Axes of Evil
Four days, two murders, and one poplar tree that almost ignited World War III.
The poplar was a problem. One of the few survivors from a deciduous forest bombed into oblivion during the Korean War, the tree towered 40 feet over a stripped, scrubby landscape; in the summer, its leaves formed a thick green crown. A stranger to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the skinny belt of no-man’s-land that has divided the Korean peninsula since 1953, might have seen this as evidence of nature’s resilience. To the U.S. soldiers patrolling the area, however, it represented a conspicuous security risk.
That’s why, at 1030 on August 18, 1976, a 2.5-ton truck—a deuce and a half, in U.S. Army lingo—rolled up to the poplar and parked in its shadow. Out climbed a crew of five civilian maintenance workers, all of them Korean, and a ten-man security platoon led by Lieutenant Mark Barrett, a South Carolinian who’d been in Korea only a few weeks. Barrett’s boss was there, too. Captain Arthur Bonifas had arrived in a jeep and now stood to the side as the workers ascended the tree with axes and clippers and began to cut the branches.
A cheerful, devoutly Christian native of Newburgh, New York, and a father of three, Bonifas was in the final days of his deployment to Korea. The 33-year-old West Point graduate was known among his men for being very smart—he’d once taught math at his alma mater—and impeccably polite. Soon he’d be off to a new post, in Georgia, where he’d be promoted and placed in command of an artillery unit. In fact, Bonifas had already ordered the uniforms and shoulder boards that would reflect his new rank as an Army major.
The job in Georgia would be less unpredictable than the one that had brought Bonifas to the foot of the tree in Korea. Here he was second-in-command of a complex military entity known as the Joint Security Force (JSF), comprised of three platoons of American and South Korean soldiers who served as guards in the Joint Security Area (JSA). Situated in the heart of the DMZ, the JSA was also called Panmunjom, after a tiny settlement that once stood in the same spot, or simply the truce village, because it’s where the armistice that froze the Korean War was reached. Just under 900 yards across at its widest point, the JSA was supposedly neutral and the only place where soldiers from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the Republic of Korea (ROK)—north and south, respectively—stood face-to-face, while keeping watch over various ornamented buildings frequented by tourists and government officials. In reality the plot of land, which on a map resembled a slightly squashed circle, was one of the tensest places on the planet.
To monitor pressure in this geopolitical tinderbox—that is, to keep tabs on bad behavior exhibited by KPA guards—U.S. soldiers manned various checkpoints and guard posts. Everyone’s least favorite assignment was Checkpoint 3 (CP3), positioned at the foot of the so-called Bridge of No Return, which traversed the narrow Sachon River. Halfway across the concrete span was the North Korean border. Some U.S. guards feared being kidnapped and dragged across that invisible line, in which case they almost certainly would not be rescued, because Pyongyang would deem movement by U.S. forces into northern territory to retrieve prisoners an invasion. The North Koreans constantly harassed and intimidated the men stationed at CP3; they’d even erected two unauthorized checkpoints in close proximity just to impede access to what the Americans took to calling the loneliest outpost in the world.
Soldiers at CP3 took some comfort in knowing that, 600 yards up a nearby hill, their platoon mates at Observation Post 5 (OP5) had eyes on their position—except in summer, when the pesky poplar, in glorious bloom, blocked the sight line.
Almost anywhere else in the world, a military order to trim a tree for security reasons would have been considered uncontroversial. In the JSA, however, everything was disputed. The first attempt to tackle the poplar’s branches had been foiled by KPA guards who insisted that security officers from both sides of the JSA would need to approve any landscaping. A maintenance crew tried again on August 17, this time with a larger number of guards in tow, but the mission was rained out. On the third go, Bonifas decided to supervise, to ensure that the job got done. The operation would likely be his last in the JSA, and he wanted to be there in case the KPA caused trouble again. “Make sure you’re firm,” the JSF’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Vierra, told him.
Special activities in Panmunjom were always filmed in case of incident. As Bonifas’s crew got to work, Captain Larry Shaddix, the JSF’s logistics officer, took up a position on a platform outside OP5. Shaddix raised his 35-millimeter camera’s telephoto lens and began to shoot. For a few minutes, there wasn’t much to see. The work was going according to plan, until Bulldog arrived.
Bulldog was Lieutenant Pak Chul, a rabidly patriotic North Korean platoon leader notorious for his provocations in the JSA, like the time he kicked an American guard in the groin during a scuffle over photographs. Bulldog strutted around, trying to make small talk with Captain Kim Moon Hwan, Bonifas’s Korean translator and the ranking ROK officer at the scene, and offering unsolicited advice to the civilians in the tree, some of whom had been on the scene last time, when their work was halted by KPA guards, and so were unnerved by Bulldog’s arrival.
Then, for no obvious reason, Bulldog changed course. He ordered the civilians to stop cutting—and threatened to force the issue, even shoot the workers, if they didn’t obey him.
Bonifas had seen enough. He strode forward and announced that the work would continue, period. The trimming was a legal, peaceful matter—a “routine action,” a Pentagon report later stated—that had been announced in advance. Besides, it would be over soon. Bulldog responded by muttering something to one of his guards, who ran off across the bridge and came back a few minutes later in a truck with reinforcements, bringing the number of KPA soldiers at the tree to at least 30. The North Koreans now outnumbered Bonifas’s men three to one.
Bonifas wasn’t about to be intimidated. Aware of the power a gesture can wield, he turned his back to Bulldog. That’s why he didn’t see the KPA leader calmly remove his watch, wrap it in a handkerchief, and put it in his pocket. Another North Korean officer rolled up his sleeves like a Mafia heavy preparing for a fistfight. Then Bulldog attacked Bonifas from behind, screaming an order to his men as he hit the base of the American’s skull with an open hand. The command meant, Attack the enemy and kill them!
On any other morning, Mark Luttrull would’ve been at Bonifas’s side. The specialist, who was on his second tour in the Army after a brief, unsuccessful stint in college, had served as the captain’s personal driver for the better part of a year. Luttrull adored his boss, in no small part because the first duty Bonifas had given him was to escort Miss Rhode Island into the JSA as part of a USO tour. Luttrull especially liked driving Bonifas to security meetings in Panmunjom. The captain would ask Luttrull to drive fast while he rode in silence, studying his notes.
On August 18, however, Bonifas had asked Luttrull to stay behind at Camp Kitty Hawk, the JSF’s home base about a mile south of Panmunjom, to prepare his field gear to be turned in at the end of his deployment. Luttrull was sitting in the camp’s administrative office when he saw Kim, Bonifas’s translator, stumbling up a hill from the direction of the JSA, covered in blood and mumbling something that Luttrull couldn’t make out until the ROK captain was a few feet away.
As soon as he understood Kim’s words—“Captain Bonifas! Captain Bonifas!”—Luttrull ran for a radio and paged his boss. Then, as his call echoed from the camp’s tinny loudspeakers, a piercing siren began to wail.
U.S. military bases along the DMZ had two sirens: one for exercises and one for actual emergencies. This was the latter. It signaled for every man, from the infantry to the cooking staff, to drop what he was doing, throw on fatigues, a flak jacket, and a steel-pot helmet, and run to the armory for weapons and ammunition. Luttrull did exactly that.
John Pinadella, a 20-year-old private from New Jersey, had just come off a rotation in the JSA. Shifts in the zone were 24 hours each, from 0800 to 0800, and Pinadella’s last task before leaving Panmunjom that morning had been to open CP3 for the day. He’d thought it odd when three soldiers, instead of the usual two, showed up for the shift. Why did the checkpoint need reinforcing? But no matter—Pinadella had his sights on a little R&R. After a daylong stint with the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), the first-response team for incidents in the JSA, he’d get 24 hours off.
