Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Tension on the North Korean Border: August 1976

Adding a bit to the discussions about North Korea. You may have seen a recent long-form piece in the Atlantic about the the DPRK's checkered past, “A History of North Korean Misadventures”:

The piece is worth reading, but I was surprised that in the article's list of news-making provocations, there was no mention of the 1976 “tree-trimming” incident in the Joint Security Area that separates North and South. It's worth mentioning because it was one of the very few times, perhaps the only time since the Korean War, when the US called the DPRK's bluff. We didn't shoot back, but we were locked and loaded to do so. 

Following is my description of what happened, excerpted from my “Go to DEFCON 3” article. I interviewed Army and USAF vets who were part of the face-off. The men I talked to said the American bombers that took flight were not carrying bombs, but I got the distinct impression that the next wave off the ground would have done so if North Korea had opposed our countermove that day.  

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Defense Conditions, or DEFCONs, can be focused more narrowly than the more famous, and rare, “Worldwide, no exceptions” scope. The Joint Chiefs and White House can order DEFCON changes that are specific to one arm of the military or to a geographic command during a crisis.

A vivid example of the latter occurred in August 1976, when U.S. Forces–Korea bumped up to DEFCON 3 at the direction of the Ford White House. The preparations pulled in an armada of B-52s from Guam, fighter-bombers from the USS Midway carrier group, F-111Fs from Idaho, and F-4 Phantoms from as far away as Florida. Events moved very quickly, and received little press attention outside Korea.

The 1976 DEFCON hike that centered on the Korean DMZ was different not just because of its geographic focus, but also because it had a specific military action in mind. According to Air Force historian Jerome Martin, the 1976 Korean crisis “was an interesting event in which the DEFCON change did the two things that are normally expected: It improved the readiness of the forces that might be employed, and provided a strong signal of U.S. concern and potential intent to act militarily.”

The visible effects of shifting from DEFCON 4 to 3 included increased SR-71 reconnaissance flights and hundreds of trucks moving artillery and ammunition to fortified bunkers near the DMZ. Nike-Hercules missile bases there shifted from air defense to ground targeting: Their job would be to destroy North Korean radar sites.

The most dramatic moments of the event were crammed into less than 72 hours. The crisis started late in the morning of August 18 (Korea time) and was mostly resolved by 8 a.m. on August 21. It ranks as one of the fastest developing, most obscure DEFCON alerts ever authorized by the National Command Authority.

The cause of the crisis was a tree. It stood in the Joint Security Area, a roughly circular patch of buildings, roads, and observation posts near Panmunjom that was patrolled by the North Korean People’s Army and United Nations Command. The UN Command was staffed by elite troops from the South Korean and U.S. armies, selected for size, toughness, and discipline. Each side kept hundreds of heavily armed troops in barracks a short distance away to respond to firefights, but in the JSA itself, UN and North Korean troops were banned from carrying weapons more powerful than sidearms.

Geographically, the JSA was a small but important part of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea; it was the location of the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners were exchanged. Also crowded into the river valley were buildings for meetings and a set of observation posts for each side to watch the other. While the JSA was supposed to be a peaceful, neutral zone for resolving disagreements, harassment attacks on isolated troops were on the rise—sometimes brutal enough to send men to the hospital—so in mid-August, officers in the UN Command decided that because a large poplar tree blocked a view between guard posts in the JSA, it needed a trim.

Following notifications to the North Koreans, on the morning of August 18, a work team of Americans and South Koreans arrived at the tree and prepared to begin work. Minutes later, dozens of North Koreans arrived to confront the team. Then, on command from a sergeant, they attacked with axes. The fight was over in minutes; although no shots were fired, two American officers lay dead.



The UN Command evacuated the casualties; the question was how to respond. It was the latest in a long line of outrages: The North Koreans had shot down a U.S. intelligence-gathering airplane (1969), captured the USS Pueblo from international waters (1968) and held the crew hostage, and tried to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee (also 1968).

In command of U.S. Forces–Korea was General Richard Stilwell, who notified Washington of the attack. Intense discussions opened between Stilwell’s headquarters, the Kissinger-led crisis team called the Washington Special Actions Group, and President Park. Nobody knew the North Korean motive for the violence, but agreed that orders must have come from the supreme commander, Kim Il-Sung. North Korea was already sending out communiques blaming the Americans for the melee, but the propaganda was being disputed by American photographs that documented the entire fight.

Whatever the enemy reasoning, South Korea and U.S. leaders wanted to push back quickly. The North had taken no hostages during the attack, so the United States had more freedom of action than it had during the Pueblo crisis. The planning moved in a matter of hours rather than days. Air-attack advocates suggested that the United States blow up the tree, perhaps with a precision-guided bomb called the GBU-15 (a new weapon, not officially in use), which could convert the tree into toothpicks while other U.S. airplanes attacked targets inside North Korea. This group figured that a second try at trimming the tree would send men into a deathtrap, where zeroed-in North Korean artillery and machine guns would kill them all in seconds. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements was one of these who feared a trap. Some pressed for naval action to sink North Korean ships, or flatten harbor facilities.

