As we sit delicately on the precipice of World War III with North Korea while our Cheeto-dusted Commander in Chief pouts and yells at the North Korean Rocket Boy, let’s revisit an oft-forgotten incident that had the White House convinced World War III was about to break out in 1976 between American and South Korean forces and North Korea over a precariously located poplar tree.
Let’s set the scene here, which is essential to understanding why this particular poplar was of powerful political passions. On the western side of the demilitarized zone was a spot called Panmunjom. At Panmunjom, the North and South Koreans squabbled over a sliver of land. There was a South Korean/American outpost at the end of their designated property with a particular observation checkpoint directly on the edge of the North Korean property; soldiers called this little shed the “Point of No Return” – you were literally yards away from North Korean soldiers who would deliberately antagonize American soldiers and wave guns at them in an attempt to provoke a response which, if given would lead to escalation or possible kidnapping into North Korea. If you got kidnapped into North Korean – SPOILER – you would not be returning. Soldiers HAAAAAAATED this task, as you could imagine. Not only were you standing guard alone, you would be spit at (or on, in some instances), guns pointed at you, with black soldiers reporting slurs and monkey gestures thrown at them. Go ahead and scratch North Korea off your list of potential spring break ’19 destinations.
To protect soldiers standing guard from disappearing overnight from this outpost, a larger more secure watchtower was constructed and manned by the UN on an outcropping to look down from above. Great! Problem solved! Except in the spring, this one tree, this ONE FUCKING POPLAR TREE, would blossom and completely eclipse the outpost, defeating the entire point of the watchtower. The American outpost commander did exactly what any grumpy dad would do when an unkempt bush questionably located between a neighbor’s property and his own infringed on his own: he cut that bitch down.
The South Korean/American delegation sent ten men, including three Americans to cut this shit down. They trotted out to this disputed sliver of land, and began to chop away with axes at this tree. The North Korean commander came out, furious (again – this is the most tense neighborly-shrub dispute in the history of the world) and declared KIM IL SUNG HIMSELF had planted and nourished this tree, and they needed to stop immediately. Captain Arthur Bonifas, being the badass he was, turned his back to this tiny pouting Korean man and went back to chopping at the tree. The Northerner left and returned shortly after with approximately thirty men and again demanded the Southern delegation leave. Captain Bonifas, as he had done before, turned his back on the North Koreans, who did not take this insult twice, and proceeded to beat him. Chaos exploded, everyone panicked and split, and within twenty to thirty seconds, the scrum ended with two Americans in critical condition after being bludgeoned with the axes they had been using. Captain Bonifas and another soldier died from their wounds before the day was over.
“Outraged” seems to be a woefully insufficient way to describe the American response to this provocation. To further this feeling, the North Koreans quickly released a statement saying they requested a halt to the tree chopping, at which point they were attacked, and the causalities were the result of the Americans’ actions attacking them. The Americans “officially” considered three responses, but really only two and half-ish: 1. Full-on assault: This would essentially begin World War III, which is what everyone desperately hoped to avoid, especially the US who was already floundering in a bogged-down war in Vietnam at the same. 2. Nothing: This is the half-ish idea. Have you ever known America to stand down and avoid a confrontation? There was never a chance the Americans were going to let the murder of two soldiers slide while the North Koreans cockily egged them on from across the bridge. 3. “Cut down the tree with the aid of overwhelming force.” Fucking. Booyah.
On August 21, 1976, the Americans responded with extreme prejudice with Operation Paul Bunyan. After being elevated to DEFCON-3 (only the third time the military-readiness system had been that high, along with immediately after 9/11 and the Yom Kippur War between Egypt and Syria against Israel in 1973), the shit was about to hit the fan. At 8 am, two eight-man teams went to the tree covered in Kevlar and armed with axes and side arms. You will see how quaint those side arms are shortly. Men on the teams had to volunteer for the mission because leadership was legitimately concerned that the North Koreans would open fire and attempt to escalate the situation, so to be standing on a ladder with an ax mere yards away from a North Korean firing squad was what many would call “a big ask”. Now, these teams were not alone. With them into the questionable zone went two 30-man security platoons (considering the agreement that only thirty men from either side be allowed in the zone at once, this was provocative enough in itself). So here we are, with 76 men in the secured zone already while two men simultaneously worked a chainsaw on opposite sides of the tree.
A team from another company had activated denotation charges underneath the bridge and established a machine gun nest near the American outpost. The South Koreans organized a 64-man task force consisting of special forces specially trained in tae kwon do for close quarters combat, who showed up at the last minute with rifles, grenade launchers and claymore explosives strapped to their chests. So much for not escalating the situation. When South Korea commits, they fucking COMMIT.
The engineer teams are going to town on this tree. when the North Koreans noticed and responded with some 200 men with assault rifles and machine guns. Commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Vierra identified their response, and radioed in for the REAL shit. Twenty American utility helicopters outfitted with machine guns rose from behind the South Korean outpost, along with seven fully stocked Cobra helicopters hovering a few dozen yards away from the most fraught-over tree in world history, all with artillery targeted at the suddenly vastly outgunned North Koreans. One of the guys on the ground reported how it seemed the choppers covered the entire horizon behind them.
That is a hilarious amount of overkill to chop a tree down, but America doesn’t do hilarious overkill – they do downright PREPOSTEROUS. A fleet of B-52s stormed overhead from a Japanese airbase, each flanked by F-4s with South Korean F-5s and F-86s patrolling the airzone at higher altitude – although still low enough to be in sight of all parties on the ground. An American artillery unit settled a fleet of Hawk guided missiles on the ridge overlooking the questioned area, while the USS Midway stationed near Guam had earlier sent every plane on-board toward the area (along with three nuclear-capable bombers), which just so happened to be popping up on North Korean radar on a direct trajectory to Pyongyang at roughly 8:30 am. A separate air base in Japan had a dozen C-130s fueled and lined up on the edge of the runway nose-to-tail for further instructions. Henry Kissinger and President Ford both sat patiently in the Oval Office awaiting updates, prepared to hand down further commands should all the above somehow, staggeringly, not be enough.
So, for about forty-five minutes, four engineers took turns standing on the roof of a jeep pruning limbs off a tree, while North Koreans assembled and pointed a machine gun at them with fighter jets and bombers circled overhead with a dozen helicopters hovering behind them, with a platoon of South Korean lunatics strapping claymore explosives to their chest, all while the President sat and listened in.
The next day, North Korea had issued a statement accepting blame for the death of the American soldiers, the first time they had accepted any blame whatsoever for any skirmishes at any checkpoint, despite even the UN agreeing the were almost always responsible. The United States responded their apology was not accepted, but noted it was a step in the right direction as they wished to avoid escalating the situation any further. This is the story of the time North Korea thought they wanted some shit, to which America responded by taking its collective dick out and slapping it on their foreheads, for which the North Koreans then apologized for impeding the dick’s trajectory.
(Note – I primarily used an article from the Atavist (https://magazine.atavist.com/axes-of-evil-north-korea-dmz-tree-murders) for this. If this story interests you, and you want to read the specifics like how the on-ground commander jeopardized the lines of communication so the White House couldn’t interfere, or how they went about selecting the most physically imposing individuals for the “Point of No Return” outpost or, ya know, ACTUALLY journalism, I strongly recommend checking it out. It is indeed this outlandish and worth your time.)