QRF duty was usually boring. The men sat around cleaning weapons, reading pulpy novels, bragging about their Korean girlfriends, and thinking about the leisure time that lay ahead: a full day of pickling themselves with booze in the nearest town, then sleeping it off before the whole cycle started over again. Pinadella was also crossing boxes off his calendar. He was the “shortest” guy in his platoon, the one with the least time remaining in Korea. He had just 98 days and a wake-up left before he went back to the United States.
Pinadella was reading mail on a cot in the unit’s Quonset hut when his platoon leader barged in, alarmed. Something had happened in the JSA. The lieutenant ordered Pinadella and the other men to gear up and get ready to go back, possibly into danger. “Get on the trucks!” he barked.
Half of the troops in the QRF, including Pinadella, were loaded into the open bed of a truck. These men were riot control, under orders to stop whatever was happening in the JSA, and they carried pickax handles. According to the terms of the armistice, soldiers on both sides could wield only batons and sidearms in Panmunjom, and U.S. commanders insisted that their troops stick to these options—unless there was an extraordinary escalation of violence. If Pinadella’s group couldn’t quell a crisis, or if the situation went truly, terribly sideways, then the other half of the QRF would be sent in. Those men would have M16s.
Just accessing Panmunjom, however, posed a problem. The moment the QRF entered, the United States would technically be in violation of the armistice. No more than 35 armed soldiers—30 enlisted men and five officers—from each side of the DMZ could be in the JSA at a given time, and that day’s rotation of Americans and South Koreans was already in place. Only the commanding officer on the scene was authorized to call in additional manpower. That was Bonifas, and no one could reach him.
Frustration built as the men of the QRF sat in their trucks waiting for information. They moved forward, as far as Checkpoint 2, just outside the gate to the JSA, and were sitting there as fellow soldiers on duty in Panmunjom began to straggle out. The men looked dazed; some were bleeding. There’d been a fight, they said, a bad one.
The exiting soldiers who weren’t hurt were asked to regroup and serve as backup for the QRF. Two of them refused, and Pinadella was stunned. Whatever had happened inside the JSA was so horrible that members of an elite U.S. force couldn’t face the scene again.
Finally, orders came down from Lieutenant Colonel Vierra to deploy the riot squad. As his truck rolled through the gate, Pinadella didn’t know that Bonifas had already been evacuated to the medic’s station at Camp Kitty Hawk, where Luttrull, his stomach in knots, was awaiting news. The medic on duty sought out the specialist, whom he’d heard was looking for Bonifas. Luttrull demanded to know what had happened to his boss.
“I tried to save him,” the medic stammered. “It was too late.” Bonifas was dead of catastrophic blunt-force wounds, including one that had split his helmet, and his eyeglasses, in half.
Shaddix, the logistics officer with the camera, had captured the murder in still frames. After Bulldog struck Bonifas on the back of the head with a karate-style chop, the captain fell to the ground and never got up again. At least five KPA guards immediately set upon him, kicking and hitting his head and body.
“Jesus Christ!” another American at OP5 yelled. “They’re killing him!”
Around the poplar, all hell broke loose. The civilian workers leapt out of the tree and ran, dropping their clippers and axes, which became weapons as North Korean soldiers snatched them up, encircled the guards who’d come to protect the tree trimmers, and commenced swinging and hacking. Shaddix’s photos would show outnumbered U.S. and ROK soldiers trying to fend off the attacks without resorting to firearms. An after-action assessment found that the men “reacted to a surprise, unprovoked attack with restraint and self-discipline.” Not one of them ever drew a gun.
The fight was brief, no longer than a few minutes, but furious. “There wasn’t time to be scared,” one of the U.S. soldiers later observed. “I was just trying to survive.” When Pinadella and the riot squad arrived, less than 30 minutes after Bulldog had initiated his assault, the scene was eerily calm. The North Koreans had retreated across the bridge or gone back to their stations inside the JSA. With no fight left to join, the QRF evacuated the men at OP5, including a rattled Shaddix. Inside the truck, someone pulled a fire extinguisher from its mount, and Shaddix gripped the canister tightly, ready to use it as a weapon if any North Koreans tried to stop the vehicle.
When the Americans and South Koreans regrouped outside the JSA for a head count, Bonifas wasn’t the only officer missing. There was no sign of Lieutenant Barrett, the man in charge of the security team at the tree, either. The last time anyone could remember seeing him was behind a retaining wall above a ditch near the poplar, where he’d apparently run to help a soldier who’d been surrounded by KPA guards.
The QRF’s riot-control team piled into their truck for the second time and drove back through the JSA gate. The vehicle went straight to the tree, and as soon as it screeched to a halt, the men scrambled out and began to search for Barrett. Pinadella jumped over the retaining wall and down into the ditch, where he found the lieutenant lying on his back, covered in mud and blood. Ax wounds riddled the young officer’s body from head to toe, and Pinadella was afraid to touch him, lest he make the lieutenant’s condition worse. He reached down tentatively to check for a pulse. Oh, my God, Pinadella thought when he felt a faint beating. He’s alive!
The young soldier choked back a wave of nausea and put his minimal training in field medicine to work. He screamed for help and cleared Barrett’s airway with his fingers, which allowed the injured man to cough and breathe a little better. When another private slid into the swampy depression and saw Barrett, he unleashed a primal scream; he seemed ready to charge up the hill at the nearest KPA checkpoint and attack whoever was there. Pinadella told the private to channel his adrenaline into getting Barrett out. Together with two other soldiers, they carefully lifted the lieutenant out of the mud, carried him to their truck, and gently laid his body down in the bed.
The men assessed Barrett’s injuries as the unit sped out of the JSA. There were deep blade wounds in the lieutenant’s chest, and blood was pouring from them. It pooled and quickly congealed in the thick August heat, causing boots to stick to the vehicle’s floor. One soldier attempted mouth-to-mouth, but it seemed futile; more air was exiting the wounds on Barrett’s head and neck than was reaching his lungs.
Barrett was transported to a helicopter that would carry him and several wounded ROK soldiers to a hospital in Seoul. As the chopper rose into the sky and shrunk out of sight, Pinadella made his way back to barracks. He changed out of his blood-soaked fatigues into a clean uniform, then he grabbed as many clips for his .45 semiautomatic pistol as he could carry. If there was about to be a battle with the North Koreans, he wanted to be ready.
That afternoon, all U.S. soldiers were ordered to convene in the mess hall at Camp Kitty Hawk, where Vierra, their gruff, square-shouldered commanding officer, addressed them. By then word of Barrett’s fate had arrived: Despite the efforts of Army medics aboard the helicopter, the young lieutenant had succumbed to his wounds before reaching Seoul.
Vierra assured his men that retaliatory action would be taken, and soon. He was awaiting orders.
“We’re going to feed you now,” the colonel told Pinadella, Luttrull, Shaddix, and the other confused, angry soldiers, “because we don’t know when you’re going to be able to eat again.”
A U.S. soldier stationed in Panmunjom hadn’t been killed in almost a decade. The last was in April 1968, when North Korean guards ambushed a truck en route to the JSA, leaving two Americans and two South Koreans dead. “About 20 bullet holes could be seen in the shattered front windshield of the truck,” the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported. “Both headlights were blasted out. Three of the tires were punctured, and at least 40 rounds had ripped through the truck’s rear canvas cover.” An observer commented, “I don’t see how anybody survived this.”
In the years that followed, the JSA reverted to its norm: an uncomfortable state of high alert and suspicion. “The combination of physical, psychological, political, diplomatic, and military stresses,” George Chobany, the officer who led the QRF on the day of the ax murders, later wrote, “made duty in the JSA unlike duty just about anywhere else in the world.” Only certain men were chosen for the job. Members of the ROK contingent, known as the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army, tended to come from influential South Korean families and performed well on English tests. On the American side, recruits had to score more than 110 on the Army’s General Technical exam, an academic-aptitude test, and ideally have no black marks on their disciplinary record. They also had to be at least six feet tall—for maximal intimidation factor—and have a mellow temperament.
