Memorial Service honors victims of axe incident

By William WightAugust 28, 2017

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Forty one years ago, the first true conflict between north and South Korea directly involving the U.S., since the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, took place when 30 Korean People's Army guards attacked 12 Korean and U.S. Soldiers.

The United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area held the Barrett-Bonifas Memorial Ceremony on Camp Bonifas Aug. 18 to remember the loss of two Soldiers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas, of Newburgh, N.Y., the Joint Security Force company commander, and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett, of Columbia, S.C., the 1st platoon leader, who were brutally axed to death during a routine tree trimming operation near the Bridge of No Return.

The United Nations Command workforce and a 10-man security detail began a routine tree trimming operation Aug. 18, 1976, on a large poplar tree, which was impeding the South's visibility between two UNC checkpoints. The UNC workforce was attacked without warning. The fight only lasted for four minutes, during which time Bonifas and Barrett were killed by north Korean soldiers.

Among the guests at the memorial ceremony were representatives of the Republic of Korea, U.S., New Zealand, Swedish and Swiss Army, members of the JSA Veterans Association, aka "JSA old boys" and members of the Bonifas-Barrett Memorial Post 8180 Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"We should never forget that Capt. Bonifas and 1st Lt. Barrett sacrificed their own lives for peace here," said the JSA Republic of Korea Army Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Kwon, Yong Hwan.

"We remember them in order to steel ourselves for the enemy that faces us today. And as we continue to hold the line and prepare ourselves to stand in defense of freedom with the same courage and honor as Capt. Bonifas and 1st Lt. Barrett demonstrated," said United Nations Command Security Battalion-JSA commander, Lt. Col. Matthew S. Farmer.

Col. Jon Howerton, Deputy Commanding Officer for Maneuver for 2nd Infantry Division/ROK-US Combined Division and guest speaker for the ceremony said, "Today's ceremony reminds us that nothing is routine about the mission in the JSA, not even the periodic removal of trees and debris in the Demilitarized Zone. The mission here is real and fraught with constant threats from the enemy requiring the highest level of preparedness and readiness as exemplified by the Combined Team of Soldiers that form the line 'In Front of Them All.'"

Mr. Kim Moon-hwan, the former Korean Augmentation to the United States Army company commander in the Joint Security Area during the time of the attack, worked with Bonifas at the JSA in 1976, was also by his side during his last moments on earth.

"I lost a good friend," said Kim. "We fought together against the KPA guards."

Back in 1976, as it is today, the JSA was a sensitive location. Even the smallest incident could escalate to something bigger, and then it could be the rekindling of the Korean War, Kim stated.

According to Kim, in 1976 the KPA guards were able to move freely throughout the Demilitarized Zone and no one thought anything of it.

"Before we speak about the incident on Aug. 18, 1976, we need to know the situation in 1976," said Kim. "In 1975, the Vietnam War was finished and a lot of people did not want to be involved in the war in foreign countries. So we tried to lessen the tensions with North Korea."

Kim stated that there were small altercations between the KPA guards and Republic of Korea and U.S. Soldiers who were at the JSA from 1975 up to Aug. 18, 1976, but no one had been killed.

That all changed on that horrid day.

"Because check point three was in a dangerous location and surrounded by north Korean outposts we used a nearby check point to look after Soldiers who were on duty by signaling to each other; but the tree hindered observation," said Kim.

In order to be able to see from the check point, Bonifas and a team of 11 ROK and U.S. Soldiers proceeded to cut down the branches.

That was the last mission Bonifas and Barrett took part in before they were attacked by the KPA and killed.

While performing the tree trimming detail, the group was brutally attacked by 30 KPA guards resulting in two deaths and others receiving minor injuries.

Three days later the United Nations Command launched Operation Paul Bunyan, the largest tree trimming operation in Korean history, which placed all U.S. and South Korean forces in Korea on full combat alert. The regular JSA security force was augmented with an additional combat platoon from the JSA, 50 martial arts experts from the ROK Special Forces and 15 combat engineers to cut down the tree. Flying south of the DMZ were B-52 bombers, F-111s, and F-4s in support whilst steaming off the coast of Korea was the USS Midway aircraft carrier with her entire battle escort on full alert. In forty five minutes the Task Force completed its mission without incident.

Today, at the Bridge of No Return, a bronze and stone monument stands where Bonifas, Barrett and 10 other ROK and U.S. Soldiers fought off those 30 KPA guards.

Kim returns to the JSA throughout the years because he believes Bonifas is still there even though he knows he has passed.

Maj. Arthur Bonifas is interred in West Point Cemetery and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett is buried at Greenlawn Memorial Park in Columbia, South Carolina.

The ROK-U.S. Alliance has become significantly stronger following the 1976 attack. It is an enduring partnership, committed to the strong defense of the Korean Peninsula.