Oct 7, 2013
Since 1953 when the Armistice between North Korea, China, and the United Nations Command was signed, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates Communist North Korea from Republican South along the 38th Parallel has been the scene of the United States’ longest active military conflict. The Armistice that was signed didn’t end the Korean War; it just pressed the pause button on it. From time-to-time, conflict and hostilities still break out between the North and the United Nation Command (UNC). One of those confrontations was the Axe Murder Incident.
In the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only place in the DMZ where the UNC and North Korean armies stand nose-to-nose and where most of the diplomatic talks take place, there was a giant tree that blocked the view between the UN checkpoint and one of their observation posts. In August 1976, five South Korean workers backed by a squad of American & South Korean troops went to prune this tree. The troops were led by Americans CAPT Arthur Bonifas and 1LT Mark Barret.
As the workers began pruning and cutting the tree, fifteen or so North Korean soldiers started watching them. After 20 minutes, their commander, LT Pak Chul told the UNC personnel that they had to stop immediately. The tree couldn’t be trimmed, he said, because ‘Kim Il Sung personally planted it, nourished it, and it [was] growing under his supervision.’
CAPT Bonifas turned his back on Pak and ordered the workers to keep going.
Well, Ol’ Pak wasn’t going to tolerate that. He sent one of his soldiers back across The Bridge Of No Return, and in a few minutes, a North Korean truck came back over the Bridge with about 20 more soldiers, each wielding crowbars, axes, knives, and clubs. Pak told Bonifas again to stop what they were doing, and again Bonifas turned around and ignored him.
Pak calmly took off his wristwatch, wrapped it in a handkerchief and placed it in his pocket so that it wouldn’t be damaged. He then yelled ‘Kill the mongrels!’ With that, the North Koreans began attacking. Pak jumped Bonifas from behind, knocking him to the ground where a group of North Koreans beat him to death. The attack lasted for about half a minute until a UNC soldier drove a truck into the North Koreans and both sides retreated. Later on that day, the North Korean news claimed that it was the UN who started it, and called for the ‘Imperialist Aggressors’ to leave Korea.
The Americans considered military retaliation, but the South Korean President was concerned that that might result in an end to the Armistice. Instead, U.S. President Gerald Ford authorized Operation Paul Bunyan. The Americans wouldn’t just prune the tree, they would cut it down with overwhelming force.
At 0640 on 21 August, the North Koreans were delivered a message:
0700 hours this day a UNC work force would be entering the security area of the JSA and commence to prune the tree in vicinity of CP3.
23 U.S. and South Korean vehicles drove into the JSA at 0700 without any further notice. The entire force consisted of:
The North Koreans sent about 200 troops into the area, but aside from setting up some machine gun positions, did nothing. The tree was cut down in about 45 minutes, leaving only a 20-foot tall stump. Afterwards, the UNC force left peaceably.
Today if you visit the site, there’s a stone monument in honor of CAPT Bonifas, 1LT Barret, and the other soldiers killed by the North Koreans. At the North Korean Peace Museum also located in the JSA, the axes that the North Koreans used to kill the UN tree trimmers are still displayed.
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