Jeffrey Miller

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All Along the DMZ — Part IV

This is Part IV of a five-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired by Barry Lancet’s geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about the DMZ and JSA.
This originally appeared in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Panmunjom031“How would you like to fly up to the JSA with CNN?”

It was in May 2001, when one of the public affairs officers for the 8th Army asked me if I would like to accompany CNN to Camp Casey.

“Excuse me?”

“We’ve invited a lot of media to cover the beret changing ceremony,” he continued. “You’ll be flying up there with Sohn Jie-ae, CNN’s Seoul Bureau Chief and a photographer from Reuters. Afterward, you’ll fly to the JSA.”

On June 14, 2001, U.S. soldiers serving in South Korea would be the first ones to wear the new black berets that the Army adopted. In commemoration of this event, and no less in part of the significance of the U.S. military still having a strong presence in Korea, USFK arranged for a lot of media coverage of this event for major U.S. networks and other news agencies.

Another helicopter ride, I thought. If you are going to the place President Bill Clinton called, “the scariest place in the world” flying into the JSA in a Blackhawk was a grim reminder of the tensions that have existed on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. And if you wanted to talk about traveling in style, not to mention excitement, it would be another ride of a lifetime.

Crew_Chief__Pave_Hawk_2001We were supposed to fly from Seoul to Camp Casey, home to the U.S. Second Infantry Division, where we would cover the “Beret Ceremony” before proceeding to Camp Bonifas. However, inclement weather prevented us from flying, so we had to take a van to Casey, which is located in Tongduchon, about two hours north of Seoul.

So, there we all were—Sohn Ji-ae and her crew of three, a photographer from Reuters, a public affairs official, and myself—squeezed into the van. It was still dark when we left Yongsan, the sprawling military base in Seoul, and there wasn’t too much chitchat on the way up. When the weather improved later that morning after the ceremony we were allowed to fly into Bonifas.

Upon arriving at Camp Bonifas, we were met by Lt. Colonel William Miller, the JSA Commander who took us on a private tour. Many people are not aware that the Panmunjom—at least what is open for tours—is not the Panmunjom where the armistice halting the Korean War was signed in July 1953. That area is north of the JSA in North Korea. However, the area itself including the JSA is referred to as Panmunjom.

First, there was a stop at OP (Outpost) Ouellette, which is only open to dignitaries like presidents and other VIPs. (If President Trump had not canceled his trip to the DMZ to meet South Korean President Moon, this was where they most likely would have gone). Named after Private First Class Joseph R. Ouellette, who was killed during the Korean War at the Busan Perimeter in September 1950 (and awarded the Medal of Honor), it was the northernmost U.S. military outpost on the Korean peninsula (since then, most of the outpost duties have been turned over to South Korea). It was a warm, sunny day—nice weather for Korea at this time of the year before the arrival of changma, or the rainy season. However, don’t let the weather fool you; this is the DMZ and every day is eerie and foreboding.

In the distance, distinguishable in the haze and glare was a North Korean outpost. No sooner had we arrived and toured the facilities, two NPA soldiers with binoculars appeared and kept us in their sights as we were briefed on OP Ouellette’s purpose and Ms. Sohn interviewed some soldiers.

74046421RTHAJj_fsNext, it was down to the heart of the JSA and Conference Row—more like the centerpiece of the JSA and one of the highlights of any civilian tour. Here you can actually get within spitting distance of the “enemy” as it were when you enter one of the blue MAC buildings where meetings between the two sides take place from time to time. Interesting to note, prior to the 1976 Panmunjom ax murders, US, South Korean, and North Korean soldiers could “wander” anywhere in the JSA. The concrete marker between the buildings? That’s the line you cannot cross.

Finally, we stopped at the Bridge of No Return. Enough said. There, Sohn Jie-ae conducted an interview with two soldiers.

I wasn’t going to be writing a story that day. Having jumped at the chance for a helicopter ride into the JSA, another reporter would be covering the beret changing main event, which took place on Knight Field located inside Yongsan. I was just along for the ride—and what a ride it was. After the interviews, it was back on the Blackhawk for the flight back to Seoul. I’ll never forget flying out of Bonifas and over the Imjin River. That was exciting and something that I will never forget.

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All Along the DMZ — Part III

MDLThis is Part III of a five-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired by Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about “the scariest place on the earth.”

Did someone say road trip to the DMZ?

That’s what happened in August 2000 when I was invited back to the JSA, this time from the kind generals of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) Major General Adrien Evequoz, head of the Swiss delegation and Major General Peter Hammarstrom of the Swedish delegation.

