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The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.  At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.

This requires some explaining.

On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula.  Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth).  Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.

A photograph of the actual confrontation--well, that certainly clears everything up!

A photograph of the actual confrontation–well, that certainly clears everything up!

In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another.  North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once.  On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree.  Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight.  The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct.  In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs.  The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack.  With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation.  Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force.   Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group.  The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining.  They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected:  Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever).  In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.

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Fifty years ago marked the height of the Cuban missile crisis.  The entire US military was operating at DEFCON 3–and Strategic Air Command had moved up to DEFCON 2 (a readiness condition which indicates that “nuclear war is eminent”).  As part of these protocols, the Air Force moved nuclear armed interceptor aircraft to smaller airports along the northern border in preparation for a Russian strike.

A F-106A with a Russian TU-95M

On the night of October 25, 1962, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center spotted a commando stealthily climbing over the perimeter fence to sabotage the base.  The guard fired at the intruder but missed all his shots. He then sounded the alarm.  The proper alarm rang at several nearby bases, but at Volk field in Wisconsin, the alarm system was wired incorrectly.  Instead of an intruder alarm, the klaxon for nuclear war sounded.  The pilots duly got in their F106-A jets (each of which was equipped with a nuclear rocket) and prepared to fly north for the last battle.

Just as the planes were taking off, a truck sped onto the field flashing its lights.  The false alarm had been caught in time and the interceptors did not launch.  Decades later the Air Force declassified documents relating to the incident.  The shadowy saboteur was revealed to have been a bear.

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The incident was quickly forgotten because it was only one of an astonishing number of near misses in the subsequent days of the crisis.  On October 27th, 1962 alone there were multiple live-fire accidents and misunderstandings: the world nearly ended several times that day.   That morning, a U-2F spy plane was shot down over Cuba by means of a Soviet surface-to-air missile and the pilot was killed.  Later that day a US Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft was fired on and one was hit by a 37 mm shell.  The US Navy dropped a series of “signaling depth charges” on Soviet submarine B-59 which was armed with nuclear torpedoes (however one of the three Soviet fire officers objected to launching the weapons).   Over the Bering Sea the Soviets scrambled their MIGs in response to a U2 spy plane and the Air Force in return launched their F-102 fighter aircraft.

After a bewildering storm of desperate diplomatic negotiations which were interspersed with apocalyptic bluster, the American and Soviet administrations began to back down from the confrontation.  The Kennedy administration dispatched negotiators to meet with representatives of the Soviet Union at Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant, and a deal was reached over the fortune cookies and chopsticks.   The Soviets removed their nuclear missiles from Cuba and America, in turn, pulled nuclear weapons out of Turkey and southern Italy.

It’s easy to look at the news today and feel a sense of despair about the world and its inhabitants, but it is worth looking back a half a century to the sixties when the world was a much more stupid and dangerous place.  Everyone drove giant unsafe cars with big fins.  Lobotomy was a common medical procedure.  China and India were actively fighting a war.  But, above all other concerns, the Soviet Union and the United States eyed each other beadily and prepared to destroy the world in response to a bear or a spy plane or an insult in a Chinese restaurant.

After the Cuban missile crisis ended, the STRATCOM stood down from DEFCON 2 on November 15, 1962.  Although the armed forces have returned to DEFCON 3—medium readiness— a few times since then (notably during the Yom Kippur war and on September 11th) the nation has never again gone to DEFCON 2.

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