The A-7 missions during the Korean Tree Incident, the trimming of a tree in the DMZ that separated North and South Korea that nearly started a nuclear war

The A-7 missions during the Korean Tree Incident, the trimming of a tree in the DMZ that separated North and South Korea that nearly started a nuclear war

By Dario Leone
Aug 15 2023
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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The A-7 Corsair II

The A-7 Corsair II, built by LTV Aerospace Corporation (the same company that produced the venerable F-8 Crusader), was the aircraft that replaced the A-4 Skyhawk as Naval Aviation’s front line light attack aircraft. First flying in September of 1965, A-7s served over Vietnam and into the Gulf War.

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Although US Navy A-7s would not drop ordnance in anger for more than eight years following the Mayaguez Incident that “officially” ended the Vietnam Conflict, the aircraft came very close to more action just 15 months later in the wake of a seemingly innocuous event on Aug. 18, 1976 that was dubbed the Korean Tree Incident. It would see Midway and CVW 5 (which included A-7A equipped VA-56 and VA-93) sent to the Korean Peninsula.

The Korean Tree Incident

As told by Peter Mersky with Mike Crutch and Tony Holmes in their book A-7 Corsair II Units 1975-91, the catalyst for this event was a seemingly innocuous plan to trim a tree that was blocking the view of a United Nations (UN) observation post in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that had separated North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in July 1953. When the Korean People’s Army (KPA) ignored a request to prune the tree, US Army soldiers and Republic of Korea troops escorted civilian personnel into the treaty area on Aug. 18 to carry out the trimming. Although not all American and South Korean servicemen were armed, selected personnel carried axes with which to carry out the pruning.

Shortly after entering the DMZ, the work party was attacked by 35 North Korean troops. Two US Army soldiers were killed, and then the KPA retreated back into North Korea – this cycle of attack and retreat was repeated for almost an hour. The KPA subsequently claimed the ‘American imperialist aggressors’ were at fault, and the crisis quickly escalated. US military forces in the region were ordered to DEFCON 3, indicating a heightened threat of conflict, and possibly a nuclear war. On Aug. 19 South Korea began planning for possible rocket and artillery attacks from the North. Fortunately, no such attacks eventuated.

Operation Paul Bunyan

US forces did, however, put Operation Paul Bunyan (named after an American mythic folk hero lumberjack) into action on Aug. 21, while President Ford held a series of ‘crisis talks’ on how best to proceed. Midway was ordered to sail from its homeport of Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, that same day, with CVW 5 embarked and its battlegroup in tow. The vessels duly headed at speed for the Korean Peninsula. It was only when the battlegroup reached the Sea of Japan the following day that flight operations began, aircraft from VA-56 and VA-93 dropping smoke markers in the water to act as targets for F-4s, A-6s and A-7s. There was planning for large scale Alpha strikes on North Korean targets, and aircrew also began checking their personal survival gear more closely, as well as their sidearms.

VA-86 A-7 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. A-7E Corsair II VA-86 Sidewinders, AJ400 / 159292 / 1977

By Aug. 23 Midway and its battlegroup were off South Korea. Arranged on deck maintaining an Alert 5 condition were two F-4N Phantom IIs from either VF-151 or VF-161 and a pair of A-7As loaded with Mk 20 Rockeye canisters – three each on triple ejector racks (TERs) on underwing stations 1 and 8. The remaining stores stations were usually kept free of ordnance so as to reduce drag when airborne, although Corsair IIs occasionally carried the standard 300 gal fuel tanks on stations 3 and 6 so as to extend the jets’ range. The A-7A’s two Colt Mk 12 20 mm cannon were loaded with 340 rounds per gun.

The Korean Tree Incident: the US Army had trims the tree

By now, the US Army had trimmed the tree, but concern remained high about possible North Korean retaliation. The Midway battlegroup operated off the Korean coast until Sep. 8, and returned to Yokosuka eight days later.

Robert Thomas, a pilot with VA-93, recalled flying an A-7A in tanker configuration from CVW 5’s NAF Atsugi home to Midway shortly after the carrier departed Yokosuka on 21 August. Once off Korea, CVW 5 conducted flight operations nearly every day, as Thomas explained. ‘I flew a total of 11 flights during this period, five of which were at night. We flew a longer cycle than normal, with most flights in the 2.5 hour plus range. Three of the flights – on 23, 26 and 27 August – were SUCAP [surface combat air patrol] missions. These were flown in jets with the same weaponry as the alert birds.

Alert 5 presence

‘So, in effect, we had an Alert 5 presence airborne during flight ops. We operated with VAW-115 E-2Bs and surface ships in the carrier strike group during these missions. We didn’t expend any ordnance, as it was to be used operationally if required. Other flights during this period saw us undertaking practice bombing missions on mainland South Korea target ranges not far south of the DMZ, as well as carrying out routine tanker missions. One interesting tidbit is that every mission, even tanker missions, were flown with a full load of 20 mm ammunition.’

North Korean SA-2 SAM sites had their ‘Spoon Rest’ search radars active throughout Operation Paul Bunyan, but aircraft operating from Midway were well out of missile range. Soviet warships also routinely shadowed the battlegroup off the coast of Korea, with their fire control radar ‘painting’ the US Navy vessels on occasion.

A-7 Corsair II Units 1975-91 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

The A-7 missions during the Korean Tree Incident, the trimming of a tree in the DMZ that separated North and South Korea that nearly started a nuclear war
The tree that was the object of an incident that occurred in 1976, when two American officers were killed by North Koreans along the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). Shot: Mar. 28, 1984.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Army


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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