Written By: Colonel Thomas Hanson, USA-Ret.
Vasilii Yakovlevich Matuzok had dreamed of fleeing the oppression of communism since his high school days in Moscow. At age twenty-two, he became a translator in the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang, capital city of dictator Kim Il-sung’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Almost as soon as Matuzok arrived in the Far East, he began planning his defection. His opportunity came on 23 November 1984. That day he joined a group of Soviet-bloc Europeans for a tour of the so-called “Truce Village” at Panmunjom. All Matuzok required for escape was a moment of inattention by his handlers. A quick sprint across the Military Demarcation Line would bring him to safety and freedom.
In 1953, representatives of the United Nations Command (UNC) met with their communist counterparts from North Korea and China in the ruined village of Panmunjom to put an end to three years of bloody armed conflict. The armistice they signed on 27 July 1953 ended active combat
operations and established a zone of separation between the two Korean states in hopes of avoiding further military confrontation. Within the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Panmunjom became the permanent site for the two sides to maintain the fragile peace and exchange words instead of munitions. For a brief moment in 1984, however, Panmunjom was the site of a renewed Korean War, when Matuzok’s defection caused North Korean soldiers to open fire and pursue him into South Korean territory. The U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers guarding “Freedom’s Frontier” demonstrated superior training and discipline by limiting the scope and duration of the firefight while preventing the North Korean soldiers from apprehending the defector. Their skill in doing so, however, enabled senior American and South Korean officials to downplay the significance of their actions and to delay recognition of their valor for nearly twenty years.
When the two sides signed the armistice in July 1953, the front lines (Main Line of Resistance, or MLR, in contemporary doctrine) bisected the Korean peninsula near the 38th Parallel, rising well north of the parallel in the east and descending below the parallel in the west. Following the Armistice, the ground contact line became the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), a de facto inter-Korean border. To preclude accidental violations of each side’s territory by the other, a four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) insulates the MDL to this day. Inside the DMZ, numbered yellow signs posted every one hundred meters indicate the border. The signs identify the MDL in Korean and Chinese on the north-facing side, and Korean and English on the south-facing side.
Despite its name, the DMZ became one of the most heavily militarized strips of land on the planet. To facilitate discussions between the two sides, however, the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom remained free of minefields, tank traps, “rock drops,” and razor wire. To emphasize the JSA’s special status, the MDL remained unmarked from 1953 until, in the aftermath of the 18 August 1976 “Axe Murder Incident,” both sides agreed to
extend MDL markings through the JSA. For over sixty years, when the two Koreas discussed inter-Korean relations or when the Military Armistice Commissions of the two sides accused each other of violating the terms of the armistice, those talks took place inside the JSA.
Even before the signing of the Armistice, both sides maintained dedicated security forces inside the JSA. On the UNC side, what was originally the 558th Military Police Company evolved into the battalion-sized Joint Security Area Support Group. The four platoons of U.S. and South Korean light infantrymen comprising the Joint Security Force (JSF), a subordinate element of the Support Group, rotated duties between themselves, serving as a quick reaction force (QRF), conducting support missions and tasks in Camp Kitty Hawk, and conducting tactical training. Within the JSA itself, the Armistice agreement limited each side to five officers and thirty enlisted personnel for security at any one time. In addition, the UNC Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) maintained a twenty-four-hour presence within the JSA. The Joint Duty Officer (JDO) worked on “Conference Row,” in one of several buildings that straddled the MDL. The JDO controlled a direct telephone connection to his North Korean counterpart, enabling instant communication in the event of a crisis.
Over the years, the North provoked numerous incidents within the JSA and across the peninsula. Conditions became so dangerous that, from 1966 to 1969, American soldiers who served anywhere on the Korean DMZ earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge if they exchanged fire with the North Koreans on five or more separate occasions. For a brief period in 1968 and 1969, combat pay and right-sleeve “shoulder sleeve insignia-former wartime service” (popularly called “combat patches”) were also authorized. In 1968, communist soldiers infiltrated south of the MDL and ambushed a UNC supply truck. Two U.S. soldiers and two ROK soldiers were killed. On 18 August 1976, Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers attacked a combined U.S.-ROK detail sent to trim a poplar tree, killing two American officers. The Axe Murder Incident brought the United States to the brink of war before North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung issued a formal apology—the only time the North Koreans have ever done so. In the aftermath of that
incident, the KPA eliminated its guard posts south of the MDL, and routine crossings of the MDL by guard force members of either side became a memory. While overt provocations subsided, the tension persisted and renewed violence remained a daily possibility.
