By Art Villasanta
Korean War Historian
The Philippines fought in the Korean War (1950-53) despite having to contend with a growing communist-led rebellion and an economy mending from the immense destruction wrought by World War 2.
The Philippine Army had nine of its 10 Battalion Combat Teams (BCTs) and its only artillery battalion fighting the communist-led Hukbalahap or Huks when the 10th BCT was selected as the first Korea-bound combat unit on Aug. 23, 1950.
The BCTs were highly mobile, compact and self-supporting battalion-sized fighting units (1,000-1,500 men) designed to fight independently in their areas of operation. Distinguished by their heavy firepower, many BCTs consisted of infantry companies, an armor company equipped with either M4 Sherman or M5 Stuart tanks and a field artillery battery of six 105mm howitzers.
The BCTs were purposely organized as anti-guerilla units and were the key military reason for the defeat of the Huks by 1955. Together with other military units such as the Philippine Constabulary, the government fielded barely 25,000 men against the Huks in 1950.
In 1947, the Huks launched a rebellion aimed at overthrowing the Philippine government and replacing it with a totalitarian Marxist-Leninist state. The Huks had an armed strength of some 11,000 men by 1949, and many of their men were combat veterans of the guerilla war against the Japanese.
The Hukbalahap, an acronym for the “Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon,” was one of the most potent of all Filipino guerilla units in World War 2
The discipline of its guerillas; the mobility and hitting power of its “squadrons” (units of 100 or more men) and the widespread support from civilians in Central Luzon allowed the Huks to inflict significant losses on the Japanese.
During the American campaign against the Japanese from 1944 to 1945, the Huks assisted the U.S. Army in re-taking towns and provinces in Central Luzon from the Japanese. In Tarlac, they raised both the Philippine and American flags after liberating the provincial capital.
The Huks, however, took a decidedly Marxist-Leninist bent upon widespread (and probably misguided) government suppression of the movement after the war.
The Huks had superior knowledge of the terrain in North and Central Luzon, the main theaters of the guerilla war. They could also count on the support of a mass base of peasants and farmers alienated from the government by chronic landlord abuses, grinding poverty, bureaucratic neglect and military atrocities, particularly those committed by the Military Police and Civilian Guards.
By 1952, the high watermark of their rebellion, the Huks had an active and armed strength of some 170,000 men and women and a mass base of over two million people.
The Huks, however, were finally made impotent by 1955 through a combination of heavy battlefield losses (especially among its leadership), effective civic action campaigns launched by Pres. Ramon Magsaysay and a dwindling mass base.
It was the first time anywhere in the world that a communist insurgency had been defeated.
“A great sacrifice”
Pres. Elpidio Quirino in 1950 said the Philippines was sending its men to fight in Korea in fulfillment of the country’s obligation as a co-signer of the United Nations Charter.
There was another, deeper reason for committing the Philippines’ limited military power to a foreign war, however. Korea was less than 1,500 miles away and a communist conquest of Korea would have been a severe blow to the Philippines’ campaign against the ascendant Huks.
“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,” said Quirino to Filipinos who attended the massive farewell rally for the 10th BCT on Sept. 2, 1950 at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum in Manila.
And the Philippines was poor. The national government was almost bankrupt in 1950, relying heavily on U.S. financial aid and war reparations from Japan to stay afloat and to rebuild an economy shattered by World War 2.
Damage to industries was estimated at some P600 million while a further P800 million in assets were destroyed. The government was also plagued by massive bureaucratic corruption that siphoned off badly needed foreign aid worth more than P1 billion in 1950.
Despite these terrible realities and in an act of heroic brotherhood, the Philippines committed its meager armed strength to defend South Korea. It also made a commitment to send combat troops to Nationalist China to deter an impending Communist Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
One of the first to fight
On Sept. 19, 1950, barely three months after North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, the 10th Battalion Combat Team (Motorized) landed at the port city of Pusan in southeastern Korea.
The 10th BCT was the first of five Philippine battalions that served under the United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea. With its 1,400 officers and men, the 10th BCT was the third foreign combat contingent and the first Asian unit to enter the Korean War.
Our country was one of 16 UN member sates that sent combat troops to battle communist aggression. These nations, led by the United States, added their strengths to those of the armed forces of the Republic of Korea to preserve South Korea’s freedom against Communist North Korea and Communist China. Five more UN member states provided medical and humanitarian aid during the war.