They were impressed with my article on the JSA that I had written earlier in the summer and invited me to visit their camp just yards away from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).

The NNSC was one of the three bodies created by the Armistice Agreement at the end of the Korean War in 1953. In accordance with the Armistice Agreement, the NNSC consisted of four neutral nations: Sweden (although Sweden had provided medical assistance with a hospital in Busan it was still considered neutral) and Switzerland in the South, and Poland and Czechoslovakia in the North. Their role, as stipulated in the armistice was to supervise, observe, as well as inspect two specific dispositions of the agreement: the reinforcement of military personnel and the reinforcement of combat aircraft, vehicles, and munitions.Panmunjom012

Originally, six neutral countries were proposed. In addition to Sweden and Switzerland in the South, Norway was the other country proposed. Besides Poland and Czechoslovakia in the North, Russia was the third country proposed. However, Russia did not qualify as a credible “neutral” country, so Norway was dropped and four nations became the NNSC.

Although their duties are “limited” their presence along the DMZ reminds one that the Korean War didn’t end with an armistice and that the two Koreas are still technically at war.

Later that year, I went back to the JSA again, this time to do a story about American troops serving at Camp Bonifas. It was a nice Christmas story and the soldiers I interviewed were happy to talk about serving in the JSA although they were feeling homesick at this time of the year.

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The USO Cookie Train visits the JSA. Wonder what the Norks thought about Santa Claus.

 

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ROK Ready: Two ROK soldiers inside the MAC building. Notice their taekwondo stance.

 

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The Bridge of No Return on a cold, dreary December morning.

 

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The highlight of this trip was being allowed to get out of the United Nations Command vehicle and walk out onto the bridge.

All Along the DMZ — Part II

73396520knZKAv_fsThis is Part II of a four-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired in part by Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about the DMZ and JSA.

Summer 2000. Somehow I had talked myself into writing feature stories about the 50th anniversary of the Korean War for the Korea Times and wouldn’t you know it, for my efforts, I was given the chance to visit the JSA again, this time as a journalist where I was given the VIP treatment which included having chow with the soldiers in the Camp Bonifas mess hall and interviewing the commander, Lt. Colonel Miller right outside one of the guardhouses with the Bridge of No Return in the background.

This time I would be riding in style, one of the Korea Times staff cars (if you were in Seoul at the time you couldn’t miss those green sedans), accompanied by a driver and the photographer for the newspaper. I was fortunate at the time, teaching at Yonsei’s Foreign Language Institute because we did not have to teach on Wednesdays. This was some arrangement that used to correspond to “chapel” which was on Wednesdays meaning that there would be no English classes that day. For some reason, it became the normal schedule for the institute. When I left in 2006, we still had Wednesdays off. The reason why this was good was that on Wednesdays was when the 8th Army/USFK Public Affairs Office had the press up to the JSA. Worked out quite nicely for me and the writing that I would do from 2000-2006.

The bridge on the left used to be the way to Camp Bonifas; the bridge on the left had been destroyed during the Korean War.

 

One of the reasons why I wanted to go back to the JSA was to find out if there had been more tour groups because of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. It was still business as usual:

“It’s still business as usual,” remarked Lieutenant Colonel William B. Miller, JSA commander when asked if there had been any changes in readiness following the North-South Summit in June.

This reporter caught up with the JSA Commander at one of the UNC checkpoints during a recent tour of the JSA. Miller, a native of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, has been commander of the JSA since April.

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Lt. Colonel William Miller, JSA Commander

“There’s been no change in our readiness, and as much as we can tell, no change in the KPA’s readiness on the other side,” Miller noted.

Readiness has always been the key priority for troops serving in the JSA or along the DMZ. The ROK and U.S. troops who continue to guard this boundary remain vigilant at Freedom’s Frontier. From the Camp Bonifas base camp to the JSA, it’s a series of checkpoints down Highway 1, which runs through anti-tank barriers, minefields, and the concertina wire that stretches into the distance. Then there’s the propaganda, albeit the signboards (one on the right of a UNC checkpoint translated from Hangul reads “Self Reliance Is Our Way of Life”; another, on the left translated from Hangul reads, “Following the Path of the Leading Star”—in reference to Kim Il-sung. Although the anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda messages blaring from speakers from the North were reported to have stopped following the summit, they are back on again.

“There’s been a heavy influence on music recently,” Miller said, “about the greatness of the North and Kim Jong-Il.”

