Experiencing bloody wars up close; our work in Vietnam

Published June 6, 2021, 12:25 AM

by Former House Speaker Jose C. De Venecia Jr.


Jose de Venecia Jr.
Former Speaker of the House

Perhaps the confluence of time, circumstance, and geography brought this columnist into close contact with three of the most catastrophic wars in the world.

The first was the Pacific War (1941 to 1945),which was ignited by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by the Japanese forces.The Japanese subsequently invaded Manila.

We were five years old when the Japanese troops led by Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma landed in Lingayen Gulf in early 1942.

We remember hundreds of families hurriedly fled Dagupan to seek refuge elsewhere. Our family escaped to our farm in Sta. Barbara town, 15 kilometers west of Dagupan.

The Japanese forces commandeered our father’s black Lincoln car, which to our mind was one of the first casualties of war. We never saw the vehicle again.

Life during the war was hard. At an early age, we had to help our family by working in our farm with our brothers. We also witnessed the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers. Our paternal uncle was executed by the Japanese.

We were nine years old when the returning American forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur, established a foothold at the Lingayen Gulf on January 9, 1945 with the American troops storming into our shore in Dagupan.

(We wrote about our life during the war and General Douglas MacArthur’s landing in the Lingayen Gulf in our earlier columns).

More than two decades later, we witnessed up close the Vietnam War (1955-1975) when we served as Minister and concurrently Economic and Press Counselor at the Philippine Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), then South Vietnam, from 1966 to 1969. Vietnam was then a hotbed amid an escalating war with the United States under then President Lyndon B. Johnson.

We first visited the then South Vietnam’s capital Saigon (with the north keeping its capital, Hanoi) in 1956, for the Proclamation of the Vietnamese Constitution and the first anniversary of the Vietnam Republic following Vietnam’s partition at the waist in the 17th Parallel after the French forces’ defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

We went to Vietnam for the second time in 1959, as a 22-year-old Manila Bureau chief and Philippine correspondent for Pan-Asia Newspaper Alliance, then Asia’s earliest wire news agency, and as weekly columnist on Asian affairs in the Philippines Herald.

We were invited by then President Carlos P. Garcia to join him on a visit to Saigon. We remember sailing the Saigon River with President Garcia and the then South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem aboard the Vietnamese leader’s presidential yacht. President Garcia also offered us the position of Press Attache at the Philippine Embassy in Vietnam or somewhere in Europe but we politely declined, with deep humility and gratitude, as we were then enamoured with the adventure of being a journalist at home and overseas.

It was in Vietnam where we became friends with the Philippine Civic Action Group (Philcag)’s young military officers who would later rise to national prominence, among them, Major Fidel V. Ramos, who became a hero of the Edsa People Power Revolution, Armed Forces chief, Defense Secretary and then President of the Philippines; Captains Jose Almonte, who became National Security Adviser under Ramos; Renato de Villa, later Defense chief; psy-war expert and civic action leader Jose Magno, Thelmo Cunanan, one of the rare Filipino West Pointers, who became a General, and later, a highly-regarded Ambassador to Cambodia, married to respected columnist Belinda Olivares-Cunanan; and capable Lieutenants LisandroAbadia and Arturo Enrile, who later became heads of the Armed Forces, and many distinguished others.

In Saigon, where we lived for four years, we also had the privilege of becoming friends with Admiral John McCain Sr., U.S. commander in the Pacific, whom we invited to Manila and father of the late Sen. John McCain, also a war hero shot down in his plane over North Vietnam skies, prisoner of war in Hanoi, and who later ran but missed the presidency of the U.S.

We liaisoned with Admiral McCain who helped our Armed Forces with the organization of our first engineering construction battalion (ECB)and equipped with construction machinery.

In peacetime, we invited him and he served briefly as honorary board member of our long retiredLandoil Resources Corporation.

Later, we invited and accompanied on a visit to Manila the most bemedalled World War II hero in Europe, Gen. Creighton Abrams, later U.S. Commander in Vietnam after whom the U.S. Abrams Tank was named. He was the celebrated combat officer of the equally famed U.S. General George Patton, the feared and foremost Allied military commander in Europe then against the German forces.

We remember that Abrams later also helped the Philippines with its first armalite battalion and engineering construction equipment for our Philcag troops in Vietnam, precursor of our engineering battalions today. ###