August 18 is not a particularly meaningful day in the history books. Certainly not a holiday — religious, secular, national, or otherwise. And yet to a few people it has significance almost beyond words as the 40th anniversary of two events on opposite sides of the world which, while relatively small in scale, would touch on the deepest meanings of service to our country.
As such, it is a worthy date (as opposed to the hoopla of Memorial Day and Veterans Day, both of which have lost much of their emotional impact with the three-day weekend) for perhaps a quiet moment’s contemplation of how our service personnel – past, present, and future – put themselves at risk on a daily basis in defense of a social order where only five percent or less share in that risk.
August 18, 1976 dawned bright and clear on the Korean Peninsula, a typically hot and humid north Asian August day. The world’s most heavily fortified border was much as it had been for two decades following the end of active combat operations – a dangerous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) guarded on both sides by wary, watchful soldiers.
In the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom, where actual meetings and negotiations of the opposing truce teams take place, it was a relatively quiet day.
Around mid-morning a small work detail of Korean Service Corps (KSC — essentially civilians) personnel, escorted by a few U.S. and South Korean enlisted personnel led by U.S. Army Captain Art Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett, moved into the JSA, unarmed other than for work tools, to trim a large poplar tree that had grown to the point where parts of it were obstructing the line of sight between two UN guardposts. The trimming had been previously coordinated with the North Koreans.
As the detail began its work, a group of North Korean soldiers led by a Lt. Pak Chul (nicknamed “Lieutenant Bulldog” by U.S. troops for his confrontational attitude) approached them and demanded that the work cease as the tree had been planted by North Korea’s founder Kim il Sung and was protected.
As the trimming had been pre-coordinated with Pak’s superiors, Bonifas ignored him and the work proceeded, whereupon Pak ordered his men to attack the work detail. The North Koreans seized axes from the KSC personnel and assaulted Bonifas and Barrett, though interestingly they did little harm to the other UN personnel.
Both Bonifas and Barrett were battered to death with the axes, after which Pak and his men withdrew to their side of the JSA. It takes an enormous stretch of the imagination to suppose that the two murdered officers started their duty day with any anticipation of such a dire threat to their very lives.
Three days later, in a show of force dubbed Operation Paul Bunyon, U.S. and South Korean troops, backed by a massive show of ground, sea, and air forces, swept into the JSA and reduced the tree to a large stump as North Korean troops stood by and watched.
Although North Korea ultimately, but only obliquely, accepted responsibility for the assault, no one will ever know what prompted Pak to attack. However, Bonifas and Barrett were just as dead, and their families just as bereft, as if there had been overt hostilities underway.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in the small town of Easley, S.C., a couple named Dale and Ann Hampton welcomed their first and only child into their family. They named her Kimberly. She would grow to a magnificent adulthood, a fine scholar, outstanding athlete, and gifted leader (student president as well as JROTC commander in high school, commander of her senior ROTC unit at Presbyterian College, and outstanding tennis player in the Southern Athletic Conference).
Commissioned a second lieutenant on graduation, she would go on to become an Army pilot, enjoying especially the duties of latter-day cavalry scouts, utilizing helicopters instead of horses for mobility. She served a tour in Korea with the cavalry squadron that provided reconnaissance for the 2nd Infantry Division on the DMZ, a duty which certainly brought her occasionally within sight of the JSA where her fellow officers Bonifas and Barrett were murdered on the day she was born.
In 2003 she attained the height of ambition for a junior officer in her specialty – command of D Troop, 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, a reconnaissance unit for the elite 82nd Airborne Division.
Deployed to Iraq, on Jan. 2, 2004 Captain Hampton became the first female pilot in U.S. military history to be killed in action by enemy fire when her OH-58 Kiowa light reconnaissance chopper was destroyed by ground fire during operations in the vicinity of Fallujah.
She was 27 years, 4 months, and 15 days old. Unlike Bonifas and Barrett, she undoubtedly knew when she mounted up that morning that she was facing a significant possibility of mortal danger, but she went anyway because that was not only her duty, but also her passion.
Two of these young soldiers died in a most unexpected manner, one died in action that posed a strong likelihood that death waited in the wings. All three were unknowns on any national stage; two would remain so, one would gain fleeting national prominence.
Yet all three, accidentally connected by the date of Aug. 18, 1976, died in faraway places in the service of their country as part of an all-volunteer military establishment that draws its personnel resources from only some five percent of the nation’s population, while the other 95 percent bask in the peaceful environs of home.
Two of our last three presidents (Commanders-in-Chief of our armed forces) have had no military experience, and we are preparing to elect yet another non-veteran. In the U.S. Congress, which authorizes and funds military forces, slightly less than 20 percent of members have military experience, a number which is constantly diminishing for the last half century (it was 73 percent in 1972).
This is not to fault the concept of the all-volunteer military, much less to advocate a return to conscription. It is to say, however, that the relatively few young people who choose to serve are virtually unique among their peers, and deserve not only the funding and other substantive support needed to accomplish their missions and support their families, but also the thoughts, prayers, respect, and appreciation of the American people.
That happens formally, and more or less automatically, every year on May 30 and Nov. 11. But there are 363 other days in the year, and on every one of them, holidays included, our service personnel are putting their lives at risk all over the world.
The Army has troops ranging from small detachments to brigades and divisions in over 100 countries, virtually all of them at risk from hostile forces or terrorists. Our air and naval forces are regularly confronting potentially hostile Chinese forces in the South China Sea, Russians in the Baltic and Black Seas, and a host of terrorist threats in the Mideast and spreading (remember the USS Cole?).
Special Forces from all services are constantly in harm’s way worldwide. And all the while that deployments are increasing, resources to support them are diminishing due to budget cuts and sequestration. Our Army will soon be at its smallest manpower level since 1940 – an astonishing ignorance of history.
Despite the demoralizing impacts of involuntary separations from service, ever-diminishing resources, and ever-increasing tempos of deployments, these fine young people, be they Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines, will continue to execute their missions to the best of their ability regardless of the risk to their own lives and the hardships created for their families.
They need and deserve our support daily, not just two days a year, which prompts this observance of the coincidences of this date. The memories of Art Bonifas, Mark Barrett, and Kimberly Hampton deserve no less.
Charles F. Smith is a retired Army officer who was Assistant G2 of the 2nd Infantry Division on the Korean DMZ at the time of the axe murders in the JSA. He and his wife have lived in Oconee County since 1992, where they are friends and neighbors of Kimberly Hampton’s parents.