Korea – A Very Tenuous Peace Then and Now

The “Big Tree Incident” occurred on 18-AUGUST 1976. The tree was a “serious problem,” decided United Nations Command. The large, leafy 80-foot Normandy Poplar tree was obstructing the view of a vital checkpoint at the mouth of the “Bridge of No Return.” So, on the morning of 18-AUG 1976, a mixed group of soldiers assembled in the most volatile area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone to trim it. Fifteen men set out on the task which included five South Korean civilian laborers and ten UNC officers (United Nations Command) as escorts.

The mission turned out to be far more dangerous than the team had anticipated. They were not aware that two weeks earlier, on August 6th, South Korean soldiers mounted a similar effort to fell the tree but aborted it after being threatened by North Korean soldiers. And the day before that first incident, North Korea made a saber-rattling announcement that the United States and South Korea’s positions were “directly igniting the fuse of war.”

On 18-AUG 1976, U.S Army Captain Arthur G. Bonifas led the military escort, supervising the Korean Service Corps workers as they mounted ladders and laid their saws and axes into the tree. Because of firearm limits in the Joint Security Area, Bonifas did not carry a side arm (.45), though a handful in the UNC detail did.

A short time later, a North Korean officer, Lt. Pak Chul arrived to warn the soldiers to cease the operation. He told them to cease trimming the tree, because Kim Il Sung personally planted and nourished the tree and it’s growing under his supervision.  Captain Bonifas ignored him and urged the men to keep working.

North Korean soldiers attacked the group of U.S. and South Korean men trimming the tree. Two U.S. officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett, both unarmed, were killed. They were bludgeoned to death with axes and clubs by North Korean soldiers. After three days of deliberations going all the way up to the White House, the U.S. decided to respond with a colossal show of force. Hundreds of men backed by helicopters, B-52 bombers, and an aircraft carrier task force were mobilized to cut back the poplar tree.

We live in a dangerous world.  Our troops are deployed in Harms’ way.  We pray for their safety.

Cpt.. Bonifas

1LT Mark Barrett

The tree that almost ignited WWIII

Please contact the St. Charles County Veterans Museum Oral History project at sccvetsmuseum@gmail.com or call 636-294-2657 for more information and lets’ talk. We want to hear from you because we know…Every Veteran has a story.