The 25th anniversary of the Panmunjom murders brought forth quite a few memories from a great many people. The officer in charge of the JSA QRF (Quick Reaction Force) on the day of the murders offered the following in an email written to me in 2001.
It is hard for me to believe that it was 25 years ago this Saturday, August 18, that LT Mark Barrett and CPT Art Bonifas were killed inside the JSA, Panmunjom, Korea. Until your contact last week, I had not really discussed those events with anyone since leaving Korea. I was not even aware of the published materials describing, from various points of view, what people believe happened that day.
I was a lieutenant and the platoon leader of the Third Platoon. Art Bonifas was the JSF Commander, within days of finishing his tour of duty, and Mark Barrett was my fellow First Platoon leader, having been in country only several weeks.
Mark and I immediately had the bonds of being fellow JSF platoon leaders and “Merry Mad Monks of the DMZ”. But with the rotation from “north” to “QRF” to “off”, we were never off together, and just did not yet have the time to develop a more personal relationship.
In fact, on the morning of August 18, 1976, Mark’s First Platoon rotated up to “north platoon” as my Third Platoon rotated to the QRF just as we had always done.
I can’t speak to the thoughts and actions of the participants involved in the fight at the tree. As close as I was at QRF, I still was not there on the ground at the tree site. The pictures and accounts of the fight must be taken in the context of what is like to work inside the JSA on a daily basis. The combination of physical, psychological, political, diplomatic, and military stresses made duty in the JSA unlike duty just about anywhere else in the world. I think the only people who could understand how two American officers could be killed in the JSA, without a single shot fired, are soldiers who actually served in the JSF in the context of world events in 1976. I believe the JSF motto, “ In Front of Them All” had significance beyond its geographic description.
I can speak to the fact the QRF, upon hearing radio traffic of a “fight” at the tree site deployed north to the JSA. Arriving at UNC CP2, I saw activity and vehicles at the tree site, but did not know the extent of the incident. QRF proceeded toward the tree site, negotiating the lowered gates at KPA CP 5 and 6. As the QRF approached the tree site, UNC vehicles were exiting the JSA via the egress road. As we deployed into a perimeter, KPA soldiers were running across the Bridge of No Return. We still did not know the severity and extent of the incident.
In trying to piece together what had happened, it was determined that CPT Bonifas and several others had been wounded in the fighting and were being evacuated, and that Mark Barrett was still unaccounted for. Someone remembered seeing Mark fighting off KPA soldiers near the wall opposite the tree. I led a search party into the swampy, grassy area where we found his body and immediately evacuated him in one of our vehicles.
All of this happened in a few minutes that seemed like an eternity.
It then became very quiet. That eerie quiet that causes one to think, “what is going to happen next?”
The Third Platoon remained in the JSA during the next three days, manning checkpoints and providing security, culminating with participation in Operation Paul Bunyan as a part of the Task Force Vierra security forces.