These are the steps to follow right before you hear “Incoming!”

An Israeli armored brigade approaches the Golan Heights to relieve forces under Syrian attack on day two of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. U.S. fears that the Soviet Union would send troops to assist Egypt and Syria sparked a DEFCON level increase. (Corbis/David Rubinger)
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Air Force Captain David Ladurini of the 4485th Test Squadron saw how urgent these preparations were. When he arrived in New Orleans during a vacation with his parents, shortly after the attack, a hotel clerk greeted him: “Ladurini party? The FBI and your squadron commander are looking for you.” The FBI drove him to the airport so he could catch the next flight back to Florida. Having arrived at Eglin, Ladurini told the officer who met him that he needed to go get his gear. No need, said the officer: They had already broken into his house, so he was all packed. Next stop: Korea. Hustled onto a C-141 transport, Ladurini arrived at Osan early the next morning.

By August 20, the mood among the UNC troops and the 2nd Infantry Division was an ugly mix of fear, fury, and impatience. Having been given the warning order about action the following morning, they trained through the night. Wayne Johnson was the driver for an infantry captain, and while taking shelter from a rainstorm, had the chance to listen to a briefing that night. According to Johnson, an officer asked what would happen to the infantry company A-2-9 if the North Koreans started firing at them. The briefer took his chalk and marked a big X through the unit’s name.

Infantryman Mike Bilbo was among the UN Command troops who manned the JSA, and who would help protect the tree-trimmers from attack. If shooting began, the troops in the vicinity of the tree would be killed in short order, probably shredded by proximity-fused artillery set to explode a few dozen feet above the ground. Preparations were under way to the south, placing demolition charges that could destroy North Korean armor and block roads.

Johnson recalls that a thick layer of fog blocked his view of the sky, and shortly before the jumping-off hour he felt “bummed out” because he wouldn’t get to see the sunrise on his last day.

According to Glenn Burchard, a radar navigator in a B-52D, those in the first wave had only a half-day of preparation at Andersen Air Force Base. But they managed to send up at least a dozen bombers in support of Operation Paul Bunyan, leaving behind only those aircraft that were under repair or standing strategic alert under SAC’s routine nuclear war plan. After six or seven hours of flight, Burchard’s airplane reached South Korea, then angled north. “We flew straight north as far as we could go, and still be able to turn around before crossing the border,” he says. On the final leg his bomber flew barely 500 feet above the ground, a tactic that crews were familiar with, since it was how such airplanes would have tried to penetrate Soviet defenses when fighting a nuclear war. But notwithstanding rumors that passed among the troops below, the B-52Ds arriving from Andersen carried no bombs, conventional or otherwise. Burchard says this made sense because the purpose was to make a point to the North Koreans: massive firepower was available, and it would have taken extra hours to bomb up the airplanes.

In the end, Operation Paul Bunyan—conceived in a day and hastily executed in two days, the brainchild of officers in Korea but supported by leaders in Washington—met all expectations.

Dozens of deuce-and-a-half trucks rushed men of Task Force Vierra into the zone. Guards leapt from the trucks holding ax handles and formed a cordon around the engineers as they hacked with chain saws at the poplar tree; alongside the Americans were 50 of the Korean black belts, eager for some action. (According to the recollections, guards had more weapons available than sidearms and sticks: Although automatic weapons were banned in the JSA, the beds of trucks held plenty of M-16s and spare magazines, all tucked discreetly under sandbags.) In a few minutes, the tree was reduced to a stump. Troops hustled into the trucks, without any shots having been fired, or anyone injured.

David Ladurini would have been weapons system operator on the F-4E that was armed and scheduled to join the fray, but given the peaceful outcome, his airplane stayed on strip alert at Osan. Whether the early morning start caught the Koreans off guard, or the heavy air escort cowed them into submission, the North Koreans stood by as the limbs fell. One leader even offered a near apology later.

One of those happy people on the tree-trimming job was Mike Bilbo. Reflecting back, Bilbo says the “Mad Dog” Platoon he served with “may have brought some of it on ourselves”—by baiting the North Korean guards and sometimes beating them up—“but that was the nature of the place.”

The same could be said of the entire cold war: Risks were taken and brinks were edged, all in the cause of keeping the peace. Then the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet bloc broke up, and in September 1991 President George H.W. Bush took SAC off its 24-hour alert—events that did much to reduce the likelihood of World War III. The October 1973 DEFCON 3 alert has taken its place in history as the last major superpower showdown.

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