The opening salvo in the Cold War, the Korean War, was fought from 1950 until 1953, when the UN, China and North Korea signed an armistice. The armistice ended open warfare, but the war has unofficially been on for the past 60 years, a fact not lost on visitors to Panmunjom. It was here, in the Joint Security Area (JSA), that two officers of the United States Army were killed 23 years after the armistice, almost restarting armed hostility.
The JSA is the site of the signing of the armistice and the chosen location for most negotiations between North and South Korea. It lies on the border just north of Seoul in the small village of Panmunjom. On the western edge runs the Sachon River, spanned by the Bridge of No Return, the only way across the Sa Chon until the incident forced the North Koreans to build a new bridge, which they did in just 72 hours. The Bridge of No Return is bisected by the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Not surprisingly, the JSA is dotted with checkpoints and guard posts to keep tabs on the opposition, including one on each end of the bridge.
Checkpoint #3 on the South Korean side is very close to the MDL and very isolated from the rest of the friendly buildings in the JSA. This isolation was made worse by a 100-foot poplar tree whose foliage grew directly in the sight line between Checkpoint #3 and the nearest observation post during the summer months. What’s worse, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) had made a few attempts to kidnap UN soldiers and drag them across the bridge. The tree needed to be trimmed regularly.
On August 18, 1976, a crew of Korean Service Corps, escorted by 14 military personnel, went down to trim the tree with axes. Minutes later, they were joined by 15 KPA personnel, who observed the trimming without disturbing them for 15 minutes. Suddenly, Lt. Pak Chul, leader of the KPA in question, told the Korean Service Corps to stop trimming at once, citing that the tree had been planted by Kim Il-Sung, the Great Leader of North Korea, himself. Capt. Arthur Bonifas, who was in charge of the UN personnel, ignored him.
Soon Lt. Pak Chul had called in a truck carrying 20 more KPA soldiers and, upon being ignored again, ordered them to kill. The Korean Service Corps members dropped their axes, which were picked up by the KPA soldiers and used to kill Capt. Bonifas and mortally wound the platoon leader, First Lt. Mark Barrett, who was rescued after hiding in a nearby ditch only to die shortly after boarding a helicopter bound for Seoul.
Though tensions were high, the poplar tree was still a threat to the security of UN officers and action was required. On August 21, Operation Paul Bunyan was carried out. 23 vehicles drove into the JSA without warning the KPA. The UN and South Korean forces, numbering approximately 800 men, were armed to the teeth with M-16 rifles, grenade launchers and even mines strapped to their chests. They were backed up with attack helicopters, F-4 fighter jets and even B-52 bombers circling overhead. All this was to protect two teams of eight men with chainsaws.
The KPA responded by deploying approximately 200 men armed with machine guns, but no shots were fired. The tree was successfully cut to a stump in a mere 42 minutes, which remained there until 1987 when a memorial plaque dedicated to Bonifas and Barrett was installed. The incident lead to stricter enforcement of the MDL, and the installation of cement posts on the Bridge of No Return – making it impassable to vehicles and the abandonment of Checkpoint #3 – but no more violence came of it.