Firefight in Panmunjom


The following is an excerpt taken from “The Quiet Victory”, a thesis by Manny Seck, used with the authors permission.  The entire thesis (with citations) may be downloaded for your reading pleasure by right clicking HERE.

The Quiet Victory, Chapter Four: The Savage Time

In the 1980s, the familiar patterns of covert NKPA infiltrations and harassment continued. In May of 1980, the NKPA probed Guard Post Ouellette, which resulted in a firefight. The level of violence on the DMZ had become routine, and both sides accepted the status quo. Through out the US Army a tour in Korea was something to be avoided at all costs. The soldiers there walked combat patrols, minus the combat pay, and if anything happened, it was nearly impossible to get combat decorations, and when a soldier was not patrolling the DMZ, the training was relentless. It was an unaccompanied tour, so a soldier’s family could not come, and the units operated on a war footing. Why bother with that when one could instead go to Germany, where soldiers had weekends off, plenty of leisure programs, abundant attractive friendly women, and the opportunity to travel Europe during off duty hours?

Map of Panmunjom

A NKPA soldier in Panmunjom. This soldier was called “Smiley” for his propensity to slip in a sly smile when a GI took his picture. There is a good chance that this enemy soldier was either killed or wounded by the JSA on 23 November. (Picture courtesy of Dave Chapman)

In November of 1984, DMZ duty entailed vast amounts of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer, absolute terror. The situation along the DMZ was surreal at times. The DMZ was the most heavily fortified border in the world, but it was also a tourist attraction. Both sides led tour groups to the JSA to get a look at the other side. The JSA even had a specially trained, hand picked section of soldiers whose responsibility was to lead tours of Panmunjom. These soldiers had to be carefully trained because if they said the wrong thing in front of a tour group, it could very well lead to an international incident.

Of course the primary function of the UNC JSA was security, and its table of organization and equipment called for four platoons of infantry soldiers. One of these soldiers was PFC Richard Howard who was assigned to the JSA in October of 1983. Under the stern hand of Larry Williams, who by then had made First Sergeant of the Joint Security Company of the JSA, young soldiers like Howard were expertly trained in small unit tactics to avoid a repeat of the Axe Murder Incident.

Howard, a Texan, thoroughly enjoyed duty at the JSA. He remembers the duty as mostly routine, with comical moments of typical GI mischief. At times the GIs would secretly trade with the NKPA. If an unlucky GI was caught doing this by his chain of command, he risked non-judicial punishment and extra duty for “fraternizing with the enemy”. Still many GIs took their chances to get souvenirs from the communists. At times the NKPA even behaved in a civilized manner. Howard recalls once being on night duty at a checkpoint and nodding off to sleep. An NCO in Howard’s platoon was walking the check points checking on the soldiers, and a NKPA soldier threw a rock at Howard’s checkpoint to wake him up before the NCO discovered him. Once, when Williams was in very close proximity to the MDL in Panmunjom, he stumbled and nearly tripped, but was caught by his NKPA counterpart, who only a few days before had told Williams that if he had to kill Williams he would do it with his bare hands to save a bullet. At times, the situation resembled “a show”.

The JSA commander at the time was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Viale. Viale had been commissioned an infantry officer in 1968 and went on to serve with the “Golden Dragons” of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry in Vietnam. His father, 2nd Lieutenant Robert Viale was awarded the Medal of Honor, (posthumously) with K Co. 148th Infantry Regiment during the Second World War. Viale was a hands on leader, and he led from the front. Viale was committed to emphasizing and enhancing the infantry skills of the JSA security company. To underscore this Viale changed the color of the JSA unit patch from military police colors, green and gold, to the much more masculine infantry blue.

On the evening of 22 November, 1984, there were reports that NKPA infiltrators had slipped across the MDL in the JSA area of operations. Viale personally led the patrol to look for the enemy. The patrol did not find anything, but all hands nearly had a collective heart attack when the patrol stumbled across a pheasant that noisily took wing right in front of the soldiers. Howard was also on the patrol, remembers the situation that night being very confusing, with lost ROK soldiers in the area, and limited visibility. During the hunt, the patrol wandered into tall reeds that were over the 6 foot 2 inch Howard’s head, which coupled with the darkness, totally obscured vision. At some point some one opened fire on a real or imagined target, which exponentially increased the tension level. Luckily no one was hurt.

Duty in Panmunjom was serious business, and danger lurked constantly in the background. To prepare for any contingency, Viale had the JSA security company train constantly in small unit tactics under the guidance of 1SG Williams, and the platoon sergeants. Howard recalls relentless patrol training; react to contact drills, skills qualification training, and preparation for the Expert Infantryman Badge test. The JSA security guards also conducted counter infiltration patrols, and maintained a quick reaction force, very similar to the 2nd Infantry division QRF. This training would pay dividends.