However, Miller pointed out that there seems to be less angry rhetoric these days than in the past.

“From what the ROK soldiers have told us, there is less anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda,” he added.

There’s always this eerie, almost surreal mood as one enters the JSA and walks out onto Conference Row. For anyone who has ever been to the JSA, it just might seem a little absurd to stand just a few feet away from the enemy or to walk into one of the MAC buildings and peer out at a North Korean soldier looking in at you. On this day, though, one tall, rather presumptuous North Korean guard crinkled up his nose in deference to a military camera crew filming him.

“He’s a bit of a troublemaker,” noted our security escort.

This originally appeared in the Korea Times, July 2000

There was an added highlight to this trip to the JSA: a group of North Korean schoolchildren on a tour.

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 Surreal, huh? Someone told me that the kids were either the children of party members or North Koreans living in Japan. They look pretty well-behaved in the photo.

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It’s all about intimidation in the JSA. I think the ROK soldier eyeballing the two North Korean soldiers has the advantage.

All Along the DMZ — Part I

I just finished Barry Lancet’s heart-pounding geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table, and I really enjoyed the scenes which took place in and around the DMZ on the Korean peninsula. Having been there several times, both as a tourist and a feature writer for The Korea Times, I appreciate those authors writing about events on the Korean peninsula who try to incorporate the DMZ into their stories. It is an amazing, surreal place, “freedom’s final frontier” as one military PSA on USFK used to refer to it back in the 1990s. Inspired by Lancet’s book, and President Trump’s last minute unscheduled trip to the DMZ, which was scrubbed due to fog, it prompted me to share my experiences and accounts of the times I visited the DMZ.

Panmunjom006My first trip to Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area (JSA) was on New Year’s Eve, 1996 as part of a USO tour. Interestingly, the day before I went up there, the bodies of the North Korean commandos who were killed during the submarine incursion in September of that year were repatriated to the North.

What was interesting about going on a tour was that after we listened to a presentation about the history of Panmunjom and the JSA, we had to sign a waiver which said that USFK (United States Forces Korea) was not responsible for our deaths should anything happen while we there. It wasn’t to heighten the tension either. In 1984, an East German tourist on a tour on the northern side of the JSA defected which resulted in a firefight in the JSA. One South Korean soldier was killed. Panmunjom007

Once you leave the confines of Camp Bonifas and head north to the JSA, that’s when things get intense with the concertina wire, minefields, and anti-tank barriers. The day I went to the DMZ it was cold and dreary which added a bit of atmosphere to the tour. Here you can see the Bridge of No Return where POWs were repatriated at the end of the Korean War. It was also across this same bridge, twenty-eight years earlier, where the crew of the USS Pueblo was repatriated in December 1968. It was also where the 1976 Panmunjom ax murder incident occurred where two US officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett were killed by North Korean soldiers. I was in technical training school at Lowry AFB, Colorado when this happened. Years later, when I read about the murders and the military operation to chop down the poplar tree which had blocked the blue guardhouse as well as interviewing former JSA soldiers who were stationed there at the time for an article in the Korea Times, would I realize how close we were to another war breaking out on the peninsula.

Panmunjom004One of the highlights of the tour is the chance to walk into one of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) buildings on conference row where military and armistice related talks between both sides have taken place over the years. It’s also where you can “cross” into North Korea so you can go back home and tell everyone that you have been to North Korea. If you’re lucky while you are there, you might get to see an NPA (North Korean People’s Army) soldier peering in to see who is on tour that day.

Although the tour might seem straight out of some dystopian Disneyland with everyone going home at the end of the day, there’s a reason why Bill Clinton called this place the “scariest place on earth.” It was along the DMZ in the mid-1960s where North Korea provoked numerous border incidents which have sometimes been referred to as the second Korean War (in response to the South’s dispatch of two divisions to Vietnam as well as driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea). And from those events, it would morph into other incidents which have reminded everyone of the fragile peace which has existed on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

It remains a scary place to this day. Freedom’s Final Frontier.Panmunjom002

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — The Bridge of No Return, Joint Security Area (JSA)

Reading about President Obama’s visit to the JSA and OP Ouellette this past weekend, reminded me of all the times I’ve been to the JSA/Panmunjom.

My first time was on December 31, 1996, the day after the bodies of North Korean commandos, who had been killed in a firefight with South Korean troops (many also committed suicide) were repatriated to North Korea through Panmunjom. These commandos were aboard a submarine which had run aground near Kangnung in September.

