The axe murder incident 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, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States. The incident is also known as the hatchet incident and the poplar tree incident and “The Tree Trimming Incident” because the object of the conflict was a poplar tree standing in the JSA.
Thirty-Six years after Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett were brutally attacked by ax-wielding North Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom, Mark Luttrull still regrets not accompanying Bonifas that day.
“I always felt that had I been there, I might have prevented the murder,” said Luttrull, who had been Bonifas’ driver and guard.
The shocking incident, which was filmed on the part of the UNC side of the truce village, provoked wrath of the U.S. and ROK and rest of the free world, and led them to ponder resolute action against the brutality. Several days later, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung expressed “regrets,” the first of its kind ever made by the dictator who initiated the 1950-53 Korean War.
On Aug. 18, 1976, a work detail entered the JSA to trim a 30-year-old Normandy poplar tree that obscured the view from a United Nations Command (UNC) checkpoint. The four-foot diameter tree, which stood approximately 80 feet high, was located near the Bridge of No Return. Anywhere else in Korea, this shade tree, thick with foliage, would have been a welcome relief from the harsh summer sun. However, in the JSA the tree blocked an important line of sight from another UNC checkpoint and needed to be pruned.
Tree trimming and brush clearing had been a regular task in the JSA, and until that August had been performed without incident. Twelve days earlier, though, four UNC guards and six Korean Service Corps (KSC) workers had started to trim the tree, but were stopped and questioned by KPA guards.
“The initial work crew had been chased away by the North Koreans a few days before,” recalled Luttrull. “I had gone with Capt. Bonifas on Tuesday the 17th to the JSA to trim the tree, but the mission was aborted because it was raining.”
The next morning, after Luttrull checked out the commander’s jeep from the motor pool at 10:00, he reported to Bonifas at Camp Kitty Hawk. However, Bonifas needed him to do another job.
“He told me that he had an assignment for me. He was leaving country in two days, had to turn in his field gear, and needed someone to take care of it for him,” said Luttrull. “He said that he would get someone else to guard him that day. Then he left and that was the last time I ever saw him.”
Over at Camp Liberty Bell, Steve Sprague, a member of 3rd Platoon, A company of the 9th Infantry, recalled that day as being no different from any other.
“The weather was hot and humid as usual for that time of year,” recalled Sprague. “I was laying in my bunk that morning, daydreaming about going home on leave because I had gotten married a year earlier.
At 10:30, a UNC work force of five KSC personnel accompanied by a UNC security force, including Bonifas, Barrett and one ROK officer, returned to the poplar tree and started to prune it.
Shortly thereafter, KPA guards appeared and observed the pruning without apparent concern. Suddenly, the KPA security force commander demanded that the work detail stop, or there would be trouble. Capt. Bonifas did not order the operation stopped. Senior Lt. Pak Chul (often referred to as “Bulldog”) of the KPA, seeing that he was losing control, took off his wristwatch, wrapped it in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket. Another KPA soldier rolled up his sleeves. Pak then shouted “Migun ul chu gi ja,” (“Kill the U.S. aggressors”).
A superior force of 30 KPA guards wielding pick handles, knives, clubs and axes attacked the UNC security force and work detail. Pak jumped on Bonifas from the back, forcing him to the ground, where he was beaten to death by five KPA guards. Barrett would die later en route to the medivac hospital in Seoul. The North Korean attack was finally broken up when a UNC soldier drove his 2 1/2-ton truck into the fight and over Capt. Bonifas to protect him. In the skirmish, the ROK officer, three Korean Augmentees to the US Army (KATUSA) and four U.S. enlisted men were wounded.
“If I had gone into the JSA that day, I would have been watching Bulldog like a hawk,” said Luttrull. “I am told that Capt. Bonifas had his back to Bulldog when he was killed. That doesn’t surprise me. Capt. Bonifas would turn his back on Bulldog when Bulldog began threatening him.”
Back at Camp Liberty Bell, Sprague’s daydreaming was interrupted when the alert sounded. “Our 3rd platoon had one of the fastest reaction times of any in the battalion. It took just under two minutes from the time the siren sounded to when our trucks reached the gate of the southern border of the DMZ,” he recalled. “I remember our lieutenant rushing into the barracks yelling `This is not drill.”
“Everyone in the platoon was now moving faster than before. By the time we reached the gate we were stopped and told to stand by on the helipad outside Camp Liberty Bell. The confrontation with the NKPA was over. While we were waiting on the trucks, we were told about the tree trimming attempt and the murders of the JSA officers,” Sprague said.
