Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ninoy Aquino in the Korean War

THE KOREAN WAR (1950 to 1953) was a decisive event in the career of the late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., Martyr of Democracy and one of the greatest Filipino heroes of the post-war era. 

The nationwide fame Ninoy achieved as a War Correspondent in the Korean War opened doors that led to a meteoric political career cut short by Martial Law and his assassination on Aug. 21, 1983.

Ninoy was one of an elite group of Filipino journalists who covered the Korean War for Philippine newspapers, wire services and radio stations. These men and a lone woman were our country’s first War Correspondents. They retain this honor to this day since the Philippines has not fought in a foreign war since the Korean War.

The young Ninoy Aquino, Korean War Correspondent

My father, the late Johnny Villasanta, was one of these war correspondents and a competitor of Ninoy’s. My father, then 31 years old, wrote about the 10th Battalion Combat Team in 1950 for a pool of newspapers including The Evening News (the leading afternoon daily), his employer.  Ninoy also wrote about the 10th BCT, the only BCT he covered during his tour in Korea.

Among my family’s cherished possessions is a letter my father wrote on Oct. 6, 1950 to his parents describing his first meeting and first impression of the young Ninoy as a War Correspondent.

Last Dec. 15, 2010, Ninoy and my father (both deceased) were conferred the “Korean War Hero Medal” by South Korea for their work as War Correspondents in the Korean War. President Noynoy Aquino received the award on behalf of his father during a special awarding ceremony.

Ninoy and my father were among 14 Filipinos so honored during ceremonies at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.  Ernesto Carolina, Administrator of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, delivered an inspiring talk on the Philippines’ role in the war as guest of honor.

Ninoy in Korea
Ninoy was more than a month short of his 18th birthday (Nov. 27) when he stepped onto war torn Korea as a War Correspondent for The Manila Times, the Philippines’ oldest broadsheet and the leading morning newspaper at the time.

Among the many stories Ninoy reported on for The Manila Times about the 10th BCT were “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’ and Ojeda recalls retreat; morale up” (Apr. 13, 1951).

He received the Philippine Legion of Honor in 1951 for his Korean War reporting, the youngest Filipino conferred the country’s highest civilian award. Ninoy then studied law at the University of the Philippines but quit law to return to journalism.

It’s probably fair to assume that if Ninoy hadn’t become the “Boy Wonder of Philippine Politics,” he would have instead taken a career in journalism. His career after the Korean War points to this.

In 1952, he became the Manila Times’ foreign correspondent for Southeast Asia, covering the Indo-China War. He was then posted to Malaysia during “The Emergency’ and wrote about that country’s efforts to defeat its communist insurgency.

Despite his fame and success as a politician, journalism remained Ninoy’s vocation. In the 1960s, he hosted a weekly TV series, “Insight,” on Channel 5 and stopped only after his arrest during Martial Law in 1972.

Momentous national events, however, cut short his return to journalism. In 1954, Ninoy was appointed by Pres. Ramon Magsaysay as personal emissary to Luis Taruc, leader of the communist Hukbalahap movement that was waging a rebellion against the government.

Ninoy went into the hills with a fellow former newsman, Manuel Manahan, and negotiated the surrender of Taruc, thereby helping end the communist rebellion in 1955.

Boy correspondent
Accounts of how he got to Korea vary, but seem to illustrate a boyish brashness that would later in his career earn him the sobriquet, “Young Man in a Hurry.”

“When I was 17, I was a national hero!” Ninoy told a foreign writer in 1968.

“I was the youngest newspaper reporter in Korea. None of the other Philippine journalists wanted to go to war because they had wives and families. So I volunteered. The Manila Times agreed to send me and so I left the next day before the editor had a chance to change his mind!”

That famous journalist, the late Max Soliven, recounted a version of how Ninoy got to Korea.

“When The Times was casting about for someone to cover what was happening to the Philippine contingent in the Korean War, Ninoy jumped at the chance,” wrote Soliven in 2003 during the 20th anniversary of Ninoy’s assassination.

“He cajoled the newspaper’s Brooklyn-born editor, Dave Boguslav, and its publisher, Joaquin ‘Chino’ Roces, to send him to Korea.

“But he was only 17! What could a ‘boy correspondent’ do? When the two hesitated (Chino exclaimed, ‘What will your mother say?’), Ninoy simply hitched a ride on a military plane and was in Korea sending dispatches before his two bosses realized that he had jumped the gun on them. The Times’ editors, Boguslav and Joe Bautista, soon came to appreciate that gung ho quality which was to rocket Aquino to fame.

“Ninoy was a hard-nosed newspaperman--and what set him apart from so many others was precisely his nose for news.

“‘You get the facts,’” Dave Boguslav told him, “‘and I’ll take care of the grammar’.” Ninoy delivered (Boguslav would lock himself in his private office to patiently translate the boy reporter’s dispatches ‘into English’)--and a star reporter was born.”

A newspaperman at heart
Soliven jokingly recalls Ninoy’s admission that his sacking by Soliven as a reporter for UP’s student newspaper motivated Ninoy into becoming a newspaperman.

“I first met Ninoy on the day I fired him,” Soliven wrote.

“I was a junior in A.B. Law and managing editor of the school paper, The Guidon. Here was that cub reporter writing such atrocious copy. I sent for him, and he showed up at the Quonset hut in which we had our one-room office in Padre Faura. Ninoy was just over 15: a lanky, big-eared freshman with a crew-cut.

 “Aquino,” I growled, “Are you related to the late Senator Benigno?”

Ninoy’s grin went from ear to ear. “My father, sir.”

 “Well, Aquino,” I shot at him. “Your father was a great man in his time, but you are a Godawful writer.”

“Years later, he would crack that same broad grin of his, and jokingly recall that I had launched him on his journalistic career by kicking him out of The Guidon.

“Because Ninoy went on to join the country’s biggest newspaper, The Manila Times (where grammar, we Timesmen used to joke, was not necessary and the proofreading was so bad that it didn’t matter, really, whether you spelled the word right).

Why Korea?
And why did he want to cover the Korean War? Fellow journalist and Aquino family friend, the late Teddy Benigno, offers this explanation:

“He said not having made his mark yet as a journalist, young and inexperienced as he was, if he covered the Korean War with spectacular verve, this would make up. And if, perchance he would die in a blaze of journalistic glory, Chino Roces at the Manila Times would embellish the editorial hall with a ‘Benigno Aquino Jr. Room’ in his memory.”

“That was Ninoy, dreaming all the time, living in a fantasy world that was not really fantasy for he would make it real.

“Well, he did not die in Korea. He saw it and he covered it as Norman Mailer covered war in his classic ‘The Naked and the Dead.’ In several battles, dead bodies piled up on him. He had to wade out of the refuse of dismembered limbs and bodies, the deafening roar of battle as mortar, cannon, bomb and napalm rained.

“Ninoy was right there in the ebb and flow of men doomed to fight, to suffer and die, talking the short, sputtering language of the soldier trudging from foxhole to foxhole. This was Ninoy Aquino’s first lessons in courage, a 16-year-old Filipino war correspondent with his mother’s milk not yet completely dry on his lips.”

Ninoy Aquino. Hero. Newspaperman. Korean War veteran.

(Published in 2011)