DMZ Flashpoints: The Deadly 1966 DMZ Ambush

On October 31, 1966, US President Lyndon B. Johnson arrived in South Korea to meet with then South Korean strongman Park Chung-hee. This was the first time that President Johnson had traveled to South Korea and President Park was eager to make an impression.  Here is how the Stars & Stripes described the seen as President Johnson arrived in Seoul to a crowd estimated at 250,000 people:

johnson visit to korea
Image via Scenes from an Unfinished War.

SEOUL — President and Mrs. Johnson got a rousing Texas-style welcome here Monday.

They were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd estimated at 2 million as they flew to the Republic of Korea on the last leg of a 7-nation trip.

Officials traveling with the presidential party called the welcome the largest and most enthusiastic of the trip.

At times, the ecstasy almost resulted in tragedy.

Frenzied crowds estimated at 250,000 at Seoul’s City Hall Plaza roared approval at the sight of Johnson so loud and long that the speech of Korean President Chung Hee Park was drowned in the din.

The mob also overran a 2,000-member girls’ chorus near the presidential stand, trampling some of the girls underfoot, and at one time threatened to break Secret Service lines and overflow onto the speaker’s stand.

One 57-year-old Seoul woman was hospitalized with serious injuries after being trampled and 12 persons were treated for minor injuries.

The entire 9-mile motorcade route in Seoul was lined with crowds 20-30 persons deep.

Much of the crowd was made up of schoolchildren waving U.S. and Korean flags and carrying hand-painted signs bearing greetings to the President and First Lady. The city’s schools were closed for the occasion.

The President stopped the motorcade five times to shake hands with Koreans along the route between Kimpo International Airport, where he landed at about 3 p.m., and Seoul’s city hall. Several times along the route, the crowd surged forward past police lines and flooded around the car bearing the two presidents.

At city hall, order among the roaring crowd was restored only after Deputy Prime Minister Key Young Chang personally took charge of police lines and appealed to the front ranks of the crowds.

Johnson told the city hall crowd that Koreans should be “rightly proud” of the rebuilding job they have done after the Korean War leveled the nation, and suggested that Asia was experiencing “a new spirit of cooperation.

“That spirit of cooperation in this part of the world was shared by the seven nations who met at Manila last week.

“That historic meeting, which you first suggested … affirmed the broad partnership and the common purpose of free Pacific nations — a partnership that will endure long after the communist aggression is ended in Vietnam,” Johnson said in his speech.

(“Here in Korea, our fighting men stand with your own along the Demilitarized Zone, and we shall come once again to your defense if aggression — God forbid — should occur here again,” he added, AP said.)

(“To an American, the free soil of Korea is hallowed ground,” Johnson told the throng police estimated at some 350,000.)

(“More than 54,000 Americans died in the bitter 1950-53 battle to save this mountainous peninsula country from communist invaders from the north. Today South Korea has around 45,000 soldiers helping the allied cause in South Vietnam.”)

The two partnership efforts against Red aggression and Korea’s remarkable recent economic progress were main themes of the visit.

Park said Korea had “undiminished appreciation” for the help the United States has given it during the past quarter-century.

“We have been much indebted to you as comrades-in-arms,” he said.

“Please be assured that ours is not a nation which will indefinitely continue to be indebted to others, but rather is a nation which knows how to requite its obligations, which has a keen sense of responsibility, and which abides by good faith.”

At city hall, Johnson was officially welcomed to Korea and presented a gold key to the city of Seoul by Mayor Hyun Ok Kim.

President and Mrs. Johnson were honored Monday night at a state dinner given by the Korean first family at the national capitol. After the dinner they attended an art festival in Seoul’s Citizens’ Hall.

Tuesday, Park and Johnson had a private, 30-minute talk.

Johnson was to visit the Korean 26th Inf. Div. and the U.S. 36th Engineer Group, both near Uijongbu, 13 miles north of Seoul later Tuesday. He was to lunch with U.S. troops.

In the afternoon, the President was to visit an agricultural display at Suwon, 20 miles south of Seoul, where he was also to have a hill named after him.