It was in this atmosphere in 1984 that Matuzok seized his chance. Pretending to pose for a photograph with a communist guard at the corner of a building on Conference Row, Matuzok suddenly darted across the MDL. Initially believing himself safe after crossing to the South, he slowed to a walk until the North Koreans unholstered their pistols and fired at him. Matuzok then sped past two startled U.S. soldiers, following a paved road between UNC Checkpoint Number 4 and the Freedom House pagoda. He continued running south, shouting in English, “Help me! Cover Me!” Initially, two KPA soldiers chased him across the MDL, joined almost immediately by another five or six. Their pursuit transformed the defection into an armed incursion by North Korea into Republic of Korea territory.
Recovering almost immediately from their initial surprise, at least fifteen more KPA soldiers armed with Type 68 assault rifles ran across the MDL in pursuit of the defector. The two JSF soldiers ran toward Matuzok, hoping to bring him inside UNC Checkpoint Number 4. Matuzok continued to run south across an open area past the decorative Sunken Garden and into a low marshy area just north of the road that led to the Bridge of No Return, where he hid from his pursuers. One of the JSF soldiers ran inside Checkpoint Number 4 to alert the soldiers there while the other continued on to Checkpoint Number 2 to spread the alarm. Simultaneously, Private First Class Richard Howard, observing the JSA from the second floor of Checkpoint Number 4, pressed the alarm button to alert both the JSA and Camp Kitty Hawk. All of this took less than thirty seconds.
In the next fifteen seconds, a full-fledged firefight developed between the JSF and KPA. As Matuzok and his guides ran south, two other JSF soldiers approximately fifty meters east of the Sunken Garden immediately fired on the pursuing KPA soldiers. Private Michael A. Burgoyne later stated, “We saw a defector running into the wood line [south of the Sunken Garden] and right behind him were ten to fifteen KPA [soldiers]. The front two were firing at the defector. I took a position behind a tree about twenty feet away [south] of Checkpoint Number 4 and opened fire on the front KPA. I saw him fall.” Accompanying Burgoyne was Private First Class Jang Myong-ki, a Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army (KATUSA) soldier serving in the JSF. Ten other JSF soldiers led by Sergeant First Class Johnny W. Taylor tumbled out of Checkpoint Number 4 and took up firing positions. The combined fires of these soldiers distracted the original KPA pursuers from Matuzok and trapped them in the Sunken Garden. JSF soldiers manning Checkpoint Number 5, Specialist Fourth Class David Cotton, Jr., and Private First Class Oh Yung-suk, fired their .45-caliber pistols at two KPA soldiers wielding Type 68s who were attempting to suppress Taylor’s group outside Checkpoint Number 4.
Less than sixty seconds after Matuzok crossed the MDL, Second Lieutenant Thomas Thompson, the platoon leader on duty at the JSA, reported a firefight to Camp Kitty Hawk’s tactical operations center. Captain Henry Nowak, the operations officer, summoned the JSF commander, Captain Bert K. Mizusawa, to the operations center because there was “gunfire” in the JSA. Passing the QRF (on that day assembled in front of the operations center), Mizusawa ordered them to “load up” while he went inside to confer with Nowak. After learning all he could from the operations officer, Mizusawa raced north in his jeep while ascertaining from Lieutenant Thompson whether Checkpoint Number 2 was “safe” or not. At this point Mizusawa was unaware of the defection; his only concern was to restore Armistice conditions within the JSA, which meant turning back the KPA invaders “with no concern for proportionality…we were going to win no matter what.”
The QRF platoon’s three nine-man rifle squads, each augmented by a two-man M60 machine gun team, and Mizusawa’s command element dismounted from their vehicles about 100 meters south of UNC Checkpoint Number 2 at approximately 1140, about fifteen minutes after the defection. Mizusawa initially ordered Sergeant Jose Diaz’s squad to remain in reserve near Checkpoint Number 2, then directed Diaz to move to the east side of the JSA near the helipad and Checkpoint Number 4 to engage the KPA soldiers in the Sunken Garden if needed. Mizusawa led the other two squads on a flanking movement to the south and west of the Sunken Garden. Staff Sergeant Richard Lamb’s squad took the lead, followed by Staff Sergeant Curtis Gissendanner’s squad. The two squads then moved north across the road, following a broken trail through the low ground. At this point Matuzok was found hiding in the low ground. Mizusawa, for the first time confronted with the true scope of the day’s events, quickly realized that if the KPA apprehended or killed Matuzok, the Communists could either deny the defection had occurred or accuse UNC forces of kidnapping and murdering him. After confirming Matuzok’s intention to defect, Mizusawa ordered the QRF platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Howard Williams, to take Matuzok to the safety of Camp Kitty Hawk.
