Posted on August 21, 2019
Two US officers were bludgeoned to death with axes and clubs.
After three days of deliberations going all the way up to the White House, the US decided to respond with a colossal show of force.
Hundreds of men – backed by helicopters, B52 bombers and an aircraft carrier task force – were mobilised to cut back the poplar.
Six of the men who took part told the BBC about their part in the most dramatic gardening job in history. A small neutral camp called the Joint Security Area (JSA) lies on the border between North and South Korea, in the area known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Both were created under the terms of the armistice signed in 1953 which ended the Korean War.
The JSA – also called Panmunjom, or the Truce Village – is where negotiations between both sides take place. Most recently, it was where US President Donald Trump stepped into North Korea, becoming the first US leader to do so.
But in 1976, guards and soldiers from both sides could wander all around the small zone. North Koreans, South Koreans and US guards would mingle together.
Bill Ferguson was just 18 years old in August 1976. He was part of the US army support group in the JSA, under the command of the popular Captain Arthur Bonifas.
“Capt Bonifas really wanted us to enforce the terms of the armistice,” Mr Ferguson says. “We were encouraged to intimidate the North Koreans into allowing the full freedom of movement within the JSA.”
At the time, US soldiers were only allowed to serve in the JSA if they were over six feet (1.83m) tall, Mr Ferguson says, as part of this intimidation.
“We didn’t get along with them at all,” Mr Ferguson remembers, although he admits that occasionally North Korean guards would trade propaganda from their country for Marlboro cigarettes.
Strict rules limited the number of guards from both sides, and the weapons they could carry. Troops from one side would try to antagonise the other, which often led to violence. While Mr Ferguson was there, one US guard had his arm broken by North Koreans after he accidentally drove his jeep behind their main building, the Panmungak pavilion.
US Lieutenant David “Mad Dog” Zilka, meanwhile, encouraged men to go out on patrol carrying big sticks, to bang on the walls and windows of North Korean barracks, and to use as weapons if need be.
“Zilka would take us out on these clandestine patrols,” says Mike Bilbo, a platoon mate and friend of Bill Ferguson’s in the JSA. “Once or twice we caught a North Korean where they weren’t supposed to be and kind of beat him up a little bit – not too bad.”
Mr Bilbo says these aggressive actions on both sides may have prompted the incident over the tree. “But there’s just no cause for them to do what they did.”
The branches of the poplar obscured the view between a checkpoint and an observation post, and so a team of US and South Korean men were ordered to prune it back.
On the first attempt, North Korea objected, claiming any landscaping work required permission from both parties. Heavy rain thwarted the second try.
Capt Bonifas – in the final days of his deployment in Korea – decided to monitor the third attempt personally, on 18 August.
A group of North Koreans appeared, demanding they stop cutting the branches. When Capt Bonifas ignored them, the North Koreans attacked – using clubs and axes wrenched from the gardening party to bludgeon the captain and US Lieutenant Mark Barrett to death.