When men arrived on deployment in Seoul, an Army representative referred to as the turtle catcher sought out the tallest among them who met other basic requirements and asked if they’d like to volunteer for special duty. Those who said yes were taken north for further interviews and tests—for instance, soldiers screaming at them suddenly and for no apparent reason. The idea was to see how they might handle being cursed at and spit on in the JSA, because that would absolutely happen. North Korean soldiers in Panmunjom were instructed to be provocative, while their U.S. and ROK counterparts were under strict orders not to take the bait.
Much of the resulting gamesmanship was childish. Technically, the JSF fell under what was called the United Nations Command—another bureaucratic by-product of the armistice—and when leadership put floodlights on the exterior of the UNC headquarters, North Korea responded by erecting bigger, brighter lights at its main station. KPA guards sometimes taunted African American soldiers with racist gestures and placed boards covered with nails, pointed ends up, along the routes of UNC vehicle patrols. A stranded jeep was an opportunity for harassment, so if tires punctured, drivers were told to continue driving on flats.
U.S. soldiers weren’t innocent of mischief. They liked to play hopscotch on their half of the Bridge of No Return, drop their pants to moon guards on the other side, and sneak up on the KPA barracks in the middle of the night to pound on the walls until everyone inside was awake. On winter nights, they sometimes poured water on the steps of North Korean checkpoint buildings, so that the guards who arrived the next morning would slip on the ice.
By 1976, however, fatuous competition and pranks were giving way to renewed KPA aggression. In June of the previous year, a North Korean journalist spat on U.S. Army major W.D. Henderson as the two men sat on a bench arguing. When Henderson struck the man, KPA guards surrounded the major, stomped on him, and crushed his larynx, necessitating his evacuation from Korea. Several months later, a JSF guard on jeep patrol, Michael Brouillette, was assaulted when he took a detour near the Panmungak pavilion, North Korea’s main building in the JSA. Brouillette’s arm was broken, and he was later awarded a Purple Heart.
Keeping cool in the face of violence was a matter of U.S. policy, but that didn’t mean that the Americans simply turned the other cheek. In early 1976, at the suggestion of a soldier in Second Platoon, led by Lieutenant David Zilka, night patrols began carrying larger clubs—ax handles instead of riot batons—for protection. At the next joint security meeting, the North Koreans ranted about “Zilka’s Mad Dogs, who patrol the JSA at night and carry big sticks!” Second Platoon proudly adopted the Mad Dogs nickname.
Major General John Singlaub was in a staff meeting of the Eighth Army Command in Yongsan, a garrison in Seoul that served as the U.S. military headquarters on the Korean peninsula, when he got word by phone that two Americans had been killed in the JSA. Singlaub, who’d cut his teeth parachuting behind enemy lines during World War II and now wore two stars on his uniform, knew that nearly every U.S. official required to initiate a response to the murders was currently out of the country. General Richard Stilwell, the commander of all U.S. forces in Korea, was in Japan, making his last official visit before retiring from the Army after 38 years and three wars. Stilwell’s deputy, Air Force lieutenant general John Burns, was logging his monthly flight hours. And the American ambassador, Richard Sneider, was on holiday in the United States. “I was the man on the spot,” Singlaub later wrote in a memoir.
Singlaub sent a jet to Japan to retrieve Stilwell, then called the general to let him know that a plane was en route. “Sir, I think you should return to Seoul immediately,” Singlaub said. Stilwell considered the minimal amount of information he was able to receive over the unsecure line and asked his chief of staff to do two things while he flew back to Seoul. The first was to request an urgent security meeting for the following day, so that he could deliver a message to Pyongyang that its aggression would have swift, severe repercussions. The second was to prepare all units in Korea for a shift to Defcon-3, should the order come from Washington. Defcon, short for defense readiness condition, ranges from 5 (normal) to 1 (nukes are flying). Defcon-3 would involve American forces gearing up for possible combat.
The North Koreans were already broadcasting their version of events via Radio Pyongyang. “Around 10:45 a.m. today,” a bulletin announced, “the American imperialist aggressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the Joint Security Area to cut down the tree on their own accord, although such work should be mutually consented beforehand. Four persons from our side went to the spot to warn them not to continue the work without our consent. Against our persuasion, they attacked our guards en masse and committed a serious provocative act of beating our men, wielding murderous weapons, and depending on the fact that they outnumbered us. Our guards could not but resort to self-defense measures under the circumstances of this reckless provocation.”
Barely five hours after the killings, North Korea showed its cards to the world. Pyongyang had sent a delegation to a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement—a collection of countries that never officially chose a side in the Cold War—which was being held at the time in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The North Koreans distributed a document to the gathered representatives describing the fight in the JSA in terms similar to those used by Radio Pyongyang, then introduced a resolution calling on the conference to order the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula. It passed easily.
To American leaders, the timing was hardly coincidental. Singlaub considered the response from Pyongyang to be “clear confirmation that the murders had been part of a carefully planned campaign designed to force American troops out of Korea.” A memo prepared for the deputy national security adviser suggested that the highest levels of the North Korean regime had likely approved the attack at the poplar tree. The goal, the memo stated, may have been to provoke American troops to “over-react with firearms,” creating an international incident that could influence world opinion and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, which was less than three months away. A CIA report titled “DMZ Incident,” delivered by the agency’s director, George H. W. Bush, to secretary of state Henry Kissinger, described North Korea’s endgame: “If U.S. forces withdraw, if U.S. resolve appears seriously weakened, we believe the North might well act on its overriding goal of unification and seize the opportunity to achieve it militarily.”
The scary thing was that, given the opportunity, North Korea might well succeed. In 1970, a U.S. intelligence assessment had found “general parity” between North and South Korea’s military forces. But four years later, analysts noticed that North Korea was diverting concrete and steel into new, unknown military developments—a worrying development that, with the Pentagon’s attention focused on Vietnam, had gone largely unnoticed. Further review of satellite imagery led to a “horrifying” revelation, as the officer at the National Security Agency assigned to solve the mystery put it. Somehow the intelligence establishment had missed an enormous military buildup, despite U.S. armed forces being parked right next door.
Every line item stunned the Pentagon. North Korea’s armored divisions were 80 percent larger than those described in the 1970 assessment, and the country didn’t have 21 divisions of 10,000 combat troops each; it had 41. The intense, increasingly aggressive Kim had at least 2,000 modern tanks and 12,400 artillery pieces, most of them deployed to fortifications along the DMZ, within easy firing range of U.S. and South Korean forces, as well as fighters and bombers parked in hangars constructed inside mountains and reinforced with all that concrete and steel—save the portion used to build an extensive series of tunnels under the DMZ itself, including one big enough to accommodate a full combat division, with artillery.
According to Singlaub, the United States was forced to accept the “troubling, seemingly unbelievable conclusion” that “Kim Il Sung was poised to invade South Korea,” perhaps by engineering a false-flag attack. Kim may have been telegraphing this fact when he told a Japanese journalist five months before the ax murders that his country planned to “stir up world opinion more vigorously” by publicizing America’s “criminal barbarities.” The CIA believed Pyongyang would use the publicity around the JSA fight to garner allies and sour the American public’s view of the country’s military presence in Korea, to the point that U.S. forces would leave, clearing a path for the north to invade the south. There was reason for Pyongyang to think that possible: The long, bloody slog of Vietnam had worn thin Americans’ patience for war, and on the presidential campaign trail, a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was agitating to withdraw American soldiers from Korea.
When Stilwell landed at Kimpo Airport in Seoul, Singlaub met his boss and briefed him in the car on the way to Yongsan. The two had known each other for 25 years, since Stilwell ran the Far Asia division of the CIA and Singlaub served under him. When Stilwell got his fourth star and was given the prestigious Eighth Army Command, he picked his old friend to be his chief of staff. Now the men sped toward base, discussing how to respond to the murders. As Stilwell saw it, there were relatively few options—three, really. The United States could do nothing, but that would be seen as weak. It could launch a massive retaliatory response, with bombs and rockets, but that might start World War III. Or U.S. forces could do something “meaningful,” an action that sent a message but wouldn’t result in American casualties. Stilwell favored the third option, but what meaningful thing could U.S. forces do? And what if the North Koreans overreacted, igniting the very war Stilwell had hoped to avoid?