Standing there on that cold, damp winter day as I looked out across the windswept landscape toward the site of the 1976 Panmunjom Ax Murders and the Bridge of No Return made me feel as though I had just stepped into a Cold War thriller by Tom Clancy.

Just think how many U.S. Presidents have gone there and gazed out across the desolate, cold landscape while being stared down by North Koreans on the other side. In that time, two North Korean leaders have come and gone.

The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and yet this last bastion of the Cold War, where an armistice was signed nearly 60 years that halted the Korean War, remains.

It is a scary place.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — A North Korean Through the Looking Glass, December 31, 1996

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My first trip to Panmunjom, which is not really Panmunjom per se, but the Joint Security Area (JSA) was on a cold, deary New Year’s Eve in 1996. The weather made me feel like I had stepped into some Cold War thriller.

When you step out on Conference Row and enter one of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) buildings, sometimes one or two of the North Korean guards outside will look in one of the windows to see who is on the tour.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — North Korean School Trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA), 2000

Here’s something you don’t see every day: A North Korean school trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA) and Panmunjom.

This was back in the summer of 2000 during my second trip to the JSA and a trip that I would write about for my first article about “the scariest place in the world.”

Of all the times that I visited the JSA between 1996-2003, this was one of three times that there were visitors on the other side.

I wonder what kind of propaganda the guides were filling the heads of these kids with on this school trip.

In Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm, I have an entire section of articles and essays about my visits to the JSA, including this trip, as well a commemorative article on the 25th anniversary of the Panmunjom Ax Murders.

North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe…

North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe….


Billy Joel’s musical history lesson in his 1989 hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire” hits (pun intended) a little close to home when he mentions, North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe, and Panmunjom. And it is not just because I have been living and working in Korea since 1990, but the references to the 1950-53 Korean War which has been a part of my life since 2000 when I wrote my first newspaper article on the conflict until now and the novel I am writing about the conflict.

Remaining Vigilant at Freedom’s Frontier

The first time I went to Panmunjom, or the Joint Security Area was on Dec. 31, 1996. It was a cold, gray, dreary day, which almost seemed fitting for the world’s most dangerous and scariest place with all its Cold War underpinnings.

Over the next couple of years I would return to Panmunjom quite regularly for numerous articles, including this first one written in the summer of 2000 not long after the historic summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il.

 

Remaining Vigilant at Freedom’s Frontier

PANMUNJOM, South Korea-Between the bands of concertina wire and minefields, which stretch from coast to coast-the world’s most heavily fortified boundary-lays the area known as the JSA (Joint Security Area) and home to the “truce village” of Panmunjom.

Forty-seven years ago, Panmunjom entered global and historical significance as the scene of the armistice signing which ended the Korean War.

It was here, on July 27, 1953 that a cease-fire agreement was finally reached putting an end to the hostilities that had erupted on the Korean peninsula in 1950. Today, Panmunjom remains not only symbolic of the armistice and the end of the Korean War, but also symbolic of a divided country.

“It’s still business as usual,” remarked Lt. Col. William B. Miller, JSA commander when asked if there had been any changes in readiness following the North-South summit in June.

This reporter caught up with the JSA Commander at one of the UNC (United Nations Command) checkpoints during a recent tour of the JSA. Miller a native of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, has been commander of the JSA since April.

“There’s been no change in our readiness, and as much as we can tell, no change in the KPA’s(Korea People’s Army) readiness on the other side,” Miller noted.

Readiness has always been the key priority for troops serving in the JSA or along the DMZ for nearly half a century. The ROK and U.S. troops who continue to guard this boundary remain vigilant at Freedom’s frontier.

Visitors to the JSA get their first taste of this vigilance (after passing through a series of checkpoints) when they espy the water tower rising above Camp Bonifas (base camp for the United Nations Security Forces in the JSA) with the message “In Front of Them All” emblazoned on its side.

Maybe that might seem a bit over the top for first time visitors here, but when you are stationed along this heavily fortified boundary, that phrase carries a different meaning. After all, the 1950-53 Korean War never really ended-only the cessation of fighting with an armistice.

From this base camp to the JSA it’s a series of checkpoints down Highway No. 1 that runs through anti-tank barriers, minefields and the concertina wire that stretches into the distance.

Then there’s the propaganda, albeit the signboards (one on the right of a UNC checkpoint translated from Hangul reads “Self Reliance Is Our Way of Life” another, on the left translated from Hangul reads, “Following the Path of the Leading Star”-in reference to Kim Il-sung. Although the anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda messages blaring from speakers from the North were reported to have stopped following the summit, they are back on again.

