Little Bits of History

Panmunjom Ax Murder

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 18, 2014
Joint Security Area of Panmunjom

Joint Security Area of Panmunjom

August 18, 1976: The Panmunjom ax murder incident takes place. The Joint Security Area (JSA) as located within the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. The Bridge of No Return crosses the Military Demarcation Line between the two countries. Next to the bridge grew a 100-foot tall poplar tree which blocked the line of sight between a UN Command (UNC) checkpoint (CP#3) and an observation post (CP#5). CP#3 was the most northern checkpoint and during the winter months, only observable from CP#5. During the summer, CP#2 could see the top of CP#3. The division line between North and South ran across the middle of the bridge. The Korean People’s Army had made several attempts to grab UNC personnel from CP#3.

A recent confrontation found North Korean soldiers holding US troops at gunpoint. Captain Arthur Bonifas was sent in to successfully secure their release. On this day, Bonifas and his South Korean counterpart, Captain Kim, along with five Korean Service Corps personnel and 11 other service personnel went in to trim the tree as scheduled with the North Koreans. The two officers did not carry guns, following the rules. The tree was to have been trimmed the week before but rains forced a change in the schedule. The work crew was approached by about 15 North Koreans led by Senior Lt. Pak Chul, a man known for his confrontational personality. They observed the trimming for about 15 minutes when Pak commanded the trimming to stop. Bonifas ordered the men to continue and turned his back on Pak.

Pak sent some of his men for reinforcements and they returned with another 20 North Koreans. They were armed with crowbars and clubs. Pak again ordered the trimming to stop and again was ignored. Bonifas again turned his back to Pak. Pak ordered his men to “Kill the bastards!” The North Koreans picked up some axes dropped by the tree trimmers and attacked Bonifas and Lt. Barrett and wounded all but one UNC guard. Bonifas was bludgeoned to death by at least five North Koreans while Barrett jumped into a ravine to escape. Quickly, the UNC Force dispersed the North Koreans who fled. Bonifas’s body was recovered and all left the area. Odd behavior was observed with Koreans entering the ravine and soon leaving. After Barrett was noted as missing, a search and rescue mission found him. He had been attacked with axes. Although surviving the initial attack, he died while en route to the first aid station.

The North Koreans presented the incidence as an attack on the North. The CIA considered several reprisals. The outcome was Operation Paul Bunyan. The show of force was controlled and over two days, 30 men entered the area and cut down the tree, leaving only a stump. They were protected with a variety of armament strategically displayed for maximum effect. There were 873 participating in the event and 12,000 more troops were ordered to Korea. The tree was removed peacefully with the stump replaced by a monument in 1987.

Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. – Ronald Reagan

The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. – Thomas Paine

Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict – alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence. – Dorothy Thompson

I am at peace with God. My conflict is with Man. – Charlie Chaplin

Also on this day: Virginia Dare – In 1587, the first child of English parents is born in the New World.
It’s About Damn Time – In 1920, American women are finally given the vote.
Lolita – In 1958, Nabokov’s famous novel was published in the US.
He – In 1868, helium was discovered.

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One Response

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  1. Sherry said, on August 19, 2014 at 5:24 am

    Wow. I never heard of this horrible incident before.

    North Korea operates in a nightmare-ish state of isolation, armed paranoia, and and a nearly complete denial of reality as the rest of the world knows it. I literally cannot imagine what it must be like to be born and raised in such a pathological culture.

    I suppose nothing was ever done to Sr. Lt. Pak Chul, the man who ordered these bloody murders. Maybe he was even considered a hero by the North Koreans.


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