Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

25th Anniversary of the Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident — Part 2


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.”

25th Anniversary of the Ax Murder incident


  1. Jerry Ganzkow

    July 3, 2008 at 4:55 am

    I very much appreciate the information given here. I was a 22 year old Huey crewchief stationed near Camp Red cloud at the 128th Aviation Co. in 1976. The thing I remember more than anything was the almost overwhelming feeling of rage. Everyone was so angry but there was this surreal feeling of impending catastrophe if war broke out. Everyone knew the tremendous artillery firepower the north had trained on everything from Seoul north. I think we were about halfway between Seoul and the DMZ. We were flying missions all over the place. What a frantic flurry of activity. I would look down and see these massive convoys of South Korean tanks and duece and a halfs steadily moving north. Thousands of pieces of equipment and troops preparing for war. It was very impressive and sobering. The thing that was disheartening for me later was that when I got home nobody knew. Thanks for remembering.

  2. Larry G. Shaddix (Maj, Retired)

    July 15, 2008 at 1:55 am

    I was the Logistics Officer for the USASG-JSA on 18 August 1976, rode up with CPT Bonifas, and was at OP5 taking the pictures with my personal camera the world saw of the fight. Some pictures were withheld from the public because they actually show the North Korean’s clubbing CPT Bonifas to death, then leaving him in the middle of the parking area all alone until CPT Kim recovered him. I was in contact with CPT Bonifas directing him when enough branches had been cut when the fight broke out. I have read with great interest over the past 32 years all the books and stories written and am amazed at the inaccurate information that has been published. I personally recovered with 1LT Barrett to Camp Greves medical facility, then to an emergency helicopter flight which rendezvoused with a MEDIVAC flight where 1LT Barrett was pronounced dead. I accompanied 1LT Barrett’s body on to Seoul, and then briefed GEN Stillwell and LTG Cushing immediately upon GEN Stillwell’s return from Japan late that night, 18 August 1976. The 32nd Anniversary is approaching, and it is if it happened yesterday.

  3. SSG Michael Treglazoff

    March 22, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Ms. Bonifas came up here to Camp Bonifas yesterday (March 21st, 2009) for the first time since her husband Arthur was murdered by the NKPA on August 18th, 1976. It was a heartfelt visit for all members of the UNCSB-JSA who still continue to serve “In Front of Them All” at the DMZ on freedom’s last frontier.

  4. I had the honor of serving with CPT Bonifas at JSA as he was my Company Commander. As an escort driver for both LTC Leech and LTC Johnson I had the opportunity to drive CPT Bonifas on several occasions on some trips to Seoul. I was fortunate to know CPT Bonifas, the man. I wish I could have been there when CPT Bonifas’s wife visited the site. I would have loved to tell her how much CPT Bonifas had missed her while he was serving in Korea. I was there when MAJ Henderson got his throat crushed and visited some of the tunnels. I left country just a few month before PT Bonifas was murdered,

  5. SSG Michael Treglazoff

    September 3, 2009 at 6:01 am

    On August 18th, 2009, we rededicated a new monument to 1LT Mark Barrett to replace the one which used to be on Camp Howze (nobody knows where it went to or who took it).

    Money to cover the cost of a new memorial came from donations from the men of the JSA, 2ID Tae Kwon Do Association, and the Barrett-Bonifas VFW Memorial Post 8180. Both memorials are now located next to each other next to Ballinger Hall on flag plaza, Camp Bonifas.

    The Paju-City regional counsel is in progress of building a new Ballinger Hall on Camp Liberty-Bell.

    • SSG Michael Treglazoff,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for your comments. I appreciate them so much. I would really like to get up to Panmunjom again and write another article. The 35th anniversary is coming up in two years. It was an honor for me to be there in 2001 and all the other times I visited the JSA and Camp Bonifas.

      Thanks again for your comments.


  6. SSG Michael Treglazoff

    September 10, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    On August 18th, 2010 we conducted our annual Barrett-Bonifas memorial ceremony to continue to honor the sacrifice of two American officers murdered by the North Korean Peoples Army in 1976. Mr. Randy Foster served as our Guest Speaker for the ceremony, he had served as the RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) for 1LT Mark Barrett and also served as the unit Mail Clerk for the Joint Security Force. On August 18th, 1976, he was in OP-5 along with incoming company commander CPT Shirron, 2LT Larry Shaddix and a few other members of the JSF, they all witnessed first hand the incident and the response. Meeting him and serving as his personal security escort during his one week stay here at Camp Bonifas will be one of the most memorable events I have taken part of during my last 40 months “In Front Of Them All!”

  7. A big thanks to you Mike and all the guys at JSA as it was a trip i’ll never forget, so much has changed and I think the place is prettier now that it’s grown up with more vegatation and all. You guys continue to do a very important job “In Front of Them All”

  8. I was stationed at “Camp Kittyhawk” from July 1978 to July 1979, name changed to Bonifas I now know at a later date. If I remember, I was with the 275th Signal Co., 41st Signal Battalion, and we were ‘attached’ there to support the comm generated at the MAC meetings, sending it South to Yongsan. For those who don’t know, there are only about 80 men stationed there at any given time, and all are handpicked and outstanding Soldiers. Is any one out there that spent sometime as a ‘Turtle”. I would love to hear from them.

    Dave Crerar

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