Cutting down a tree can be a hazardous job. Logging is fraught with danger and is one of the most dangerous jobs done in these modern times. Trimming a tree on the other hand is something many of us do on a regular basis and the only danger involved in that is usually of our own doing. In 1976 an army mission to trim a tree turned deadly and nearly started a war.
A large poplar tree situated in the Joint Security Area (JSC) in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was blocking the view of U.N. observers. Located near the Bridge of No Return between United Nations Command (UNC) checkpoint 3 and Observation Post 5, the poplar tree blocked the sight lines from one OP to another. During the summer only the top of checkpoint 3 was visible from checkpoint 2 and because of that the North Korean army had made several attempts to kidnap U.N. personnel in the area. The North Koreans had even held American soldiers up at gunpoint earlier in the year until more American troops under Captain Arthur Bonifas arrived and forced the North Koreans back to their side of the border. This outpost area gained the designation of “the loneliest outpost in the world” and was not a pleasant posting for anyone. At the very least the tree had to be trimmed.
It was decided in August 1976 to do it. A rainstorm delayed the initial foray until August 18 when Bonifas, his South Korean Army counterpart Captain Kim, the American army platoon leader in the area, First Lieutenant Mark Barrett and 11 enlisted personnel moved into the JSC area to do the deed. No officers were armed and the enlisted men only carried axes. As the trimming began North Korean soldiers under Senior Lieutenant Pak Chui arrived and began observing them. After fifteen minutes Pak warned the party to stop trimming the tree.
Why could the tree not be trimmed? “Because Kim Il Sung had personally planted it and nourished it and it’s growing under his personal supervision” was the reply. Bonifas ordered the work to continue. Pak ordered a North Korean truck and twenty more soldiers up carrying crowbars and clubs to cross the Bridge of No Return. He again demanded that the trimming be halted and when Bonifas again ignored him Pak’s men attacked the UN troops. Using the axes dropped by the soldiers Bonifas was bludgeoned to death and the rest of the party was wounded except for one man. Barrett, after being attacked, jumped a low wall and remained out of sight. The entire fight lasted about 20-30 seconds before a UNC truck arrived and dispersed the North Koreans.
Afterwards Barrett could not be found. Army personnel at another observation point saw North Korean soldiers going down into a small depression one by one with an axe. A search and rescue mission was launched and Barrett was found in the depression badly mauled. He was sent to a hospital but died en route. It was revealed later that the entire incident was recorded with a movie camera by American troops at OP 5.
The North Korean media of course went on the offensive claiming that the imperialist Americans were the aggressors and that the violence that occurred was only in self defense. Kim Jong-Il, at a conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka issued a statement four hours after the attack and asked for a condemnation from those in attendance, which the members of the Non-Aligned Nations were only too happy to pass. In response the United States upped its readiness to DEFCON 3 and considered a rocket attack in retaliation but dropped the idea later when the South Korean president stated he wanted no action to be taken. A different response was conceived.
The response was Operation Paul Bunyan. Instead of trimming the poplar tree it would be chopped down. Planning of the operation made it as high as President Gerald Ford and on August 23 military engineers armed with chainsaws accompanied by 120 armed soldiers backed by armed attack helicopters and fighter jets cut down the offending poplar tree. The North Koreans sent about 200 soldiers who tentatively left their transports and watched the operation in silence. 42 minutes later only a six foot tree stump was left and the American solders left. While conducting the operation some of the South Korean soldiers vandalized North Korean army huts in retaliation. The stump was deliberately left standing until 1987 when it was replaced with a monument.
The issue led to an agreement by the U.N. and North Korea to separate their forces to prevent something like this from happening again. The remains of two of the axes are on display in the North Korean Peace Museum in Panmunjeom. On the other side, a later commanding general of the US forces in South Korea, William Livsey, carried a swagger stick made of wood from the poplar tree which was passed on to his replacement when he retired.
Wars have begun over many small things but cutting down a tree certainly would be one of the oddest. It is hard to believe that what could have become nuclear war and the end of civilization as we know it could have started because American soldiers wanted to cut down a poplar tree. At the very least two men paid with their lives to trim it.