By the time Stilwell arrived at the newly designated war room, a concrete basement at Yongsan, it was 2040 on August 18, and he had a plan in mind. U.S. forces needed to reassert control before the situation in the JSA slipped further into chaos. Because the fight had started at the poplar tree, Stilwell reasoned, the response should be focused there, too. “That damned tree must come down,” he told Singlaub. Not only that, but the JSF needed to destroy the two checkpoints near CP3 that North Korea had installed without approval. They’d stood long enough.
The mission was a matter of both tactical necessity and principle, and in theory it could be done quickly and in a way that appeared to respect the parameters of the armistice. But there was a way to make a louder point, too. Chopping down the poplar would be a real threat if, in Singlaub’s words, it was accompanied by a “massing [of] American air, ground, and sea power to remind the North Koreans of the nature of their opponent.” Stilwell had the perfect name for the mission: Operation Paul Bunyan.
The security meeting that Stilwell had ordered Singlaub to organize was held the morning after the murders. It was a gathering of the Military Armistice Commission, comprised of North and South Koreans, Americans, and neutral-nation observers—Czechs, Poles, Swedes, and Swiss—who oversaw implementation of the peace agreement and mediated disputes in the JSA. The MAC headquarters, a narrow, single-story building with blue walls, parallel banks of windows, and well-worn office furniture, had seen its share of one-upmanship and sabotage. In the early days of the armistice, each side had attended MAC meetings with a progressively bigger flag to place before its delegation, until they could no longer fit comfortably in the room. More than once KPA soldiers were seen shining their boots with an American flag. Later the U.S. side assigned guards to protect its microphones, because the American delegates were concerned that the North Koreans would cut the cords.
The meeting on August 19 was different, because the stakes were unprecedented. Normally, a U.S. honor guard attended in Class A uniforms: white helmet, blue satin sash, polished boots. That day, members of the JSF had been on alert for nearly 24 hours. They were dirty and sweaty, wearing combat fatigues and scuffed boots, and they were seething at the deaths of Bonifas and Barrett. According to one observer, they “marched in with a force and purpose like never before,” forming a cordon as Rear Admiral Mark Frudden, the senior U.S. representative at the meeting, strutted from his car to the conference room in impeccable dress whites.
Press swarmed and flashes popped as Frudden and other officials arrived. A TV camera panned the tense scene, pausing for a moment on the exhausted face of John Pinadella, who was a member of the honor guard. Later that night, when the footage played on the evening news across America, Pinadella’s father would relax for the first time since the announcement the previous day that two unnamed soldiers had been murdered in Korea. His son was not one of the dead men.
Frudden opened the meeting by delivering a written message from Stilwell. “The UN Command views this brutal, vicious act with gravity and concern and warns that such violent and belligerent acts cannot be tolerated,” Stilwell wrote. “North Korea must bear full responsibility for all consequences.” As expected, emissaries from Pyongyang pushed back. North Korea had fully denied the 1968 killings of the men in the truck, and this time, too, it claimed innocence. American soldiers provoked the violence, the country’s representatives said. This was often how it went at MAC meetings: The Americans complained about KPA aggression, and North Korean envoys pretended nothing had happened—or flipped the blame back on their adversaries.
This time, though, the Americans had evidence of murder: the photos that Shaddix had taken from OP5. Shaddix had used Ektachrome, a high-end Kodak color film, and because there wasn’t a single facility in South Korea that could process it, the Army had overnighted the film to Japan with orders that it be developed and returned by the following morning, in time for the MAC meeting. Now an aide spread the damning pictures out on the table as Frudden read more of Stilwell’s message. “Your guards took the very axes meant for peaceful uses,” it said, “and turned them into instruments of death.”
South of the JSA, U.S. staff sergeant Charles Twardzicki of the Second Engineer Battalion was summoned for a special assignment. It was Twardzicki’s 25th birthday, and he was supposed to have the day off. Instead, he and a lieutenant would drive north, change into a uniform from one of the JSA’s neutral nations, and go on a recon mission in Panmunjom. Their task: to get a good look at the poplar and decide how to chop it down. There wouldn’t be enough time for measurements, so the men would have to suggest a plan after merely eyeballing the tree.
The lieutenant was supposed to brief various commanders, but he got caught up in another meeting, so Twardzicki, an enlisted man, was tasked with delivering the intel to a room twinkling with brass. The sergeant stood sweating as generals and admirals—“lots of stars and eagles,” he recalled—breezed past him into the meeting room, where they aired their opinions on how best to take down the poplar. “The Navy said, ‘We can come in close with a battleship and drop a round right in there,’” Twardzicki recalled. “The Air Force said they could smart-bomb it, and I think the Marines were of the mentality that, ‘We’ll low-crawl in and use our bayonets and whittle it to the ground.’”
Finally, attention turned to Twardzicki. What did the engineer think?
To sever the tree at its trunk, he replied, would require a large saw powered by air-compressors, which would mean transporting heavy equipment to and from the JSA. If Stilwell was looking for speed and stealth, though, the engineers could work the old-fashioned way: by climbing into the tree and using chainsaws to cut the branches where they forked until only the trunk remained. The job wouldn’t be pretty. Saws would break, but the engineers could bring extras.
What about a backup plan, the commanders wanted to know—how long would it take for the engineers to set charges on the tree and blow it to smithereens? Twardzicki, an explosives expert, said that he could prepare satchel charges and rig them in the crotch of the tree in about two minutes. The engineers wouldn’t have much time to exit the blast zone. “They’ll be pulling toothpicks out of their butts,” Twardzicki told the room. He felt as if he were spitballing—there was, he later said, a “pull-it-out-your-butt fudge factor” to the whole conversation.
Later that day, one of Twardzicki’s platoon mates, Bruce Simpson, was also called in for his opinion. Simpson was a 23-year-old specialist who had worked for a landscaper back home in Massachusetts, making him the only guy on the engineering squad with actual expertise in cutting trees.
“How long will it take?” an officer asked, referring to Twardzicki’s plan.
Simpson considered the question for a moment. There was driving and parking and setting up a ladder and climbing into the tree and starting the chainsaws and accounting for a few of them conking out. Then, once the branches fell, the men would have to cut them into pieces and drag them off the road, so that they didn’t give the North Koreans another reason to complain. Finally, the soldiers would have to drive out of the JSA.
“Probably 45 minutes,” Simpson answered.
Was he certain of this?
“Yep. I can guarantee it,” Simpson said, even though he couldn’t.
This was good enough for the brass.
At 1300, Kimpo International Airport was closed for an hour for a somber event: a memorial service for Bonifas and Barrett. Stilwell presided over a short ceremony, during which Bonifas was posthumously promoted to major and both men received Purple Hearts. Afterward the caskets containing the men’s remains were placed on a plane and sent home. Stilwell then flew north, where he presided over a second memorial service at the officers’ club at Camp Kitty Hawk. The general stood next to Bonifas’s and Barrett’s boots, which were on display in front of a small altar, and as he finished his remarks, he told the troops who packed the room that something big was going to happen—an important action, which they would lead. On that ambiguous note, he headed to the helicopter that took him back to Seoul, where the plans for Operation Paul Bunyan were quickly filling up a binder.
