One of my most memorable articles I wrote for the Korea Times was a special feature for the 25th anniversary of the Panmunjom ax murders.
Twenty-five 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 the 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 after that, 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 two-and-a-half-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 Sprague and others reached the gate, they 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-millimeter 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 Labombarde, 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.”
Labombarde’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.”
Read the full article and other essays about Panmunjom and Korea in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.