Friday, July 13, 2012

Valor and heroism: Filipino soldiers' stories from the Korean War

(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 8, 2012)

THERE WAS A GREAT NATION in the 1950s that thought nothing of assisting an oppressed people whose country had been reduced to dire poverty by its brutal colonial occupier.

This great nation did whatever it could to assist this foreign race: it put forward a proposal at the United Nations that led to the general elections that created the new country called the Republic of Korea on 15 August 1948.

It was the first Asian country to open diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea.

It continued to provide South Korea with food and financial assistance to help ensure South Korea’s survival in the turbulent years following the birth of that state.

And, in an astonishing act of humanity and selflessness, this great nation 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 the Second World War.

It was the first Asian country to send combat troops to the Korean War that began on 25 June 1950. Its soldiers protected South Korea until 1955.

All this the great country called the Philippines did for its protégé, the Republic of Korea.

These monumental achievements are badges of great national pride for all Filipinos.

Sixty one years ago, the first Filipino warrior set foot on Korea at the port city of Busan on 19 September 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.

Quiapo, Manila from Quiapo Bridge in the 1950s

An extensive account of the Philippines’ role in the Korean War is on the Internet at

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 Filipino Korean 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.

These veterans were all astounded at the massive progress Korea had made over the past six decades, and rued the Philippines’ paucity of progress in that same time. 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.

A most dangerous man
“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.

105mm howitzers of the 20th BCT open fire.
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 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.

Dizon put down his field telephone and stared at his handiwork.

“All of this was flat,” exclaimed Luminoso Cruz when 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 our bus crossed the river north during our visit to the Demilitarized Zone.

“This was where I was wounded,” he said, pointing to the bank of the Imjin, while suppressing 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 23 April 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” or PTSD 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.

The 10th BCT fends-off the communist Chinese 12th Army at the Battle of Yuldong.
One man's handiwork
Amiable and talkative, Florendo Benedicto served in both the 10th BCT and the 20th BCT. He decided to “re-up” or re-enlist in the 20th BCT because he loved combat.

Benedicto stands almost six feet tall and 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 caliber 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.

Browning .30 cal.machine gun crew await the Chinese.

Today, however, Benedicto has rediscovered Jesus Christ. He spoke fondly of his Christianity, and quoted Bible verses during some of our conversations.

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.”

And how can Filipinos achieve the great economic success of South Koreans?

“We have to establish love in the heart of every Filipino,” he answered. “We must love one another.”

It is a startling transformation for this 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.”

Is he certain he killed 200 Chinese?

“I counted their dead bodies,” he replied.

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.

Happy birthday, Korea
Constancio Sanchez turned 24 on the historic day the 10th BCT arrived by ship at Busan on 19 September 1950, less than four months after the start of the Korean War on 25 June.

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 a 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.”

Filipino warriors march amid snow covered fields.
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 sub-zero 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 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.”

Friends and God
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 recalls he was often in the advanced command post with Col. Aguirre. His job was to transmit and receive voice messages and telegraph messages via Morse Code. Lives depended on the accuracy of his messages.

PEFTOK radiomen at headquarters.
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.

His search for meaning led him to what he called his greatest accomplishment during the war: joining the Iglesia ni Cristo in 1955.

* This is the original of the story published on Page 1 of the 8 July 2012 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.