Singlaub wrote, “The key elements were surprise, speed of execution and withdrawal, and avoidance of direct engagement with North Korean troops.” The job of cutting down the tree would fall to a pair of eight-man teams from the Second Engineer Battalion, Twardzicki and Simpson’s unit, and they would be protected by two platoons of U.S. and ROK infantrymen and a contingent of South Korean special forces. Behind them, just beyond the JSA border, would be an ROK recon company reinforced with U.S. anti-tank missile teams. An infantry company of about 150 men would hover in 20 Huey helicopters, with 12 AH-1G Cobra gunships flying alongside them. Tank-busting F-4 Phantoms would fly in slightly higher orbit, and F-111 strategic bombers would orbit higher still, visible on North Korean radar.
Forces would mobilize on the ground, too. Three batteries of American 105-millimeter howitzers would move across the Freedom Bridge, the only permanent span over the Imjin River, which skirted the southern edge of the DMZ. Twardzicki and other engineers had already wired the bridge for destruction in the event of war. On the opposite side of the Imjin, three more batteries of ROK heavy artillery would be placed in clear view of North Korean positions. Lastly, at the moment the tree-trimming convoy rolled into the JSA, “a massive flight of B-52 bombers from Guam would be moving ominously north from the Yellow Sea on a vector directly to the North Korean capital,” Singlaub wrote, while the USS Midway carrier group, which would have moved to Korea from its base in Japan, “would launch 40 combat aircraft” to “vector north above international waters.”
Once the plan was complete, Stilwell needed Washington’s approval, but he was worried about D.C. officials’ penchant for micromanagement. He’d watched politicians muck up numerous operations in Vietnam, and his deputy, Lieutenant General Burns, had seen it first-hand in 1975, after Khmer Rouge soldiers in Cambodia seized the container ship SS Mayaguez, prompting an infamous botched rescue mission. Burns was in Thailand, overseeing air support for a Marine assault on the island where the Mayaguez hostages were thought to be held, when the White House had intervened, using a command-override channel to reach the helicopters directly. According to Singlaub’s account, Air Force pilots were shocked to hear their controllers’ voices replaced by that of a civilian—specifically, Henry Kissinger, who had no direct authority over a military operation. Singlaub claimed in his memoir that Burns was about to order the Marines not to land on the island, where an ensuing battle and chopper crash killed 41 U.S. soldiers, but couldn’t because of the override. “Kissinger bypassed the entire local command structure and fouled up the operation,” Singlaub wrote. “We were determined this would not happen to us.”
Stilwell dictated the memo for Operation Paul Bunyan over a secure line to the Pentagon, and he chose his words carefully. This was not the starting point for a conversation—it was a final document that didn’t require further comment or conversation. He described the range of North Korea’s possible responses: It might do nothing, which he hoped would be the case; it might react with small-arms fire, which could be met with mortars and gunfire to cover an evacuation of U.S. and ROK forces; or Pyongyang could panic and stage a larger attack. “We would then have to be ready for more important actions,” Stilwell said. “In between the two extremes are a legion of possibilities which could make precise control of escalation difficult to manage. We will need good local communications, cool heads, and thorough understanding of the mission.”
Stilwell waited until late at night Korea time to send the message. He knew the Ford administration was eager to move quickly, and he wanted to limit the amount of time for possible meddling, so he requested a green light within 24 hours. Once he got it, the mission could launch at dawn on August 21.
When top national-security officials met at the White House to discuss the ax murders, Ford wasn’t there—the president was in Kansas City, Missouri, for the Republican National Convention, facing supporters of an ornery upstart challenger named Ronald Reagan. Ford wasn’t the only top decision-maker absent: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was also at the convention, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was traveling, forcing the deputies for both to take their seats at the table in the Situation Room.
Kissinger dominated the meeting, expressing frustration that the U.S. soldiers at the poplar hadn’t fought back. “If I had been one of those men and was being beaten to death,” he remarked, “I would have used a firearm.” Now he firmly supported retaliation. “If we do nothing, they will think of us as the paper tigers of Saigon,” the secretary of state said. “There may be another incident, and then another.”
Some officials went so far as to suggest dropping smart bombs, staging B-52 attacks, and coordinating assaults by Airborne Rangers. The acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs floated a plan to use a submarine or Navy SEALs to blow up an “industrial site” at a North Korean harbor, but he backed off the idea after assessing that the chances of pulling it off without casualties was slim. Ultimately, none of the men wanted dead Americans on his conscience, nor did he want to be blamed for starting yet another war in Asia.
According to a declassified transcript of the meeting, the advisers decided to “seek presidential approval of a military action to cut down the tree and try to do it in such a way as to avoid confrontation.” This was the basic premise of Operation Paul Bunyan, and like Stilwell, the men in Washington wanted to do more than merely dispatch soldiers with hedge clippers—they, too, wanted to demonstrate military might. “It will be useful for us to generate enough activity so that the North Koreans begin to wonder what those crazy American bastards are doing or are capable of doing in this election year,” Kissinger said. Yet he was as wary of Stilwell as the general was of the secretary. “We are not going to let Stilwell run loose,” Kissinger warned.
While Washington spent the day reviewing the memo for Operation Paul Bunyan, armed forces in Korea were ordered to go to Defcon-3. It was the first time the U.S. military had raised its alert status in the region since the Korean War. Washington also launched a military mobilization of breathtaking scale. The Pentagon staged an “exercise” that routed B-52s armed with conventional and nuclear weapons uncomfortably close to Pyongyang. A squadron of F-4 fighters flew from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to Korea and was joined by a squadron of nuclear-capable F-111 fighter-bombers dispatched from Idaho. The USS Midway was sent toward the Korean peninsula from elsewhere in the Pacific, while RF-4D reconnaissance planes and Wild Weasel air-defense-suppression jets arrived from bases in Japan and the Philippines after flying within range of North Korean radar. Two infantry divisions, one American and one South Korean, were pushed forward from their bases south of the Imjin River to the DMZ, while conventional and nuclear artillery and missiles were moved into concrete bunkers built in preparation for precisely this kind of emergency scenario. Every military unit in Korea was abuzz with activity; cargo helicopters shuttled munitions and equipment out of Seoul, and truck convoys clogged the roads heading north.
The armed forces also planned for a worst-case scenario. SR-71 Blackbird surveillance jets took off from a base on Taiwan to take detailed photos of North Korean military movements and identify the coordinates of anti-aircraft radar, which lit up as the jets screamed past 80,000 feet in the air. Intelligence analysts would use the coordinates to pre-target Nike Hercules missiles and then, if necessary, launch them in advance of U.S. bombers raining fire north of the DMZ.
The Blackbird was, and still is, the fastest manned plane in history, so there was no reason to be secretive about its mission. The jet was too fast to shoot down—or do anything about, really, other than complain. That’s what the North Koreans did, issuing a proclamation over state radio about the “military provocation” and the drumbeats of war. “The U.S. imperialist aggressors should be clearly aware of the fact that they will never be able to avoid the grave consequences that might arise from such reckless provocations of violating the armistice in Korea,” Pyongyang warned. “They should act discreetly.”
The clock was ticking toward Stilwell’s deadline for a green light. The general was surprised when he received a communiqué asking if it would be possible to mount Operation Paul Bunyan sooner than he’d suggested; the Ford administration wanted it over and done with. Sure, Stilwell replied, he could do it, but the operation would be “ragged,” because he’d have less time to prep his men and move equipment. “We are aware of our solemn responsibility to accomplish the mission with minimum jeopardy to our forces,” he replied. Stilwell reiterated what he’d said in his memo: 0700 on August 21 was optimal. His men could roll in and, if Simpson’s guess was right, cut down the tree in 45 minutes, finishing before 0800, when KPA guards would drive across the Bridge of No Return to assume their positions in Panmunjom for the day.
On the night of August 19, Ford accepted the Republican nomination for reelection, telling the crowd in Kansas City that he was “proud to stand before this convention as the first incumbent president since Dwight D. Eisenhower who can tell the American people, ‘America is at peace.’” The line was written for cheers, and Ford paused to take in the applause of some 2,000 GOP delegates, none of whom had any idea that, halfway across the world, the United States was preparing for war.
