Korean Axe Murder Incident


North Koreans Kill US Soldiers

The border between North and South Korea has been a point of conflict since the tenuous armistice paused the Korean War in 1953.  Several incidents along the Military Demarcation Line have almost led to renewed fighting.  

One of the most bizarre incidents occurred on August 18, 1976, and started over a tree.  

A particular tree near the “Bridge of No Return” was blocking the view of an observation post on the South Korean side of the border.  Republic of Korea and US forces sent a detail out into the border area to trim back some of the branches.  The detail was led by US Army Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett.

The North Korean Army took exception to this, claiming that the tree was personally planted by People’s Republic leader Kim Il Sung.  To protect the honor of the Eternal Great Leader Comrade, a force of about 35 North Korean soldiers were dispatched to confront the tree trimmers.  

The North Koreans soldiers approached the American and South Korean soldiers, ordering the trimming to be stopped.  Captain Bonifas ignored the demand.  That is when things turned violent.  A North Korean officer yelled, “Kill the bastards.” and a melee ensued.  

The small detail of US/South Koreans were all struck with rifle butts, and axes, causing injures to the entire group.  Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Barrett were particularly targeted and were struck repeatedly by axes.  Bonifas died on the scene and Barrett passed away enroute to a hospital.  Both sides retreated to their respective posts, leaving the bloody tree standing.  

Outrage at the unjustified murders spread throughout South Korea and the United States.  President Gerald Ford authorized immediate action.  At dawn on August 21, 1976, US and South Korean forces initiated Operation Paul Bunyon.  Several hundred soldiers entered the border zone armed with tanks, howitzers, and chainsaws.  US helicopters buzzed overhead.  B52 Stratofortress’s dotted the skies while F4 Phantoms streaked overhead.

The offending tree was reduced to little more than a stump.  The North Korean forces decided that discretion was the better part of valor and watched silently as Kim Il Sung’s tree was cut by American chainsaws.  

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