The ground approach, pressed by Stilwell and his staff, reasoned that the tree stood as a symbol of the North’s intransigence, and had to be taken out by infantry action as a sign of resolve. An early-morning action backed by air support would, Stilwell believed, finish the job before the North Koreans could act.

President Park suggested to Stilwell that the North Koreans be given plenty of notice before a second tree-trimming squad went in. Then, when the North Korean troops stormed into the JSA to attack a second time, they would be met by 50 “expert Tae-Kwan-Do artists” from the nation’s special forces, who would deliver a “sound thrashing” to the enemy. Once captured on film like a Hong Kong action movie, Park felt, the slugfest would put an end to more such outrages.

Washington endorsed the Stilwell plan: With minimal notice to the North, lightly armed troops would enter the JSA at the soonest opportunity and begin sawing branches off the tree. This would serve the “You can’t scare us” goal, but not if the men were wiped out in a North Korean counterattack first. Therefore, just south of the demilitarized zone, a surplus of airborne troops, artillery, missile batteries, and airpower (attack and troop helicopters, F-111F bombers, F-4s and F-5s, and A-6s from the Midway) would be standing by. Careful timing was critical: At exactly the same time the North Koreans learned of the tree job, their radar should be reporting waves of American warplanes. In case opposition on the ground would block the tree-trimming crew, F-4Es flown all the way from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to Osan Air Base, Korea, would be available to drop GBU-15s.

Air Force Captain David Ladurini of the 4485th Test Squadron saw how urgent these preparations were. When he arrived in New Orleans during a vacation with his parents, shortly after the attack, a hotel clerk greeted him: “Ladurini party? The FBI and your squadron commander are looking for you.” The FBI drove him to the airport so he could catch the next flight back to Florida. Having arrived at Eglin, Ladurini told the officer who met him that he needed to go get his gear. No need, said the officer: They had already broken into his house, so he was all packed. Next stop: Korea. Hustled onto a C-141 transport, Ladurini arrived at Osan early the next morning.

By August 20, the mood among the UNC troops and the 2nd Infantry Division was an ugly mix of fear, fury, and impatience. Having been given the warning order about action the following morning, they trained through the night. Wayne Johnson was the driver for an infantry captain, and while taking shelter from a rainstorm, had the chance to listen to a briefing that night. According to Johnson, an officer asked what would happen to the infantry company A-2-9 if the North Koreans started firing at them. The briefer took his chalk and marked a big X through the unit’s name.

Infantryman Mike Bilbo was among the UN Command troops who manned the JSA, and who would help protect the tree-trimmers from attack. If shooting began, the troops in the vicinity of the tree would be killed in short order, probably shredded by proximity-fused artillery set to explode a few dozen feet above the ground. Preparations were under way to the south, placing demolition charges that could destroy North Korean armor and block roads.

Johnson recalls that a thick layer of fog blocked his view of the sky, and shortly before the jumping-off hour he felt “bummed out” because he wouldn’t get to see the sunrise on his last day.

According to Glenn Burchard, a radar navigator in a B-52D, those in the first wave had only a half-day of preparation at Andersen Air Force Base. But they managed to send up at least a dozen bombers in support of Operation Paul Bunyan, leaving behind only those aircraft that were under repair or standing strategic alert under SAC’s routine nuclear war plan. After six or seven hours of flight, Burchard’s airplane reached South Korea, then angled north. “We flew straight north as far as we could go, and still be able to turn around before crossing the border,” he says. On the final leg his bomber flew barely 500 feet above the ground, a tactic that crews were familiar with, since it was how such airplanes would have tried to penetrate Soviet defenses when fighting a nuclear war. But notwithstanding rumors that passed among the troops below, the B-52Ds arriving from Andersen carried no bombs, conventional or otherwise. Burchard says this made sense because the purpose was to make a point to the North Koreans: massive firepower was available, and it would have taken extra hours to bomb up the airplanes.

In the end, Operation Paul Bunyan—conceived in a day and hastily executed in two days, the brainchild of officers in Korea but supported by leaders in Washington—met all expectations.

Dozens of deuce-and-a-half trucks rushed men of Task Force Vierra into the zone. Guards leapt from the trucks holding ax handles and formed a cordon around the engineers as they hacked with chain saws at the poplar tree; alongside the Americans were 50 of the Korean black belts, eager for some action. (According to the recollections, guards had more weapons available than sidearms and sticks: Although automatic weapons were banned in the JSA, the beds of trucks held plenty of M-16s and spare magazines, all tucked discreetly under sandbags.) In a few minutes, the tree was reduced to a stump. Troops hustled into the trucks, without any shots having been fired, or anyone injured.

David Ladurini would have been weapons system operator on the F-4E that was armed and scheduled to join the fray, but given the peaceful outcome, his airplane stayed on strip alert at Osan. Whether the early morning start caught the Koreans off guard, or the heavy air escort cowed them into submission, the North Koreans stood by as the limbs fell. One leader even offered a near apology later.

One of those happy people on the tree-trimming job was Mike Bilbo. Reflecting back, Bilbo says the “Mad Dog” Platoon he served with “may have brought some of it on ourselves”—by baiting the North Korean guards and sometimes beating them up—“but that was the nature of the place.”

The same could be said of the entire cold war: Risks were taken and brinks were edged, all in the cause of keeping the peace.

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