How A Tree Nearly Sparked WW3 In North Korea

Operation Paul Bunyan

In a Nutshell

During the Cold War, there were many close encounters with the possibility of World War 3. One of the most bizarre provocations happened in a Demilitarized Zone(DMZ) between North and South Korea. The DMZ was overseen by the UN and was tasked to maintain peace in the tumultuous country. A tree was blocking the line of sight of an important checkpoint. In 1976, a UN force of Americans and South Korean civil services set out on a pre-approved mission to trim the tree. They were quickly surrounded by North Korean troops who demanded they stop cutting the tree. The UN force ignored them and continued trimming. The North Koreans attacked with axes and brutally killed two American officers while wounding others.

In retaliation, the new American president flexed the country’s firepower in one of the largest displays of strength seen during the time. A heavily armed convoy protected by land and sea cut the tree down. They left the 20ft stump standing as a stark reminder of America’s power. The North Korean government backed down and issued their first apology to the world.

The Whole Bushel

In 1948, North Korea was officially split in two. America micro-managed the South to ensure a capitalist society while the Soviet Union influenced the North. The country was an important strategic location for both superpowers and was integral to maintaining peace. In 1953, an armistice was established, setting up a 2 mile DMZ to serve as a buffer between the two sides. Following a bout of killings in the 60s, the United Nations set up posts to maintain the peace. One such post was blocked from the UN view by a tall tree.

In a pre-agreed activity, UN forces set out to trim branches off the tree in 1976. A group of 5 Koreans and a dozen US soldiers were tasked to carry out the mission. There was a limit on the number of weapons they were allowed to carry, so some were unarmed. As the trimming began, 15 North Korean soldiers surrounded them. They were led by the notorious Lieutenant Pak – he was known for breaking the peace agreement. Lt. Pak demanded the trimming be stopped. He stated that the tree was planted by their Great Leader, Kim Il Sung and was under his protection.

Captain Bonifas (who was leading the UN party) ignored him and continued to carry out the pre-approved task. Lt. Pak demanded they stop once more, but his demands fell on deaf ears. He yelled out an order to his troops, ‘Kill them!’ as reinforcement of 20 men carrying crowbars and baseball bats arrived. Terrified, those chopping the tree dropped their axes and ran away as the North Korean troops attacked. They picked up the axes and quickly hacked Captain Bonifas to death. An American Lieutenant (Mark Barrett) scrambled into a ditch in an attempt to escape the fighting and was forgotten by the retreating UN forces. He was slowly tortured with axes over the course of 90 minutes until a rescue was organized. He died of his wounds en-route to the hospital.

The American government saw this as a ‘premeditated act of murder’ and prepared to retaliate. To avoid WW3, they decided to put on a show of military might and convince North Korea to issue a formal apology. The plan was called ‘Operation Paul Bunyan’ and displayed massive military might via land, sea, and air. All 41,000 American troops in Korea were put on DEFCON 3 – the most recent use of this was during 9/11. The tree was felled and a 20ft stump left to remind North Korea of America’s might.

North Korea quickly issued the closest thing to an apology they had ever released and WW3 was averted. Dubbed the ‘Axe Murder Incident’, it provides a chilling reminder of how quickly war can be created.

Show Me the Proof

When the U.S. Almost Went to War With North Korea
Cold War Tales: Operation Paul Bunyan