President Rodrigo Duterte’s three-day visit to South Korea called to mind the sacrifice of Filipino soldiers who fought in the Korean War almost seven decades ago.
“My official visit to Seoul was meaningful and productive,” the President said upon arriving back in Manila on June 5. “We are now writing a new chapter of cooperation in the shared history between Philippines and South Korea.”
And it was a bloody shared history. From June 25, 1950 until an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, the Korean War erupted and engulfed the entire peninsula.
The invading North Koreans reached almost drove the United Nations forces into the sea at Pusan in the early part of the war until Gen. Douglas Macathur, then supreme commander of UN forces in Korea, launched his counter attack and pushed the North Koreans back almost to the Yalu River, which marked the boundary between North Korea and the People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese government sent hundreds of thousands of troops across the river and swamped the UN forces with their sheer weight of numbers, forcing the UN forces to retreat back to the original demarcation line between the North and South Korea. The fighting then degenerated to a stalemate and the no man’s land of that war is now known today as the Demilitarized Zone.
The Philippines sent five battalions to fight in that war. These soldiers were part of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK). The five battalions were the 10th Battalion Combat Team, the 2nd Battalion Combat Team, the 14th Battalion Combat Team, the 19th Battalion Combat Team and the 20th Battalion Combat Team, which arrived in Korea at the armistice.
During the President Duterte’s visit in Seoul, the governments of South Korea and the Philippines have vowed to work together to mark the 70th anniversary of their relations more memorable, according to press release from the Presidential Communications Office.
On January16, 1952, a fresh unit from the Philippines, the 19th Battalion Combat Team, was tasked to replace the 20th BCT in the UN forces in the peninsula.
The 19th BCT, which was nicknamed “The Blood Hounds,” was the third group of Filipino soldiers to fight in the Korean War. Like the other Filipino battalions who fought in the Korean War, the Blood Hounds was a veteran unit composed of soldiers who earned their stripes in the Huk anti-insurgency campaign.
According to Cesar Pobre’s book “Filipinos in the Korean War,” the 19th BCT “operated in the provinces of Nueva Ecija, Rizal and Bulacan.”
After being tasked to replace the 20th BCT, the 19th began their training at a field in Marikina, which was dubbed “Marikorea” for its terrain that resembled the hills where the Filipino soldiers were assigned in Korea.
On May 8, 1952, the first troops of the 19th BCT arrived in Korea just as the 20th BCT was getting ready to launch an operation on Hill Eerie. Pobre wrote in his book that the soldiers of the 19th BCT had joined the 20th BCT “in several raids against communist-held positions.” On June 10, the 19th BCT formally replaced the 20th BCT. By the end of June, most of the men of the 20th BCT had returned to the Philippines, except for the field artillery unit, which stayed in Korea until August.
This proved to be a blessing for the 19th BCT. The remaining 20th BCT artillery veterans were to prove priceless assets for the newly arrived troops of the 19th BCT.
The 19th BCT was mainly tasked to hold a sector of the main defense line along the Chorwon-Sibyon-yi corridor, which is in the west central sector of the Korean peninsula.
Beginning on June 18, 1952, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPVA) subjected the 19th BCT’s position along the main defense line to a series of artillery barrages. The 19thBCT’s entrenchments were opposite Hill Eerie, which afforded the Chinese an excellent position to direct artillery fire against the Filipino positions.
Fortunately for the 19th BCT, the artillerymen of the 20th BCT were still on hand. The Filipino artillery unit quickly responded to the Chinese move with counter battery fire. The Filipino counter battery fire reduced the effectiveness of the Chinese artillery attack, which allowed most of the Filipino defensive positions to survive relatively intact.
By dusk of June 19, the heavy guns of the Chinese fell silent. The Filipinos in their bunkers and fox holes were on alert as the night settled in. Based on the experiences of the 10thand 20th Battalion Combat Teams, the men of the 19th BCT knew the Chinese had a tendency to launch massive ground attacks under cover of darkness.
The Chinese troops attacked and flares shot up into the sky to light up the battlefield. The Filipino-manned 105mm howitzers quickly thundered into action. Artillery shells rained on the exposed Chinese troops, forcing of them to retreat. But the main fight was yet to come.
ANOTHER NIGHT ATTACK
The intermittent artillery duel between the Filipino and Chinese guns resumed the next day. The Chinese tried to harass the Filipino-manned defense lines but once again, the soldiers of the 20th BCT who stayed behind to man the howitzers were quick to silence the enemy’s cannons. The pinpoint accuracy of the Filipino artillery men often knocked out the Chinese heavy guns, preventing the Chinese artillery from saturating the Filipino positions with cannon fire.
Despite the Filipino fire, the Chinese persisted in their attempt to take the Filipino positions.
According to Art Villasanta, a military historian, the Chinese launched another ground assault supported by a mortar and artillery barrage at 10 p.m. of June 20, 1952 against the Filipino defense line.
“Flares fired by the 19th revealed waves of Chinese Peoples Volunteers heading towards Hills Eerie and 191,” Villasanta wrote.
Again, the veterans of the 20th BCT responded to the Chinese attack. The Filipino howitzers destroyed many of the Chinese cannons and mortars. However, while much of the Filipino artillery was focused on knocking out the Chinese heavy guns, the Chinese troops poured into the Filipino defense lines.
“On the battlefield, the battalion fought in a savage hand-to-hand and bayonet melee throughout the evening,” Villasanta wrote. “At some positions along the Filipino line, the battle looked like the siege of a medieval castle with the Chinese clambering up ladders and the Filipinos shooting them down or pushing them off.”
But some Chinese troops got through and reached the positions of the Second Reconnaissance Platoon, which was led by Lt. Apollo Tiano.
“Upon seeing an enemy platoon closing in, Lt. Tiano, commander of the Second Recon Platoon, led a bayonet charge,” Pobre wrote in his book. “A Chinese wounded Lt. Tiano with a bayonet, but the Filipino was able to kill his assailant. As misfortune would have it, he was mortally wounded by mortar shrapnel. Before he passed away, Tiano spent his last moments spurring his men to fight.”
Though the counter-attack instigated by Tiano forced the Chinese troops to pull back, the fighting would rage sporadically until June 22, 1952. The Filipinos marked the end of the fight by planting the Philippine flag on Hill 191.
After the securing their defense lines, the Filipinos found the burning hulks of two Chinese tanks and over 500 dead Chinese soldiers scattered in the battlefield. It was estimated that troops from two Chinese regiments had attacked the lone Filipino battalion. Since each regiment had three battalions, this meant that one Filipino battalion had stood up and defeated an attack launched by six Chinese battalions in four days.
But the Filipino victory came at a price. According to Pobre, nine Filipinos, including Tiano, lost their lives. The dead included Lt. Cosme Acosta, a forward observer of the 20thBCT’s artillery unit that had stayed in Korea. Acosta was scheduled to return to the Philippines once he had completed training the 19th BCT’s forward observers.
The men of the 19th BCT would later name their main encampment as “Camp Tiano” in honor of the slain lieutenant. Among the PEFTOK veterans, the fight would forever be etched in their minds as the “The Rizal Day Battle for Combat Outpost No.8.”
(For those who want to read more about the Philippine role in the Korean War, further details of the exploits of the PEFTOK are available in http://peftok.blogspot.com and Cesar Pobre’s book “Filipinos in the Korean War.”)