Murder at Panmunjom: The Role of Theatre Commander in Crisis Resolution

Author/Editor: Conrad DeLateur

Publisher/Sponsor: Foreign Service Institute, Twenty-Ninth Session Senior Seminar

Supplier: Department of State

Report Date: March, 1987

Document Number: –

Classification: –

Nautilus Filing Number: 1024

Box Number: 32

Go to the report.


Both Koreas maintain very large military forces ready to fight at a moments notice. The two sides exchange fire across the DMZ at least annually and as recently as July. The DMZ is always tense with the potential to escalate to full-scale war without warning.

This research paper by Colonel Conrad DeLateur explores an explosive incident between US-ROK forces and the DPRK military at Panmunjom in 1976, known in the West as the “axe murder crisis.” Given the increasing tension over the nuclear issue, it is useful to revisit the 1976 incident and the lessons learned during that confrontation about instability on the DMZ.

The paper reveals three remarkable and previously undisclosed aspects of the incident:

US escalation options: As is well known, the United States responded quickly to the North Korean attack with a major military buildup after the initial incident including “(1) deployment of a F-4 squadron from Okinawa to Korea, (2) preparation for deployment of a F-111 squadron from the US to Korea, (3) preparation for the use of B-52’s on training missions from Guam to Korea, (4) preparation for deployment of the Midway from Japan to Korean waters, and (5) an increase in the alert status of US forces in Korea.”(11) What is not well known is that, “options being voiced within the Washington establishment ranged from doing nothing to exacting retribution by sinking a North Korean ship or destroying a North Korean barracks by artillery fire.” (12)

Stillwell cut the White House out of operational communications: Then-US Commander of US forces in Korea General Richard Stillwell blocked political interference in the military operations to cut down the offending poplar tree at Panmunjon. As the report explains, “General Stillwell was genuinely concerned about the possibility of Washington or Hawaii wanting to talk to the solder in the ‘foxhole’ during the operation, thereby by passing the legitimate chain of command and the prerogatives of the theater commander. To prevent a similar reccurrence [sic] he established two secure phone lines to CINCPAC and the Pentagon, terminating one in his office and the other in the UNC Forward Command Post. These lines were left in the ‘open’ position and thereby, effectively tied up all the secure phone lines into Korea. A simple, yet effective, method of ‘hanging up’ used by General Stillwell and his staff, was to place a Styrofoam cup over the receiver.” (13, 14)

The North Koreans fired on and hit a US helicopter flying above Panmunjon during the tree cutting operation: “The only weapons fire occurred when MG Brady was flying over Panmunjom to observe any reactions by the KPA. His helicopter was fired upon and received two rounds, as it flew near the DMZ.” (21)

This report was released to the Nautilus Institute under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).