With the defector out of harm’s way, Mizusawa now concentrated on defeating the KPA incursion. He shifted Gissendanner’s squad to the west to protect the JSF’s left flank and also interdict a covered infiltration route used by the KPA to reinforce their comrades in the Sunken Garden. Gissendanner’s squad laid down accurate suppressive fires. Specialist Jon Orlicki fired several 40mm grenades from the second floor of Checkpoint Number 4 into the Sunken Garden, killing at least one North Korean and wounding several others. At Lieutenant Tryon’s command, the elements providing suppressive fires shifted their aim northward and Staff Sergeant Lamb bounded his men across the asphalt parking area into the Sunken Garden itself. As Lamb described the final action, it was a classic infantry engagement. While most of the squad suppressed the KPA west of the garden, Lamb and two other soldiers bounded forward. The assault forced the KPA soldiers out of the Sunken Garden and exposed them to UNC fire. “While covering the enemy, we closed to within ten or fifteen meters and forced them to raise their hands above their heads and surrender,” Lamb later reported.
The elapsed time from Captain Mizusawa’s arrival at UNC Checkpoint Number 2 to the surrender of the surviving KPA soldiers in the Sunken Garden area was approximately six minutes, and about twenty minutes since Matuzok had crossed the MDL. With the lull in firing, Mizusawa called forward a truck for prisoner transport. Before the UNC soldiers could secure their prisoners and search the dead, however, they were ordered to hold their positions. Shortly after the shooting started, the KPA Joint Duty Officer, Major Park, telephoned U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Randy A. Brooks in the UNC Joint Duty Officer building to request a cease-fire. Park also requested authorization to cross the MDL with six unarmed personnel to evacuate the dead and wounded KPA soldiers. Staff Sergeant Brooks relayed this information to the US/UN/Combined Forces Command operations center in Seoul without informing Captain Mizusawa or any member of his chain of command. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Earl E. Bechtold, the UNCMAC Assistant Secretary, was the senior UNCMAC officer in Seoul that day. Unable to speak with UNC senior leaders who were visiting offshore islands in the East China Sea and receiving no authoritative instructions from anyone in Seoul, on his own authority Bechtold granted the KPA request without qualification. Staff Sergeant Brooks then ran down to the Sunken Garden yelling, “Cease fire, cease fire.” Mizusawa ordered his men to ignore
Brooks, who had no command authority. Several minutes later, Lieutenant Thomas received confirmation of the order via telephone from Captain Nowak in the operations center. Thomas radioed to Mizusawa that the order had come from “CP Seoul.”
Seeing what was happening and aware that precious evidence was about to be lost, Captain Mizusawa moved quickly to the MDL and demanded to speak with the KPA commander. Under the terms of the Armistice, Mizusawa was empowered to call on-the-spot meetings with his counterpart to investigate alleged violations of the Armistice. These so-called Security Officers’ Meetings frequently had been employed as a face-saving measure for both sides to de-escalate previous KPA provocations. Had the KPA commander agreed, the scene of the violation would have been “frozen” pending the outcome of the meeting. By this time, however, the evacuation of KPA dead and wounded was underway. Major Park refused to meet with Mizusawa, who could only watch as the evidence of the most blatant act of North Korean aggression in the JSA since the “Axe Murders” was removed with the consent of the UNCMAC. Still fully exposed to the armed and agitated KPA guards and with no guarantee they would abide by the cease-fire, Mizusawa and his driver-cum-bodyguard, Private First Class Warren Choate, walked the MDL to check the health and security posture of the QRF and “border platoon” soldiers.
Once the firing stopped, both sides took stock of their losses. Private Burgoyne was evacuated with a bullet wound to his chin. His companion Private First Class Jang lay dead from a single bullet wound below the right eye. After Burgoyne shot the lead communist guard pursuing Matuzok, other North Koreans suppressed Burgoyne and Jang. The two JSF soldiers were quickly pinned down by what Burgoyne described as “a hailstorm of bullets.” Hearing shouts as Sergeant Taylor’s men came out of Checkpoint Number 4 behind him, Burgoyne “looked up to see what was going on, [and] I was struck by a round.” No one saw Jang die. Burgoyne saw Jang maneuver to the left to get a better shot, and “heard him fire a couple times, but after that I’m not certain what happened.” What was certain was that the KPA had paid a much higher price.