“There’s been a heavy influence on music recently,” explained Miller. “About how great the North and Kim Jong-Il are.”

However, Miller pointed out that there seems to be less angry rhetoric these days than in the past, though. “From what the ROK soldiers have told us, there is less anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda.”

There’s always this eerie, almost surreal mood as one enters the JSA and walks out onto Conference Row. For anyone who has ever been to the JSA, it just might seem a little absurd to stand just a few feet away from the enemy or to walk into one of the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) buildings and peer out at a North Korean soldier looking in at you. (Visitors are advised not to make any gestures that could be used by the North Koreans for propaganda purposes or to say anything likewise in the room. Microphones monitor the room twenty-four hours a day.)

On this day, though, one tall, rather presumptuous North Korean guard crinkled up his nose in deference to a military camera crew filming him. “He’s a bit of a troublemaker,” noted our Army guide.

The ROK guards, in their frozen “ROK Ready” Taekwondo stance manifest an intimidating pose on Conference Row and in the MAC building open to tours. To serve in the JSA, you have to be the best of the best. Soldiers have to be above average height and aptitude, have a spotless military record and undergo a rigorous three-week screening period before being selected. ROK soldiers serve 26 months, U.S. soldiers, 12 months.

Today, there was an added bonus: a group of North Korean school children lined up for photographs on the northern side of the JSA.

As for the tours being run to the JSA, those too are business as usual. “We have a full block of tours every day,” said Miller. He expects over 150,000 people to visit the JSA this year, in part due to the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

If this all seems a bit overdone or staged for propaganda purposes, then all one has to be reminded of the readiness posture that has existed in the JSA and along the DMZ since the end of the Korean War.

For nearly half a century, the name Panmunjom has not only been synonymous with the end of the Korean War, but also post-war Korea. It was here where Operation Big Switch/Little Switch repatriated POW’s across the Bridge of No Return. The sailors of the USS Pueblo (captured off the North Korean coast in 1968 and released at the end of the year) crossed the same bridge when they were returned to freedom.

However, from time to time, this state of readiness has been tested, and with it, increased tensions here on the peninsula. On Aug. 29, 1967, Camp Bonifas was the scene of a NKPA raid, which left one U.S. soldier and two ROK soldiers dead and twenty-four wounded.

In what was to become known as the “Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident,” on August 18, 1976, two U.S. officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett were brutally beaten and killed by North Korean soldiers while trimming a poplar tree which blocked the view of a UNC checkpoint. Three days later as a world held their breath and watched, Operation Paul Bunyan commenced. With forces across the peninsula on heightened alert, the aircraft carrier USS Midway, B-52s, F111s, F-4s on alert as well, a task force entered the JSA to chop down the tree. Forty-five minutes later, the tree was down.

In 1984, North Korean soldiers chased a Soviet Defector into the ROK/U.S. side, which resulted in the death of an ROK soldier.

Four years ago, in April 1996, armed North Korean troops entered the JSA (for training purposes was the official explanation).

And in 1997, a twenty-three minute firefight near Chorwon broke out in the DMZ. Since then, it’s been relatively quiet.

“It’s impossible not to feel a part of history here,” said Miller on serving in the JSA. He referred not only to the history of Panmunjom and the JSA, but also the recent summit pre-talks that were held in the JSA.

“We kind of thought that Kim Dae-jung might return through Panmunjom,” Miller added with a note of resignation.

In recent years, Panmunjom has also been the site of other history making events, like the shipment of cattle to the North via the truce village in 1998.

Panmunjom has traditionally been the site for the repatriation of the remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean War. In 1996, though, the bodies of the North Korean commandos killed during a submarine incursion were repatriated back to the North.

As for further repatriation of U.S. service member remains, Miller pointed out that the last set of remains were being directly repatriated from Pyongyang to Kadena Air Force Base, Japan.

And what about working along side of the ROK Army? Col. Miller had nothing but “praise” for the ROK soldiers, adding that it was an honor to work along side such men. “My second in command is an ROK major,” he said.

Finally, Miller added that it’s been a “great place to work.”

Despite the wave of optimism that swept that peninsula following the North-South summit in June, it’s still business as usual in the JSA. Perhaps one day, Panmunjom and the JSA will be another memorial of the cold war. For now, the concertina wire, landmines, checkpoints, and a constant state of readiness remain a reminder of the Korean War and a divided country.

 

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

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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

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