By Art Villasanta
In an astonishing act of humanity and selflessness, the Philippines sent its soldiers to defend South Korea against a massive communist invasion despite its having to contend with a communist rebellion of its own and the painful challenge of rebuilding an economy crippled by World War II.
The Philippines was the first Asian country to send combat troops to the Korean War that began on June 25, 1950. Its soldiers protected South Korea until 1955.
The first Filipino warrior set foot on Korea at the port city of Busan (formerly Pusan) on Sept. 19, 1950. The 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT) was the first of five BCTs that would serve in Korea until June 1955 under the flag of the elite Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea or Peftok.
Over 7,400 officers and men of the Philippine Army served in Korea. Five of these warriors—all in their 80s—recently returned to Korea for the first time since the Korean War. The Korean government sponsored their visit as part of the "Revisit Korea Program" for the Filipino war veterans and their families.
These veterans were accompanied by 15 other Filipinos who were either their children or grandchildren. Their host was South Korea's Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.
There were 299 wounded Filipino soldiers and 57 were missing in action.The battles were fought in Waegwan, Gimcheon, Daegu, Cheolwon, and the Imjin River.
These veterans were all astounded at the massive progress Korea had made over the past six decades. One veteran noted that our present economic situation is the reverse of what it had been in the 1950s.
The Philippines then was Southeast Asia's leading economic and military power and Asia's second largest economy after Japan. From being one of the world's poorest nations in the 1950s, South Korea is now one of the world's 30 richest in per capita gross domestic product.
Oldest Korean War veteran – Jesus Dizon
"I can't believe how fast South Korea has improved since the Korean War," said Jesus Dizon, who at 86 is the oldest Korean War veteran among the "revisitors." "It's a tribute to the Korean people."
His unit was the 20th BCT, the second Filipino BCT deployed to Korea. Dizon was a forward observer or FO, the most dangerous of allied soldiers, whose job was to identify targets for the six 105mm howitzers of the battalion's field artillery battery.
FOs got their deadly job done with a field telephone; a pair of powerful binoculars, maps—and a great deal of courage. They normally occupied well-hidden positions on hilltops or other dominating terrain near the enemy and spent days searching for enemy activity. The power of life or death held by an FO was terrifying.
In North Korea one morning, a large number of communist Chinese soldiers suddenly appeared below a ridgeline Dizon had been observing for some time. Dizon located the enemy unit on the grid map spread before him.
He calmly picked up his field telephone and called in the target coordinates to the battery's fire direction center of the battalion's artillery battery emplaced a few kilometers behind him.
"Fire!" he ordered.
A single high-explosive 105mm round exploded away from the Chinese unit. Dizon noted the fall of the ranging round through his binoculars. He reported the adjusted range over the phone and commanded the entire battery to open fire.
Six 105mm howitzers manned by Filipinos unleashed shell after shell into the Chinese. Dizon saw the bewildered Chinese engulfed by horrifying explosions as murderous blasts tore apart their unit.
The inferno was over in about a minute. A dirty pall of dust and smoke from the barrage lingering over the tragedy served as the gravestone for dozens of dead Chinese.
Wounded in action - Luminoso Cruz
"All of this was flat," exclaimed Luminoso Cruz, referring to the thriving and crowded city of Suwon, 30 kilometers south of Seoul. "It was flat and gray. This city was totally destroyed."
Suwon was where Cruz's unit, the 10th BCT, spent its first Christmas in Korea. That was in 1950 and the 10th was the first of the five BCTs that served in Korea.
Cruz, a member of Recon Company, was the gunner of an M24 Chaffee light tank armed with a 75mm cannon. He took a shrapnel wound to the head along the banks of the Imjin River and was visibly moved as the bus crossed the river north during his visit to the Demilitarized Zone.
"This was where I was wounded," he said, pointing to the bank of the Imjin, while holding back his tears.
He fought in a two-man foxhole at the great Battle of Yuldong, which he recalled as a night of incredible terror.
"The Chinese attacked us in waves all night. My buddy and I just kept firing and firing our rifles," he recalled of this gory battle, which was fought on April 23, 1951.
He doesn't know how they survived the murderous hell of Yuldong. But his buddy had to be sent home afterwards. His nerves had given way under the terror of too much savage combat.
They called it "shell shock" then. We call it "post-traumatic stress disorder" today.
The Battle of Yuldong was the greatest Filipino victory in the Korean War. A mere 900 Filipino fighting men withstood the night attack of an entire communist Chinese army that numbered 40,000 men at peak strength.
