Little known events of dark September, 1972 come to light

Published September 21, 2020, 5:46 PM

by Sol Vanzi

On September 21, 1972, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. delivered a scathing privilege speech on the floor of the Senate warning the nation that President Ferdinand Marcos was on the verge of declaring martial law. It was to be his last speech at the Senate; he was arrested the next day.

Unknown to all but a few, Presidential Decree 1081 placing the country under martial law was signed that very same day and the logistical requirements for its successful implementation were already being put in place.

Even as Aquino was speaking, military men were being positioned in strategic places. Key civilian and military officials carried lists of persons to be arrested.  Newspapers, news agencies, radio and television stations were scheduled to be shut down. Communications facilities (telephone, telegraph and telexes) were to be closely supervised and controlled. Travel was to be limited, beginning with the closure of airports and a subsequent overseas travel ban on Filipino citizens.

All the steps Marcos took were detailed instructions contained in Edward Luttwak’s book Coup d’Etat, a step-by-step textbook on successfully changing, or overthrowing, a government extra judicially. The author observed Marcos reading it intently beginning the early months of 1972, prompting her to secure a copy.

In this exclusive article, Malacañang insider Sol Jose Vanzi writes about little known events on the dark days of September 1972.

On the evening of September 22, 1972, I watched the discreet unloading from military trucks of armed men in uniform at major intersections in Metro Manila. An unusually large number of police patrol cars roamed the streets. Overhead, helicopters were circling the city.

I knew Philippine military choppers were not certified for night flight. It was too dark so see any markings that would identify the aircraft. I sensed something big was happening, something that political observers had been talking about for years but never really expected to see: martial law had been imposed.


To confirm my suspicions, I phoned the Manila Times switchboard and got a curt military-sounding male; the same thing happened when I tried the office of Vic Maliwanag,  Manila Bureau Chief of United Press International, then the world’s leading news agency.

All TV stations were off the air, save for KBS (Benedicto-owned Kanlaon Broadcasting System) which was showing cartoons. Privately-owned radio stations were likewise silent;  government radio stations Voice of the Philippines and PBS were playing nothing but old songs.


As I was packed for an official mission to Davao, I took a cab to the domestic airport, instructing the driver to first proceed to the gate leading to the tarmac, where I showed the military sentry my ID as editor of Malacanang’s Radio News and Editorial Services (RNES) and asked him: “is everything secure?”He replied that as per instructions, no flights could take off because of the military vehicles blocking the runway. At the airport terminal airline staff told irate passengers that all flights were delayed indefinitely. Delayed, not canceled.


I kept trying to contact my two palace bosses: Press Secretary Francisco Tatad and Assistant Press Secretary Lorenzo Cruz. Their families did not know where they were; the night shift janitors in their offices were also clueless. I learned later that Kit Tatad was at the palace with the president all that time; Larry was kept out of the loop.

When my travelling companion, Assistant Executive Secretary Ronnie Zamora arrived, I told him of my observations and conclusion. “The bastard!” was all he could say, fuming. I could not tell whether he was upset that Martial Law had been declared, or if he’s angry at not having been informed beforehand, like a select few including his boss,  Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor.


Before heading for home after aborting our mission, I used up my travelling allowance purchasing crackers, biscuits, coffee, bread, sandwich spread, cheese, sugar and creamer which I presumed would be needed by the Press Office staff for the next few days.

I phoned the homes of co-workers Neni Regino, Lina Dauz and Dada Alabastro and briefed them. They went to work with packed overnight bags.

SEPTEMBER  23, 1972, it was a typical Saturday morning in Manila. At 6 a.m., the taxi ride from Michel Apartments in Malate to Malacanang was fast and uneventful. A block from Gate 4 near St Jude Church, my cab was stopped by a new checkpoint which was not there the day before, forcing me to get off and walk to the 2-storey Malacanang Press Office building next to the boathouse.

Everyone reported for work, speaking in whispers and waiting for orders.  Our RNES crew supervised  by Angelo Castro Sr. started distributing sandwiches and coffee. Tagalog news writer Lilia Tolentino worried about her forester husband up in the mountains where NPA sightings had been reported. Roger Margallo anticipated a busy day and requested for rolls of Tri-X black and white film from Marceling Roxas of the Photo Dept. My own Nikon was empty, and all they could spare was Ektachrome.


The Press Office filled up with Filipino and foreign reporters; phones would not stop ringing. Callers and visiting foreign correspondents were given a uniform reply: “Wait for an official announcement, which will be on radio and TV sometime today.”

Some of the callers, though, needed specific answers. Filipino pilots and flight crews of international airlines were left stranded by the travel ban. Seamen were in the same situation. Fil-Ams using Philippine passports could not go home to their families in the US. Foreign journalists could not file their stories. Telecom companies sent over boxes of unsent telegrams which needed screening (censorship) before they could be transmitted. Larry’s room was filling up with paperwork. We sent for more tables and chairs. Working with no meal breaks, we were all running on pure adrenalin.


Needing manpower and intelligence guidelines, our office was sent some of the best and brightest young officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines: Eduardo Ermita, Honesto Isleta, Emiliano Templo, Oscar Florendo. Their experience with us in the early days of martial law before they earned their stars guided the military in the establishment of the Office for Civil Relations (OCR) which later became the Civil Relations Service (CRS) at Camp Aguinaldo.


As the day passed, Press Office responsibilities eased up a bit. An officer took over reading and censoring telegrams. The military group handled issuance of exemptions to the travel ban. Kit and Larry organized  a group of writers who went over newspaper stories before publication.

I was assigned to read and approve newscast scripts. As the fax machine had yet to be invented, the scripts had to be physically delivered to Malacanang; the messenger waited while I read and signed the scripts.


Shortly before 7 p.m., I rushed to the main palace building next to our office and quietly slipped into the Presidential Study Room. Security men familiar with my daily work as a close-in reporter let me in with a warning to be very quiet and avoid moving about.

The room was hushed, though packed with cabinet members and military brass. The First Lady looked serious and not at all her usual cheerful self.  President Marcos was seated behind his massive work desk studying a sheaf of papers. Bright lights were aimed at him; the rest of the room was darkened.

I tiptoed to the group of Malacanang photographers and positioned myself between Marceling and Perdon, who instructed me to synchronize my shots with theirs to minimize noise which could be picked up by the 16mm film cameras as well as the huge live television studio cameras. We were advised to take still shots before the cameras started rolling.

Right after a signal from VOP’s Vero Perfecto, President Marcos looked at the TV camera and started speaking. Relying mainly  on his photographic memory, he delivered the most important message of his entire political career without once looking down to read the prepared documents.

His voice boomed, breaking the silence in the darkened room.

“My countrymen, as of the 21st of this month, I signed Proclamation No. 1081 placing the entire Philippines under martial law.”

Awed and savoring every second of the historic event, I nearly forgot to take pictures until Perdon nudged me and motioned for me to start shooting. There were seven good frames, which I kept hidden all these years. 

(On January 17, 1981, President Ferdinand E. Marcos signed Proclamation No. 2045, officially lifting martial law in the Philippines.)

This article was first published in the Sept. 21, 2015 issue of the Manila Bulletin.