Johnson will wind up his Far East trip Wednesday with visits to the National Cemetery and Korean National Assembly, where he will give a speech on nationwide television.  [Stars & Stripes]

As well as President Johnson’s trip was going, evil was lurking in the background. Early on the morning of November 2nd, the same morning that President Johnson was projected to leave Korea, members of the North Korean 17th Foot Reconnaissance Brigade followed an eight man patrol of US Army soldiers with Company A, 1st Battalion, 23d Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division.  The soldiers were patrolling about 1 kilometer south of the DMZ near the Libby Bridge. The North Koreans set a hasty ambush ahead of the patrol and engaged them with hand grenades and small arms fire.  After they cut down the patrol the North Koreans shot a few more rounds into some of the bodies and stuck their bayonets in others.  Six Americans and a Korean Augmentee to the US Army (KATUSA) were killed by the attack.  Incredibly a seventh American soldier, PFC David L. Bibee some how survived the attack by playing dead.  Here is what he had to say afterwards:

PFC David L. Bibee . . . 17 years old. He was wounded but escaped death by playing dead. “The only reason I’m alive now is because I didn’t move when a North Korean yanked my watch off my wrist.  [Korean War Project]

At the same time of the attack on the US soldiers, a ROK Army patrol was also ambushed killing 2 soldiers.  Both attacks were well timed and well executed.  The below Google Earth image shows where Libby Bridge is located outside the village of Changpa-ri and where the DMZ fence is located.  The ambush would of happened in the hills between the bridge and the fence:

Libby Bridge

With the attack happening during President Johnson’s Korea trip this caused the attack to make headlines in the US.  Here is how the November 3, 1966 Stars & Stripes reported the attack:

ambush article1 ambush article2

This attack along with others during this timeframe would become part of what became known as the “DMZ War“.  The North Korean regime led by Kim Il-sung was launching attacks in an effort to test US resolve to defend Korea during the Vietnam War. He hoped the attacks would create a wedge between the US and ROK alliance while simultaneously sending in operatives to create an insurgency within South Korea.  Fortunately Kim Il-sung’s strategy failed, but it cost the lives of the following men in the 2nd Infantry Division patrol ambushed on November 2, 1966:

  • Benton, Johnny Wayne 2 Nov 66. Vermont.
  • Burrell, Robert Wayne 2 Nov 66. Mt. Ayr, Indiana
  • Fischer, Morris Lee 2 Nov 66. Wisconsin.
  • Hasty, Leslie L. 2 Nov 66. Palestine, Texas.
  • Hensley, James. 2 Nov 66. Stockridge, Michigan.
  • Reynolds, Ernest D. 2 Nov 66. Missouri. P
  • Myong, Pfc Hwan Oh 2 Nov 66.  KATUSA attached to A Co. 1/23 2ID Camp Wally

Robert Burrell

Of note is that Private Reynolds who was Killed in Action during the ambush, was nominated for the Medal of Honor and was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.  He had only been in Korea 17 days.  Ernest D. Reynolds was born October 13,1946 in Maryville, Missouri to Lowell D. and Joyce A. Reynolds (died 2011). In 1958 the family moved to Northeast Kansas City, Missouri. Ernie went to Whittier Elementary and graduated from Northeast High School in 1964. In 1986 the family was in Seoul for the dedication of the Reynolds Range.  He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Maryville, MO.  Private Reynolds is survived by his siblings Melody, Roger and Sharon.  Here is his Silver Star citation:

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Silver Star Medal (Posthumously) to Ernest D. Reynolds (US-55881470), Private, U.S. Army, for gallantry in action while engaged in military operations, while serving with Company A, 1st Battalion, 23d Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division. Private Reynolds distinguished himself by gallantry in action on 2 November 1966, in the Republic of Korea, by sacrificing his own life in the defense of his fellow soldiers. Private Reynolds was a member of a patrol operating near the southern boundary of the Demilitarized Zone in Korea when his patrol was attacked and overrun by an armed patrol of the North Korean Army. Prior to the attack, as rear security man, he had occupied a concealed position and opened fire upon the enemy, and he continued to fire until he himself was killed. His indomitable courage, determination, and profound concern for his fellow soldiers, are in the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 2d Infantry Division, and the United States Army. Department of the Army, General Orders No. 16 (April 4, 1967) Home State: Missouri Personal Awards: Silver Star (Korea-1966), Purple Heart.

The Korean War is known as the “Forgotten War”, but for the soldiers that served on the Korean frontier during the “DMZ War” their conflict should be known as the “Really Forgotten War” since so few people know about it.  Fortunately the 2nd Infantry Division today is beginning to embrace and remember the brave soldiers who served on the frontlines of the DMZ War.  It is because of the service of the brave men that served in Korea during this time period that Kim Il-sung’s strategy was thwarted and South Korea was able to develop into the thriving democracy and economic miracle that it is today.

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I am a US military veteran that has served all over the world to include in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. I have been blogging about Korea, Northeast Asia, and the US military for over 10 years.

One Comment

  1. “President and Mrs. Johnson got a rousing Texas-style welcome here Monday.”

    “a ROK Army patrol was also ambushed killing 2 soldiers”

    So let me see if I got this straight.

    By North Korean thinking…

    A Lady Bird in the land is worth two in ambush?

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