On 18 August 1976, a team of U.S. Army and South Korean soldiers headed out to trim a tree on the South Korean side of the De-militarized Zone. The men were unarmed, only carrying axes they would use to trim a tree that obstructed their view. Soon, they were confronted by a belligerent North Korean officer they had nicknamed Lt. “Bulldog” who advised them that N. Korean dictator Kim Il Sung had personally planted the tree and cared for it. Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas ignored the officer’s protests, which sent the offended officer back across the Bridge of No Return for reinforcements.
In moments, Lt. Bulldog was back, this time on a truck loaded with communist soldiers armed with crowbars and clubs. When Bonifas again ignored the demands to stop, the North Koreans pounced on the Americans and South Korean soldiers, savagely beating and hacking them with axes. All but one of the outnumbered crew were wounded, and Bonifas lay dead. 1st Lt. Mark Barrett died of his wounds while enroute to the hospital.
For the next several days, the Gerald Ford Administration weighed their response to the most recent North Korean act of war. Three days later, a convoy of U.S and S. Korean vehicles drove up to the tree. This time, they wouldn’t be stopped. Kim Il Sung’s beloved tree was going down.
In addition to engineers armed with chain saws, a company of S. Korean special forces commandos were on hand, ready to ambush any communist soldiers that dared to cross the bridge. 60 U.S. soldiers armed with pistols and axe handles guarded the tree trimmers. Cobra attack helicopters and Huey helicopters bearing an infantry company orbited to the rear of the task force. Behind them was U.S. and S. Korean armor, infantry, missiles and artillery. All outposts along the DMZ were on full combat alert. American B-52s bombers and F-4 Phantoms, plus several South Korean fighters, flew overhead. 12,000 additional U.S. troops had deployed to the peninsula, and the Air Force deployed plenty of additional F-4s and F-111 bombers. The carrier USS Midway (CV-41) stood ready offshore.
In 45 minutes, the infamous tree was no more — just a stump remained as a memorial to Bonifas and Barrett.
Today we honor these men. Bonifas (posthumously promoted to major) was born 22 April 1943 in Omaha, Neb. and is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy (Class of ’66). After earning his jump wings and Ranger tab, he commanded an artillery battery in Vietnam. He also taught mathematics at West Point and is buried at the U.S. Military Academy post cemetery. Barrett was born in Panama on 9 June 1951, also passing airborne and Ranger school. He is interred at Columbia, S.C.’s Greenlawn Memorial Park.