Staff Sergeant Brooks and Lieutenant Thompson both believed the KPA suffered at least two dead and two wounded. The next day, North Korean radio reported communist casualty figures of three dead and one wounded. Left out of the North Korean report were two additional casualties. Several members of the Swiss and Swedish delegations to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, present on the north side of the MDL immediately after the firefight, reported the execution of two guards by a senior communist officer behind the main KPA building minutes after the firefight. The executions were preceded by “a bitter verbal argument with shouting and raised fists between the [surviving] KPA who had been pinned down in the sunken garden and the more senior officers in the JSA.” The executions were accomplished by “three deliberate, spaced pistol shots.” Obviously, the price for failure under Kim Il-sung’s regime was both high and non-negotiable.
The North Koreans followed their swift reaction to failure with a ferocious propaganda campaign against the “American bastards.” Condemning what they called “devilish and beastly barbarity,” North Korea claimed that Matuzok had inadvertently stepped over the MDL, and that U.S. soldiers had fired on KPA guards who had simply “approached to tell [Matuzok] of his mistake.” The North Korean government also claimed that U.S. forces then kidnapped Matuzok, covering their escape with “automatic” weapons fire while failing to mention their own use of automatic rifles. North Korean propaganda loudspeakers near the JSA broadcast threats of retaliation in the coming days, and propaganda leaflets scattered by the KPA urged patriots on both sides of the MDL to exact punishment for the “massacre of our North Korea patrol troops.” Following the funeral of the three slain KPA guards at Kaesong, KPA colonel Kim Du-hwan (a member of the KPA Military Armistice Commission delegation) voiced an urgent desire for retaliation and revenge against the “heinous murderers.”
In the following days, both the Reagan Administration and the South Korean government led by Chun Do-hwan sought to downplay the significance of what the press quickly dubbed the “Soviet Defector Firefight.” A spokesman for the U.S. State Department expressed hope that the incident “would not damage inter-Korean economic and Red Cross [sic] talks,” while National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane sounded sanguine: “These incidents happen from time to time,” he said. “They are to be expected, I think.” South Korean Defense Minister Yun Song-mi put it more bluntly: the ROK government would not take stern countermeasures because the incident occurred “accidentally.” Yun’s comments contradicted harsher statements made by Culture Minister Yi Chin-hui, who characterized the KPA actions as “an atrocity.” Nevertheless, most major South Korean newspapers supported Yun’s position. Their opinion pages echoed the sentiments of the conservative newspaper Chungang Ilbo, whose editors declared, “Such an incident should never be allowed to thwart our national aspirations and task [of peaceful reunification].” This attitude reflected both U.S. and ROK concerns that a harsh response would likely derail recent and promising bilateral meetings. Thus, mainstream South Korean media considered the event unfortunate but anomalous, while communist coverage of the incident—even North Korea’s official media—failed to mention the involvement of ROK soldiers in the firefight. Instead, all blame was laid at the feet of the U.S. soldiers, perhaps in an attempt to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. A few days later, North Korea cancelled an upcoming round of economic discussions with the South but left the door open for resumption once the “horrifying atmosphere” surrounding the incident had dissipated.
Despite the diplomatic indifference, American military commanders recognized that the men serving in the JSA had performed admirably and won a significant tactical and psychological victory. General William Livsey, Commander-in-Chief, UNC, and Lieutenant General Yu Sung-guk, commander of the ROK Army’s I Corps, decorated twenty-six U.S. and seventeen ROK soldiers for gallantry in action, including Private Burgoyne, who received a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart. The unrestrained atmosphere did not last, however. By presenting wartime awards, Livsey nearly forced the Reagan Administration to publicly acknowledge that the North Koreans’ default setting was, in effect, “shoot first and ask questions later.” Such a result would have caused the Kim regime to lose face and perhaps provoke even worse behavior. Therefore, although four of the UNC participants received Bronze Stars (Jang posthumously, with a “V” device signifying valor), the remaining participants received “inadequate” recognition or nothing at all. Although Burgoyne enjoyed some media attention as he recovered from his wound, most of the rest of the JSF returned to their duties with nothing in their records to prove their participation in what some described as the “fiercest firefight since the Vietnam War.” Perhaps rewarding the ROK government for not trumpeting the tactical prowess of the UNC soldiers at Panmunjom, Kim Il-sung publicly endorsed a renewal of North-South dialogue during his New Year’s message on 1 January 1985.
Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, the QRF platoon deployed north without some key leaders. Nevertheless, it defeated the KPA as a result of better training, superior firepower, and better junior leader and individual soldier initiative. In his after-action report, Captain Mizusawa noted that although the KPA reacted “fearlessly” to orders to pursue Matuzok, the decision appeared on reflection to have been ill-conceived and hastily ordered. If so, then the summary execution of the KPA survivors may have been earned for poor decision-making as well as failure.
Bechtold’s cease-fire order and authorization for the North Koreans to evacuate their casualties should be understood in the context of the MAC mission. The MAC was the UNC commander’s tool to ensure that the terms of the Armistice were enforced uniformly, and that the Armistice terms remained in force at all times. The MAC’s first response to a disruption of those terms was speedy restoration, which Mizusawa understood as well as Bechtold. When called to brief General Livsey about the incident and his orders, Bechtold did not know whether he would receive “a medal or a fast trip home to retirement” because of the lack of clarity at even the senior levels over what the proper response should have been.
In fact, nothing at all happened to Bechtold. He and Lieutenant Colonel John T. Hitchcock, who conducted the official investigation for UNCMAC, wondered for weeks whether anything concrete would come from the after-action review the latter conducted with members of the JSF just hours after the firefight; neither officer ever received any guidance to act on Hitchcock’s recommendations. In fact, the only person called to account for the incident may have been Kim Il-sung himself. The Communist Chinese government announced on 2 December 1984 that Kim traveled to Beijing just two days after the firefight. Although no definitive explanation was offered, Chinese Communist Party spokesman Wu Xing-tong endorsed any and all efforts to “alleviate the tension” in Korea. Moreover, National Security Advisor MacFarlane’s comment that “these things” should be treated as normal occurrences consigned the JSF soldiers’ performance to oblivion for nearly two decades.
By avoiding public or private acknowledgment of the firefight, Army leaders apparently hoped to avoid a potential public relations problem if the awards for valor were allowed to stand. Just six months before, the Associated Press attacked all the services—but the Army in particular—over the high number of individual awards resulting from Operation URGENT FURY, the October 1983 invasion of Grenada. Although no more than 7,000 personnel were directly involved in the action, the services presented 8,612 awards in the immediate aftermath of the operation, the bulk of them to Army personnel. Of that number, fewer than 300 recognized battlefield valor, wounds, or death. The high number of “impact” service awards re-opened the Army to Vietnam-era charges of careerism and “devaluation” of combat awards. Conflating the services’ largesse after Grenada with recognition of the veterans of the “Soviet Defector Firefight” no doubt inhibited approval of valor awards for the JSF soldiers.
Precedent existed for the Army and the UNC to turn a jaundiced eye toward combat awards for incidents in the JSA. A March 1967 defection prompted a similarly violent North Korean response. Following the conclusion of a meeting of the MAC, the head of North Korea’s Central News Agency, Yi Su-kun, jumped into an American officer’s car and asked to be taken to Seoul. Two KPA guards attempted to forcibly remove Yi. Captain Thomas Bair and Lieutenant Colonel Donald Thomson of the JSA Support Group fought off the KPA guards and directed the vehicle’s driver, Sergeant Terry McAnelly, to drive away. The KPA (who in 1967 still maintained guard posts south of Conference Row) attempted to blockade the road and directed a “fusillade” of small arms fire against the car but failed to halt the defection.
In recognition of their having voluntarily placed themselves in danger on Yi’s behalf, the Army awarded all three men the Soldier’s Medal—a peacetime award. In 1984, even Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Viale, the JSA Support Group commander, concurred with the decision to withhold combat awards. Later, however, he became one of the staunchest advocates for presentation of both medals for valor and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. Viale, an infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, characterized the firefight in the JSA as “every bit as intense” as combat in Southeast Asia, concluding that his former subordinates “fought bravely.” Moreover, Viale came to believe that the Vietnam-era requirement of multiple weeks in combat before qualifying for award of the badge was inconsistent with the original intent of the award. His argument was bolstered when the Army approved award of the CIB for much shorter periods of service in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and finally Iraq (1991). In fact, an Army board convened at Fort Benning in the late 1990s recommended that the Army recognize both the JSA firefight and the numerous combat actions incident to U.S. Special Forces soldiers’ mentorship of the Honduran and Salvadoran militaries as qualifying for award of the CIB. Inexplicably, the Army only approved the Central American events.
