Sunday, September 19, 2010

Philippines in the Korean War (60th Anniversary)

“Today we begin to write a wonderful page in our history, many of you have fought on our own soil to secure our freedom, you now go forth to a foreign land to fight for preservation of that freedom… but you who are to go now will be first to carry the flag of your own sovereign nation abroad in the war for freedom. What you will do will prove to all the world that this republic and all of you who are part of it have the will and power to survive… to make our own lives as we want them to be, and to keep them that way.”

“Poor as we are, this country is making a great sacrifice in sending you there [Korea], but every Peso invested in you is a sound investment for the perpetuation of our liberty and freedom. Your valor, your achievement, will show that free nations faced by a common menace of losing their civilization have the will and the strength to join together to remove this menace forever… It is not for us who will stay behind to urge you to be valorous, to be chivalrous, to be strong. It is for you to show us how to follow you in the valor, the chivalry, the strength with which you go forth”

(Philippine President Elpidio Quirino’s farewell speech to the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea, 2 September 1950)

The Philippine 10th Battalion Combat Team (PEFTOK) marching drill in front of then President Elpidio Quirino and then United Nations General Assembly President Carlos P. Romulo in Rizal Memorial Stadium, September 2, 1950
One of the least mentioned part of Filipino history in the Philippine school system was the Philippine experience in the Korean War. Sixty years ago, the young Republic of the Philippines was still recovering from the ravage of the Second World War. Yet when the United Nations (UN) asked member states to commit troops in order to defend the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea (ROK), the Quirino government did not hesitate to send the over 7000-strong Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK).

The Philippine forces were composed of war veterans of the Second World War and of the counter-insurgency campaign against the nationalist-turned communist Huks. Hence, the Filipino soldiers were the only military units with experience against communist forces at the beginning of the war.

In Korean War, most Filipinos will recognize three important historical figures. The most famous of all was the “honorary Filipino” U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the United Nations Forces and now a veteran of three major wars in the 20th Century. Then there were two other historical figures that most Filipinos would have never thought that they started their illustrious careers in this war. First, was Lieutenant Fidel V. Ramos, future President of the Philippines, fresh from West Point (United States Military Academy) and from the jungles of Luzon fighting the Huk guerrillas. Ramos was the Reconnaissance Platoon Commander of the Philippine 20th Battalion Combat Team and he would take part in one of PEFTOK’s greatest battles, the Battle of Hill Eerie in May 1952. Then there was Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., future Senator of the Republic, he served as one of the war correspondents accompanying the Philippine forces. Both he and Ramos would later on play vital roles in a much important event in the Philippine history. Aquino became a martyr that would inspire a revolution in which Ramos was one of the key figures.

Anyway, in this blog entry, I am going to talk about two of the many victorious battles of the PEFTOK forces.

In September 19, 1950 (today is the 60th anniversary), the PEFTOK's first contingent (10th BCT) arrived in Pusan, South Korea aboard the USS Sergeant Sylvester Antolak. The battalion was under the command of Colonel Mario C. Azurin who was relieved of his post two months later after arguing with a senior American officer (arguing with a senior officer is a direct violation of the military’s corporateness). He was replaced by Colonel Dionisio S. Ojeda. The first military engagement by the PEFTOK force was the Battle of Mui-dong, when North Korean guerrillas ambushed the 10th Battalion. The Filipinos lost one soldier but killed 50 of the communist guerrillas.

Battle of Yultong Bridge

In April 22-23, 1951, the Philippine 10th Battalion Combat Team fought one of its many battles and perhaps, the greatest battles that the Fighting 10th ever fought in the Korean War.

After the Operation Rugged and six days in the regimental reserves, the Philippine battalion returned to the frontline and relieved the 1st Battalion of the 65th United States Infantry. Colonel Dionisio S. Ojeda divided the battalion into separate units. Deploying the A and B Companies with the Tank Company (tank-less) on the frontline while, the Reconnaissance and C Companies remained in reserve. The Philippine battalion was flanked by the 2nd Battalion of the US 65th Infantry on the left and the 2nd Battalion of the Turkish Brigade on the right.

