I was 6 years old when Communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea. My future wife was 2 years old. We have been so grateful to American service members for their sacrifices in defending the Republic of Korea from Communist North Korean aggression.
On Nov. 8, 2017, I attended the mass of resurrection for Sgt. Gerald J. Mueller at Church of the Holy Spirit in St. Paul. Many Korean War veterans attended. On Feb. 12, 1951, Mueller had been captured by the Chinese in what became known as the Battle of Massacre Valley in central Korea below the 38th parallel. Mueller died on May 3, 1951, unable to march farther north. On Aug. 4, 2017, Mueller’s stepbrother Greg got a call from the POW/MIA Identification Lab in Hawaii.
I took a pew in front to be closer to the U.S. flag-draped coffin containing Mueller’s remains. He had died at age 21. When I read that Jeanine M. Hanley and he were married in Holy Spirit Catholic Church on June 3, 1950, I realized that I was in the same church. My mind’s eye pictured them at the altar. I felt drawn into the river of sorrow as I experienced two occasions at once — the happiest time and the saddest. We sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Make Me A Channel of Your Peace,” “Eye Has Not Seen” and “America the Beautiful.”
Whenever they are posted overseas, U.S. service members long for coming home to America the beautiful. Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas had longed for that, too. Last June, I got a call from Kenneth Koester, a Korean War veteran. He asked me if I knew who Capt. Bonifas was. Of course! He said, “I am his cousin. Will you send me any material related to him?”
Bonifas was expected to return home in late August 1976 from his tour of duty as company commander and security officer of the Joint Security Agency (JSA) of the United Nations Command in Panmunjom, Korea. On Aug. 18, 1976, he led an 18-man work party assigned to take down a 40-foot- tall poplar tree blocking the view of United Nations observers.
North Korean guards protested, saying that the tree should not be cut because President Kim Il Sung had planted it. Bonifas ordered the work to continue. A North Korean officer yelled “kill the Americans.” They axed him to death on the spot. Lt. Mark Barrett, badly hacked with the axes, died on the way to a hospital in Seoul. Others were wounded.
On the same day in Sri Lanka, Kim Jong Il, a son of Kim Il Sung, introduced a resolution asking the Conference of Nonaligned Nations to condemn the U.S. provocation and calling for the dissolution of the U.N. Command. The resolution passed.
On Aug. 21, U.S. and South Korean forces cut down the tree, backed with a massive show of force on land and sea and in the air. The JSA advance camp was renamed Camp Bonifas.
On Aug. 25, 1976, Bonifas’ hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, printed an article with a caption and a photo: “Bonifas Praised, ‘Died for Peace.’ ” The photo had been taken at the burial site at West Point. It showed Marcia, his widow, seated with Brian, 6, and Beth, 8, and Bonifas’ parents, Raymond and Thelma Bonifas. Brian covered his ears during a three-volley salute.
North Korea had inflicted inhumanity on three generations of an American family. Beth, Brian and Megan, 2, had been left fatherless; they lost happy times playing water polo and scuba diving, their father’s favorite sports. How much have they missed their father on happy occasions such as birthdays and graduations over the past 42 years? I wonder who walked with Beth and Megan to the altar on their wedding days.
I thought of Bonifas’ parents’ anguish. I imagined their excitement when their son was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy. No parents would expect their child to die before them.
Arthur had courted Marcia for five years. With orders in hand for his next assignment, they had bought a new home in Savannah, Ga. She had planned homecoming parties that never took place.
Korean War veterans and the next of kin of KIAs or MIAs are invited to the Kim Family’s 15th Annual Appreciation Day Picnic and Program in Honor of President Harry S. Truman and Korean War Service Members. The event is at Long Lake Regional Park in New Brighton on Saturday, Sept. 8, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Send your name (and the names of up to two guests), unit, address and phone number to Byong Moon Kim at 1549 Lois Drive, Shoreview, MN 55126 by Sept. 6. I’ll confirm your registration.
Robert Harlan of Austin, Texas, will speak on the theme “Reflections on My Time in the ‘Land of Morning Calm.’ ” A Marine, Harlan fought in several major battles, including the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. He has pondered the question: Did we make a difference to the people of Korea?
We will remember Sgt. Gerald J. Mueller and Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas during the program.
Byong Moon Kim lives in Shoreview.