During the early months of 1976, tension was mounting steadily along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the strip of heavily fortified ground stretching east-west across the waist of the Korean peninsula. Although the Korean War had concluded twenty-three years earlier, no peace treaty had been negotiated and many thousands of U.S. troops were still on guard in the South.
Through electronic snooping, U.S. intelligence learned that North Korean dictator Kim I1 Sung had modernized his 650,000--man army and that the Soviet Union had supplied it with some 2,000 modern tanks. Even more alarming, satellite photos disclosed that 50,000 of Kim's troops were massed just above the DMZ, only thirty miles from the South Korean capital of Seoul.
This intelligence seemed to indicate that a Communist invasion of the South was a distinct possibility. If the powder keg exploded, it would be the first real test for the All-Volunteer Force, which, in South Korea, had many hundreds of women in its ranks, many of them in combat-support units not far from the DMZ.
Both North Korea and the combined U.S./ South Korean forces manned observation posts at a trapezoid of ground some 750 yards square around the village of Panmunjom. This patch of real estate was known as the Joint Security Area (JSA) and was supposed to be neutral, with either side having access to it.
Over the years, the JSA had become covered with a thick growth of trees, and one of them, a forty-foot poplar, was blocking the view of a U.S. observation post. So Lieutenant Colonel Victor S. Vierra dispatched a ten-man squad of GIs, armed only with pistols, to escort five South Korean workers who were to trim the lower branches of the poplar.
Early on the morning of August 18, 1976, the tree-trimming party, led by Captain Arthur G. Bonifas, went to the site. A few minutes after the workers began pruning the branches, a North Korean truck charged up in a cloud of dust and out jumped two Communist officers and nine enlisted men, an heavily armed (in violation of the armistice).