Here’s the account of the battle from South Korea’s Ministry of Defense (Vol. VI., pp. 313-315):

Just after the dusk, supported by the heavy bombardment of mortar and artillery, the hordes of Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) unleashed their First Spring Offensive toward Seoul, directing their main effort against the I US Corps along the Chorwon-Seoul corridor. The Turkish were the first to hit and their lines were penetrated as far as the reserve battalion position. This sudden situation caused to expose the right flank of the Philippine BCT’s B Company. The CCF forces shifted their assault toward B Company by a frontal attack 30 minutes after midnight and then another enemy wave hit the gap between B and Tank Company positions. The whole Battalion was soon subjected to intensive small arms and artillery fire. The left platoon (led by Lieutenant Jose Artiaga) of B Company was pushed back from their position at 0300 hours and, after four hours of furious combat, the enemy infiltrated as deeply as C Company in the reserve area. Each company  was dispersed and fought in confusion without contact among and between units. The Battalion command post also became a target of small arms fire. Notwithstanding, battered B Company succeeded in closing the perimeter of C Company at dawnbreak of the 23rd. All of cooks, chaplain, medics and drivers came to pick up guns and committed into the last stand. C Company was ordered to withdraw at 0640 hours when it was counterattacking with the support of Reconnaissance Company.

Three rifle companies also pulled out from their positions under cover of Reconnaissance Company but Tank Company could not be contacted until the radio communication became operational at noon.

In the meantime, Tank Company desperately held its positions and made a counterattack to retake the position of Lieutenant Artiaga’s platoon in order to recover the dead and wounded. When the radio communication was restored at 1230 hours, Captain Conrado Yap, Commander of Tank Company, was ordered to withdraw. However, Captain Yap and his men were on their way to counterattack. When a hill was taken, they counted less than one squad was left of this platoon and found still missing Corporal Bengala. Captain Yap called for volunteers to further search. It was two hours before sunset. A burst of fire from concealed nest had caught Captain Yap squarely on the front. For this action, he was posthumously awarded the Philippine Medal of Valor.

During this action, the CCF losses were more than 500 killed and two captured, while the Philippine BCT suffered with 12 KIA, 38 WIA and 6 MIA.
The Philippine 10th Battalion Combat Team counter-attacking at Yultong on 23 April 1951

Battle of Hill Eerie

In May 18-21, 1952, the Philippine 20th Battalion Combat Team fought one of their greatest battles in the Peninsula. The Battle of Hill Eerie was a seven-part battle between the United Nations Forces and the CCP. The Filipinos fought and won the last two battles in the Outpost of Eerie Hill. One to take the outpost for the final time and another to successfully defended the outpost for the last time.

One particular historical figure that would play a major part in the Philippine history, Lieutenant Fidel V. Ramos, distinguished himself in this battle. [Exactly 365 members or more than half of the 669 West Point classmates (USMA Class of 1950) of Ramos saw action in the savage war that lasted three years. Forty-one of his classmates were killed and 84 others were wounded during the war, representing 34 percent casualty rate, the highest for any West Point class than those in both World War I and World War II.]

Here’s the account of the battle from South Korea’s Ministry of Defense (Vol. VI., pp. 319-320):

A series of raids began 0915 hours on 18 May when a patrol encountered with 8 CCF at Eerie. The enemy fled to the north, leaving one dead and two wounded caused by friendly fire. The same afternoon, a platoon led by Lieutenant Rodolfo Maestro raided the Eerie. There were 28 CCF dead on the hill after a torrid 30-minute fire fight. On the next day, two daylight patrols also raided the shank of T-bone ridge for 35 and 13 minutes respectively and killed 23 Reds before disengaging with the enemy, while tanks, air-strikes, mortar and artillery added more casualties.

The final raid on Hill Eerie was launched in the early morning of 21 May 1952. Lieutenant Fidel V. Ramos of the 2nd Reconnaissance Platoon, with 3 officers and 41 men, organized his men into four teams as scout, rifle, sniper, and forward observer teams. At 0407 hours, the raiders crossed their designated line of departure and reached the attacking position of an irrigation ditch, 400 meters from top of Eerie.

