Friday, December 29, 2006

President Ford's Tree

We’ve heard about President Ford’s integrity. His stellar athletic career has been discussed, his Congressional record, and the fact that he served as President and Vice-President without having one single American vote him into office.

We’ve heard numerous discussions regarding his pardon of President Nixon and debated if President Ford made the correct decision. The effect the pardon had on Ford’s subsequent election loss to President Carter has been discussed ad nauseum.

I’ve neither heard nor read anything within the last few days that discuss an event that is known, but is rarely dealt with in the realm of historical “Monday morning quarterbacking”. I’m a little mystified by it. For a couple of days during August, 1976 our nation stood toe-to-toe with an enemy who had attacked two of our soldiers without provocation resulting in President Ford staring down the gunbarrel of World War III erupting in his face, and it was all over a tree.
The story should really begin with a little background. Technically the Korean War has never ended. While there was an armistice agreement in 1953, a formal peace treaty was never signed. The demilitarized zone or DMZ is, according to a 2003 report by CNN, the most heavily fortified border in the world. Troops including members of the North Korean army have been facing down members of the South Korean armies, U.S. soldiers and other members of the United Nations forces for fifty-six years.

Since the Armistice was signed there have been numerous punches and jabs by both sides. By 1976, members of the Korean Peoples Army had made numerous attempts to grab United Nations command personnel in order to kidnap them. In his online article titled The Forgotten DMZ, Vandon E. Jenerette recounts some of the situations that arose during the 1960s.
In complete contrast to the eminent danger the DMZ area poses it is one of the most unplanned protected natural environments in the world. No humans can be found along the 155 mile long DMZ, but plenty of rare plants and animals are abundant.

Americans that serve along the DMZ are assigned to the United Nations Command Security Force in the Joint Security Area. In fact, the Joint Security Area, or the JSA, is the only place in the DMZ where the two sides meet up, hence the name Joint Security Area. One famous landmark in this area is the Bridge of No Return, so named because once South Koreans crossed the bridge during the early days of the armistice they would not be able to return. In the 1970s it was common for troops from either side to actually enter the DMZ zone, however, they were not allowed to carry any type of gun.

On August 18, 1976 members of a Joint Security force made up of American and South Korean troops entered the area to take care of a 100 foot Poplar tree that blocked the view between two United Nations command checkpoints.

The group was confronted by members of the Korean Peoples Army. Their leader was a man the members of the detail were familiar with. He was constantly provoking the U.N. and South Korean forces and had earned the nickname “Lt. Bulldog.”

Though “Lt. Bulldog” told the detail to stop cutting the tree, one of the Americans, Captain Arthur G. Bonifas told the tree cutters to stick to their job, and they continued.

More members of the KPA showed up with clubs and crowbars. Eyewitness reports state that the KPA commander, “Lt. Bulldog”, took off his watch, mouthed the words “kill them”, and gave the American Bonifas a karate chop killing him instantly.

The second American officer, Lt. Mark T. Barrett was also killed along with four Koreans. Several other members of the detail were injured.

When this matter was discussed within the confines of the executive branch of our government it is said Henry Kissinger favored bombing North Korea at that point, but President Ford authorized a calmer response which was dubbed Operation Paul Bunyan. Aptly named, don’t you think?

So why did Ford decide to follow the course he did? One of my sources reminds us that the United States was at a very low point due to the pullout from Vietnam. As a nation we weren’t feeling very proud of our actions on the world stage at that time. It was decided that a little “shock and awe”, 1970s style, would be a better course of action.

As Ford ordered Operation Paul Bunyan into action the nation went to DEFCON-3, which means “an increase to force readiness above normal”. What resulted was one of the largest military buildups on the peninsula by the United States since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The USS Midway was positioned off the coast of Korea and B-52s begun military exercises in South Korea for the first time since the end of the Korean War.

On August 21, 1976 a convoy of 23 vehicles filled with American and South Korean soldiers entered the DMZ. In one vehicle a 16 member team of U.S. Army engineers were packing axes and chainsaws. As they began to cut the tree other vehicles in the convoy positioned themselves along the road and blocked the bridge. In another vehicle, sources explain a 30 man platoon was armed with pistols and ax handles. A 64 man team from the South Korean army was armed with clubs along with their expertise in Tae Kwon Do. Once all the trucks were in place sandbags were thrown out to reveal M-16 rifles and M-79 grenade launchers hidden underneath.

The men on the ground were also supported by 20 utility helicopters, 7 Cobra attack helicopters, B-52 bombers, F-4 fighters, and F-5 fighters from the South Korean army. Numerous artillery supports was ready along the DMZ.