Friday, 23 November, 1984 started out as a fairly typical day for the men of the 4th Platoon of the Joint Security Company of the JSA. Due to the Thanksgiving Holiday, no tours were scheduled for the US/ROK side of Panmunjom. Howard, a member of 4th Platoon and on duty at checkpoint# four, remembers being acutely annoyed that he did not get a Thanksgiving meal the previous night. On the communist side a tour group had pulled in, and the NKPA security guards were delivering the standard tour, showing the tour group the “US Imperialists, and their Korean puppets”. On this tour was a 22 year old Soviet man named Vasily Yakovlevich Matuzok. Matuzok was an employee of the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang, and on this day his actions would start a chain of events that would lead to one of the biggest firefights in the history DMZ.

As the tour neared “Conference Row”, a series of buildings that straddled the MDL in which the two sides held meetings, Matuzok took off from the tour and ran across the MDL to defect to the West. Immediately NKPA security guards drew their pistols and ran in pursuit, shooting at the young Soviet as they went. Other NKPA guards in communist checkpoints opened up on the US/ROK checkpoints in an effort to keep UNC guards from helping the defector. Howard who was on duty in checkpoint four, watched the action unfold in stunned amazement. When asked what the first thing that ran through his mind was as he watched the NKPA soldiers run over the MDL, Howard replied “Oh, f–k!”

Howard’s succinct, and highly appropriate appraisal of the situation was followed by decisive action. He quickly alerted the rest of 4th platoon, and then from his exposed position, sent timely information up the chain of command. Within a split second a routine day morphed into a life and death struggle.

Two of Howard’s platoon mates, PFC Michael A. Burgoyne, and Korean augmentee PFC Chang Myung Gi, were near checkpoint four escorting a civilian work crew. Chang was a popular member of 4th Platoon, and liked to kid around. He was affectionately nicknamed Monkeyfor his goofball antics in the barracks. As the two GIs watched in shocked amazement, Matuzok ran in front of them being chased by NKPA soldiers firing weapons. This is when the hard training that Viale had insisted on paid off. The two UNC soldiers drew there M1911A1 .45 caliber pistols and started firing big 230 grain hardball rounds at the NKPA. Burgoyne hit one, taking the communist soldier right off his feet. The NKPA soldiers stopped chasing Matuzok to return fire at the two exposed GIs, giving Matuzok a few precious seconds to conceal himself in some bushes.

Burgoyne and Chang both were hit by the NKPA return fire, with Chang taking a round below his right eye which exploded out of the back of his head. He was dead before he reached the ground. Burgoyne took a round in his lower face which put him down hard. Burgoyne miraculously survived.

Due to Howard’s timely alert, the rest of 4th platoon had time to react to the situation. The men broke out M16 rifles that they had secretly stored in their checkpoints and engaged the NKPA soldiers. There accurate fire hit several NKPA soldiers forcing them to forget about the Soviet defector, and seek cover. More NKPA soldiers attempted to come over the MDL in an effort to rescue their fallen comrades, but again the hard training the JSA soldiers had undergone paid dividends. Specialist 4th Class (SP4) John Orlicki, armed him self with a M203 grenade launcher, and under the close supervision of his squad leader, Staff Sergeant (SSG) Bart Womack, started firing 40mm high explosive dual purpose rounds at likely avenues of approach that the NKPA would have to use to ingress the battle area. Orlicki killed at least one NKPA soldier, and effectively isolated the battlefield from enemy reinforcements.

Another UNC soldier, SP4 Timothy Neigh delivered effective fire with his .45 caliber pistol effectively pinning down the communists who had crossed the MDL. During this time Howard divided his time by providing intelligence on enemy locations to higher headquarters, and delivering effective M16 fire on the communists. Howard’s reporting gave his chain of command real time intelligence about the NKPA’s location and disposition, meaning that his company commander knew exactly were the enemy was at all times, and could deploy the JSF accordingly, which was a crucial advantage to JSA forces. Howard did this from an exposed position, at great risk to himself. His actions, and the actions of the rest of 4th Platoon, saved Matuzok’s life.

By this time the both the JSA and the 2nd ID QRF where alerted about the situation in Panmunjom. The JSA QRF, composed of soldiers from 1st platoon ran to their trucks and raced toward the battle. The 2nd ID QRF, composed of a rifle platoon from 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry, deployed from Warrior Base and took up a position well south of the battle, with the JSA never requiring their assistance. Through out the DMZ, both UNC and NKPA units went on alert. A Mobile Acquisition Counter Penetration Element, (MACE) patrol built around an antitank platoon mounted in jeeps, from Combat Support Company, 1st/38 Infantry, on routine patrol in the DMZ, was ordered to stop what it was doing, and take up a blocking position near Panmunjom, and to engage any NKPA elements that tried to reinforce the North Koreans in Panmunjom. The Communists never tried.

