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, “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./UN 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, Labombarde 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.”