General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the man who led the Allies in defeating Japan, was commander-in-chief of the UNC. MacArthur was also the man who built and at one time led the pre-war Philippine Army. He also led the U.S. armed forces in liberating the Philippines from the Japanese in 1944-45.
Five BCTs with a total strength of some 7,500 officers and men served in Korea from 1950 to 1955 as the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea or PEFTOK. Taken together, these battalions constituted the Regimental Combat Team promised by the Philippine government in Aug. 1950 to the United Nations war effort.
PEFTOK consisted of these units:
- 10th Battalion Combat Team (Motorized)
- 20th Battalion Combat Team (Leaders)
- 19th Battalion Combat Team (Bloodhound)
- 14th Battalion Combat Team (Avengers)
- 2nd Battalion Combat Team (Bulldogs)
The 10th, 20th, 19th and 14th BCTs saw combat in the Korean War. The 2nd BCT, on the other hand, helped protect and rebuild South Korea following the signing of the Armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953.
The 10th, 20th, 19th and 14th BCTs acquitted themselves well in combat. Not one PEFTOK BCT was defeated or made incapable of combat as a result of enemy action despite many hard fought battles. PEFTOK fought successfully against its main enemy— the “Chinese People’s Volunteer Army”—in scores of actions for hills, cities and towns in North and South Korea.
Among the epic Filipino battles in the Korean War were the historic but obscure Battle of Miudong/Syngue (Nov. 1950), the first battle and combat victory in a foreign land won by the Philippines. This victory was gained in North Korea by the 10th BCT.
The epic Battle of Yuldong (April 1951) is the most famous of all Filipino battles and has come to represent the other battles fought by the Philippines in the war. It is commemorated every year on April 23 to recall the incredible and successful defensive battle fought by the 900 men of the 10th BCT against an entire Chinese army of 40,000 men.
The longest battle fought by the Philippines was the four-day Battle for Hills Arsenal and Eerie in June 1952. Also known as the Rizal Day Battle for Combat Outpost No. 8, the victory was won by the 19th BCT.
At the end of this gory battle that saw bitter hand-to-hand combat, a group of Filipino soldiers scaled Arsenal Hill and planted the Filipino flag on its summit. This act of heroic defiance on the morning of June 21 showed the beaten Chinese they had lost this great battle, and that the Philippines remained in control of Combat Outpost No. 8.
The last Filipino battle in the Korean War was won by the 14th BCT two days before the Armistice. This was another successful defense of Christmas Hill by the 14th BCT against the communist Chinese.
It is worth remembering that practically all the Philippines’ battles in the Korean War were fought at night. The communists chose to fight most of their battles under the stars, mainly because of their superiority in night fighting and their inferiority in airpower and artillery that made conventional daylight battles suicidal.
Of the battles listed above, only the Battle of Miudong/Syngue was fought in daylight, and this was in early morning.
The price the Philippines paid to defend South Korea included over 100 Filipino dead; 300 wounded and some 50 taken prisoner in three years of war. Sixteen Filipinos are still listed as missing in action 55 years after the Armistice.
The Philippines was unique among UN combatants in that it was the only one with an active communist insurgency and the only one whose soldiers had immediate combat experience. Many of the men, especially the officers who served in Korea, had also fought against the Japanese. This combat experience was invaluable in keeping casualties low and in PEFTOK accomplishing the combat missions assigned to it.
All PEFTOK battalions were attached to larger Allied units, mainly American, during their tours of duty in Korea. Relations with these “mother units” were neighborly, especially with the Americans.
PEFTOK and the Philippine Army were trained in American tactical doctrine. Its equipment was almost all of American origin (rifles, machine guns, helmets, artillery, tanks, grenades). A number of Filipino officers trained in American military schools such as West Point, and in specialist schools such as those for armor at Fort Knox in Kentucky.
That PEFTOK officers spoke and read English well averted miscommunication problems that proved fatal in the front line to some UNC contingents for whom English was not a second language.
(Editor’s note: Art Villasanta wrote a website honoring the Philippines’ role in the Korean War in 2000. The website is at www.geocities.com/peftok. He was also Editor-in-Chief of two mini-histories of the Korean War published in 2006 and 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A veteran editor and researcher, Villasanta writes business reports, conducts research projects and provides information services.)