Kissinger had flown to Kansas City to brief Ford in person, which he did in a back room of the convention center. The president was nervous about coming off as too aggressive, but he agreed that the United States needed to make a point.
On the morning of August 20, Washington dispatched the order to execute. The message reached Stilwell at 2345 his time, 15 minutes before the deadline. Just under the wire, Operation Paul Bunyan was a go, with only one addendum from Washington: Kissinger insisted that, should the tree mission draw North Korean fire, America would get revenge by destroying KPA barracks near the JSA. Stilwell didn’t like the idea—for one thing, the strikes would land uncomfortably close to the camp housing Swiss and Swede observers of Panmunjom—so he added a caveat: The bombing of the barracks could be executed only on his direct order.
Secrecy was paramount. The only way for Washington to monitor the mission in real time was by secure phone, and Stilwell, with the Mayaguez fiasco very much in mind, used this to his advantage. He allowed only two secure lines out of Korea, both connected to the Pentagon. One of them was at his desk in Yongsan, and the other was at his forward command post, where he’d relocate during the mission. From each of those locations was a secure line to the operation task force in the DMZ. In practice this meant that the only way for Washington to communicate with forces in the field was through one of Stilwell’s offices, and the only way to contact those offices was through phones located at the Pentagon. If Kissinger wanted to talk to someone in the DMZ, he’d have to go to the Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia. Stilwell exerted further control by directing Singlaub and the rest of his staff to leave the lines to the Pentagon off the hook. When his staff needed to speak to Washington, they would initiate the conversation, and when it was over, they would cover the mouthpiece with a Styrofoam coffee cup so that it sounded like they’d hung up.
Singlaub assumed the job of choking off Washington’s access with gusto. He informed his communications officer, a colonel charged with manning the phones in Korea and delivering messages to and from the Pentagon, that his “entire future in the U.S. Army” depended on following the order that “under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever” should he allow “any direct communication from a higher headquarters” to bypass Yongsan. “I don’t care,” Singlaub told the officer, “if President Ford himself is on the other line.” In the event of objections, which were inevitable, the colonel was to say that, unfortunately, the communications system in Korea was incompatible with the one back home, preventing him from patching calls through to the front. This was a lie, and technicians would likely know it, but Washington was half a world away, with no way to open additional lines to Korea. Officials might get mad, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
A half-hour after receiving this order, the colonel returned with a message. Washington wasn’t happy; it wanted a direct line to the front. The colonel returned again to report that officials in the U.S. capital wanted to know how old the tree was, a pointless question that boiled Singlaub’s blood, and then a third time to say that the lieutenant general in charge of worldwide military communications was personally demanding a secure line to the DMZ.
“I told [him] to talk to you, sir,” the colonel told Singlaub. “He was not exactly pleased.”
“Don’t worry, colonel,” Singlaub replied. “I’m your rating officer, not him.”
There would be no sleep that night, but there would be more bureaucratic conflict. Around 0400, Ambassador Sneider finally arrived in Yongsan, after a daylong flight from the United States. As Sneider entered the war room, Stilwell was on the phone with the commander of the task force. When Sneider realized who was on the line, he reached for the phone. The muscles in Stilwell’s arm clenched as the ambassador grabbed the receiver, and the two men engaged, according to Singlaub, in a “ludicrous tug of war” that the general ultimately won.
“Was there something you wanted me to ask?” Stilwell said politely, if smugly, after hanging up.
Sneider was miffed and reminded the general that he was President Ford’s personal representative in Korea. If Ford had questions for “my field commanders,” Stilwell replied, “I’ll be happy to relay any.”
Stilwell was on the very edge of retirement and so had little to risk in the way of his career by placing obstacles between Washington and the DMZ. His top priority was to not introduce any unnecessary risk into an already sensitive mission. When he met with South Korean president Park Chung Hee to discuss Operation Paul Bunyan, he agreed outwardly with Park’s optimism that the tree would come down and that Park’s hand-selected ROK commandos, who were masters of martial arts, could take on KPA soldiers if it came to that. In truth, Stilwell thought there was a strong chance the North Koreans would fight back—hard—and once the bullets were flying, it would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to stop the fire from becoming an inferno.
In the war room, Singlaub was thinking about extreme measures. “It was my estimate, shared by many of the staff, that the operation stood a 50-50 chance of starting a war,” he later wrote. “We might be teetering on the brink of a holocaust. If North Korea did invade, we would have no choice but to request authorization for the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II.”
Just before dawn, Singlaub took a moment to find a quiet corner and pray.
At 0500, members of the JSF were awoken and instructed to move “as quietly and expeditiously as possible” to a barracks. Once they were assembled, groggy-eyed, the briefing began. Before them stood their platoon leaders and captain Ed Shirron, who’d replaced Bonifas. Shirron announced a surgical mission into the JSA to cut down the poplar tree, backed up by tremendous force. “The way it was explained, it sounded like it was going to be the most carefully staged and concentrated display of power since D-Day in World War II,” then private Bill Ferguson recalled.
The mood was heavy, the room silent. After nearly 48 hours of wanting revenge but being allowed to do nothing—of wondering what was going to happen along one of the world’s most precarious military fault lines—the JSF was being asked to finish the job that had started the crisis. The plan was invigorating, and also terrifying. Every man who worked in the JSA knew the rumor that, by taking up his post, he was automatically known to the Army’s Graves Registration Service, which handled retrieval, transportation, and burial of soldiers killed in the line of duty; that way, if the North Koreans ever launched a fusillade and wiped Panmunjom from the map, the Pentagon would know who’d been killed without having to identify them. Now, with Operation Paul Bunyan, the Army was rolling the dice on the men’s lives. “My life expectancy if anything happened,” Ferguson said, “was extremely short.” After the briefing, he wrote letters to his family members, just in case.
The operation would begin at exactly 0700 and involve all three U.S. platoons in the JSF, plus select troops from the Second Infantry Division, the only other American unit based north of the Imjin River. The JSF guards were told that they could take only the most basic defensive gear, including flak jackets, ax handles, and their .45 handguns, which were meant for close range and would be virtually useless against an attacker more than ten yards away. With no idea of what lay ahead, the men snatched up whatever rudimentary weaponry they could hide in their boots and pockets: knives, shoestrings, socks stuffed with rocks. “If there was the slightest chance that we somehow survived,” Ferguson said, “we at least wanted some kind of fighting chance to not become prisoners.”
Twardzicki, Simpson, and the other engineers who would cut down the poplar gathered their chainsaws—about a dozen in all—and piled into two dump trucks to head north. Their commander briefed them one last time.
“If the North Koreans go to stop this thing,” he said, “you know what they’re going to shoot at.”
“The guy with all the stars, right?” Twardzicki replied.
“No, the guy with all the chainsaws.”
At 0648, as the sun was rising, 23 vehicles loaded with soldiers rolled toward the JSA. At the same time, the 20 Huey helicopters carrying the Army rifle company took off and began circling above the DMZ. Cobra gunships, armed with Gatling guns, Hydra rockets, and anti-tank missiles, joined them.
The soldiers sat quietly in the trucks. Ernest Bickley looked at the stitches in his right hand, which patched a wound he’d suffered in the fight that started this whole mess. He wasn’t a smoker, but when an ROK Marine offered him a cigarette, he took it and smoked for the first time. In another truck, two thoughts ran in a loop in Ferguson’s head, both of them from movies. One was a quote from the 1970 western Little Big Man: “Today is a good day to die.” The other was a song lyric from Paint Your Wagon, the Clint Eastwood musical: Where am I going, I don’t know / When will I get there, I ain’t certain / All I know is I am on my way.
Mark Luttrull, Bonifas’s former driver, was a late addition to the unit. He’d told Vierra that he wanted to be at the tree when it came down, and he’d been called to meet with Captain Shirron at 0300. “I’m looking for a radio operator,” Shirron told him. It had to be a volunteer, because the job was dangerous. In battle, the guy with the antenna standing next to an officer was always among a sniper’s first targets.