The veterans of the JSF Company went on with their lives. In the immediate aftermath of the firefight, Jang’s death, and the Army’s indifference to their actions, several participants took issue with the lack of recognition, but even that faded with time. New assignments in the Army or new careers in civilian life pushed the Soviet Defector Firefight into the background. However, by the late 1990s, sufficient momentum existed for Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI) to formally request Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera to examine the issue. Specifically, Caldera was asked to award combat patches and Combat Infantryman’s Badges to eligible soldiers from the Joint Security Force, and to upgrade several of the original awards. Writing in January 2000 in support of the effort, General Thomas A. Schwartz, the serving UNC commander, asked the Army’s personnel chief, Lieutenant General David H. Ohle, “Please give this your personal attention. I feel strongly about this!” [original emphasis]. Another supporter, Lieutenant General Larry R. Ellis, the Army’s Chief of Operations, urged the board tasked with reviewing the original awards to recognize valor in incidents of “nontraditional combat.” With such high level support the outcome was never in doubt. On 18 May 2000, the Army announced that the men of the JSF who were “personally present and under fire” would receive the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. In addition, two medics who had supported the QRF during and after the firefight received the Combat Medic Badge. Along with these awards, Army Regulation 670-1 was revised to authorize “soldiers who directly participated in the firefight with North Korean guards at the Joint Security Area (JSA), Panmunjom, Korea” to wear the unit’s shoulder sleeve insignia as a combat patch. On 29 June 2000, the Army Decorations Board approved the presentation or upgrade of seventeen decorations “in recognition of these soldiers’ faithful and dedicated service to our Nation.” Sixteen awards were made that summer; the last, to former Private First Class Mark Deville, occurred on 28 January 2014.
This past November marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Soviet Defector Firefight. To date there has been no recurrence, and the JSA’s significance lessened as direct North-South talks and the Six-Party talks took place in other venues. Both sides maintain their vigil at the MDL, however. Each year, the UNC honors the men of 1984 who unhesitatingly put their own lives on the line to defend Vasili Matuzok. In 2005, Corporal Jang’s parents and brother were guests of honor, as was his nephew, who by then had also become a UNC soldier guarding the JSA. In 2011, Bert Mizusawa returned to the JSA and delivered the memorial address. As for Matuzok, a week after crossing the border he flew to Rome, Italy, “according to his wishes,” explained the South Korean Foreign Ministry. He eventually moved to the United States, where, after getting over culture shock, he settled into a quiet—and free— life under an assumed name. For his “crime” he was put on a “most wanted” list of scholar and intellectual defectors, and the KGB attempted several times to entice him to return to the Soviet Union.
The Korean and Vietnam wars were “hot” wars fought in the shadow of the Cold War and a deep desire by the West to avoid a nuclear war with the communist powers. The violent history of the JSA, however, demonstrates that the Cold War contained several hot episodes, any number of which could have quickly escalated into the opening battle of a much larger regional or even world war. From the perspective of thirty years, the JSA firefight is often dismissed as inconsequential. Historian John Keegan characterized such events as “the small change of soldiering.” To the men of the JSF, however, operating at the tip of the spear every day, the Soviet Defector Firefight was warfare at its most basic. Moreover, for the participants on both sides, it was definitely not “limited.”
While Vasilii Matuzok gained his freedom, his experience validated the inscription on the face of the Korean War Memorial—“Freedom Is Not Free.” His escape from communism cost the lives of one South Korean and at least five North Koreans. Despite this fact, Matuzok had to know he made the right decision. From the second he bolted into South Korea, the Americans and South Koreans protected him from his communist pursuers and brought him to safety. The incident also demonstrated communism’s inhumanity. Not satisfied that their front-line soldiers had done the best they could against very capable opponents, North Korean leaders executed two survivors as scapegoats for a morally bankrupt political system. It is doubtless that Matuzok would have met the same fate had the KPA been able to capture him.
Without exception, the American and South Korean soldiers of the JSF company performed well despite the volume of fire from the KPA and the near-universal lack of combat experience among the men. Soldiers fearlessly engaged the North Koreans firing on the defector, leaders led their soldiers from the front, and when Matuzok was discovered hiding in the brush, his strategic significance was quickly understood. Although the subsequent cease-fire and KPA recovery efforts seemed galling at the time, the American and South Korean soldiers exhibited tremendous self-control in a highly charged atmosphere. Most importantly, the soldiers who fought in the JSA received the most important award of all: they saved the life of an innocent man whose only “crime” was his desire to live in freedom, and no amount of communist propaganda blasted across the DMZ could obscure that fact.