Operation Paul Bunyan

What do trees, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and bullies all have to do with each other? Listen in and find out.

Operation Paul Bunyan

If a tree falls in the forest but there’s no one there to hear it, some say it makes no sound. But what if that tree falls in the Korean demilitarized zone?

I’m James Dykstra and this is History.icu. Today we have the story of the most expensive tree pruning operation in history.

When South Korea – backed by the United States – and North Korea – backed by China – ended their war in 1953 peace didn’t break out but there was a very uneasy ceasefire. The war has never ended with a peace treaty, and so officially the two nations remain at war.

What has been done to prevent the two sides from actively shooting at each other is the establishment of a demilitarized zone. This no man’s land is intended to keep the belligerents about 4 kilometres apart from each other and, while it does this imperfectly, it has prevented open war from breaking out between the two Koreas.

But there was still one place where the two sides met, and that is the truce village of Panmunjom located towards the western end of the DMZ. The site of the original ceasefire negotiations, the village is also the only place where South Korea and the U.S. routinely met their North Korean antagonists.

For decades both Southern and Northern forces were allowed to range over the entire village. Though limited in the weapons they were allowed to bring into the village, there are stories that only the tallest, burliest soldiers were assigned to duty in Panmunjom. Physical intimidation of one side by the other abounded and, in this environment, relations between the two sides were never friendly.

It came to a head on August 18, 1976 when a group of 15 men set out to cut back an 80 foot Normandy poplar that was obscuring South Korean sitelines of a North Korean post. The 10 soldiers and 5 Korean civilians had not been told that twelve days earlier a group of South Korean soldiers had gone out to trim back the same tree, but had given up when they’d been threatened by soldiers from the North.

With the trimming operation under way, a contingent of 15 North Korean soldiers drove up and ordered the work to stop. The leader of the North Korean group, Lieutenant Pak, claimed that Kim Il Sung himself, first leader of North Korea, had planted the tree. It was, therefore, untouchable.

Captain Arthur Bonifas, familiar with grand boasts, ignored the Lieutenant. Unfortunately for Bonifas, he had misjudged the situation, and Pak called in reinforcements. 20 more North Koreans arrived and swarmed the South Korean and US forces, attacking them with crowbars and clubs. The North Koreans seem to have focussed their energy on the officers, namely Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett. Both of them were killed with the weapons that the newly arrived soldiers had brought, as well as axes that were intended to be used on the tree.

With two American officers dead, troops in and around the demilitarized zone were put on high alert. American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called for an attack by U.S. forces on the North Korea barracks in Panmunjom. He was afraid that if the U.S. did nothing, the North Koreans would be that much more willing to kill again.

Possibly afraid of war, President Gerald Ford overruled Kissinger. Yet the problem of the tree that blocked sightlines remained unsolved and the North Koreans had been a bit too aggressive for comfort. The response authorized by President Ford was dubbed Operation Paul Bunyan, named for a legendary giant lumberjack famed in American tall tales.

What was the Operation?  It involved 3 B52 bombers flown in from Guam, American F4 Phantom and F111 fighter bombers, South Korean F5 and F86 fighters, 26 helicopter gunships,and about 110 ground troops. In the event that it came to hand to hand fighting, 64 of the soldiers were said to be South Korean troops proficient in tae kwon do. Additionally, an American aircraft carrier group waited off the Korean coast. It was serious business and the soldiers knew, having been told that they might not be coming back from this mission. The North Koreans had set up machine guns in response to the arrival of South Korean and American troops, but backed down in the face of this massive display of force.

All of this in order to prune a tree. And the tree was pruned, with the six foot trunk left standing, possibly as a reminder to the North. No one was hurt, and the whole thing was done in about 45 minutes.

The response by North Korean to the tree pruning was almost apologetic, expressing regret over the clash between the two sides. 

The United Nations Military Command,  which was basically South Korean and American forces, demanded that the border line be drawn through the village, and each of the two sides was to remain in its own territory. It was an appropriate end to two decades of minor physical intimidation, and occasional loss of life.

As for the tree, it seems that most of the pruned branches were snatched up by the Americans as souvenirs. The whole elaborate, expensive and deadly tree pruning ended up as a lesson in standing up to a bully. And the sound of that tree falling continues to be heard all over Korea.

When the U.S. Almost Went to War With North Korea

The US and North Korea almost went to war over a single poplar tree in the demilitarized zone

At Korean summit in DMZ, ‘deranged’ ax murders still cast a shadow

The ‘gardening job’ that almost sparked a war

Operation Paul Bunyan

Korea – Operation Paul Bunyan

If a Tree Falls in the Demilitarized Zone: Operation Paul Bunyan Pits a Poplar against Pyongyang

Korean Demilitarized Zone

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