“You’ve got only a 50-50 chance of returning,” Shirron told him.
“I’ll take the job,” Luttrull replied. Now, in the back of a deuce and a half, he thought mostly of Bonifas, and he wasn’t afraid.
The last stop before the gate to the JSA was Checkpoint 2, where John Pinadella was waiting. Pinadella had a special job: Just before 0700, he was to walk into Panmunjom and observe KPA activity. What was the size of the North Korean force? Had any guards showed up early that day? Pinadella did as he was told and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to the checkpoint and used a field phone to call back to base.
“Go,” he said.
Then Pinadella opened the gate to let the trucks through. In the basement of his checkpoint were ten M16s and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Pinadella’s instructions were to use them to cover the trucks if they came streaming back in retreat. By then soldiers stationed at camp would be igniting fuel cans and explosives positioned at the door of every building. The camp would go up in flames, ensuring that nothing of strategic value would be left behind for the North Koreans to seize as the men of the JSF fought for their lives.
The first deuce and a half roared through Panmunjom’s gate, turned left, and headed for CP3, the loneliest outpost. It stopped at the poplar long enough for the guards in back to jump out and take up defensive positions around the tree, then the driver backed up onto the Bridge of No Return and parked, effectively blocking any KPA vehicles from crossing. A second truck arrived with a platoon of ROK commandos in civilian uniforms, and they spilled out into a half-circle around the tree. Finally, in a dump truck came the engineers, who immediately pulled out their ladders and saws and got to work.
The chainsaws weren’t prime specimens; they were Vietnam surplus and ran well only when held straight up and down or dead flat. Hold one at an angle and it got wonky. Twardzicki and Simpson prayed that the machines would work well enough. They didn’t want to deploy the backup plan of loading the tree with explosives and running like hell.
Twardzicki mounted a ladder and began sawing into one of the poplar’s three main limbs. He cut a wedge out of the far side, a trimmer’s trick to make sure the branch didn’t fall back on him, then commenced furiously sawing. He was too busy to wonder whether someone somewhere had a sniper rifle aimed at his head. Twardzicki knew that there were layers of security around the tree and up in the air, including the B-52s now circling the scene, their bellies loaded for bear with bombs.
It seemed like no time before the first branch came down. The mass of wood dropped with a thud onto the engineers’ truck, denting the hood. “I vividly remember the crash it made as it fell on the truck, and the cheers we all made—raising our ax handles and yelling,” Ferguson recalled. Engineers on the ground then cut the limb into smaller pieces and threw them into the ditch where three days earlier Pinadella had found Barrett on the brink of death.
By then the KPA had received a communiqué from the UNC, sent strategically—on Stilwell’s orders—at 0705, after the trucks were already in the JSA. It stated that a UNC work party would “enter JSA at 0700 in order to peacefully finish the work left unfinished by the UNC work detail which was attacked by your guards on 18 August.” As long as the KPA didn’t engage, the message said, there would be no violence.
Ferguson and his platoon mates near the tree gripped their ax handles, keeping one eye on the engineers’ trimming and the other on the activity across the bridge. At first the North Korean guards reacted as Stilwell hoped they might. The KPA closest to the bridge appeared confused, and when backup arrived, those soldiers also seemed like they didn’t have orders to follow.
But then a group of KPA guards ran from their barracks to an observation post built on a hill. They set up a machine-gun nest, with barrels aimed across the river. A few minutes later, a makeshift convoy of vehicles—trucks, buses, a clunky old East German sedan—arrived, and about 150 reinforcements with small arms jumped out, taking positions along the Sachon River.
The Americans were prepared for this. A second platoon of men, poised up a hill near OP5, moved forward to reinforce the guards near the poplar. Meanwhile, soldiers from the Second Infantry who’d been waiting near the gate to South Korea moved ahead, too. In full battle rattle, they fanned out along the JSA’s main road, clearly visible to the North Koreans.
The Americans were merely showing force in numbers. Several ROK soldiers, however, reacted differently to the sight of KPA guards taking attack positions. They ripped open their shirts to reveal Claymore anti-personnel mines strapped to their chests. Each man clutched a detonator in his hand and waved it in the direction of the KPA soldiers, yelling at them to cross the bridge and face certain death.
ROK men wearing explosives and howling at their enemies shocked forces on both sides of the river. Luttrull yelled to Captain Shirron, and the unit radioed Vierra at his command post outside the JSA: “Be advised that the ROK special forces have Claymore mines!”
Vierra was furious. This wasn’t just a violation of the armistice; it was a reckless action that put his men, and the entire operation, in jeopardy. To him it seemed that “they had their own plan—to cause the KPA to do something.” He wanted to scream into his command channel for someone to rein in the South Koreans immediately, but he knew that had to be careful with his words. He was already concerned that, if hostilities broke out, he might not be able to control the ROK. “I did not know whether they would follow my orders,” Vierra said. “I did not know their orders.” He held his tongue.
At the tree, Ferguson froze at the sight of the ROK soldiers. Time seemed to warp. “Some things appeared to be in slow motion,” he said, “and other things seemed to happen faster than my eyes and brain could register them.” Then he heard a faint rumble in the air—a thump, thump, thump coming from the south. He looked up. It was a gray day, with a low ceiling of clouds, but not so low that he couldn’t see the source of the sound: a phalanx of U.S. helicopters rising up over the horizon line and hanging there, “seeming to stretch for over a mile.”
Ferguson was suddenly hyperaware of his tenuous place in the world. “Nukes in the air, who knows how much artillery from both sides concentrated on our location, crazy guys with mines on their chests yelling at the North Koreans to come on over, the KPA less than 100 meters away with machine guns trained on us, and me and my buddies are standing around with ax handles and .45s,” he said.
Ferguson took a breath and waited for the rifle crack or puff of smoke that would signal the end. “All I’m thinking,” he recalled, “is that I hope I can take a couple [KPA] with me.”
The engineers in the tree didn’t feel the gathering storm. They were busy wrestling their unwieldy chainsaws through gnarly wood, their arms burning with lactic acid, then trading off the job with other men. Twardzicki in particular was having problems. His chainsaw had stalled. He yanked on the starter once, twice, several times. It flooded. For four or five minutes passed, which felt like hours to everyone watching, Twardzicki fumbled with the machine. “What the hell is going on?” he heard someone ask. Finally, the saw wheezed and whirred back to life, and Twardzicki finished off the stubborn branch.
But there was still more to cut—one last big branch, high up the trunk and difficult to reach. Simpson was standing on top of the dump truck’s roof and leaning out as far as he could without toppling over so that his saw could reach the limb. He was visibly tired from the labor, but he had to keep going; the 45 minutes he’d promised were all the engineers needed would soon be up.
Just then an engineer named George Deason bounded over to the tree. A lieutenant, he’d been with the unit tasked with tearing down the KPA’s two illegal checkpoints. That work had been easy enough. The men had wrapped heavy chains around each structure’s gates and posts, attached the chains to a truck’s bumper, and given the driver a thumbs-up. Now Deason wanted to make his fresh arms useful at the tree. He hopped on top of the truck and took the saw from a weary Simpson. Standing on his toes, with fellow soldiers spotting him, Deason finished off the branch.
With that, the poplar was no more. Its foliage and limbs lay in chunks on the ground, and what remained standing was a sad, serrated trunk in the shape of a fork.
As soon as the final limb was cut into pieces, the engineers jumped back into their truck and drove away. His work finally done, Twardzicki took in the scene and was stunned by one particular sight: a group of ROK commandos, at least a platoon’s worth, emerging from near the Sachon River, where they’d apparently been hiding in dense brush since infiltrating the JSA the night before. They wore camouflage face paint and carried guns and grenades. “They were armed to the teeth,” Twardzicki said. Their covert placement was yet another decision the South Koreans had made without U.S. knowledge.