Hill Eerie, well fortified with bunkers and communication trenches, was then defended by an estimated reinforced CCF platoon. Immediately after the planned preparation fires pounded the hill, the Filipinos began to assault up to the crest at 0700 hours. Within 10 minutes they reached the barbed wire entanglements of Eerie. Lieutenant Ramos and Corporal Jose Palis’s scout team (11 men) attacked through right finger to the right of the hill and rushed into bunkers, killing 8 CCF defenders. Attached engineers blasted and sealed bunkers without delay. On the other hand, the rifle team led by Sergeant Cipriano Drapeza advanced its way on the left finger toward top and as soon as making the physical contact with the scout teamon the right, engaged in covering fire while the engineers busied themselves in blasting the bunkers.

Lieutenant Armando Dizon’s sniper team, being tasked to prevent enemy supporting fire from Hill 191 immediate northwest of Eerie, was on their designated position on the southwest saddle of the Eerie and neutralized the enemy machine gun fire. At 0728 hours, while engineers were demolishing the rest of the bunkers, the enemy mortar shells began to hit the hill. But this mortar fire was too late to be of any help to their beleaguered comrades. The CCF outwitted by this surprising raid that lasted for twenty minutes. Their mission was accomplished. Lieutenant Ramos fired the signal to withdraw at 0730 hours. All participants were returned to their base without casualty. With exceptional gallantry, they destroyed 6 bunkers, 7 more damaged and 76 CCF were killed during the period of 18-21 May.

Lieutenant Fidel V. Ramos (right) and his colleagues in the Philippine 20th Battalion Combat Team, Korean War
In a separate account of the battle.

In June 2005, Ben Cal of the Philippines News Agency interviewed Ramos and Felizardo Tanabe (who was the 20th BCT’s tactical operation officer). Here is the account of that interview about the Battle of Hill Eerie:

In Korea the young Ramos had his baptism of fire. In May 1952 he was assigned to lead a 44-man team in an assault on Eerie Hill, a heavily fortified Chinese position with a commanding view of the plains below.

Then Major Felizardo Tanabe, the 20th BCT’s operations officer, said the Chinese on Eerie Hill “prevented the United Nations forces from advancing farther without suffering heavy casualties.” Taking it was a crucial but dangerous mission.

Armed with heavy weapons—howitzers, bazookas, mortars and .50-caliber machine guns—the Chinese had repulsed previous assaults by United Nations forces. The barrage from the Chinese artillery prevented even tanks from penetrating the defense perimeter.

The landscape surrounding Eerie Hill is much like the plains of Central Luzon dominated by the imposing Mount Arayat. Although smaller than Arayat, Eerie Hill overlooks roadways on the slopes and the connecting roads spread over a one-mile radius.

Col. Salvador Abcede, 20th BCT commander, had tapped Tanabe to prepare the assault on the Chinese position. “The observation post and the bunkers must be destroyed,” Abcede told the major.

Abcede’s battalion had attacked Eerie Hill nine times during the first week of May 1952, killing over a hundred communist soldiers. But still the defenders held on. The tenacity of the Chinese only intensified Abcede’s resolve to take the hill.

Picking the second reconnaissance platoon to attack the hill anew, Abcede ordered Ramos to capture and destroy it. It was an elaborate plan which included UN air support and artillery fire. Tanabe, as tactical operations officer, coordinated with the allied forces and briefed Ramos and members of the assault team.

Jump-off time was before daybreak of May 21, 1952. The assault team was up at dawn doing a final check on its weapons. The M-1 Garand rifles, Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR), two .30-caliber machine guns, grenades, bayonets and other equipment were all in order.

Ramos had grouped his men into four units: a 13-man sniper team led by Sgt. Cipriano Drapeza; a scout team of 10 headed by Cpl. Jose Palis; and a forward observer team headed by Second Lt. Cosme Acoste with two men.

The platoon had a radio operator, a messenger and a medical aid.

At 4:07 a.m., the platoon moved toward its objective under cover of darkness.

