DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Korea — While no one is overly relaxed, it’s a lot calmer at the Bridge of No Return than the last time Victor Vierra walked on it.
In 1976, then-Lt. Col. Vierra commanded hundreds of soldiers at the United Nations Command Security Battalion. They mixed freely with North Korean soldiers within the Joint Security Area surrounding the Korean border.
That changed for good on Aug. 18, 1976, when Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett were killed by North Korean soldiers within sight of the bridge.
The North Koreans attacked the soldiers with axes used by U.N. workers who were trimming a tree.
On Friday, Vierra, 74, returned to remember Bonifas and Barrett and tell current and former Joint Security Area soldiers about their legacy.
Bonifas and Barrett’s murders did not happen in a vacuum, Vierra said, adding that Kim Il Sung and North Korea were looking for a fight.
“This place was a tinderbox with almost daily incidents with the KPA (North Korean Army),” Vierra said.
Before the ax murders, the JSA’s deputy commander was kicked in the chest and groin on Conference Row by North Korean soldiers, Vierra said. North Koreans would attempt to kidnap South Korean and American soldiers.
On one occasion, the North Koreans held a group of U.S. soldiers at gunpoint near the bridge and told them not to move. Vierra sent Bonifas — whom he described as his right-hand man — to call the North Korean bluff and bring the Americans back to safety.
The North Koreans knew who Bonifas was, Vierra said, and he is convinced the killings were no spur-of-the-moment attack.
“It was a well-executed execution, or murder, of two American soldiers,” Vierra said.
The sacrifice was not in vain, Vierra said. At the time, North Korea had been leaning on ambassadors within the United Nations to pass a resolution calling for withdrawal of the United States from South Korea. Following the murders, that support evaporated.
“They died serving a calling and a purpose that they were bound to execute,” Vierra told the seated gathering near the bridge, and well within earshot of North Korean guards.
Vierra knew Bonifas well, working with him closely and sharing off-duty time with him at The Monastery, the JSA’s club.
Bonifas was packed and ready to go back to his wife and children when he was killed.
Barrett had been at the JSA for only a few weeks when he was killed. Vierra lamented that he didn’t get the chance to know him well, but noted that the 6-foot-plus soldier was well liked by his men.
When Barrett was found, barely alive, a South Korean soldier scooped him up and cradled him in the back of Vierra’s vehicle as they rushed him to doctors.
“They did not die alone,” Vierra said. “They were in the arms of their comrades and people who cared for them.”
Three days later, the U.N. command launched Operation Paul Bunyan. Soldiers, martial arts experts, engineers and Special Forces units flooded the area, joined by fighters and bombers patrolling the skies. The North Koreans did not respond.
Vierra said the memory of that day in 1976 has served a greater purpose by reminding soldiers why they serve at the Joint Security Area, preserving freedom for South Korea.
“[The incident] could have fallen into obscurity,” Vierra said. “But that’s not the JSA. That’s not the JSA I left.”