A source indicates there had been approximately 3,500 armistice violations by North Korea, but they have only apologized three times. As an after result Kim Il Sung agreed to split the JSA down a central line though he complained through the whole incident stating Ford had cooked up the whole episode to help him win the upcoming election looming ahead in November. Since August 21, 1976 soldiers of either side have not entered the DMZ at will.

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for more information about this tense time in American History. Please visit the site I mentioned before as well as this
very informative site that contains still pictures of the actual attack and pictures of Operation Paul Bunyan underway. There are also links to personal journals and writings by soldiers who participated.

All presidents make thousands of decisions….good ones and poor ones. Though it was basically a spitting match that resulted in two unnecessary deaths and could have escalated into something more, President Ford kept his head and remained strong in a difficult situation.


Andrew Pass said...

As a teacher, when I read a story like this I ask how I could use it in the classroom. There's got to be some way to present it to kids so that they can interact with it. Here are a couple of possibilities. First, tell students to imagine that they are the thoughts inside of Lt. Bulldog's head. What were they thinking? Why did they kill the American soldier? What was so important about a tree? Second, imagine that President Ford had asked them for advice as to how to best respond to the situation. What would they have advised? Why? Third, you mention that World War III could have started. Who would the war have been between? This would be an interesting opportunity to compare the role that China played in the world, then and now. Just some thoughts. Thanks for an interesting article. I knew nothing about this incident.

Andrew Pass

Bill Ferguson said...

Actually, instead of "It was decided that a little “shock and awe”, 1970s style, would be a better course of action.", it was more of a North Korean perception of saving face. For some reason I can't fully understand, the North Koreans (I don't know if other Asian countries do as well), feel that "bigger is better".

I could go into a real long story here about it, but the "bigger is better" philosophy resulted in a whole sereies of Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Meetings between North Korea and the United Nations Command (UNC) that would have made a great Three Stooges movie. At of one the first meetings, the UNC side brought a flag to the truce table. The North Koreans lost face and immediately left. When they returned the next day, they brought a flag that was larger than the UNC flag. The next meeting the UNC side brought a larger flag. This kept up until the flags were to big to fit inside the truce talk tent and a special meeting was called just to discuss the size of the flags.

Finally after agreeing on the maximum size of the flags, both sides still went through several variations before calling it quits. The North Korean flag is longer than the UNC flag, but the UNC flag is wider. The North Korean flag has more trim along the edges, but the UNC trim is longer. The North Korean flag has a wider top to their flagpole, but the UNC top is taller. The North Korean flag has three tiers to the UNC two tiers for the base of the flagpole, but the UNC tiers are each taller than any of the NOrth Korean tiers.

This also leads to one of the criteria for the U.S Soldiers that gor assigned to the Joint Security Area. Each American soldier had to be at least six feet tall, so they would be taller than the North Korean guards.

Anyway, the show of force was to assemble a very large show of force, that the North Korean military could not equal (at least in the limited amount of time, a little over 1 hour). Thje North Korean Army responded to Operation Paul Bunyan with aproximately 200 soldiers who began setting up two-man machinegun positions about 150 yards from where the tree was cut down. The UNC side had over 100 personnel in plain site guarding the engineers who cut the tree down and blocking the Bridge of No Return. Everyone (in plain site) was supposed to be armed with only a pick handle and a sidearm (I was one of those). However, the South Korean Marines who accompanied us had various weapons under the sandbags of their trucks, which they handed out once the vehicles stopped. After pulling out of the area, over 100 South Korean Special Forces troops (who had infiltrated the night before), came out of the river bed directly below the North Korean machinegun positions, showing them exactly how vulnerable they had been.

When the North Korean soldiers first showed up, they were standing around like they were debating on whether to cross the bridge or not. Once our commander, LTC Victor S. Vierra saw them, he got on the radio, and that is when all of the aircraft appeared in the sky, rising above the horizon, and that is when the North Koreans scattered and began setting up their machinegun positions.

So, originally on August 18, we were content to only trim some branches from the tree to maintain the visibility between our checkpoints. After the deaths of Capt. Bonifas and Lt. Barrett, the UNC decided that the tree was going to be cut down, but being such a large tree, a large stump could be left as a reminder of American resolve. To puncuate the point, the largest UNC military presence in the DMZ since the signing of the Armistice, was provided by American and South Korean soldiers. While a single shot from either side would have initiated a full scale conflict instantly, the UNC side was prepared to flatten North Korean miliatry targets along with Pyongyang, three B-52's with nuclear bombs with orders to bomb Pyonyang if fighting broke out, were in the air above the DMZ.

Proud to have been there,
Bill Ferguson

EHT said...

Andrew, those are excellent ideas to use with this post. Thanks.

Bill, we are very honored that you would take the time to give us more detail to the story. Your post proves to us education types that primary sources are one of the best methods of delivering content. Thanks for the information, but most of all thank you for serving your country.