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Saturday, August 18, 2001

Military marks date of DMZ incident
in which two Army officers were slain

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Andy Dunaway / Stars and Stripes

Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Gogue, left, and Lt. Col. William Miller, along with soldiers from the Joint Security Batallion, salute during a ceremony Friday at the Joint Security Area in memory of Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett, who were killed at the spot while trimming a tree 25 years ago.

PANMUNJOM — It started with a tree.

It nearly ended in war.

On Aug. 18, 1976, a South Korean work party supervised by two U.S. Army officers was sent to prune a 100-foot poplar tree in the Joint Security Area along the Demilitarized Zone, which marks the border between North and South Korea.

As three of the workers chopped away at the branches, a small group of North Korean soldiers approached and demanded that the pruning be stopped. A few minutes later, 20 more North Korean soldiers appeared, armed with metal pipes and ax handles. Just four minutes after that, the two American officers — Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett — were dead, beaten and hacked to death by the North Koreans.

The "Ax Murder Incident" led to one of the largest military build-ups on the peninsula by the United States since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and brought the peninsula to the brink of another war.

In the days that followed, the United States sent the aircraft carrier USS Midway to the waters off the Koreas, fighter jets and bombers were sent to South Korea from bases in Okinawa and the United States, and troops throughout the region were put on alert.

The United States retaliated on Aug. 21 with Operation Paul Bunyan, when U.S. Army engineers, flanked by a company of infantryman and protected by AH-1 Cobra helicopters, F-111 fighters and B-52 bombers in the air and nearby field artillery units on the ground, went back and cut down the tree.

The 25th anniversary of the incident was commemorated Friday at the Joint Security Area, and is being marked Saturday in two other ceremonies worlds apart. A formal memorial is to be held at 10:30 a.m. at the monument to Bonifas and Barrett just inside Gate 5 at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, while a group of Paul Bunyan veterans are gathering at Barrett’s grave in South Carolina.

"The brutal unprovoked attack brought Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area to the center of the world stage," said Lt. Col. William Miller, commander of the Joint Security Battalion during Friday’s ceremony at the site where Bonifas and Barrett were killed.

About 50 U.S. and South Korean soldiers attended the 15-minute ceremony and stood at attention as a wreath was laid and taps was played. North Korean guards watched from a checkpoint at the Bridge of No Return, which is where the North Koreans came from when they attacked the two.

Stephen Herschel, then a 19-year-old Army private in Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry of the 2nd Infantry Division, remembers hearing the sirens go off that day for the alert. Such alerts were routine, but this one wasn’t practice.

"Then our sergeants said, as they put it, ‘Some [expletive] just busted up at the Z,’" said Herschel, now a fireman in Ohio. "Then one of the E-6s said ‘That’s it guys, we’re going to war.’"

Around the same time, a medevac helicopter flew overhead carrying Bonifas to a military hospital. His skull was crushed and his face mutilated beyond recognition. He was pronounced dead.

Herschel, a 60 mm machine gunner, loaded up ammo with the rest of his unit and they waited in trucks at Camp Greaves, just outside the DMZ, for further instructions.

Members of A Company in 2nd battalion also were standing by. They were pulling the rotational DMZ duty at the time and were stationed at Camp Liberty Bell [now called Camp Bonifas] at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, closer to the tree.

"At first it was like, ‘Oh this can’t be true,’" said Stephen Sprague, then a 21-year-old private. "We really didn’t know what was going to happen."

Sprague’s company was given an operations order at 4 every morning for the next three days. The order called for Army engineers to go in and cut down the poplar tree, which was blocking the view between two U.S. checkpoints. Sprague’s company was to stand guard around them.

"We were told that whatever we did … was going to start a major confrontation between the North and South," Sprague said.

"I remember guys cutting photographs up to fit in their billfolds. Writing the last letter home, those type of things.

"Being that young I can look back on it, at that time I didn’t really think about it, you can look back on that and we didn’t really understand or realize the severity of the situation at the time, we were just following orders. We knew there was a chance of some of us going to war and that some of us might not be coming back."

Michael Brouilette, also then a 21-year-old private in A Company, remembers being told that Operation Paul Bunyan could lead to World War III.

The mission finally was launched on Aug. 21.

Sprague and Brouilette rode in trucks with the rest of their company to the tree.

"We were really scared," Brouilette said. "One guy was throwing up over the side. We thought that was it, we’re all going to die."

One of the things that made the young soldiers so scared was that they didn’t have any weapons. Weapons weren’t allowed in the neutral DMZ. Instead they carried ax handles. The infantrymen, about 200 strong, circled the engineers as they went to work.

Herschel was on a UH-1 Huey helicopter flying overhead to provide machine gun cover. He later would write to his parents that one of his superiors told him "that I looked like a guy who wanted to bury himself in a hole until it was all over. He wasn’t far from the truth. I was damn scared."

Official accounts say the engineers spent about 45 minutes cutting down the tree. Sprague remembers the whole operation taking about two hours.

"I’m thinking that we’re surely all gonna die," Sprague said.

North Korean soldiers watched a short distance way, but the tree was cut down without incident. The 2nd Infantry Division and other units remained on alert for the next month.

The deaths of Bonifas and Barrett and Operation Paul Bunyan were widely reported in the United States. The country was on the brink of war again just a few years after Vietnam, and it was an election year.

The events led to new rules between the North and South along the DMZ, including the decision that the Bridge of No Return, which allowed passage between the northern and southern sides of the DMZ, would be closed.

Before that, there were North Korean checkpoints on the south side, and both sides regularly crossed back and forth.

The events of Aug. 18 to 21 were among a series of incidents along the DMZ in 1976. Just two months earlier, Brouilette and a South Korean soldier had been attacked near a North Korean barracks in the DMZ.

"We were ambushed by 10 North Korean guards who used clubs to beat us up," he said.

Brouilette was awarded the Purple Heart. He later went to Officer Candidate School and served two more tours in Korea. Brouilette is now an Army major stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. He’s been in the Army for 26 years.

He often gives an Officer Professional Development seminar on his experiences at the DMZ. He tells his fellow officers that he has carried this lesson with him ever since Aug. 18, 1976: War is imminent, even though you don’t expect it.

"These particular incidents weren’t war but they were instantaneous and out of the blue," Brouilette said. "My ambush was completely out of the blue. I could have died. The lieutenant and the captain died out of the blue."

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