Chris Reilly was on board the medivac helicopter that brought some of the men out of the JSA. The helicopter had been on a training mission out of Seoul when it was rerouted to Panmunjom. Before flying into the JSA, they were issued yellow armbands and the pilots were given 45-milimeter pistols.
“We picked up one KIA MP officer with blunt force trauma to the head, one KATUSA very close to death with a head trauma and four walking wounded with various cuts, broken arms and so on,” recalled Reilly. “I was pretty busy keeping the KATUSA breathing all the way to the 121st Hospital in Seoul. I believe that Barrett died on the way to the hospital in the JSA bird that flew out as we got there. From what I heard, he was not alive by much if at all.”
Reilly also remembered vividly the confusion in the JSA when the helicopters landed, especially the KPAs looking wild with blood on their pants, hands and holsters as he got out of the helicopter and grabbed the wounded people. “I was scared for a week,” said Reilly.
News of the murders traveled fast. “When we were finally told what happened, I remember feeling shock and sadness that Capt. Bonifas and Lt. Barrett were killed,” recalled Bill Lombarde, who was assigned to a weapons platoon at Camp Hovey. “When we found out all the details, we were pissed off at the NKPA for what happened and wanted to do something to make it right.” Lombarde’s father had served two tours in Korea, one during the Korean War and the second as the First Sgt. at Camp Clinch. While he was there, his company’s barracks were blown up by NKPA, killing and wounding several of his men.
When Luttrull finally heard that Bonifas and Barrett had been killed, he was sickened. “I felt some degree of responsibility,” he said. “Then I got angry. I believe the men of the JSA were outraged, as was the entire US military presence.”
Wayne Johnson, who was assigned to Camp Liberty Bell, echoed Luttrull’s sentiment. “We all knew that the NKPA was unpredictable, but I don’t think that any of us expected a fight to the death inside the JSA,” added Johnson. “I thought that something was going to happen the night of the murders. So did a lot of men, and the number on patrol within the DMZ that night was greater than normal. As the commander’s driver, many men came to me thinking that I might know more than what they were told. The general opinion of the men at Liberty Bell was similar to mine: something might happen and there was about a 50-50 chance that we wouldn’t make it out.”
The following day a Military Armistice Commission (MAC) meeting was held, at which time the senior MAC member, Rear Admiral Mark P. Frudden, delivered a strong protest and demanded assurance from the KPA that this would never happen again. It was also the first time at a MAC meeting that a UNC representative defamed the Communists as “savage.”
According to Major Wayne Kirkbride, who wrote a book about the ax murders and the operation to cut down the tree, “for three days that tree stood as a challenge to free men everywhere.” A UNC crisis team was formed at Yongsan and Operation Paul Bunyan was developed. Kirkbride pointed out that it was developed to “establish the right of movement in the JSA and to generate sufficient combat power to accomplish the mission.”
On the 20th, the bodies of Capt. Bonifas and Lt. Barrett were taken to Kimpo Airport for return to the States. At the airport, a ceremony was held during which Bonifas was promoted posthumously to major, and he and Barrett likewise were awarded Purple Heart and Joint Service Commendation medals.
When it came time for Operation Paul Bunyan, Luttrull participated as a radio operator. “I was probably the only person who volunteered “everyone else was ordered. I had sent a message to UNC JSA Commander Lt. Col. Vierra that said I wanted to be at the tree site when it came down,” he recalled. “I wanted to do something to avenge Capt. Bonifas’ death and I was prepared to do much more.”
The operation got under way at 6:40am when forces moved out of the Camp Kitty Hawk. The direct support consisted of two reinforced rifle companies of ROK Special Forces, the 2/9th Infantry (A Co), combat engineers and combat support sections.
Vierra delivered a message to the Joint Duty Officer to be handed to his KPA counterpart, stating that at “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.” In addition, the message stated that “should there be no interference, the work force would depart the JSA compound.”
The task force entered the compound accompanied by approximately 60 ROK Special Forces soldiers who formed a ring around the 16 engineer soldiers from the 2nd Engineer Battalion, 2ID, whose mission was to cut down the tree. In addition, forces from the 2ID moved into position as a quick- reaction support force. The task force also had artillery and air support. Farther back were AH-1 Cobra gunships flying just out of sight beyond the ridges. In addition, F-111 Fighter-Bombers and B-52 Stratofortresses were on alert, as were a squadron of F-4s from Okinawa at Osan and the USS Midway in the southern straits offshore.