In standing their ground at Yuldong, the Filipinos fatally slowed down the largest Chinese offensive of the war, and probably helped prevent the destruction of the United Nations forces and the communist conquest of South Korea.
One man's handiwork – Florendo Benedicto
Amiable and talkative, Florendo Benedicto served in both the 10th BCT and the 20th BCT. He decided to "re-up" or reenlist in the 20th BCT because he loved combat.
Benedicto stands almost 6-ft tall. In the Army at the time, tall men generally wound up becoming gunners in the belief they could carry heavier loads.
Benedicto's weapon was the M1919 Browning .30 cal. medium machine gun that could fire up to 600 rounds a minute. The gun itself weighed 14 kilograms and it was Benedicto's job to lug the gun onto the battlefield and fire it at the communist enemy. He did this on many occasions in two years of fighting.
He believes that South Korea's enviable economic blessings are due mostly to the strong unity pervading South Koreans.
"Their national unity is worth emulating," he said. "Filipinos should learn from the South Koreans. We have to establish love in the heart of every Filipino. We must love one another."
It is a startling transformation for a formerly fierce warrior. It is all the more surprising if one knows what he did in the Korean War.
"I know I killed about 200 Chinese," he said calmly when we talked about this. "I probably killed 300 more. I counted their dead bodies."
Benedicto's feat is all the more astounding since only 112 Filipino soldiers died in three years of combat in the Korean War despite almost constant fighting.
First winter experience
Constancio Sanchez turned 24 on the historic day the 10th BCT arrived by ship at Busan on Sept. 19, 1950, less than three months after the start of the Korean War on June 25.
Knowing this, his officers allowed Sanchez to become one of the first Filipino fighting men to set foot on Korean soil. His mates then treated him to merienda at one of the restaurants in the port city then being besieged by the communist North Korean People's Army.
Sanchez served in the Headquarters & Headquarters & Service Company, the command group of the 10th BCT. The battalion was founded and first commanded by Col. Mariano Azurin. Col. Dionisio Ojeda replaced Azurin in the spring of 1951.
Of all the dangers he faced in the war, Sanchez remains awed by that phenomenon alien to Filipino experience called winter. It was December 1950 and the battalion was in Pyongyang when the communist Chinese intervened and hurled the United Nations Command (including the 10th BCT) out of North Korea.
The winter of 1950-1951 was Korea's coldest in two centuries but this did nothing to dispel the savage fighting that actually intensified with the Chinese intervention.
"We were shocked when the Chinese came and advanced so quickly," he said. "We had to withdraw rapidly to avoid encirclement and it was terribly cold."
Things would have been far worse for the battalion if the Chinese had attacked earlier, Sanchez believes. The onset of winter a month earlier immobilized most of their motor vehicles.
The intense subzero cold froze the water in engines and shattered engine blocks. This paralyzed most of the battalion's vehicles, including those in the transport-heavy HQ & HQ & Service Company.
Adding antifreeze to the water solved the problem, however, so that when the Chinese came, the battalion's trucks, jeeps and armored vehicles kept running despite the intense cold.
"We probably wouldn't have escaped from Pyongyang if we had to march on foot through the snow."
The monument in Gwansan-dong, Dugyang-gu, Goyang-si, Gyeonggi-do Province was erected by the Ministry of National Defense of Korea on October 2, 1974 in memory of the members of the Philippine armed forces who fought to defend the security and freedom of South Korea against North Korea. The Philippine contingent was composed of 1,496 soldiers. Ninety-two (92) Filipino soldiers died in the battle.
Prudencio Medrano served in the HQ & HQ & Service Company of the 19th BCT, the third Peftok unit deployed to Korea, and re-upped for another year with the 14th BCT. And this was because of his friends.
"I re-enlisted because we were 'buddy-buddy,'" he said. "Five of my buddies in the 19th BCT decided to extend. They asked me if I wanted to extend and I did because they were my buddies."
In both BCTs, Medrano served as a radio operator of their battalion commanders—Col. Ramon Aguirre of the 19th and Col. Nicanor Jimenez of the 14th.
With the 19th, Medrano recalled he was often in the advanced command post with Colonel Aguirre. His job was to transmit and receive voice messages and telegraph messages via Morse Code. Lives depended on the accuracy of his messages.
Medrano rediscovered God amid the horror of the Korean War. The long spells between action and boredom along the static front line gave him time to reflect on things spiritual.
(Editor's Note: The author is a historian of the Korean War. Among his stories published in this newspaper is one about the ₱500 bill being a memorial to the Philippines' involvement in that war. His Korean War website is www.peftok.blogspot.com .)