later, on Kim Il Sung's initiative, the Joint Security Area was partitioned along the demarcation line. Since then the troops have stood face-to-face on their own sides of the border. The division of the JSA was agreed so rapidly that the North Koreans were temporarily cut off from their side of it by road. The Bridge of No Return was now off-limits, and a new bridge took exactly 72 hours to build.