“On Aug. 20th we were told the details of Operation Paul Bunyan and that we would be moving out during the early morning hours,” recalled Lombarde.
“Our role was to be flown in by helicopter to provide support for the operation as reinforcements in the event of NKPA reprisal. We set up on an LZ on a ridge north of Toko-ri and waited there in combat positions until the operation was complete. We remained there for the majority of the day just in case North Korea attacked.”
Johnson played a different role that morning. His first task was to prepare Camp Liberty Bell for destruction, just in case. He and other soldiers did this by placing fuel cans and explosives inside the opened doors of each building. Once this was taken care of, the weapons platoon had the responsibility for igniting the charges and he was to bring the jeep north and join the rest of the company at Panmunjom. According to Johnson, “at the first sound of gunfire, the camp was to be ignited. Everything of use was to be destroyed.”
One of the first things Mike Bilbo noticed was that none of the four enemy checkpoints were manned at this early hour.
“Across the Bridge of No Return the only manned KPA checkpoint must have had the surprise of its life,” said Bilbo, member of 2nd Platoon, who secured the tree while the 2nd ID engineers cut it down.
“Our security was formed in three squads boxed around the tree. One truck drove to the bridge, turned around and backed up, facing the southern bridge entrance.”
One of the more frightening moments for the engineers and soldiers was when they actually pulled up near the tree and the KPA checkpoint. “We could look across the Bridge of No Return and see NKPA with AK47s,” noted Sprague.
Poplar trees are very sappy, and according to Kirkbride, “the operators had a difficult time cutting through the branches.” In all 13 chain saws were used and the “final limb was felled as the engineers formed a human chain,” he said. Operation Paul Bunyan was over by 7:45.
In his book, Kirkbride writes that once the mission had been completed, the “ROKA Special Forces soldiers, U.S. and ROK Engineers and Infantrymen and the JSA forces left the area, leaving only the stump to remind all who would visit Panmunjom of the resolve of the UNC to maintain freedom in the Republic of Korea.”
Afterward, the men felt a powerful sense of mission and satisfaction. Some, however, had mixed emotions.
“In many ways, I felt that I had failed. The only two U.S./U.N. soldiers to die in Panmunjom and it occurred on my shift,” Johnson noted sadly. “In other ways, I know that that time was unique and my experience special.”
Johnson contacted Bonifas’ wife, but there was only a very brief exchange. “One of the last things that she wrote to me was that `it’s hard to believe that Art has been dead for 25 years,`” Johnson said.
Most of the men have mixed feelings about how they want to remember this event. A few will accompany Johnson, who has been instrumental in keeping in touch with many of the veterans over the years, to Barrett’s graveside in South Carolina and hold a memorial service. Some of these men have not seen each other in 25 years. Members of Barrett’s family are also expected to attend.
Johnson, who recently paid a visit to Barrett’s graveside, thought it was ironic that Barrett rests under the limbs of what is “Certainly the largest tree in the park.”
Bilbo hopes that people will remember “the sacrifices the U.S. makes to help keep people free, and the legacy of United Nations forces accomplishments in postwar Korea.”
Luttrull will never forget the blood in the back of Capt. Bonifas’ jeep, the three days of planning for Operation Paul Bunyan and the anger. He will also never forget how alive he felt on the morning of the 21st when he went back into the JSA. “I was very proud to be part of such a military action, because the U.S. military conducted themselves in such an exemplary manner,” Luttrull said.
In retrospect, Lombarde thinks that what they did then was the right thing to do, even if it seemed that they should have done more. “At the age of 19 or 20 years old, somehow cutting the tree down didn’t seem enough given what they done to our men,” he noted. “However, looking back at the situation now that I’m a little older, I think it was an appropriate response.”
Sprague hopes that people will always remember that two brave soldiers gave their lives for their country and for the freedom of South Korea. He said, “I was so naive back then. I never really realized the severity or complexity of the situation. At the time, I thought it was a border incident that had been blown out proportion. Now with a little more knowledge of international relations and diplomacy, I see the severity of the incident.”
Johnson echoed the same sentiments. “The world will probably never know just how close we were to World War III during those three days. Everyone in my unit just assumed on the morning of the 21st that we would never see the 22nd. It was a very profound moment in our lives and a time that we will never forget. And on this 25th anniversary some of us will remember together at the final resting place of one who didn’t make it back.”