The JSA QRF element, 1st platoon reinforced with the Joint Security Force company commander, arrived on the battlefield shortly after 1100 hours. The platoon established a perimeter, and deployed a rifle squad augmented with two M60 machine gun teams in an over watch position on a small hill to provide covering fire on NKPA checkpoints, and to cover the advance of the rest of the platoon. The two remaining squads, led by Staff Sergeant Richard Lamb, and Staff Sergeant Curtis Gissendanner45, moved carefully towards contact.

As 1st platoon moved forward, it encountered Matuzok, still hiding in the bushes. The Soviet loudly declared his intention to defect, and loudly asked for help. Matuzok was secured, searched for weapons, and turned over to the JSF company commander. Gissendanner’s squad was tasked to provide security for the left flank, which effectively surrounded the approximately platoon sized element of NKPA solders that had crossed the MDL.

The volume of fire was staggering. Viale would later notice that the buildings in Panmunjom were riddled with bullet holes. Lamb describes the mayhem, “at one point enemy fire became so intense that it shredded small scrub bushes being used for concealment”46 This was the first time that all most all of the UNC soldiers saw death up close and personal, and it was certainly the first time that these young men had ever killed another human being. “We were close enough to see the look of bewilderment in the faces of the enemy as our bullets struck. We watched them crumple to the ground and were astonished at the amount of punishment the human body could sustain; we listened to their cries for help. We watched enemy soldiers literally bleed to death less than fifteen meters to our front; the blood loss was appalling.” Lamb would go on to say.

As the noose tightened around the NKPA soldiers and their casualties mounted, they realized that there was no way out. The surviving Communists raised their hands in surrender. They were allowed to police up their dead and wounded, and retreat back across the MDL. The JSA had won its battle. The entire affair had lasted less than an hour.

To this day, Viale wishes that he had pictures of the defeated NKPA captured by his soldiers. Viale later confronted Matuzok, wanting him to realize that his actions had directly led to the death of a UNC soldier. When he was told this, Matuzok paused, reflected briefly, and sadly acknowledged the death of Chang. Matuzok would eventually settle in New York City under an assumed name. Burgoyne recovered fully. After the battle the men of the JSA were NOT awarded the Combat Infantryman’s badge.

Members of 1st Platoon engaging the NKPA 23 November, 1984. The author thinks that the kneeling soldier is SSG Lamb. (Picture courtesy of BG. Charles Viale)

A dead NKPA soldier being attended to by one of his comrades. This picture was taken during the 23 November, 1984 firefight. (Picture courtesy of BG. Charles Viale)


A picture of Panmunjom taken from Guard Post Oulette in the summer of 1990. In the center a NKPA checkpoint is visible, and in the background, is Propaganda Village. Propaganda Village is a phony village created by the DPRK as a showcase of what life is like in the so called Workers Paradise. (Picture from author’s collection)

The fields of fire of Guard Post Oulette. The yellow sign in the foreground is an MDL marker, marking the exact border of the two Koreas. Anything past the sign is in the DPRK.

In the aftermath of 23 November, the men of 4th Platoon quietly attempted to get back to the routine. There was little fanfare, and while some soldiers did receive minor decorations for their bravery (they did not receive CIBs) in one of the biggest incidents in the DMZ, the men noticed that they had changed. One of their platoon mates was dead, taken while he was still young, and another was injured. Their courage under fire was barely recognized by the Army and after a three and a half day pass, the men were expected to go back to work, and stand a few feet away from NKPA soldiers who just days before had been trying their very best to kill them. Howard remembers being very angry, and a collective depression settle within the platoon. He states that the soldiers “didn’t care” anymore, and some of the men “went off the deep end.”49 There were alcohol abuse issues, and the JSA chain of command noticed that there was a problem, and reshuffled the platoons in the Company to try and fix the situation. It would take years before the men would consider that they might be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

the years stretched on the DMZ remained a very dangerous place. The NKPA still continued to probe UNC postions, and the 2nd Infantry Division and the JSA continued to patrol the US sector. In 1988 the Summer Olympic Games were held in the ROK, with a very large number of nations participating. Due to the fact that a legal state of war still existed between the DPRK and the ROK, North Korea boycotted the games. This would be the last Olympics that the Soviet Union would participate, because the USSR would implode in 1991. The ROK conducted unprecedented shows of force to prevent any disruptions of the Olympics by the DPRK. The Olympics were a resounding success and it was seen as a “coming out” party for the ROK by the international community.

There have been unconfirmed reports that NKPA Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul, the soldier who murdered Captain Bonifas, was still in charge of the NKPA security guards during the 1984 firefight, and because of the outcome of the battle, was summarily executed in Panmunjom. Richard Howard remembers hearing pistol shots after the firefight, and after November, 1984 Chul has never been seen. However these reports cannot be verified. If it is true then the 23 November firefight had some concrete ancillary benefits.