Thursday, November 4, 2010

Honor the 900

(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer,  April 20, 2008)

WHEN THE CURRENT P500 banknote was first issued in 1987, my late father, Johnny Villasanta, noted with pride that here at last was a tribute to Filipinos who fought in the Korean War (1950-53), and who helped rebuild and protect Korea from 1954-1955.

The reverse side of the original banknote was replete with Korean War imagery: Ninoy Aquino garbed as a war correspondent, his portable typewriter inscribed with his initials and a reproduction of one of the many stories he wrote for The Manila Times while covering the 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT), the first of five BCTs comprising the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (Peftok).

The P500 banknote depicting images from the Korean War: (Top) Ninoy Aquino as a Korean War correspondent with his camera. Behind him is a reproduction of one of his news stories about the war. (Below) The portable typewriter Ninoy typed his stories on when writing about the Korean War in the field.

My father (who was also a war correspondent in the Korean War but who worked for The Evening News) noted sadly, however, that the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas had selected a story written by Ninoy that glorified the American instead of the Filipino fighting man.

The story in question carries the headline, “1st Cav knifes through 38th Parallel.” The 1st Cav is the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division, one of seven U.S. Army divisions that fought in the Korean War.

The 1st Cav also took part in the Liberation of the Philippines in 1945, and helped wrest Manila from the Japanese. But the 1st Cav is an American unit.

My father felt the BSP should instead have chosen a story about the 10th BCT, which was the unit both he and Ninoy covered. Ninoy wrote extensively about the 10th BCT and I have photocopies of some of his stories published by The Manila Times.

War Correspondent Johnny Villasanta (right) in Seoul, 1950.

“Troops given big send-off,” (Sept. 3, 1950); “Ojeda leads Xth in heroic assault; Filipinos gain glory” (Apr. 17, 1951) and “PI Xth recrosses ‘38’; Ojeda recalls retreat; morale up” (Apr. 13, 1951) are but a few of Ninoy’s stories about our boys published by the Times.

The BSP could have selected any of these stories, or any of Ninoy’s many other stories about Filipinos, when designing the P500 banknote. My father, however, believed that reproducing a story about the Americans was due to the regrettable fact that BSP historians know precious little about our country’s involvement in the Korean War.

What is more ironic, my father said, was that Ninoy wrote hardly any stories about the U.S. Army in Korea. Checking old issues of the Times will bear this out. It is this fact that made BSP’s choice of the 1st Cavalry story all the more perplexing to my father.

The P500 banknote is now 20 years old. It was redesigned in 2002, and Ninoy’s typewriter was removed. It is probably due for a third redesign.

Should this be the case, might I request that the BSP replace the story about the 1st Cavalry with one that honors the 10th BCT, a Filipino unit.

The “Fighting Tenth” fought magnificently in the greatest battle of the Korean War—the Communist Chinese Spring Offensive, April 1951. The excellence of the Filipino as a fighting man was proven at the famous Battle of Yuldong on April 23, 1951.

At the nondescript village of Yuldong in North Korea, the 900 men of the 10th BCT withstood the massive night attack of a 40,000-man Chinese army and, in so doing, helped prevent the total collapse of the western front of the United Nations Command (UNC).

The 10th was one of the few UNC units on the western front not overrun in the first hours of the immense Chinese assault. The Americans, South Koreans, British, Turks and Puerto Ricans all gave way before the Chinese attack.

But not the Filipinos. Not the Filipinos who occupied their hasty defensive positions only one day before the Chinese attack!

Comparisons with the historic Battle of Thermopylae and its famous 300 are tempting, but unlike the doomed 300, the survivors of our 900 lived to fight again another day. The 10th was among the units that spearheaded the ferocious UNC counterattack that finally forced the communists to negotiate an armistice to end fighting in the Korean War.

Recognizing the great defensive victory won by the 10th BCT at Yuldong will not only honor the men of this battalion, and the four other BCTs (the 20th, 19th, 14th and 2nd) that served in Korea, but will also pay tribute to all Filipinos.

The Filipino deserves to be honored for volunteering to fight for democracy in Korea. We were the first Asian country and the third United Nations member country to send combat troops to defend South Korea.

Over 110 Filipinos died in this “Forgotten War” that saved South Korea from conquest by North Korea and Communist China. More than 400 Filipinos were wounded, some disfigured for life or rendered insane.

Of the 7,150 officers and men who served in Korea, only about 2,000 are alive today.  Many of these heroes remain poor, and their number decreases every month.

There will be no Filipino Korean War veteran left alive by 2040. By then, the youngest will be 103 years old.

There are only two monuments in this entire country that pay homage to the Philippines’ forgotten role in the Korean War: the Korean War Memorial Pylon at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the Marikorea Monument in Marikina (built in 2005).

The P500 banknote can be considered only the third monument to Filipino greatness in the Korean War.

But let the P500 banknote be an accurate reflection of our history by making it completely—and proudly—Filipino.

Other websites by Art Villasanta