Ramos and his men crawled for two hours through rice paddies, occasionally tipping their canteens to quench their thirst. The platoon reached an irrigation ditch some 400 meters from the top of Eerie Hill. Next to the ditch was a wide creek with knee-deep water. Intelligence had estimated the hill was defended by a well-entrenched platoon.

Seven F-86 Sabre jet fighters of the US Air Force pounded the enemy positions with napalm bombs. The jets dropped more bombs as the Chinese opened up with antiaircraft fire. The F-86s, however, proved to be elusive targets as they streaked across the sky at 600 miles an hour.

Ramos waved his hand for the platoon to stay put as he radioed BCT headquarters to start the artillery bombardment. In a few seconds the barrage began. Aimed at silencing the gun emplacements, the artillery attack was equally risky to the attacking platoon. Any miscalculation could result in friendly-fire casualties and doom the assault.

The simultaneous artillery fire and the napalm bombs created a deafening boom. Through binoculars, Ramos assessed the battlefield and searched for the best opening for the assault. He found a hole that had been blasted through a stack of barbed wire. He radioed headquarters to stop both air and land assault to allow his men to advance.
Tanabe recounted that as the platoon neared the top of the hill, he threw a smoke grenade “to signal the lifting of the aerial bombardment and artillery firing.”
As soon as some of the Chinese defenders retreated, Ramos’s platoon seized the front part of the trench. Close-quarters fighting raged as the retreating enemy fought back ferociously. Sensing that they had gained the upper hand, the Filipinos were unstoppable.

The Ministry of National Defense of Korea says in its historical account of the Eerie Hill assault:

“From 0700 to 0710, Lieutenant Ramos’ four teams [scout, rifle, sniper and forward observer], moved and maneuvered up to the crest of the Hill. As soon as the assault teams reached the barbed-wire entanglements of Eerie at 0719, two tanks lifted their fire.”

The 10-man scout team headed by Corporal Palis went into action and there was a wild exchange of gunfire. Grenades exploded all over the place. As the riflemen kept firing, Palis and two of his men ran toward bunker No. 2, dropped several grenades and fired their guns, killing four Chinese.

Enemy troops occupying bunker No. 3 retaliated. At this instance, Ramos joined Palis. Grenades exploded on their right flank, on the left and in front of them. Luckily, none of the Filipino soldiers were hit. Hitting the ground on all fours, two of Ramos’s men suddenly dashed toward the bunker and exploded it.

Two enemy soldiers got out of the bunker but Ramos, who was just four meters away, opened fire, and killed them instantly. His reflexes heightened, Ramos rolled away poised to fire again at the coming enemy but there was none.

Then Palis told Ramos that they were running out of grenades. The young lieutenant immediately ordered his two-man demolition team to move in and blast bunkers 2 and 3.

Then as Ramos and his men were clearing the bunkers, Chinese troops occupying a connecting trench some 200 meters away opened fire at them. They instantly dived for cover. By this time the sniper team led by Sergeant Drapeza worked its way on the left side of the hill toward the north portion.

Fighting broke out anew as the Filipinos attacked bunker No. 4. To stop the platoon’s offensive, four Chinese troops ran out of their bunkers to hurl grenades, but were stopped with bullets by the Filipinos.

A close-range gunbattle ensued when what was left of the Chinese troops fired at the advancing Filipinos. The distance was so close that, in some instances, their bayonets clashed. Ramos ordered his men to move cautiously and remain calm as the last of the enemy troops retreated. He remained unfazed and determined to accomplish his mission with the least casualty.

On reaching their objective, Ramos requested his home base to resume artillery firing at coordinates, which he specified.

The assault lasted two hours. His mission accomplished, Ramos and his men made sure that the hill was firmly secured. He accounted for his men and learned that they had one injury. The enemy had 16 casualties.

The Filipinos’ fighting spirit earned praise from UN forces who watched the deadly combat from a distance using binoculars.

“Two American battalions were watching the action, which was the only battle that morning. The Americans were cheering and clapping their hands as they witnessed the 20th BCT platoon attacking the hill,” Tanabe said.

To Ramos, it was his first hill and first kill, a soldier’s initial journey trek “to hell and back.”

The next day, the assault on Eerie Hill and the bravery of the Filipino soldiers landed prominently on the pages of Stars and Stripes, an American military publication.

