The Korean axe murder incident (Korean: 판문점 도끼살인사건; Hanja: 板門店도끼殺人事件,도끼蠻行事件; literally, Panmunjom axe murder incident) was the killing of two United States Army officers, CPT Arthur Bonifas and 1LT Mark Barrett, by North Korean soldiers on August 18, 1976, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The U.S. Army officers had been part of a work party cutting down a poplar tree in the JSA.
Three days later, American and South Korean forces launched Operation Paul Bunyan, an operation that cut down the tree with a show of force to intimidate North Korea into backing down, which it did. North Korea then accepted responsibility for the earlier killings.
The incident is also known alternatively as the hatchet incident, the poplar tree incident, and the tree trimming incident.
One of the South Korean soldiers who participated in Operation Paul Bunyan, Moon Jae-in, was elected President of South Korea in 2017.
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In the Joint Security Area, near the Bridge of No Return, a 100-foot (30 m) poplar tree blocked the line of sight between a United Nations Command (UNC) checkpoint (CP No. 3) and an observation post (OP No. 5).
Command Post No. 3, situated next to the Bridge of No Return, was the northernmost UNC checkpoint and only visible from OP No. 5 during the winter months. During the summer months, only the top of CP No. 3 was visible from one other UNC checkpoint (CP No. 2). Running across the middle of the bridge was the Military Demarcation Line between North Korean and South Korean territories.
On one occasion before the incident, North Korean soldiers had held a group of U.S. troops at gunpoint, so Joint Security Force (JSF) company commander Captain Arthur Bonifas was sent to force the North Koreans to stand down and bring the Americans back to safety, which he did successfully. Bonifas would later be one of the two Americans killed in the axe murders.
On August 18, 1976, a group of five Korean Service Corps (KSC) personnel escorted by a UNC security team consisting of Captain Arthur Bonifas, his South Korean (ROK) Army counterpart, Captain Kim, the platoon leader of the current platoon in the area (First Lieutenant Mark Barrett), and 11 enlisted personnel, both American and South Korean, went into the JSA to trim the tree.
The two captains did not wear side arms, 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.
After trimming began, about 15 North Korean soldiers appeared, commanded by Senior Lt. Pak Chul, whom the UNC soldiers had previously nicknamed "Lt. Bulldog" due to 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, stating that the tree could not be trimmed "because Kim Il Sung personally planted it and nourished it and it's growing under his supervision." Captain Bonifas ordered the detail to continue, and turned his back on Lt. Pak Chul.
After being ignored by Bonifas, Pak 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 again demanded that the tree-trimming stop. When Bonifas again turned his back on him, Pak removed his watch, carefully wrapped it in a handkerchief, placed it in his pocket, and then shouted, "Kill the bastards!" Using axes dropped by the tree-trimmers, the KPA forces attacked the two U.S. soldiers, Bonifas and Barrett, and wounded all but one of the UNC guards.
While Bonifas was knocked to the ground by Pak and then bludgeoned to death by at least five North Koreans, Barrett jumped over a low wall which led past a 4.5-metre (15 ft) deep tree-filled depression, just across the road from the tree. The depression was not visible from the road because of the dense grass and small trees. The entire fight lasted for only 20 to 30 seconds before the UNC force managed to disperse the North Korean guards and place Bonifas' body in their truck. However, there was no sign of Barrett and the two UNC guards at OP No. 5 could not see him.
The UNC force did, however, observe the North Korean guards at KPA No. 8 (along the UNC emergency egress road) exhibiting strange behavior, 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 No. 5 were informed that 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 that Barrett had been attacked with the axe by the North Koreans. Barrett was recovered and transferred to a hospital in Seoul via an aid station at Camp Greaves, but died during the journey.
Captain Shirron (Bonifas' replacement), Captain Shaddix, the joint duty officer's driver, the joint duty officer, and the OP No. 5 guard witnessed the attack from OP No. 5 and recorded the incident with both a black and white camera, which ran out of film, and Shaddix's 35 mm camera with a telephoto lens. The UNC guard at CP No. 3 (Bridge of No Return) recorded the incident with a movie camera.
Shortly after the incident, the North Korean media began airing reports of the fight. The North Korean 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 have 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 North Korean 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. The members of the conference passed the resolution.
The CIA considered the attack to be pre-planned by the North Korean government. A variety of responses were evaluated. Readiness levels for American forces in South Korea were increased to DEFCON 3 early on August 19. Rocket and artillery attacks in the area were considered, but discounted due to an unfavorable 4:1 ratio of artillery pieces and because President Park Chung-hee did not want military action taken.
Operation Paul Bunyan
In response to the "axe murder incident", the UNC determined that instead of trimming the branches that obscured visibility, they would cut down the tree with the aid of overwhelming force. The parameters of the operation were decided in the White House, where President Gerald Ford had held crisis talks. Ford and his advisers were concerned about making a show of strength to chasten North Korea, but without causing further escalation. The operation, named after mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan, was conceived as a U.S.–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.
