“Around 10:45 a.m. today, the American imperialist aggressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the Joint Security Area to cut the trees on their own accord…
.., they attacked our guards en masse and committed a serious provocative act of beating our men, wielding murderous weapons….
Our guards could not but resort to self-defense measures under the circumstances of this reckless provocation.” – From transcript of North Korean press release 18 Aug. 1976
If you aren’t familiar with Operation Paul Bunyan, don’t feel bad; most people have no reason to be.
In August of 1976 a company of heavily armed 2nd ID troops were sent into the Korean DMZ for no other purpose than to cut down a tree.
It was a show of force in response to the Panmunjom tree incident. We had just pulled out of Viet Nam and a number of our enemies and several of our friends were convinced we were no longer strong enough to stand up for ourselves.
Iran, USSR, China and the North Koreans were pushing the U.S. to our limits. Disrespect was the norm. The Panmunjom Tree incident nearly re-started the Korean War.
There was a tree at Panmunjom that grew to a height that it blocked and limited American observation teams from seeing a section of the DMZ. The obvious solution was to trim it back.
When a combined team of American and ROK soldiers escorted Korean tree trimmers into the DMZ to do the job they were attacked by a force of axe-wielding North Korean guards. Two American officers were beaten to death and most of the remaining party injured severely.
The North Koreans fled back across the border before QRF could respond, partly because the tree blocked the U.S. observation posts from seeing what was going on.
The incident escalated and American and ROK forces were mobilized, 2nd ID and 1st ROK Division maneuvered into the DMZ, American Flat-Tops took up positions in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan.
National Guardsmen and Reservists all over the US were getting phone calls that ended with the words “Raging Bull – Raging Bull – Raging Bull”. The United States was one fart away from war.
The crisis finally came to an end when Kim Il-Sung issued his first ever and only apology.
I’m probably dating myself by even remembering the incident but part of the reason I remember it is that I was active duty when it happened and about a year after I separated, I was subjected to one of those 4 hour briefings the Government so loves.
We looked at the incident point by point, frame by frame and critiqued it from a diplomatic vantage point. The object of the exercise was to learn how not make the same mistakes in the field.
I figured I had already heard all that one could hear about the Panmunjom tree and I was set in my conclusions about what should have happened. It only took about 10 mins to confirm that the lecture was just a re-hash of things I already knew so my intention was to doze a little until the discussion portion.
There was a female Case Officer out of the Consulate at Palmengarten sitting next to me and about half way through the slide show she nudged me awake and said: “Hey Gid… you gotta see this…” I sat up and took a look at the slides crossing the screen, and saw the side story unfolding.
It was the side story that stuck with me.
In the first few images the work party was just arriving at the tree (plate-1); they dismount, kind of mill around a few moments then set up the ladder and the tree trimmer gets his gear and goes to work.
All of a sudden a North Korean 5/4-ton truck shows up and a dozen or so North Korean Soldiers with Axe handles swarm the American and JSA troops.
The Tree Trimmer is up the tree when the melee started. The North Korean attack focused on the 2 American officers. The remainder of the work party including one of the South Korean Tree trimmers were outnumbered and beaten down. – the other tree trimmer had other plans.
My Case Officer friend said, “look at the little guy in the white shirt” – For the next hour, while everyone was focusing on the timeline of the attack, we watched the guy in the white shirt.
The North Koreans showed up and everyone scattered. The poor guy is left up the tree. By the time he is down from the ladder the North Koreans notice him, probably because he was the only one left sanding and turned the attack to him.
Interestingly enough it appears to me that all he had to do was go down and they would have let up on the beating – the purpose of the attack seems to only be killing the Americans.
Look at the tree trimmer – in every frame he is still on his feet and fighting. In Plate 4 he is fighting 7 enemy soldiers, hand to hand knuckle to knuckle, only they had axe handles, at one time.
When the enemy finally fled back across the border there was just one man standing – beat to a pulp… but standing none the less.
I have rarely, if ever, learned what the government intended me to learn from any training they gave me. – The only thing I can actually remember from SERE is how to stop the hiccups and how to break wind without making any noise.
I won’t go into the official conclusions about the tree incident, but I will say that my personal conclusion is that carrying unloaded weapons, having to abide by ROEs and not having sniper teams providing cover from every possible vantage point was a big part of the problem.
What I really learned from this incident had nothing to do with the Panmunjom tree.
When life turns to crap; when your internal pains and hidden scars push you beyond you limits, when it seems like the best choice is to toss in the towel, – Ruck up and be the guy in the white shirt.