The Ramos-led reconnaissance assault on Hill Eerie was comparable to the Lieutenant Richard Winters-led Brécourt Manor Assault in the Second World War  (the assault featured in the ten-part WWII series, Band of Brothers) and to the fictional Captain John Gaff-led recon mission to Hill 210 in the WWII movie, The Thin Red Line (1998). 

The successful assault of the Hill Eerie outpost was not the last battle fought in the infamous hill because exactly one month after that victory, the Philippine 19th Battalion Combat Team successfully defended the Outpost (the seventh Battle of Hill Eerie) on June 18-21, 1951.


Philippines Expeditionary Forces to Korea:

Total Participation: 7,420 officers and men (19 September 1950 - 13 May 1955)
Casualties: 112 KIA, 299 WIA, 57/41 MIA/POW

The Battalion Combat Teams:

10th Battalion Combat Team (September  19, 1950 - September 4, 1951)
Commanders: Colonel Mario C. Azurin (September 1950 - November 1950) and Colonel Dionisio S. Ojeda (November 1950 - September 1951)*

20th Battalion Combat Team (September  5, 1951 - June 9, 1952)
Commander: Colonel Salvador Abcede (September 1951 - June 1952)

19th Battalion Combat Team (June 10, 1952 - April 2, 1953)
Commander: Colonel Ramon Z. Aguirre (June 1952 - April 1953)

14th Battalion Combat Team (April 3, 1953 - April 1954)
Commander: Colonel Nicanor Jimenez (April 1953 - April 1954)

2nd Battalion Combat Team (April 1954 - May 1955)
Commander: Colonel Antonio De Veyra (April 1954 - May 1955)

[*] Colonel Dionisio Ojeda, as Lieutenant Colonel served as the 10th BCT’s acting commanding officer in November before he was officially appointed battalion commander in December 1950.


We started this entry with a speech by humanitarian President Elpidio Quirino and we’ll end with words from Korean War veteran and President Fidel V. Ramos:

“The Republic of Korea was threatened with destruction, we Filipinos responded without hesitation. This show of willingness and commitment by the Philippines and its Allies in the United Nations Command led to a strong partnership with South Korea that endures to this day. Strength in partnership’ is, therefore, not a hollow slogan but a powerful watchword that reflects our two countries’ shared sacrifices during the Korean War,”

Former Philippine President and retired General Fidel Ramos, a Korean War veteran, salutes during the 60th Incheon Landing Operations Commemoration Ceremony, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 at sea near Incheon, the coastal city where United Nations Forces led by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur landed in September, 1950 just months after North Korea invaded the South. - Lee Jin-man /AP Photo

My sources:

The History of the United Nations Forces in the Korean War (Volume I), The Ministry of National Defense, The Republic of Korea. 1977, pp. 295-378

The History of the United Nations Forces in the Korean War (Volume VI), The Ministry of National Defense, The Republic of Korea. 1977, pp. 307-328

The Glory of Our Fathers: PEFTOK (website), by Art Villasanta (his father, Johnny Villasanta, served as one of the war correspondents in Korean War and two-time recipient of the Philippine Legion of Honor)

Ben Cal, RP troops’ bravery in Korean War chiseled on Eerie Hill (Fidel Ramos and Felizardo Tanabe Interview), Philippines News Agency, June 2005

Korea War veterans from the United States and other countries parade on military vehicles through a street to celebrate of the 60th Incheon Landing Operations Commemoration, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010 near Incheon. - Lee Jin-man /AP Photo

For more extensive infos about the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea Check Out:

The Forgotten War (2009) movie poster
P.S. One of my favourite hobbies is collecting “War Movies”. As a Filipino living outside the country, I don’t have the luxury to buy the Philippine-made Korean War movie, “The Forgotten War” (directed by Carlo Cruz), firsthand. So if you [reader] can give me a link where I can buy the said movie (not pirated by the way). Then give me a holla here. Cheers!

1 comment:

  1. I always look in awe when I see a PEFTOK veteran. I am lucky to have been comrades-in-arms to three of them and they very humble


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