Operation Paul Bunyan was carried out on August 21 at 07:00, three days after the killings. A convoy of 23 American and South Korean vehicles ("Task Force Vierra", named after 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 had one observation post manned at that 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 1st Platoon secured the northern entrance to the JSA via the Bridge of No Return, while the 2nd Platoon secured the southern edge of the area.
Concurrently, a team from B Company, commanded by Captain Walter Seifried, had activated the detonation systems for the charges on Freedom Bridge and had the 165mm main gun of the M728 combat engineer vehicle 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), were building M4T6 rafts on the Imjin River should the situation require emergency evacuation by that route.
In addition, a 64-man task force of the South Korean Special Forces accompanied them, armed with clubs and trained in taekwondo, 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 M16 rifles and M79 grenade launchers that had been concealed below. Several of the commandos also had M18 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 seven Cobra attack helicopters circled behind them. Behind these helicopters, B-52 Stratofortresses came from Guam escorted by U.S. F-4 Phantom IIs from Kunsan Air Base and South Korean F-5 and F-86 fighters were visible flying across the sky at high altitude. At Taegu Air Base, F-111 bombers of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Mountain Home Air Force Base, were stationed, and F-4C and -D Phantoms from the 18th TFW Kadena Air Base and Clark Air Base were also deployed. The aircraft carrier USS Midway task force had also been moved to a station just offshore.
Near the edges of the DMZ, many more heavily armed U.S. and South Korean infantry, artillery including the Second Battalion, 71st Air Defense Regiment armed with Improved Hawk missiles, and armor were waiting to back up the special operations team. Bases near the DMZ were prepared for demolition in the case of a military response. The defense condition (DEFCON) was elevated on order of General Stilwell, as recounted in Colonel De LaTeur's research paper later. In addition, 12,000 additional troops were ordered to Korea, including 1,800 Marines from Okinawa. During the operation, nuclear-capable strategic bombers circled over the JSA. According to an intelligence analyst monitoring the North Korea tactical radio net, the accumulation of force "blew their... minds".
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 South Korean reconnaissance company; a South Korean 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 battle alert.
The engineers in the convoy – two teams from B Company and C Company, 2nd Engineer Battalion, led by First Lieutenant Patrick Ono, who had conducted a recon of the tree, disguised as a Korean corporal two days prior – left 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 to 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, Lieutenant Colonel Vierra relayed a radio communication, whereupon the helicopters and Air Force jets became visible over the horizon. At the Yokota Air Base in Japan, the base was on alert. The flight-line runway was "nose to tail" with a dozen C-130s ready to provide back-up. The North Koreans quickly got out of their buses and began setting up two-man machine gun positions, where they watched in silence as the tree was felled in 42 minutes (three minutes fewer than Stilwell's estimate), avoiding a violent confrontation. Also removed were two road barriers installed by the North Koreans, while the South Korean troops also vandalized two North Korean guard posts. The tree stump, around 6 m (20 ft) tall, was deliberately left standing.
Five minutes into the operation, the UNC notified their North Korean counterparts at the JSA that a UN work party had entered the JSA "in order to peacefully finish the work left unfinished" on August 18.
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 U.S. helicopter which, carrying Major General Morris Brady, circled Panmunjom later that day, but no one was injured.
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. The message was relayed by the senior member of the North Korean MAC team (Major General Han Ju Kyong) to the senior UNC MAC member (Rear Admiral Mark Frudden). It read: "It was a good thing that no big incident occurred at Panmunjom for a long period. However, it is regretful that an incident occurred in the Joint Security Area, Panmunjom this time. An effort must be made so that such incidents may not recur in the future. For this purpose both sides should make efforts. We urge your side to prevent the provocation. Our side will never provoke first, but take self-defensive measures only when provocation occurs. This is our consistent stand." While not going far enough to satisfy a previously discussed 'acceptable' Northern response, the U.S. administration decided to emphasize this as a step in the right direction, as it was the first time since the Korean War armistice in 1953 that the North had accepted responsibility for violence along the DMZ.
The Joint Security Area's advance camp (Camp Kitty Hawk) was later renamed "Camp Bonifas" in honor of the slain company commander. The Barrett Readiness Facility, located inside the JSA and housing the battalion's north mission platoon, was named for the slain Barrett. 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 nearby UNC checkpoint (CP No. 3, situated next to the Bridge of No Return) was no longer used after the mid-1980s when concrete-filled bollards were placed in the road to make vehicle passage impossible.
The incident also prompted the separation of personnel from the two sides within the JSA as a way to avoid further incidents.
An axe and an axe handle supposedly used in the incident are on display in the North Korea Peace Museum.
General William J. Livsey, who was the commanding general of the Eighth United States Army in South Korea from 1984 to 1987, publicly carried a swagger stick that was carved from wood collected at the Korean Demilitarized Zone axe murder incident poplar tree. The swagger stick was ceremoniously passed on to General Louis C. Menetrey when Livsey retired from his command.
- 2010 Israel–Lebanon border clash, an incident after an Israeli attempted to cut down a tree
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