The first branch fell at 0718, and the last soldiers were leaving the JSA by 0745. Since the convoy had rolled in at 0702, after Pinadella opened the gate, Operation Paul Bunyan had technically lasted 43 minutes—two less than Simpson had predicted, making him look brilliant. When the engineers arrived back at camp, Twardzicki spotted Stilwell. He walked over and handed the mission’s architect the small wedge of wood he’d cut out of the first branch. It was the only piece of the poplar any of the men carried out of the JSA.
The North Koreans hadn’t reacted in real time. A U.S. intelligence analyst listening to KPA tactical radio channels later observed that the show of force “blew their minds.” There was no gunfire until 1015, when an overzealous KPA soldier took some pot shots at a U.S. helicopter circling the scene. That fire, Singlaub later wrote, “stopped abruptly when six Cobras banked line-abreast and swung into firing position, their twinkling laser sights directly on the enemy gun position.”
But the crisis wasn’t over. There was still a chance that Pyongyang was plotting a response—which could happen hours or even days later. In the meantime, the Americans had to go about business as usual in the JSA. After all, they’d told the KPA that the chopping of the tree was merely the completion of routine work. For the remainder of August 21, after the helicopters and planes and infantry brigades had pulled back, Pinadella and other guards were left on duty in checkpoints and observation posts, watching their KPA counterparts and analyzing every move. “Those were the scarier moments,” Pinadella said. “The task force was gone, and now we were just out there by ourselves listening to the North Korean tanks rumbling off in the distance.”
U.S. and South Korean officials held their breath waiting to hear what Pyongyang would say about Operation Paul Bunyan. There was mostly silence, even on propaganda channels. Then, around 1200, an urgent request arrived: The North Koreans wanted a meeting of the MAC.
The body convened late that afternoon, and because the meeting had been called so suddenly, there was less pomp than normal. According to U.S. embassy reports summarizing the event for Washington, the atmosphere was “calm and quiet.” The KPA delegation seemed “chastened,” as one diplomat put it. There was no bluster, no talk of imperialist aggressors or imminent war. In fact, the only people in the room who seemed peeved with the United States were the neutral-nation observers, who’d been given no advance warning of the operation. They “were cold and refused to acknowledge the U.S. rep’s salute,” a CIA report noted.
Pyongyang’s senior representative glumly read a message from Kim Il Sung. The note expressed “regret” over the August 18 incident and stated that it was Kim’s hope that both sides would make efforts to prevent anything like it from happening again.
Luttrull was on guard outside the windows of the conference room that afternoon and watched the exchange. He saw Pyongyang’s emissary, his head bowed in contrition, pass the note from the Supreme Leader across the table to Admiral Frudden, who shot back, “That is not enough!’” Luttrull felt the same way. Bonifas’s killing haunted him, and he regretted that he hadn’t been at the tree when Bulldog attacked. “I might’ve fired,” Luttrull said. “Even though I knew that was against the rules, and I could’ve started a war, I might’ve done it.”
Later that day, a press officer at the State Department echoed Frudden’s retort, telling a reporter that the message from Pyongyang didn’t go far enough to satisfy the United States. At the very least, Washington wanted a full public apology. But Kissinger, conscious of the president’s desire to end the crisis and move on to dealing with his reelection, quickly walked the statement back. “We consider this a positive step,” the State Department clarified.
Certainly, the North Korean response was unprecedented: It was the first time Pyongyang had expressed any responsibility for violence in the DMZ. The message from Kim was also the first that North Korea’s leader had personally sent to the UNC in its 23-year history of enforcing the armistice.
In the days that followed, stress in the JSA remained high. Every man was aware that the mission could have ended differently, with twitchy ROK commandos or KPA guards opening fire at their enemy. “The scuttlebutt was that they already had the telegrams printed to our parents and loved ones,” Pinadella said. Amplifying tension was the fact that American forces were still at Defcon-3. “They flew the B-52s for days afterward,” Pinadella recalled, and the JSF guards knew that the planes’ silhouettes, tens of thousands of feet in the air, preoccupied the KPA. “We’d be close to the North Koreans, like a couple of feet away, and we’d point up in the sky,” Pinadella said. “I used to point and do a whistle, like a bomb’s sound, and say, ‘Kaboom!’—North Korea gone!”
The next MAC meeting, on August 25, provided the balm that Panmunjom needed. This time the North Koreans proposed something historic: a permanent barrier, which neither army would be allowed to cross, to be erected along the international demarcation that cut through the JSA, ending almost a quarter-century of free movement. The UNC supported the idea, and it was formally adopted on September 6. Two days later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reverted troops to Defcon-4, and the USS Midway departed Korean waters for its base in Japan. There would be no World War III over a tree.
Stilwell retired as scheduled, on November 1, 1976, and he always spoke in rote, soldierly terms about the dramatic mission to chop down the poplar. It “was a simple military operation performed with precision and discipline,” he once told an interviewer. Singlaub was more reflective. “The only reason Kim Il Sung finally backed down,” he wrote in his memoir, “was that we made him understand the danger he faced.” In the summer of 1976, North Korea’s leader was arguably bolder and more powerful than he’d ever been on the international stage, and he used the dispute over the tree to flex his newly honed military muscle. But Kim underestimated his adversary—in particular, its willingness to resist aggression with threats of its own.
The men who participated on the ground in Operation Paul Bunyan went back to their regular deployment duties, and later to their personal lives. Twardzicki saw a story in Stars and Stripes in which the wife of an F-4 pilot told the reporter how worried she’d been about her husband during the mission, flying 30,000 feet over Korea. Oh really? Twardzicki remembered thinking. How about the guy with the chainsaw? Looking back, he said, “that one event probably made my career—to be the guy who cut the tree down. I didn’t know whether they expected me to be expendable or important.” Pinadella, meanwhile, learned that his mother, a lifelong Democrat who’d been campaigning for Jimmy Carter in 1976, cast a vote for Ford that November “because he didn’t escalate” in Korea.
Ford lost the election, and in 1977, when Singlaub publicly opposed President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to remove troops from Korea, the general was relieved of his duties in Yongsan. Two years later, facing political pressure and intelligence reports of Pyongyang’s continued military strength, Carter relented on his plan, and U.S. soldiers stayed in place. By the 1990s, South Korea had assumed sole responsibility for defending its side of the DMZ. American guards remained close by to serve as reactive support if necessary. They are still there today, stationed at a base rechristened Camp Bonifas.
The concrete barrier requested by Pyongyang went up in the JSA in the fall of 1976. More than four decades later, it was at this divider, erected because of Operation Paul Bunyan, that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met to discuss bilateral relations and denuclearization. On April 27, 2018, the sworn enemies strode to the barrier, stood on either side, and shook hands. Then Moon invited Kim to step over the curb into South Korean territory—the first time a North Korean head of state had crossed the border since 1953.
The poplar tree is gone, even the trunk. Its former location is marked with a stone memorializing the deaths of Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett. The tree, though, never really went away. A week after Operation Paul Bunyan, Larry Shaddix took a crew into the JSA to retrieve the poplar’s dismantled branches, which were still lying untouched where the JSF had left them. The men secured the trees remains in a fenced lot that the Army used for storage; only Shaddix had a key. “The tree became very popular after the incident,” he said.
Pieces of the poplar ended up in various hands, but the chain of custody—exactly who got what, when, and where they took it—isn’t always clear. Several soldiers assigned to the JSA took thin slices, which they shellacked and mounted in offices and homes. Bruce Simpson’s hangs above his desk at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
The section given to Stilwell, who died in 1991, was hung on a wall at the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, alongside a plaque reading, “This wood was taken from a tree at Panmunjom. Beneath its branches two American officers were murdered by North Koreans. Around the world, the tree became a symbol of communist brutality and a challenge to national honor. On 21 August 1976, a group of free men rose up and cut it down.”